AIPAC memories

Dear Folks,

I know! I know! I have spent an egregious amount of time away from my blog, but I am here to assure you that I am back and I intend to work my little butt off in writing some new posts and discussing the latest news from the placid  Middle East.

A while back, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held their annual policy conference. The event is a firm fixture on the US political calendar, and often sets the tone for US-Middle East relations for the rest of the year. It is often referred to as simply the ” Lobby”. One thing that cannot be denied is that AIPAC is one of the most successful organizations in the US. The New York Times calls AIPAC “the most important organization affecting America’s relationship with Israel”.

It earns millions of dollars from its members, who give generously. On its website, it claims to have 100,000 grass-roots activists, and if you attend a policy conference, you can easily believe it. Their prime role is to maintain the US-Israel relationship, and  keep it strong. Its members operate on the principle that it is of the utmost importance to cultivate strong relations with the US Congress, the Senate and of course the President. Their mission is to educate these folks on the bonds that unite the United States and Israel.

It is exceptionally well-organized, with at least ten regional offices, and operates in both universities and high school campuses.

However, for whatever can be written about AIPAC, nothing can fully illustrate its significance until you attend a policy conference. This is not an easy feat, as the ticket to get through the Washington Convention Center’s doors will set you back at least a couple of hundred dollars. But once you are in,  brace yourself, as prepared to be dazzled by 9-foot high posters of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat embracing each other, or chiseled-jaw Israeli soldiers standing at the Western wall. It may seem for a moment that the Disney Corporation was put in charge of Israel’s PR.  However, the adventure truly begins when you register and they hand you a bag bursting with literature and a name tag to wear for the duration of the conference.

Most of the literature is devoted to the well of deep and meaningful stories of retirees in Arizona or Florida, who have chosen to become AIPAC benefactors. Often they make it a part of their life assurance plans.  In fact sections of the conference hall are covered in testimonials of dozens of AIPAC donors, who give in their thousands. In order to join the exclusive club, you have to be prepared to tranche out at least $25 ,000 USD. This is not exactly cheap, but you are offered a host of benefits, such as hobnobbing with your favourite AIPAC guests i.e. politicians and celebrities, and trips around the globe.

The one part of AIPAC, that is by far the most mesmerizing, is the plenary. In the year I attended, there were over 10,000 people. A screen a kilometer long periodically shows clips of honest, hardworking AIPAC members who have shed countless hours, blood, sweat and tears to form relationships with Congressmen and women, and other decision makers, with the aim to secure support for bills affecting Israel. The one video I remember, which made me cringe, was of a bubbly California house wife, who after an AIPAC Ladies who Lunch luncheon, decided to join the cause, and  head  to Capitol Hill with the plan to drive home the message of the US’ support for Israel. Hearing her shrill voice and rose-hued vision for why she believes AIPAC is the only way to support Israel, made me shiver at how little she seems to understand the harsh realities of what the average Israeli faces. At AIPAC,  it is not the done thing to discuss Israel’s grave economic disparities, the high cost of living and the growing tensions between the country’s secular and orthodox communities. Even more striking, hardly a syllable of Hebrew is uttered.

You only hear the good parts, which is perfectly fine, but at the time, it seemed that  Israel,  becomes an Eliza Doolittle, to an Henry AIPAC Higgins. It seems AIPAC simply imposes or stage crafts what it wants Israel’s perception to be to the outside world, without letting it be what it is, warts and all.

As it is a policy conference, several policies, or rather proposals are put onto the agenda. In 2010, just as in 2012, it was Iran, Iran and more Iran.  There is no hesitation on what the correct course of action should be: crippling economic sanctions and lots of them! Also, a committment to sustaining a strong US-Israel relationship, but that never changes.

That is what I love about AIPAC, they don’t beat about the bush;  they are clear as crystal as to what needs to be done to solve whatever problem that comes in the crosshairs of the US and Israel.

Outside the plenary are also dozens of “break out” sessions. These are panels with a number of scholars, government officials, lawyers, soldiers and authors who come to discuss all manner of subjects concerning Israel, the Middle East and the role of the United States. It is often difficult to know which one to attend, because  the subjects for discussion, on first glance make you want to salivate with anticipation. Yet, the discussions always reach the same conclusion. No one deviates from the party-line and without the cut and thrust of  debate and diverse opinions, your critical faculties freeze. At least mine did.

But , the part that is the most exciting and what I love about AIPAC is the way it coats itself in Oscar night  glamour. On the second day, there is a gala dinner, and as you sit below eating rubber chicken and overcooked vegetables, you are left in a daze, as you look up at the ten-foot high,  mile long screen. Three AIPAC officials announce the “roll call”, which consists of dozens of congressfolk, senators, governors, diplomats, celebrities and other prominent attendees, whose names are each read out to show how much they are appreciated: “From California Senator BARBARA BOXER!!,  and  from Minnesota,  Senator Al FRANKEN!!…”. This will make a lot of sense if you have been at a policy conference.

After name – what seems like  no. 547  –  is read out, and  we start tucking into our dinners, one celebrity/keynote speaker after the other comes to talk about their love for Israel and why they support it. One story that stuck in my head, was by Senator Charles Schumer from New York, who  shared a story about a Shabbat dinner at his house with Benjamin Netanyahu, in which, in an attempt to illustrate the relations between – now my memory is a bit hazy – the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world,  Netanyahu stuck his finger in the top of a Coke bottle, started to shake it, before turning to Schumer’s wife, saying, “It is like this…” . After which he removed his finger and Coke sprayed around the room. The audience seemed to think this was incredibly funny, dunno why?  I just thought of poor Mrs Schumer’s ruined living room table covered in sugary-brown Coke stains, all because Netanyahu wanted to prove a point. If my memory serves me correct, it was a little while after this anecdote that P.M. Netanyahu appeared at the podium and  rounded up the dinner with an hour-long speech. I can’t remember what he said.

After the two-day conference comes to a close, all the delegates climb into buses headed for the Hill to meet with congress folk. I didn’t join them at this part, but the delegates, bursting at the seams  with ideas, from all that they have heard at the conference,  made me wonder what Congress officials must think of these hoards of eager beaver Israel supporters who all espouse the same goals. It must be dizzying, but certainly effective!

Also, to conclude, for those in the know, I gotta say that I love Rosie!!

Go Rosie!!

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