There’s a joke going around, at least among some AIPAC staffers, that the motto of this year’s policy conference is, “We’ve got balls.” It started because of the jaunty logo—a white circle dotted with red American-flag stars and blue Magen Davids, which constantly bounces like a beach ball across screens throughout the Washington Convention Center—but it hints at the slightly irritable, mostly pugnacious mood of the 10,000-person delegation.
It’s easy to forget amid the hype surrounding the big keynote speeches that the true point of AIPAC’s wonk-fest is to rally its activists for the final day of scheduled lobbying meetings, tomorrow, with members of Congress. And while all the external attention has been on the very public dialogue between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu about the terms of future peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, AIPAC’s internal message to the volunteers who will be fanning out across Capitol Hill is focused on another issue: The Iranian nuclear threat. (The dynamic at last year’s AIPAC conference was nearly identical: The presidential-level Israel-Palestine rhetoric got all the public attention while the activists cared most about Congress and Iran.)
The Iranian issue has the advantage of being an easy bipartisan sell and of direct security concern to the United States. “Make no mistake, this is a war of wills,” AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, said in a half-hour-long address to the full plenary session this morning. “Iran sees this moment as a chance to project its power—its radical agenda—into regimes across the region.” Accordingly, Kohr went on, “Are we in the West, are we in the United States committed to stopping Iran?” And, more specifically, to pushing the administration to punish the murderous (and Iran-allied) Assad regime in Syria and to ensuring that the post-transition government in Egypt remains committed to upholding that country’s peace with Israel? “It falls to us,” Kohr added. “We must re-focus our policymakers’ attention on what Iran is doing in this time of turmoil—its efforts to cultivate fifth columns in neighboring nations to advance Iranian ends, its use of terror-by-proxy, its relentless march toward a nuclear weapon.”
During regionally-focused breakout sessions, trainers will be instructing delegates to steer the conversation during their brief Hill appointments away from the disagreements between Obama and the Israeli government and toward the subversive influence Iran exerts in the region, not just on Hamas, but on Hezbollah and in Syria as well. They will leave armed with packets detailing three talking points, ranked in the following order: Support $3 billion in assistance to Israel to combat the threat from Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah; get on board the already-circulating sanctions-focused Iran Threat Reduction Act; and vote to suspend aid to the Palestinian Authority unless Iran-backed Hamas agrees to recognize Israel.
The last point shows that even conversations about the peace process can be structured to reflect the pressing Iranian subtext. In a videotaped “lobbying minute” lesson aired just before Kohr’s speech, AIPAC’s deputy director for policy and government affairs David Gillette highlighted the need for delegates to push their congressional representatives to oppose both the unilateral Palestinian push for statehood and any peace talks that include “unreformed” members of Hamas—incidentally, an identical position to the one Obama explicitly articulated in his address yesterday (and his speech Thursday). “That’s the message you need to take to Congress,” Gillette said, by way of signing off. The audience erupted in cheers.