Olmert outraged Democratic delegates at the AIPAC conference last week by speaking out on Iraq and Iran.
By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER
A participant at the AIPAC policy conference which concluded Tuesday was reflecting on the changes between this year's event and those of the previous two decades, each of which he had attended.
He pointed, first, to the size, as the three-day gathering has mushroomed into a mega-conference attended by some 6,000 activists and more than 200 political leaders from the executive and legislative branches.
But then he turned to what wasn't on display rather than what was. Even though Iran was one of the conference's three stated priorities, he felt that the conference had been toned down when it came to its central policy focus. The reason, he suggested, was that the pro-Israel community, buffeted by whispered accusations that it was behind the unpopular war in Iraq, didn't want to find itself blamed for hostilities against Iran.
To the extent that this was the case, and on the subject, and some say it wasn't, as the Iran issue was on display throughout both high-profile speeches and small policy briefings, and was one of three focuses on the subject of the day spent lobbying Capitol Hill - the effort was laid to waste once Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed the audience at the gala dinner Monday night.
On Iran, Olmert warned against any effort - as has been proposed by some Democratic congressmen - to tie US President George W. Bush's hands. "I know that... all of you who are concerned about the security and the future of the State of Israel understand the importance of strong American leadership addressing the Iranian threat, and I am sure you will not hamper or restrain that strong leadership unnecessarily."
On Iraq, he waded much further into the partisan morass. "When America succeeds in Iraq, Israel is safer," he said. "The consequences of premature action in Iraq" could potentially affect the security of the Middle East, particularly "on those threats emerging from Iran."
As of late, Israeli leaders have only mentioned Iraq in order to distance themselves from the notion that they pushed for it. Olmert's comments also go against a long-standing policy of trying not to appear to be influencing domestic American policy. And this isn't just domestic policy - it's the most sensitive and highly partisan debate roiling the nation.
The move infuriated many Democrats in the audience.
"The Democrats were aghast. They couldn't believe it," said one Democratic political strategist who heard the speech. "People were pissed off, and when I say people, I don't mean staffers."
Conference attendees included Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; and scores of other congressmen.
The strategist said it was also "completely inappropriate" and "impolitic," since the war is so unpopular in America and Jews disproportionately oppose it, even if the AIPAC crowd tends to be more hawkish than the general Jewish population.
But he said he didn't expect the political damage to be lasting - support of Israel is a bipartisan issue, as AIPAC was at pains to stress throughout the conference. The same might not be true for those looking to revive flagging conspiracy theories about the pro-Israel camp and the Iraq war.
"Are these people always looking for red meat, and if they find it will they chomp on it? The answer is of course yes," asked Kenneth Schwartz, an AIPAC executive committee member who was expressing his personal thoughts. He described himself as "mystified" over Olmert's decision to be so outspokenly supportive of the war.
Others, though, offered plenty of explanations.
Steve Rabinowitz, a former Clinton administration official and adviser to Jewish groups, said he hoped that Olmert had spoken as he did because he was roused at 4 a.m. so he could address the dinner by video link from his Jerusalem home. More seriously, he said, "I can only assume that he thought he was doing the [Bush] administration's bidding."
Pointing to the weakness of Olmert's administration, Rabinowitz suggested Olmert was attempting to short up support both with Bush and his most loyal Jewish backers.
The White House would not address the issue of whether it had pressured Olmert into speaking out on Iraq, referring questions about his speech to the government of Israel.
A White House official, however, did say the Israelis "have been supportive with regard to our Iraq policy and we welcome that support."
One American Jewish leader at the conference noted that for all that Olmert's remarks conveniently aligned with the Bush administration's views - and might have been politically motivated - the strategic interests of Israel and the Bush administration do naturally coincide on Iraq.
"All things being equal, the Israelis would be making an argument similar to the one that the prime minister made," he said, speaking of the concerns for how an early withdrawal of American forces from Iraq could affect the region. "You probably had two factors at play: a strong administration's desire to have the Israelis support what it's trying to do in Iraq, and in addition to that a basic confluence of Israel and American thinking about the import of how Iraq plays out in terms of American regional influence."
When it comes to the issue of Israeli support for Iraq, one conference observer said that the Olmert speech wasn't the only place that sentiment was expressed.
Vice President Dick Cheney told the plenum Monday morning, for instance, "It is simply not consistent for anyone to demand aggressive action against the menace posed by the Iranian regime while at the same time acquiescing in a retreat from Iraq that would leave our worst enemies dramatically emboldened and Israel's best friend, the United States, dangerously weakened."
The conference observer suggested that there seemed to be a message throughout the event that the pro-Israel community "is not doing more on Iraq and isn't helping the administration more on Iraq."
In other words, that American Jewry needs to speak more loudly.
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