The timing of this year's AIPAC conference couldn't have been better, coming at the close of the presidential primary season. Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee-to-be, was greeted enthusiastically on the opening day like the old friend he is, and told them everything they wanted to hear. But AIPAC leaders were fearful how the thousands of delegates would react to Sen. Barack Obama, who has been the target of rabidly hostile viral e-mails circulating from largely right wing Jewish sources attacking him as hostile to Israel. They need not have worried. Only hours after the Illinois sewed up the Democratic nomination, he stood before a wildly cheering audience to declare his love and support for Israel, and he was soon followed by his rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, who assured the crowd that "Barack Obama will be a good friend of Israel." The annual Policy Conference was the usual gaudy display of political muscle, but there was something missing: an awards ceremony for those who have done the most to advance the pro-Israel lobby's power and purse. Had there been such honors, these would have been my nominees, the unsung heroes who have seen to it that AIPAC has, as one official told me, "more money than we know what to do with." And the nominees are: The US Department of Justice Federal prosecutors have brought a flimsy case against two AIPAC staffers, accusing them of purloining government secrets to give to the Israeli government. Even the judge is growing weary of the government's weak case, and after many delays there are doubts it will ever even get to trial. The two staffers were accused of doing what everybody else in this town does - trying to find out what is going on at the White House, fathom policies and anticipate decisions. As former presidential press secretary Scott McClellan just revealed in his memoir, even the White House staff is often clueless. These guys aren't spies. They were trying to find out what, if anything, the administration had in mind for Iran, and how they could get their two cents in. They were set up as part of the administration's obsessive pursuit of secrecy and control - hardly the stuff of small-government conservatism, and inconsistent with the Republican claim that George W. Bush is the "best pro-Israel president ever." Prosecutors and the FBI deserve an award from AIPAC because their indictment of the pair - and subsequently dropped threats to prosecute the organization - were deftly turned into a major fundraising campaign. Even though the staffers were fired and legal assistance initially cut off, the appeals for money kept going out and the checks are still pouring in. Profs. Walt and Mearsheimer In the view of Profs. John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University, AIPAC is the linchpin of a sinister plot by Jewish-American supporters of Israel to manipulate US foreign policy in ways that harm this country's national interest. In their view, citizens, especially ethnics - which means lobby groups - shouldn't meddle in foreign policy. Nor should Congress. That should be left to the experts, diplomats and scholars such as themselves, who've been doing such a wonderful job for so long. With minimal original research, the professors started off with a conclusion and proceeded to gather supporting material to reinforce their views, even when contradicted by the facts. Most perniciously, they argue Jews and the pro-Israel lobby helped push the Bush administration into a catastrophic war in Iraq. Not only did the professors hand AIPAC another lucrative fundraising campaign theme, but they also enhanced the image of its power, painting it as the colossus astride the Capitol that swatted critics like harmless gnats and intimidated any challengers. In a town where even the perception of power is power, they performed an invaluable service for AIPAC. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad The pernicious Persian president has given AIPAC a cause like no other. Ahmadinejad's nuclear ambitions would be bad enough, dayenu, but his rabid rhetoric makes him the poster boy for evil. AIPAC has had great success rallying support for its campaign to combat the threats of the man who declared "Israel must be wiped off the map." In recent weeks he called it a "stinking corpse," and his foreign minister urged all Muslims to "erase" the Jewish state by "throw(ing) a bucket of water" on it. Runners-up in this category are Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah, Hamas's Khalid Mashal, whose own threats to eradicate Israel have helped solidify bipartisan US support for Israel. The Arab media They give AIPAC the best publicity the group could hope for, and it's all free. They spread the myth of its power to every nook and cranny of the planet where people wish the worst for Israel, and they tell all who will read or listen that Israel has this "powerful," "influential," "unchallenged" lobby which controls US policy through a subservient executive branch and Members of Congress who are "card-carrying members" of AIPAC. None of these hapless actors wants to increase the power of a pro-Israel lobby they despise - but in a twist of the law of unintended consequences, that's exactly what they have done. And AIPAC, never shy about taking advantage of opportunities, has made the most of it - as this month's lavish gala at the Washington Convention Center, not to mention the group's new building near Capitol Hill, demonstrate.