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|Under a Cloud of Uncertainty||AIPAC's 2010 Policy Conference, 21--23 March|
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By Cléa Thouin
ON THE SECOND DAY of the 2010 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual policy conference, Eric Cantor, the Republican Whip for the 111th U.S. Congress, declared, “We gather today under a dark cloud of uncertainty.” Cantor may have been referring to most participants’ favorite subject, the Iranian “nuclear threat,” but his statement proved an apt description of the overall atmosphere at this year’s conference. The conference came in the midst of unusually fraught public tensions between the United States and Israel over the announcement two weeks earlier of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem. The dispute over an issue as important to the United States as the peace process, against the background of recently revealed statements by the U.S. military high command that the nonresolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was negatively impacting U.S. security and military operations elsewhere in the world, directly challenged AIPAC’s fundamental founding premise: the identity of U.S. and Israeli interests. As a result, the conference was colored by a palpable level of uncertainty about the way forward for the pro-Israel community in the United States.
TELLING THE STORY
AIPAC’s fifty-first annual conference, which took place from 21 to 23 March in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., was billed as the largest ever, with 7,500 delegates. The size itself posed challenges. To accommodate such numbers, the plenary sessions were held in a 780-foot-long conference hall—more than twice the size of a U.S. football field. This meant that despite the extravagant 500-foot split screen, the crowd on one side of the hall could not see what was happening at ground level on the other side, sometimes resulting in serious confusion. On more than one occasion, for example, half the audience, spontaneously joining with commotion on the other side of the hall without being able to see the source, unwittingly applauded pro-Palestinian activists protesting speeches, particularly by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Middle East Quartet envoy (and former British prime minister) Tony Blair. These were two of the main speakers, the other most highly anticipated speaker at this year’s conference being U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Besides four plenary sessions (and a gala dinner) that featured the main speakers, the program consisted of approximately one hundred “breakout sessions”—focused panels, university-type seminars, and advocacy training sessions led by scholars, professionals, or lobbyists. These took place concurrently before or after the plenary sessions, and most were repeated more than once in the course of the conference (sometimes with different speakers). There were also luncheons and dinners with distinguished guests, most of which (as well as some panels) were “by invitation only,” restricted to select AIPAC members. Only one plenary session was held on the last day of the conference, as most of the morning was dedicated to training workshops in preparation for AIPAC’s traditional day of lobbying on Capitol Hill. These workshops were organized by region, with participants attending lobbying sessions for their specific region so as to receive targeted training on their congressional representatives.
The overall conference theme, “Israel: Tell the Story,” represented AIPAC’s effort to redirect the increasingly negative public narrative on Israel that has emerged since Israel’s winter 2008–2009 assault on Gaza. This was part of a broader attempt to shift from a defensive campaign aimed at refuting criticism of Israel to an offensive campaign focused on advancing a positive picture of Israel, that of “an innovator, a Jewish homeland, an open society, a light unto the nations.” AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr outlined in broad strokes the new strategy, expressly calling on his audience to shed their “defensive mentality,” which he argued focused “all too often on the slights Israel faces,” and instead “tell the story of Israel’s hand extended in peace . . . Israel’s example of freedom and democracy.”
The results of the conference fell short of this goal. The only successful “storytelling” took place at the opening plenary session titled “Innovation Nation,” which framed Israel’s modern technological entrepreneurship as a continuation of early Zionist settlers’ alleged ability to “make the desert bloom,” and in a video (one of many screened on the conference hall’s mega screen) that depicted the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as a humanitarian vanguard without ever hinting at the possibility of improper conduct during Operation Cast Lead (OCL). Only four “breakout” panels addressed the Israel-as-innovation-nation theme—two on Israel’s economic and technological achievements, the other two on its military innovation.
Moreover, most panels on Israel throughout the conference could be seen as “defensive,” for example, “Singled Out: Delegitimizing Israel at the United Nations,” “Mainstream to Fringe: Reality of Anti-Israel Effort in America,” or “Tough Questions: Answering Israel’s Detractors.” Similarly, although a number of secondary speakers, from a Paraguayan entrepreneur to a Nigerian doctor, were tasked with “telling Israel’s story” during the conference’s plenary sessions, they were never the focus of the sessions at which they spoke and instead seemed to be no more than fillers before anticipated speakers like Clinton and Netanyahu. Even main speakers like Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz inevitably found themselves defending Israel’s policies—whether on settlements or on the IDF’s conduct during OCL—rather than actually telling the story of what Kohr called the “small miracle we know as Israel.”
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CLÉA THOUIN is assistant editor of JPS.