Starting on March 3, some 13,000 Jewish and non-Jewish activists will descend upon Washington during the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. These supporters of Israel will listen to powerful members of the U.S. government, all of whom are expected to advocate for a strong and independent Israel.
Among those scheduled to speak are Vice President Joseph Biden, Representatives Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Robert Menendez (R-NJ).
In addition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are scheduled speak. Break-out sessions, book-signings, and artistic performances are also scheduled. The conference will continue until March 5, allowing the thousands of activists to make visits to their respective members of Congress to probe their support of Israel.
Thus begins a momentous week in U.S.-Israeli bilateral relations, since the first official foreign visitor Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will receive his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barack – a former prime minister. The recently concluded confirmation process of Hagel was highly contentious, and pitted Republicans against Democrats in the Senate, with Senator McCain voicing serious reservations about Hagel’s fitness. As a Republican Senator for Nebraska, Hagel once took independent positions that angered Republican leadership. Hagel ultimately garnered only four Republican votes for his confirmation: Sens. Thad Cochran (Miss.), Richard Shelby (Ala.), Mike Johanns (Neb.) and Rand Paul (Ky.). Among the Democrats who supported Hagel was Senator Carl Levin (Mich.), a strong advocate of Israel.
Hagel had gotten into hot water ever since President Barack Obama nominated him. He was one of the few Republican voices opposed to the war in Iraq, and he has been a notable critic of the “pro-Israel lobby” that allegedly intimidates official Washington. Despite Hagel’s denials, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (SC) has remained sceptical of the former Senator from Nebraska. Hagel allegedly told an audience at Rutger’s University in 2007 that the U.S. “State Department has become an adjunct of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.” He has declared that he has no recollection of making that statement. Hagel also once clarified that he was a U.S. senator, not an Israeli one.
At issue now is the influence of AIPAC in Washington DC, according to Lee Smith – a senior editor of the Weekly Standard, writing in The Tablet. “But just how powerful is AIPAC if a man who refers to it as the “Jewish lobby” and has defiantly claimed that he is not an “Israeli senator” is slated to be our next secretary of Defense? And, most significantly, how much influence does the lobbying organization actually exercise if it can’t carry the day on the single issue that’s been at the very top of its agenda for over a decade: stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”
To test that influence, Hagel and Barak will take each other’s measure on March 5. As for Obama and Netanyahu, they will be telephoning in to the conference via satellite. They are due to meet during Obama’s first visit to Israel later this month.
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