The Cable

Prepare for Fireworks: White House Sends Big Guns to Israel Lobby Confab

The potential for heated audience interaction is already making pro-Israel Democrats, who are fearful of the Jewish state becoming a partisan issue, nervous.

People arrive to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual policy conference in Washington on March 3, 2013.    AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
People arrive to attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual policy conference in Washington on March 3, 2013. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier this week, National Security Advisor Susan Rice made headlines when she said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress “injected a degree of partisanship” into Israel’s fraught relationship with the White House. Next week, in what has the potential to be a deeply tense moment of political theater, Rice will represent that same White House at a massive convention of pro-Israel activists who harbor a keen sense of victimhood toward this administration.

The White House’s announcement that Rice and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power would address the annual assembly of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee surprised many observers for two reasons. First, rumors had circulated for weeks that the administration would effectively snub the group by sending a lower-profile cabinet member like Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. Rice and Power, by contrast, are arguably among the White House’s best-known officials. Second, Rice’s comments to Charlie Rose this week so clearly conveyed this administration’s frustrations with Netanyahu that one thing is already clear: They can expect a chilly reception from many in the crowd of 16,000 pro-Israel activists.

Attendees skew toward the right end of the pro-Israel spectrum and the powerful lobbying group has worked overtime to raise doubts about the benefits of a potential nuclear deal with Iran, which would impose restrictions on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

AIPAC conference speaker Bill Kristol, a vocal critic of the Obama administration, has suggested that attendees boycott the speech. “Of course, attendees shouldn’t be rude,” he tweeted. “But they don’t have to attend these speeches.”

The potential for heated audience interaction is already making pro-Israel Democrats, who are fearful of the Jewish state becoming a partisan issue, nervous.

“Too many AIPAC-connected activists and donors have felt comfortable whispering support, and some dollars, to the right-wing campaign to demonize Democrats on Israel,” a pro-Israel Democratic operative told Foreign Policy, referring to Kristol’s tweet. “Now it seems that they no longer feel the need to whisper.”

The AIPAC gathering comes amid spiraling tensions between the White House and Netanyahu, who has made it his goal to scuttle the president’s negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.

Rice and Power’s attendance, a major concession to AIPAC, will also provide a platform for the two to defend the administration’s case for the nuclear talks — an issue they plan to address.

Other factors should make the speech interesting too.

Rice and Power initially struggled to overcome the impression among American Jewish leaders that they were insufficiently committed to Israel’s security. But they have both made a determined effort to cultivate close ties with Israel, portraying what Rice once called the “unshakeable U.S.-Israel bond” in highly personal ways.

In a previous speech to AIPAC in 2012, Rice recalled a trip to Israel as a 14-year-old girl, where she floated in the Dead Sea, picked fruit at a kibbutz, and “learned by heart the words of the sacred prayer, the Sh’ma.” She would later accompany then-Senator Obama on his second visit to Israel, following the future president as “he studied each wall at Yad Vashem” and “watched from afar as he slipped a personal prayer into the stones of the Kotel.” One her favorite psalms, she said, is “Hinei ma’tov uma-nayim, shevet achim gam yachad,” which she translated roughly to “how good it is and how pleasant when we sit together in brotherhood.”

Rice, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs with little experience in the Middle East, quickly cultivated a reputation as a stalwart defender of Israel’s interests at the United Nations, casting the administration’s first veto on a U.N. resolution characterizing Israel’s settlement policy as illegal. She negotiated a biting sanctions resolution on Iran, and she effectively killed off an effort by a top U.N. official to open an investigation into possible war crimes during Operation Cast Lead.

Abe Foxman, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, has said that despite initial misgivings about Rice he came around, portraying her as a “gladiator” fighting for Israel’s cause at the United Nations.

Power faced deep skepticism among American Jewish leaders about her commitment to Israel. But she “aggressively” courted the pro-Israel community, Foxman told Foreign Policy in July 2013.

Power’s troubles date to 2002, when the journalist and scholar appeared on a public access television show in Berkeley, California. The host asked her how she would advise the president if, hypothetically speaking, either the Palestinians or the Israelis were on the verge of committing genocide. Power said a credible response would require “a mammoth protection force.”

“What we need is a willingness to actually put something on the line in the service of helping the situation,” she said. “And putting something on the line might mean alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial support” — a scarcely veiled reference to the pro-Israel lobby.

The remarks drew sharp criticism from Jewish leaders, including the widely read rabbi to the stars and columnist, Shmuley Boteach, who faulted Power’s “troubling statements,” which “maligned the American pro-Israel lobby.”

But Power reached out to Boteach in 2011 and convinced him that he was wrong about her. Speaking to a gathering of Jewish leaders at an event hosted by Boteach, Power spoke of her strong “affinity for the Jewish people,” breaking down in tears as she spoke of the pain of being accused of anti-Semitism, recalled Boteach. Her husband, Cass Sunstein, she told them is a direct descendant of the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, a revered 18th-century Jewish scholar and leader of the non-Hasidic Jewish community.

“I think a lot of people were persuaded they had the wrong opinion of her,” Boteach told Foreign Policy.

The conference begins on Sunday and ends on Tuesday.

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John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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