The American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most powerful pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., recently held its biggest annual conference yet with around 13,000 delegates in Washington.
|Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington March 6, 2012. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts|
For all those bidding to become the next U.S. president, it has become an essential campaign stop. The group has strong ties to the religious right and evangelical voters. And it is a very influential force in Washington politics. Demonstrators from the Occupy movement held a small protest outside the event urging no war on Iran and no U.S. tax dollars for Israel.
On Sunday, Barack Obama, the U.S. president, took to the stage and told the audience that Israel had never had a better friend in the White House. But he did not support Israeli military action against Iran's nuclear facilities - at least not yet.
Three of the four Republican candidates bidding to unseat the U.S. president addressed the conference on the biggest day of the nomination battle so far - 'Super Tuesday'.
Rick Santorum flew in especially for the event before heading back to Ohio, while Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich appeared via satellite link and Ron Paul abstained.
A number of Republicans have sought to attack the U.S. president over his administration's relationship with Israel. And the Republican presidential candidates have all tried to paint Obama as an undependable partner for Israel who is weak on Iran.
Mitt Romney said: "We've heard a lot of words from the administration. Its clear message has been to warn Israel to consider the costs of military action against Iran. I don't believe we should be issuing public warnings."
And Newt Gingrich said: "If an Israeli prime minister decides that he has to avoid the threat of a second Holocaust through pre-emptive measures that I would require no advance notice to understand why I would support the right of Israel to survive in a dangerous world."
|U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney appears on a monitor as he speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, March 6, 2012. |
So what role do pro-Israel lobby groups, and AIPAC in particular, play in the U.S. election and why are they courted by those competing to be the next U.S. president? How do Barack Obama's dealings with Israel compare with those of his predecessors, including Republicans?
Hillary Mann Leverett, a former White House and US state department official, addressed that issue on Al Jazeera English this week.
"It's critically important for any U.S. contender for the presidency to go to AIPAC, to interact with the Israel lobby in a favorable way, because it enables that candidate to show that that candidate is strong, that the candidate believes in U.S. exceptionalism, U.S. preeminence in the world, that the U.S. is still very much the indispensable nation in the world; the U.S. has decisive influence in the Middle East and the U.S. is not going to let that influence go as manifesting any kind of threat - real or perceived - against Israel. It allows a candidate to really demonstrate that and that's in addition to all of the tactical things here in the U.S. in terms of getting votes, financing (provided by AIPAC).” AIPAC lobbied the U.S. government last year on 23 congressional bills regarding issues such as sanctions on Iran. Former AIPAC employees also say that the group influences pro-Israel campaign cash, spends a massive amount of money and time lobbying U.S. government officials, and helps ensure that candidates get financial backing from members. In 2008, pro-Israel political action committees gave $3 million to congressional and presidential candidates.
This year, Republican candidate Newt Gingrich has benefited from a very large donation from billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson who has pledged up to $100 million - and support for Israel is the single biggest issue for Adelson. Gingrich of course infamously called Palestinians an “invented people” earlier in the campaign cycle.
Obama spoke at this year's AIPAC conference and said that the U.S. commitment to Israel's security is “iron clad,” while also saying that “all elements of American power” are on the table, that America has Israel's back while urging AIPAC members to support an agenda of peace. Despite that, many have criticized Obama, especially conservative candidates, for his stances on Israel.
— Al Jazeera, TAAN