POLITICS
03/02/2013 04:57 pm ET | Updated Mar 02, 2013

Aipac 2013 Conference Arrives At Tough Time For Budgets, Bipartisanship

WASHINGTON -- A major gathering of pro-Israel activists and lobbyists that kicks off here this weekend arrives at a time of heightened budget austerity and an aggravated level of uncertainty over Israel's place in the bipartisan consensus in Washington.

The event, the annual conference for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is reliably the high point for Washington amiability, a singular moment that draws together Democratic and Republican officials alike in a shared theme of improved U.S.-Israel relations.

But this year's conference comes at a moment when bipartisan civility on the issue of Israel seems to be particularly strained, given looming budget cutbacks and the high-stakes ideological battle recently waged over the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense.

Numerous early reports about the conference's agenda have indicated that organizers have ambitious legislative goals for the week, including an effort to have Israel formally designated a "major strategic ally" of the United States, and possibly even inoculating the country from any cuts to its foreign aid that might occur as a result of the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.

The three-day session typically concludes with a day of lobbying on the Hill, in which hundreds of attendees are bussed to Capitol Hill, where they greet lawmakers with carefully toned talking points about that year's legislative goals.

One bill linked to the annual gathering is already making the rounds in Congress: a resolution, introduced jointly by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), that would lend support to an Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear sites, and that some observers have interpreted as an indirect means to draw the U.S. military into the fight.

The measure, which was first reported by Open Zion's Ali Gharib, includes language that "urges" that the U.S. "should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support" in the event of such a strike.

The proposed designation of Israel as a major strategic ally was first reported by the Jewish Telegraph Agency.

Aipac officials did not respond to a Huffington Post request for comment.

Bipartisanship is a perennial priority for Aipac, and its policy conference regularly draws the attendance of supportive lawmakers from both major American parties.

In that regard, this year's conference is no exception. Among the speakers scheduled to address the conference in the next few days are Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House minority whip, along with top Republicans like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). In one panel event on Sunday, the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) are both scheduled to speak.

But this year's conference also follows close on the heels of a particularly nasty, partisan battle over the nomination of Hagel as secretary of defense, a process that was dominated in large part by wrangling over Hagel's bona fides as a friend of Israel, which divided much of the pro-Israel community along party lines.

Throughout the fight over Hagel, Aipac notably attempted to remain above the fray, saying it would not lobby one way or the other. But that didn't spare the group from finding itself caught in the fierce ideological crossfire by the end.

To some on the pro-Israel left, like the leaders of competing advocacy group J Street, the fireworks over Hagel represented a dangerous slide of Israel support towards ugly partisanship, albeit one that the group concede might strengthen its hand in Washington.

Nevertheless, for some Jewish leaders the week's policy conference is an important opportunity to alleviate the tensions that the past few months of political wrangling have brought to the pro-Israel community.

"In a time when Washington, D.C., is becoming increasingly polarized along party lines, Aipac Policy Conference is a place to appreciate the deep, bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel relationship," said Aaron Keyak, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, in a statement. "We know that the pro-Israel community is at its strongest when we hold true to our beliefs and leave partisan arguments aside as we advocate for the unifying cause we care so deeply about."

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