AIPAC Conference Rejects Tough Love from Susan Rice, by Applauding

The National Security Advisor loses the battle of the cheers to hawkish Senator Bob Menendez.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice was never going to get the warmest reception from AIPAC's policy conference. That was not why she came; that was why, incidentally, a video slideshow that filled time before her speech featured warnings for partisan to leave "your gloves at the door." Another slide portrayed Casper, the Friendly Ghost, next to the slogan "Don’t Boo! Be Friendly." The message to an estimated 16,000 AIPAC delegates, all encouraged to lobby their members of Congress in favor of tough and immediate Iran sanctions, was not to embarrass themselves by heckling Rice.

They did one better: They cheered at the wrong moments. Rice spoke for nearly an hour, noting at the start that her last AIPAC appearance came in front of a smaller crowd. After a lengthy preamble of praise for Israel, mixing Hebrew aphorisms and English translations, Rice asked the crowd not to let "an unachievable goal stand in the way of a good deal." As she explained just what was unachievable, the crowd applauded.

"I know that some of you will be urging Congress to insist that Iran forgo its domestic uranium enrichment entirely," said Rice. There was loud applause, mixed with ovations, as she waited and tolerated. "But, as desirable as that would be, it is neither realistic nor achievable."


Moments later, her speech winding inevitably to another yes/but rhetorical intersection, Rice's audience did it again. "I know some would argue that we should just impose sanctions and walk away, but let's remember..." said Rice. The applause broke in; she waited for it to disappate. "My friends, let's remember that sanctions, unfortunately, have never stopped Iran from advancing its program."

Rice might have gotten even more static had attendees not been conditioned to go easy. Over the weekend, New Jersey celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who'd run a 2012 Republican campaign for Congress, bought a newspaper ad that contrasted her face with a pile of human skulls. Boteach was spending considerable money to say Rice had a "blind spot" for genocide. Boteach only apologized -- an "if anyone was offended" apology -- at a Monday panel with Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Before Rice spoke, an AIPAC representative told the crowd that "we firmly reject and find repugnant any ad hominem attack on Susan Rice."

That did not mean AIPAC lobbyists had to agree with her. In conversations Monday, the elected officials and the donors who made the conference ranged between grudging disagreement with the White House and passionate disagreement with the White House. 

"The administration will say that they don't want legislation that they don't want legislation that has any more sanctions because they can't get an international coalition to do all that," said New York Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat, at a Monday panel. "I think it was a mistake to take issues off the table and concentrate only on a nuclear weapon."

Engel recommended that anyone lobbying on the Hill for AIPAC -- the annual "lobby day" would happen to coincide" with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress -- ask legislators to sign a letter he'd written with California Rep. Ed Royce. "Some in the media would like to say that there's trouble, blah, blah, blah -- you've all heard it -- that Israel is losing support and AIPAC is losing clout," said Engel. The letter asked the White House to leave Congress to decide that "the final agreement must verifiably ensure that Iran is denied an undetectable nuclear weapons breakout capability."

AIPAC's citizen lobbyists, who'd already been asked to pressure their members of Congress to attend the Netanyahu speech, were largely ready to ask Congress to circumvent the White House. They were inclined to do so anyway, but on the way, they were being inspired and rewarded. After the Royce-Engel panel, two Californians named Stanley and Lila Pesner moved to talk to Royce and came away with gifts. He'd plied them with two official-looking tickets to a simulcast of the 11 a.m. Netanyahu speech. "No access to United States Capitol," it read -- but it was a memento of an effort to pressure Congress into going further with demands on Iran than the White House wanted.

New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez gave the lobbyists even more to work with. He spoke not long after Rice, as the Democratic co-sponsor of sanctions legislation that the White House had threatened to veto.

"When it comes to defending the US-Israel relationship, I am not intimidated by anyone," said Menendez. "Not by Israel’s enemies. Not by political friends, when I believe they’re wrong."

That got louder, more sustained cheers than anything Rice had meant as an applause line. "It was Congress that was responsible for bringing Iran to the table," said Menendez, "and it is Congress that should have a role in deciding whether to provide sanctions."

As the crowd rose to its feet again, a voice could be heard near the press tables, yelling: "That's right! Tell it like it is!"

Rice had told AIPAC delegates that their demands were admirable but unreasonable. Menendez had told them only the first part -- again, and again. Delegates left the session and headed to the night's galas (including a concert by singer Matisyahu) having been told that they were doing the work the administration had no right to stymie.

"I hope she stayed to listen to him," said David Duke, a delegate from Cincinnati, speaking about Rice. 

Duke's wife Yana nodded, and described how excruciating it had been to hear Rice. "When she was speaking, with all the nice stuff, I was thinking -- it's coming, it's coming, it's coming," she said. She'd joined the people cheering when Rice had warned AIPAC what not to do.

"They beat the crap out of you," laughed David Duke, "then they praise you."

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