At AIPAC, papering over cracks in US-Israel ties

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, DC on March 4, 2014 (AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm) (AFP/File)

Washington (AFP) - They file into AIPAC by the thousands, intensely supportive of Israel, fearful of a nuclear Iran, and aware that -- at least at leadership level -- Washington's ties with the Jewish state are under strain.

But are American Jews down on the relationship? Are they accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of overstepping his bounds by agreeing to address the US Congress shortly before Israeli elections and at the height of international negotiations with Iran?

Hardly. At least not those attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference Sunday in Washington.

"This is going to be just a blip on the screen in terms of relationships, because it goes beyond the politicians," American-Israeli dual national Jeremy Bandler told AFP at AIPAC, referring to Netanyahu's planned speech Tuesday to a joint meeting of Congress.

US Jews, he said, have "as strong a connection as ever" to the Holy Land, despite what some see as the political grandstanding of two national leaders whose rapport appears lukewarm at best.

- 'Serious strains' in relationship -

Many of the 16,000 attendees at AIPAC, which fills the capital's mammoth Convention Center and is the largest pro-Israel talk shop in America, acknowledged US-Israel ties could be better.

Even AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr told the opening session that "there are some serious strains in the relationship," although he stopped short of declaring it a crisis.

The acknowledgement is an understatement.

House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to Congress without consulting Democratic leaders or the Obama administration.

Netanyahu's acceptance sparked a bitter row with the White House, with National Security Advisor Susan Rice warning it would be "destructive" to US-Israel ties.

Several lawmakers, including Jewish Democrats, have vowed to boycott the speech, saying Netanyahu is openly undermining the US president. Vice President Joe Biden will not attend either.

Washington's former UN ambassador John Bolton minced no words when he told a conservative gathering that Obama is presiding over the worst White House relationship with Israel "since the state of Israel was created in 1948."

Jewish voters are predominantly Democratic, but that support has eroded slightly.

Exit polls showed Obama winning 74 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, then 70 percent in 2012. In the 2014 mid-term elections, swept by Republicans, the Jewish Democratic vote shrank to 66 percent.

Still, AIPAC attendees hesitated to point the finger at Obama.

"There have always been ups and downs and certainly we're at a low point right now," 21-year-old Tracy Frydberg, one of 3,000 college students attending AIPAC, said of US-Israeli ties.

"The core foundation of the relationship and the need to curb Iran is stronger than any sort of dispute" between Obama and Netanyahu, she added.

Retired federal tax agent Hans Seidemann sees things similarly, noting the Obama-Netanyahu rift is no secret.

"But I think it's just hype to an extent. There are economic, military and other issues that remain as strong as they were before," Seidemann said.

Should Netanyahu address Congress now, in this challenging moment? "It's a tough question," he said.

- 'Old-fashioned political spat?' -

Republican ex-congressman Mike Rogers, who until December chaired the House Intelligence Committee, insisted the relationship remained strong, with "very deep and embedded" intelligence and military cooperation.

He said the rift was overblown.

"This is a good old-fashioned political spat," Rogers told AFP of the Netanyahu speech.

As for Obama's frosty ties with Israel's premier, "I think most people understand the president is on his last two years," Rogers said before addressing an AIPAC breakout session.

Demonstrators sent a loud message outside the conference, donning Netanyahu masks and blasting the Israeli leader, who speaks at AIPAC on Monday before his contentious Congress address, as a "mass murderer."

A Jewish organization issued a gentler but poignant critique of Netanyahu and his decision to address Congress.

"Wading into partisan American politics behind the back of our elected president damages the US-Israel relationship," said J Street, a group that supports a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.

Inside the conference, Buffalo health plan advisor Valerie Rosenhoch, 66, described the flap over Netanyahu's visit as "an unfortunate hiccup."

"It was a very poor decision," she said. "But I don't think it goes to the depth of the US-Israel relationship, and it shouldn't be allowed to."