WASHINGTON — That the prospect of a nuclear Iran would be a major focus of this year’s annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was not a surprise. But the other danger targeted by the pro-Israel lobby was — the domestic focus on across-the-board spending cuts.
The message hammered home throughout the policy conference Sunday through Tuesday was that looming spending cuts mandated by the 2011 sequester could endanger Israel and America’s leadership throughout the world.
The showcase for the message was legislation introduced Monday night in the House of Representatives by two Florida lawmakers — Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, and Ted Deutch, a Democrat — that would designate Israel a “major strategic ally,” a one-of-a-kind label.
The legislation was one of two initiatives that AIPAC’s 13,000 activists — including hundreds from the Delaware Valley — took with them to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to lobby their lawmakers. The legislation enshrines much that is already in existence, including $3.1 billion in annual defense assistance to Israel and missile cooperation programs. But the redundancy is precisely the point.
At a time when the president and Congress are considering how best to distribute across-the-board 8.5 percent spending cuts, AIPAC wants Congress to keep its funding for Israel stable.
Ester Kurz, AIPAC’s top congressional lobbyist, told the activists just before they headed for the Hill that “despite growing budget pressure, it is critical that Congress fully funds this aid.” She cited “the growing instability in the region and the mounting threats on Israel’s borders.”
AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, cast the funding for missile defense and other programs as a matter of life and death. “We must understand that we are not lobbying today for legislation,” he said. “We are lobbying for life.”
The other legislation backed by AIPAC would sharpen Iran sanctions and call on the president to back Israel should it feel “compelled” to attack Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.
AIPAC’s effort to maintain current levels of foreign assistance comes after weeks in which Republicans and Democrats, caught up in marathon budget negotiations, have made Israel and the Iran threat a talking point. John Kerry, in one of his first acts as secretary of state, warned Senate appropriators that aid to Israel could be affected by the sequester.
On Feb. 27, freshman Jewish Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), attending a bipartisan tribute to the Iron Dome missile defense system, made an urgent appeal to the Jewish leaders assembled.
“With the sequester looming and deep defense cuts coming, Congress must act,” he said. “My colleagues must come together once again and protect funding for critical programs such as this.”
It’s a message that has resonated in Israel, where Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting that potential cuts had him “very worried.”
Republicans have cited the Iran threat in charging the Obama administration with reckless defense cuts. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called last month’s recall of an aircraft carrier from the Persian Gulf “catastrophic.”
Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military defense chief, said at the conference that he was “quite concerned” that the carrier’s removal reduced the credible threat of a military strike should Iran advance toward a nuclear weapon.
A top congressional Republican aide said that such politicking was par for the course and would not affect AIPAC’s profile on the Hill. Lobbies advocate for their cause and are not expected to take into account Democratic arguments for increased taxes and Republican arguments for spending cuts.
“Both sides can list off the bad things that come from sequestration,” the aide said. “Throwing Israel into it is a red herring.”