AIPAC Brings Movers and Shakers of Both Parties Out in Droves

Party affiliations may have been left at the door, but everything about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's recent "Salute to Congress" dinner made clear that the cold November evening was very much political.

As it has done at countless policy conferences in Washington, D.C., the pro-Israel lobbying organization succeeded in bringing out a large number of voters and leaders from both parties for the one cause that appears to unite the Jewish community: the Jewish state. In this case, more than 700 were on hand for a $180 plate dinner at the Wanamaker Building's Crystal Tea Room.

It proved to be a rallying of the troops of sorts for AIPAC, which has been bruised by an espionage investigation and is looking to maintain the access to the halls of powers that has brought high-profile senators and administration officials to its annual gatherings inside the Beltway.

Judging from the two keynote speakers at what was billed as simply a meeting of AIPAC's regional chapter – Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean – the organization does not need to worry about access.

"When it comes to Israel, we are all staunch allies and friends," said Dean in one of the few bipartisan moments of a speech that tended to talk up Democratic support of the Jewish state and Jewish social concerns. "We stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel."

According to Philadelphia-based political analyst Jeff Jubelirer, part of AIPAC's lavishing of attention on Southeastern Pennsylvania – besides planning the star-powered dinner, which was attended by both Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the lobby opened up a new office in the Jewish Community Services Building in July – can be explained by how much of a force Jews are in American politics.

"It's very much a swing vote in a swing city in a swing state," said Jubelirer, pointing to recent Republican inroads among a largely Democratic-identified community, as well as to the competitiveness of elections in this part of the country.

Put simply, when your vote's in play, politicians tend to listen.

It was a point apparently not lost on either Dean or Mehlman who each, in the words of event co-chair Paul Silberberg, "gave the litany of their partisan politics."

For Mehlman, it was defending America's military involvement in Iraq, an issue that has cost President George W. Bush points in approval polls.

"A Vietnam-like pullout would not be a stalemate or an exit strategy, particularly in the heart of the Middle East between Syria and Iran," said Mehlman. "We cannot once again reinforce the message that the terrorists heard in Beirut, in Mogadishu and Madrid: That the reward for violence is capitulation."

For Dean, it was attacking religious conservatives as attempting to Christianize the country.

"There's no place for a religious doctrine that everyone is bound by in order to become a good American," said Dean, the former Vermont governor who ran for president in last year's Democratic primaries. "It's why I'm a Democrat and why I'm in this job. I believe everyone ought to be able to practice their religion freely."

But despite such partisan positions, when it came to Israel, both speakers were predictably in AIPAC's camp, a point Silberberg stressed.

"It was clear their agenda was to support Israel," said Silberberg, president of CMS Companies, who extended the observation to the hundreds in attendance at the Nov. 20 dinner. "It's amazing. To this day, my mom cannot believe that I voted for Bush and she came to the dinner. The most partisan people on both sides of the spectrum were there."

Philadelphia's ability to bring out that many people is what played into AIPAC's decision to open up the office here, according to Jennifer Cannata, a spokeswoman for the group.

"Over the last two years, AIPAC has experienced a growth of influence in the Philadelphia area," said Cannata. "It's really great to have someone on the grassroots level to really become part of the fabric of the pro-Israel community in Philadelphia."

Jubelirer, though, said the decision also makes sense from a political point of view. The Philadelphia Jewish community could well play a major part in electing the next president, no matter which party wins in 2008. That makes the pro-Israel message more powerful.

"We matter," said Jubelirer. "We vote more, we give money to candidates more and we participate in politics more."

For Edward Glickman, another of the event's co-chairs who also introduced Dean to the audience, the success of the dinner points to one thing: AIPAC is focused on Philadelphia, and Philadelphia is focused on Israel.

"The opening of the office has been a long time in coming," said Glickman, an attorney with the Center City firm of WolfBlock. "This is a springboard. We'll hopefully have a large turnout at the March policy conference and we'll get more people willing to get involved and speak up."

At a time when a survey last week by pollster Frank Luntz showed a sizable portion of the nation's Jewish community hesitant to publicly defend Israel, Cannata said that AIPAC will be further investing in Philadelphia. Tentatively in store for 2007, she noted, is for the city to host AIPAC's National Summit on Foreign Policy and Politics.

"This is a critical time for Israel," she said. "It's more important than ever for people to play a proactive role, more important than ever for people to take a public stance."



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