If there’s any doubt about AIPAC being the belle of Washington, check out next week’s ball.

The lobbying powerhouse’s conference, to be held June 2-4, is the only policy event since the presidential election campaign was launched that has attracted all three major candidates: U.S. Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The conference comes on the heels of a spate of Middle East-related dust-ups involving Obama and McCain.

They have engaged in a bruising battle over Iran policy. McCain favors increased isolation for Iran, Obama favors what he calls tough diplomacy and direct negotiations, and both are casting their arguments in terms of what’s better for Israel.

Those differences promise a lively conference. That’s fine, officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said.

“They want to compete over who’s more pro-Israel?” one said. “Let them compete.” . . .

The trio of candidates isn’t the only draw to what promises to be a crowded three days: Defending the Bush administration in its waning days will be Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state. The leaders of both parties in both houses of Congress also plan to speak.

It marks a pleasant change for AIPAC, which has been dogged in recent years by critics who have accused the lobby of helping the Bush administration win support for the Iraq war, even though lawmakers have denied repeatedly that AIPAC played any role in rallying congressional backing for the war.

It is also the first policy conference since last summer, when AIPAC agreed in principle to continue to fund the defense of two former staffers facing trial for dealing in classified information, removing at least partially the opprobrium that the group had abandoned two loyal soldiers.

More substantially, AIPAC is scoring major lobbying successes in Congress. A bill under consideration that would create certification to show that Israel is maintaining a qualitative military edge in the region already has garnered major support.

And while the Democrat-controlled Congress and Bush are deadlocked over just about every major budget issue, lobbyists at AIPAC are confident that Congress will adopt the president’s plan this year to start increasing assistance to Israel from an average of $2.4 billion annually to $3 billion.

The policy forum’s highlight is its dinner June 3 at the cavernous Washington convention center, which organizers say is the largest seated meal in the nation’s capital. AIPAC leaders call out the roster of lawmakers in attendance and usually garner a bipartisan majority of both houses, underscoring the group’s main point: support for Israel crosses the aisle.

Partisanship can raise its head, and did so a year ago when Vice President Dick Cheney and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert both called for Jewish support for the Iraq war — and when Pelosi earned scattered boos for decrying the war.

An AIPAC spokesman said such manifestations are marginal.

“As thousands of members arrive for the conference, our role is to nurture the bipartisan nature of support for Israel and to strengthen the ties with all sectors of society,” the spokesman said.

More than 7,000 activists are expected to attend, including 1,200 students.

Olmert is attending in person and likely will press for support for his recent stepped-up efforts to negotiate peace with the Palestinians and Syria. Insiders say AIPAC already is preparing the ground to shepherd support for such initiatives through Congress.

June 4 is the designated lobbying day for the activists. They are expected to push for Iran sanctions and back two non-binding resolutions. One recognizes Israel’s efforts to arrive at a two-state peace with the Palestinians and calls for greater support for the effort from Arab countries, and the other seeks increased sanctions on Iran, including a ban on the sale of refined petroleum.


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