Even as the health care debate grips Capitol Hill, more than half of the Members of Congress still have carved out time this evening to mingle with thousands of mostly Jewish activists and donors. The lawmakers will be making their annual pilgrimage to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's conference banquet at the Washington Convention Center, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be the featured speaker.
This impressive turnout by lawmakers is a point of pride for AIPAC, which boasts on a fact sheet that the event will draw more Members of Congress than almost any other event except for a joint session of Congress or the State of the Union.
"It is the place to be in the pro-Israel community. Much schmoozing will transpire," said William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Jewish Federations of North America.
The three-day conference, which includes a lobbying day on Tuesday that involves 500 meetings on Capitol Hill, will once again give the organization a chance to flex its political muscle.
But the gathering is also coming at a time of increasing challenges for the organization, the most recent being the rising tensions between the Obama administration and the Israeli government over proposed Jewish housing settlements in East Jerusalem. Administration officials publicly chastised Netanyahu for the housing announcement while Vice President Joseph Biden was in Israel trying to further the peace process.
AIPAC responded with a statement calling on the White House to "defuse the tension" with the Jewish state and "move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel."
Once regarded as the authoritative voice among American Jewry on Israeli matters, AIPAC now finds itself competing with other voices in the Jewish community regarding Middle East issues.
J Street, which was founded two years ago to provide an alternative, more liberal stance on the peace process, issued a statement supporting the administration's stand on the Jewish housing settlements. J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami called the administration's tough language "both understandable and appropriate."
The tempest also comes as AIPAC is finally recovering from an embarrassing episode that occurred five years ago when two of its officials were charged with improperly providing national security information to journalists and Israeli diplomats. Last year, the Justice Department withdrew the charges against the men, who had been dismissed by AIPAC in 2004.
AIPAC's critics and competitors say the organization still wields enormous clout on Capitol Hill. Last year, it spent $2.7 million on federal lobbying with a government affairs staff of nine led by Marvin Feuer, a former Pentagon official, and Bradley Gordon, who had worked for House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.).
But outsiders also say that AIPAC's influence is not as great as it has been in the past, when lawmakers feared that crossing the organization would be politically ruinous.
"They still have many Members genuflecting. But I think in some ways the reality has changed," said James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, which has supported Obama's opposition to the growth in Jewish settlements.
Zogby said there are more schisms in the Jewish community over how the Middle East peace negotiations should proceed. And he said the "fear factor is diminishing" among lawmakers who disagree with AIPAC.
"AIPAC does a lot of good, but they don't speak for everyone," said Hadar Susskind, director of policy and strategy for J Street. Although J Street still spends a fraction of what AIPAC does on lobbying, the group last year doubled its in-house lobbying shop to six people, Susskind said.
In a release announcing the AIPAC conference schedule, the organization's president, David Victor, called the meeting "the most important event of the year for America's pro-Israel community."
"At a time of unprecedented challenge and opportunity in the Middle East, this is our time to come to Washington and join with so many other Americans who share our passion for the U.S.-Israel relationship and ensure that our voices are heard in Congress," Victor said.
An AIPAC spokesman declined to comment on whether the group's influence has diminished and instead referred questions to officials at other Jewish organizations including Daroff at the Jewish Federation.
Daroff called AIPAC the "sine qua non of U.S. Israeli relations."
"There will be continued disagreements in the Jewish community about the best path for the U.S.-Israeli relationship," he said. But he added that "AIPAC will be very much the central player" in helping to determine U.S. policy with Israel.
Clearly, AIPAC has influential supporters from both parties on Capitol Hill. Speakers at the AIPAC conference include House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), the only Jewish Republican House Member. Other speakers include Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.).
Although the vast majority of Jewish voters supported Obama in 2008, AIPAC has drawn staunch backing from socially conservative Christian GOP lawmakers such as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), who addressed AIPAC conferences in 2002 and 2004.
Despite the flap with the administration, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is planning to address the conference today. Obama is not scheduled to speak to AIPAC, although he did appear before the group in 2008 when he was running for president along with other White House candidates, Clinton and Sen John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Over the years, the annual AIPAC conference has been a must-show venue for those aspiring to the Oval Office.
Even though AIPAC does not have a political action committee, it still wields considerable influence with candidates because of its ties to a network of wealthy Jewish donors, political observers say.
"The American Jewish community is the most political ethnic religious group in the country," said a Jewish Democratic operative. "Large political Jewish donors are the backbone of both Democratic and Republican fundraising. The vast majority are not single-issue, pro-Israel donors. However, the pro-Israel network is organized in such a way that the candidates need only go to a limited amount of donors to raise large amounts of money."
Daroff said the donors will be among the participants at AIPAC's conference.
"A number of their leadership is very involved in raising money for candidates," he said, noting that thousands of others, including college student presidents, will attend.
AIPAC also develops relationships with lawmakers by underwriting trips to Israel. Between 2000 and this year, AIPAC doled out $2.7 million on such trips — ranking it just behind the Aspen Institute in private groups sponsoring trips for lawmakers, according to Congressional records offices. The most recent one occurred this January when four Republican lawmakers — Reps. Phil Gingrey (Ga.), Bill Cassidy (La.), Scott Garrett (N.J.) and Bill Shuster (Pa.) — took an AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel. Last August, AIPAC hosted larger groups of Democrats and Republicans, including Hoyer and Cantor, on such trips.
Despite some recent setbacks, no one expects that AIPAC will fade from the lobbying scene anytime soon.
"Today, AIPAC has more competition in representing the Jewish community," said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. "But no observer doubts that AIPAC will remain the singular most powerful force in the American Jewish political community."