By Gregory Levey http://www.salon. com/news/ feature/2007/ 03/16/aipac/ index_np. html Photos: AP/Gerald Herbert March 16, 2007 | WASHINGTON -- At the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee this week in Washington, a conservative Christian couple from eastern Tennessee told me that their son had decided to join the Israeli army. It was one of many surreal moments during the three-day gathering hosted by AIPAC, the lobbying group devoted to ensuring close U.S.-Israel ties that remains extraordinarily influential in Washington. "We just love God, and we just love Israel," the couple beamed, when I asked why they had come to the conference. Amid an energized and at times almost circuslike atmosphere, just about everyone in attendance shared two main preoccupations: the 2008 U.S. presidential election and confronting Iran. And this year's conference saw record attendance: more than 6,000 people, coming from every state in the country and exceeding last year's crowd of around 5,000. Many of them were American Jews, of course, but the evangelical Christian community also made a strong showing. For those feeling apocalyptic about the turmoil in the Middle East, pastor John Hagee was there to greet them. Of the many prominent speakers at the conference, Hagee got one of the most enthusiastic receptions. "The sleeping giant of Christian Zionism has awoken!" Hagee proclaimed, taking the microphone at the opening dinner reception on Sunday. The electrified crowd -- most of it Jewish -- roared in support, pounding on the tables. Hagee went on to declare the United Nations a "political brothel" and asserted that Israel must never give up land. He agreed with Israeli writer Dore Gold that granting part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians would be "tantamount to turning it over to the Taliban." And, after rebuking Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he led the crowd in a chant of "Israel lives!" urging them to "shout it from the mountaintops!" During Hagee's oratory, an AIPAC delegate sitting near me said, "I'm going to vote for him instead of McCain." AIPAC, whose own literature notes that it has been described by the New York Times as "the most important organization affecting America's relationship with Israel," has been highly successful in building strong relationships with both U.S. political parties. This year's conference was attended by everyone from Vice President Dick Cheney to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (and other 2008 presidential contenders), as well as former CIA director James Woolsey. Leaders from Congress were there, as were numerous officials from the State Department and White House. On Monday morning, Cheney got a warm reception and forceful applause for familiar speech lines, such as his assertion that the "only option" against terrorists is to "go on the offensive." Many rank-and-file members of AIPAC seemed to be spoiling for military action against Iran -- "We have to do to them what we did to Saddam," one delegate told me -- but AIPAC's leadership remained strikingly circumspect about it. No AIPAC leaders mentioned war with Iran in the speeches, receptions or panel discussions I attended, and very few of the prominent outside speakers did either. At times this put them at odds with the grass-roots delegates; Marvin Feuer, AIPAC's director of policy and government affairs, was verbally attacked by a conference attendee as "weak" when he downplayed military options against Iran during a Q&A session. But AIPAC leaders are pushing for a different kind of offensive against Iran: a new program of sanctions much harsher than any prior one imposed through the United Nations. The plan, which one panelist called a "quiet campaign" to strike at Iran on the financial battlefield, would include increased pressures on foreign allies who do business with Iran, a U.S.-wide campaign of divestment, and other measures intended to put crippling economic pressure on the Islamic republic. Sarah Steelman, the state treasurer of Missouri, described how she has worked to restrict the state's investments in companies that do business with Iran, and urged AIPAC members to lobby their own state governments to institute similar policies. Steven Perles, a lawyer, explained how it was possible to tie up the assets of the Iranian government and financial institutions by engaging them in lawsuits for their funding of terrorist groups. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has for some time been pushing for such efforts, and in a closed-door briefing during the conference he said that they could prove fatal to Iran: "Fewer and fewer companies will enter Iran. More and more will leave. Investment dollars and the technology it buys will dry up. The lifeline of a hated regime will be cut, its future imperiled." In addition to the many panels at the conference, which often felt akin to pep rallies, delegates also attended "lobbying labs," where AIPAC staff schooled them on how to effectively persuade their congressional representatives to follow AIPAC policies. These sessions were not open to the media, nor even mentioned on the schedule of events distributed to members of the press. But AIPAC leaders repeatedly urged delegates to attend them. And on Tuesday, the organization deployed its army of lobbyists to push for new sanctions against Iran, which are contained in a new bill called the Iran Counter-Proliferati on Act, introduced by Democrat Tom Lantos and Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.