Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

AIPAC Policy Conference 2014 - Highlights and Controversies

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The annual AIPAC (America-Israel Public Affairs Committee) Policy Conference wrapped up on March 4, following an eventful three days with important statements made by US and Israeli leaders. The conference came at a critical time for US-Israel relations, as US Secretary of State John Kerry is soon expected to announce a ‘framework' for continued Israeli and Palestinian negotiations, and after AIPAC's decision to withdraw its support for a new Iran-sanctions Bill, following strong pressure from the US Administration.

The conference also came on the same day that US President Barack Obama had some strong words for Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an interview with Bloomberg's Jeffrey Goldberg. The interview was published while Netanyahu was on route to the USA.  It included an attack on Netanyahu's settlements policies, a warning that Israel's positions were becoming harder to defend, and a positive assessment of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a partner for peace. Goldberg wrote:

"Obama was blunter about Israel's future than I've ever heard him... Obama made it clear that he views Abbas as the most politically moderate leader the Palestinians may ever have. It seemed obvious to me that the president believes that the next move is Netanyahu's. ‘There comes a point where you can't manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices,' Obama said. ‘Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel's traditions?'"

Obama's interview set the course for a potentially frosty meeting with Netanyahu, reminiscent of their meeting in 2011. However, the crisis in Ukraine then emerged, other issues became significantly more important, and the meeting between Obama and Netanyahu reportedly struck a more friendly tone.

However, the Bloomberg interview appeared to underline comments made by Kerry and Netanyahu at the AIPAC Conference.

In Kerry's address at AIPAC on March 3, he adopted a softer and warmer tone than Obama's Bloomberg interview (and indeed some reports suggested that Kerry was less than happy with the strident tone of Obama's comments, with one US State Department insider reportedly saying it "undermined his [Kerry's] best efforts.") Kerry pleged that in regard to an agreement with the Palestinians "America will be there every day of week, every step of the way."  Kerry assured the crowd that "we will never let the West Bank turn into another Gaza." After Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, Hamas took over and continues to fire rockets in Israel. Kerry also did not mention the issue of settlements.

Netanyahu's speech also referenced Obama's interview without directly responding to it. Netanyahu inadvertently rebuffed Obama's scepticism by assuring the crowd of his commitment to peace with the Palestinians, and outlined why his position on Iran is different to the US Administration regarding preventing Iran from gaining nuclear capability, as opposed to nuclear weapons. Netanyahu said:

".... the greatest threat to our common security is that of a nuclear-armed Iran. We must prevent Iran from having the capability to produce nuclear weapons. And I want to reiterate that point. Not just to prevent them from having the weapon, but to prevent them from having the capacity to make the weapon. (Applause.) That means - that means we must dismantle Iran's heavy water reactor and its underground enrichment facilities. We must get rid of Iran's centrifuges and its stockpiles of enriched uranium and we must insist that Iran fully divulge the military dimensions of its nuclear program.
Now 17 countries around the world have peaceful nuclear energy programs. They're doing this without spinning centrifuges, without enriching uranium, without operating heavy water facilities and without conducting military nuclear research.
You know why Iran insists on doing all these things that the other peaceful countries don't do? It's because Iran doesn't want a peaceful nuclear program, Iran wants a military nuclear program."

Regarding the Palestinians, Netanyahu challenged Obama's belief that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a partner for peace. Netanyahu said:

"Just as Israel is prepared to recognize a Palestinian state, the Palestinians must be prepared to recognize a Jewish state. (Applause.) President Abbas, recognize the Jewish state, and in doing so, you would be telling your people, the Palestinians, that while we might have a territorial dispute, the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own is beyond dispute. (Applause.)

You would be telling Palestinians to abandon the fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees, or amputating parts of the Negev and the Galilee. In recognizing the Jewish state, you would finally making clear that you are truly prepared to end the conflict. So recognize the Jewish state. No excuses, no delays, it's time. (Applause.)

Now, my friends, it may take years, it may take decades for this formal acceptance of Israel to filter down through all layers of Palestinian society. So if this peace is to be more than a brief interlude between wars, Israel needs long-term security arrangements on the ground to protect the peace and to protect Israel if the peace unravels. You see, those security arrangements would always be important, but they're even more important and critical today when the entire Middle East is unraveling. Three years ago, our region was a very different place. Can anyone sitting here, anyone listening to us, can anyone tell me and be sure what the Middle East will look like five, 10, 20 years from now? We cannot bet the security of Israel on our fondest hopes.

You know, in the Middle East, that's usually a losing bet. We should always hope for the best, but in the Middle East we have to be prepared for the worst. And despite the best of hopes, international peacekeeping forces sent to Lebanon, Gaza, Sinai, the Golan Heights, they didn't prevent those areas from becoming armed strongholds against Israel.

If we reach an agreement, as I hope, with the Palestinians, I don't delude myself. That peace will most certainly come under attack - constant attack by Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaida and others. And experience has shown that foreign peacekeepers - foreign peacekeeping forces, well, that they keep the peace only when there is peace.

But when they're subjected to repeated attacks, those forces eventually go home. So as long as the peace is under assault, the only force that can be relied on to defend the peace and defend Israel is the force defending its own home - the Israeli Army, the brave soldiers of the IDF. (Applause.)"

Netanyahu also spoke of the benefits a peace deal could bring to the region via better relations with Israel's Arab neighbours.

"Ladies and gentlemen, peace is Israel's highest aspiration. I'm prepared to make a historic peace with our Palestinian neighbors - (applause) - a peace that would end a century of conflict and bloodshed. Peace would be good for us. Peace would be good for the Palestinians. But peace would also open up the possibility of establishing formal ties between Israel and leading countries in the Arab world.

Many Arab leaders - and believe me, this is a fact, not a hypothesis, it's a fact - many Arab leaders today already realize that Israel is not their enemy, that peace with the Palestinians would turn our relations with them and with many Arab countries into open and thriving relationships. (Applause.)

The combination of Israeli innovation and Gulf entrepreneurship, to take one example - I think this combination could catapult the entire region forward. I believe that together, we can resolve actually some of the region's water and energy problems. You know, Israel has half the rainfall we had 65 years ago. We have 10 times the population. Our GDP has shot up, thank God - GDP per capita, up. So we have half the rainfall, 10 times the population, and our water use goes up. And which country in the world doesn't have water problems? Yep. Israel. (Applause.)

Why? Because of technology, of innovation, of systems. We could make that available to our Arab neighbors throughout the region that is not exactly blessed with water. We could solve the water problems. We could solve the energy problems. We could improve agriculture. We could improve education with e-learning, health with diagnostics on the Internet. All of that is possible. We could better the lives of hundreds of millions. So we all have so much to gain from peace."

To view Netanyahu's full speech, and other speeches at the conference click here.

Meanwhile, the 14,000 conference delegates that attended the conference reflect a wider tent of pro-Israel advocacy. AIPAC has invested efforts to broaden the demographics of its base, reaching out to Latino and African-American communities. This change was highlighted when the conference turned gospel, as Bright Star Church of God in Christ's Pastor Chris Harris led the crowd in song and dance, with people shouting "amen" to the song "Walk With Me" - see video.

Harris is the pastor of a popular Bronzeville church, and has partnered with AIPAC since 2012. The Times of Israel explained Harris' connection to AIPAC:

"After a trip to Israel's south, he decided that the model of community-based trauma care and support that was used in places like Sderot could also be applied in crime-torn Bronzeville. Since then, he has teamed up with both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University hospitals, as well as other community leaders and the United Way, to develop the Bronzeville Dream Center, which seeks to apply the Israeli model in the South Side."

The AIPAC conference appears to have been a success, with US and Israeli leaders affirming their commitment to the US-Israel relationship. It also reaffirmed the lobby group's bi-partisan credentials which had come under criticism following their push for the Iranian sanctions Bill against the US Administration's wishes. The failure of the Bill led some to question whether AIPAC had lost its effectiveness. However, as Haviv Rettig Gur writes in the Times of Israel, much of AIPAC's strength comes from the reality that a majority of Americans continues to support Israel's right to exist in peace and security. He writes:

"Any talk about AIPAC weakening would naturally grab the attention of pundits. AIPAC's power has seemed so undeniable and unassailable for so long that in the political imagination of Washington policymakers, or at least of Washington's commentators and activists, the group's political machine is the primary explanation for the huge support Israel enjoys in Congress and the administration.
Despite the popularity of this view, it is nevertheless incorrect. The simple truth is that Israel is loved in Washington because it is loved in America.
One sign of this support is evident in Americans' views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
‘Americans' sympathies lean heavily toward the Israelis over the Palestinians, 64% vs. 12%. Americans' partiality for Israel has consistently exceeded 60% since 2010.' So wrote the Gallup corporation  following a February 2013 poll of Americans.
Indeed, popular support for Israel has been rising for the past decade as support for the Palestinians remained at a consistently low level. Or, put another way, the middle ground of Americans with no meaningful opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly abandoning the middle and siding with Israel.
It is possible that AIPAC's opponents, from conspiracists like Walt and Mearsheimer to frustrated critics like Judis and Thomas Friedman, are right, and the largest pro-Israel organization in Washington is in fact an inexplicably powerful cabal whose sheer coercive power is enough to force a faint-hearted Congress to do its bidding.
Or, perhaps, the overwhelming support Israel has enjoyed in Congress in recent decades reflects the ability of members of Congress to discern their own constituents' views.
Either way, the discourse about AIPAC's weakening, even when it comes from voices sympathetic to the organization's agenda, assumes some version of the former: that disagreement with the White House or Senate Republicans must signal a decline in the group's influence. Otherwise, how could there be such disagreement?
But if AIPAC's influence has its roots in the remarkable national consensus on Israel, then that influence is both more dependable and more resilient than its opponents believe - and sure to weather the recent hiccups."

AIJAC was also represented at the AIPAC conference by Jeremy Jones AM, Director of International and of Community Affairs, who spoke in a session on "Israel and Asia - New Frontiers?" and discussed the historic, contemporary and potential future relations between South East Asia and Australasian states with Jews and Israel.

Sharyn Mittelman

 

 

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