This year’s annual AIPAC Policy Conference attracted more than 13,000 delegates, and heard from an array of speakers including Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (via satellite), Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, US Vice President Joe Biden, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, US House Leader Eric Cantor (R) and US Senator John McCain (R). The conference opened with a speech by Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren, followed by a panel discussion with former Middle East adviser Dennis Ross and former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams interviewed by former CNN anchor Frank Sesno.
None of this is unusual. However, it would be fair to say that this year’s conference observers attempted to gauge the Obama Administration’s possible policies and preferences for the next four years – regarding US-Israel relations, efforts to advance the two state solution, the so-called “Arab Spring”, and particularly regarding the looming deadlines in response to Iran’s nuclear program.
As Rick Richman of Commentary Magazine noted, there was an “elephant in the room”:
“[The] elephant is American policy in the region. In one session after another one hears criticism of American inaction, American hesitation, American lack of coherence. The criticism is at times subtler, and at times more direct, but it’s almost always there… Americans and Israelis are now all walking on eggshells, making sure not to interfere with the ‘reset’ of relations, not to add new tensions into the delicate relations between the second Obama administration and the second Netanyahu government. The elephant is there though … There’s surely doubt in Israel, and there’s concern in pro-Israel circles in the US (“we need a national security team that is pro-Israel”, Senator McCain said Monday morning). In an extraordinary address to the gala, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said that throughout his lifetime he had “never questioned America’s resolve and support for Israel … until now.”
Mostly, it seems the AIPAC Policy Conference tried to promote the notion of a “fresh start” – especially with President’s Obama’s planned trip to Israel in mid-March. Commenting on Obama’s planned visit, Ross said that Obama would seek to “make a connection with the Israeli public” while Abrams remarked that Obama will need to convince Israelis that he has undergone a “kishke transplant” – meaning a change of heart.
The conference also allowed US political leaders, both Democrat and Republican, to reassert their commitment to a strong US-Israel relationship to deal with the challenges in the region, including Iran’s dangerous nuclear program, the implications of the civil war in Syria, and rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. In addition, many US leaders reminded the crowd of the US’s strategic value in supporting Israel – as Biden commented:
“So, ladies and gentlemen, let me end where I began, by reaffirming our commitment to the State of Israel. It’s not only a longstanding, moral commitment, it’s a strategic commitment. An independent Israel, secure in its own borders, recognized by the world is in the practical, strategic interests of the United States of America… I used to say if there weren’t an Israel, we’d have to invent one.”
Vice President Biden in particular made an impressive speech and strongly rebutted accusations that the Obama Administration was not supporting Israel:
“I’ve served with eight Presidents of the United States of America, and I can assure you, unequivocally, no President has done as much to physically secure the State of Israel as President Barack Obama. President Obama last year requested $3.1 billion in military assistance for Israel — the most in history…. Under this administration, we’ve held the most regular and largest-ever joint military exercises. We’ve invested $275 million in Iron Dome, including $70 million that the President directed to be spent last year on an urgent basis — to increase the production of Iron Dome batteries and interceptors…
And it is in that same spirit that we’re working with Israel to jointly develop new systems, called Arrow and David’s Sling, interceptors that can defeat long-range threats from Iran, Syria and Hezbollah — equally as urgent. And we are working to deploy a powerful new radar, networked with American early warning satellites, that could buy Israel valuable time in the event of an attack…
Let me tell you what worries me the most today — what worries me more than at any time in the 40 years I’ve been engaged, and it is different than any time in my career. And that is the wholesale, seemingly coordinated effort to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state. That is the single most dangerous, pernicious change that has taken place, in my humble opinion, since I’ve been engaged. And, ladies and gentlemen, it matters. It matters. To put it bluntly, there is only one nation — only one nation in the world that has unequivocally, without hesitation and consistently confronted the efforts to delegitimize Israel. At every point in our administration, at every juncture, we’ve stood up on the legitimacy — on behalf of legitimacy of the State of Israel. President Obama has been a bulwark against those insidious efforts at every step of the way. Wherever he goes in the world, he makes clear that although we want better relations with Muslim-majority countries, Israel’s legitimacy and our support for it is not a matter of debate.”
On the issue of Iran it appears that there are policy differences between Israel and the US. Biden stated that the US is committed to preventing “Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon”, emphasising “Prevent — not contain — prevent. The President has flatly stated that… Well, big nations can’t bluff. And Presidents of the United States cannot and do not bluff. And President Barack Obama is not bluffing. He is not bluffing….”
While Netanyahu addressed the crowd via satellite and reinforced that diplomacy was not working and there was an urgent need to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capability, he stated:
“… Iran has made it clear that it will continue to defy the will of the international community. Time after time, the world’s leading powers have tabled diplomatic proposals to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully. But I have to tell you the truth. Diplomacy has not worked.
Iran ignores all these offers. It is running out the clock. It has used negotiations, including the most recent ones, to buy time to press ahead with its nuclear program. Thus far, the sanctions have not stopped the nuclear program either. The sanctions have hit the Iranian economy hard. That is true. But Iran’s leaders just grit their teeth and move forward. Iran enriches more and more uranium; It installs faster and faster centrifuges; It’s still not crossed the red line I drew at the United Nations last September. But Iran is getting closer to that line, and it’s putting itself in a position to cross that line very quickly once it decides to do so…
To prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, we cannot allow Iran to cross that red line. We have to stop its nuclear enrichment program before it’s too late. And I have to tell you, and with the clarity of my brain: words alone will not stop Iran; Sanctions alone will not stop Iran. Sanctions must be coupled with a clear and credible military threat if diplomacy and sanctions fail.”
The Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird also echoed Netanyahu’s sentiment that recent negations in Kazakhstan were fruitless, he said: “We must be clear and unequivocal: we will not back down on sanctions and pressure just for Iran showing up at the negotiating table” but noted that “sanctions have not fundamentally changed Iranian leadership”.
Iran will be a key issue that will be discussed between Netanyahu and Obama during the President’s visit to Israel. Ross commented that Netanyahu and Obama “will try to define prevention” when they meet, as “They want to have a better understanding… of when does prevention as objective fail, and force become inevitable.”
To see video footage of the AIPAC conference click here.