In a speech that could be a dry run for his upcoming meetings with President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said his government is ready to “resume peace negotiations” with the Palestinians “without any delay, without any preconditions, the sooner the better” and called for a “triple-track” approach that includes political as well as economic and security negotiations.
Netanyahu made the comments in a televised speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference on Monday, breaking with the overwhelming focus on Iran at the three-day meeting.
But that may not be enough to satisfy a U.S. administration that also apparently used the AIPAC meeting to lay out markers for the all-important first official encounter between the two new leaders, AHA scheduled for May 18.
In a Tuesday morning speech to the group, Vice President Joseph Biden reiterated the administration’s demand for a strong focus on the Israeli-Palestinian peace track — and for concessions by both sides, including a settlements freeze and the removal of illegal outposts, demands rarely heard at AIPAC conferences.
The AIPAC policy conference, with an almost wall-to-wall focus on Iran and with some guest speakers lambasting Obama’s goal of opening up a dialogue with Tehran, also pointed to the potential for new Washington-Jerusalem friction on that issue, with a leading analyst predicting the possibility of the worst clash between the two allies in decades.
Netanyahu’s brief but widely anticipated video appearance and speeches by Biden, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were among the highlights of a conference that drew some 6,000 delegates despite the ongoing recession, along with many Middle East policy experts, diplomats and about half the U.S. Congress.
Critics say the power of AIPAC is waning in the face of growing competition from left-of-center groups like J Street and reduced campaign giving by pro-Israel donors, but there were no signs of decline at this week’s conference at the Washington Convention Center.
There was remarkably little buzz in the hallways about Monday’s action by a federal judge dropping all charges against two former AIPAC officials, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, putting an end to what critics and many journalists have called “the AIPAC trial,” an embarrassment to the group even though it was not charged with any wrongdoing.
Rosen, who was fired from AIPAC after his indictment, is suing the group for wrongful termination of employment, but there is a widespread expectation AIPAC will work out a settlement with the man regarded as the architect of many of its policies, in an effort to avoid a potentially embarrassing civil trial.
While the conference program focused overwhelmingly on Iran, Netanyahu’s Monday speech was the major newsmaker.
He outlined a plan some saw as a concession to an administration that rejected his demand for strong action on Iran as a precondition for new talks with the Palestinians.
The speech was a “definite warm-up” to the upcoming Obama-Netanyahu face-to-face in Washington, said Edward Walker, a former State Department official and ambassador to Israel.
The fact that his widely anticipated address was unusually short —about six minutes — was another signal that the prime minister is rehearsing the arguments he will use to prevent a clash with an administration that sees progress on the Palestinian front as critical, Walker said.
“He wanted to make a single point; he didn’t want people distracted by other issues,” Walker said.
But Walker warned against reading Netanyahu’s words as a major change in policy or perspective. “It’s not a new approach,” he said. “He has been talking for a long time about the need to develop the Palestinian economy. Now he’s added a ‘political track,’ but he hasn’t specified what that means.”
Biden’s speech, while pushing all the usual pro-Israel buttons, suggested the two leaders could be in for some tough talk when they get together in two weeks.
Biden said Israel must “work for a two-state solution” and must “not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts and allow the Palestinians freedom of movement.”
He echoed what is becoming a refrain in administration dealings with pro-Israel groups: U.S. policy in the region will change significantly, but not at the cost of “our commitment to the peace and security of the state of Israel. That is not negotiable; that is not a matter of change.”
And Biden defended the administration’s diplomatic outreach to Iran, saying that there is no sure route to ending the threat posed by a nuclear Iran.
“That’s why we will pursue direct, principled diplomacy with Iran with the overriding goal of preventing it from obtaining nuclear weapons,” he said. “If our efforts to address this problem are not successful, we will have greater international support to pursue other options.”
AIPAC officials were careful not to challenge the administration’s Iran outreach, but some speakers at the conference, overwhelmingly focused on Iran, were not so reticent.
Gingrich, who has emerged as one of the Obama administration’s most caustic foreign policy critics, launched a frontal assault, comparing the Iran outreach effort to pre-World War II appeasement.
“Talking in good faith with Adolf Hitler and seeking reconciliation with Adolf Hitler would’ve been a complete dead loser, because he was in fact the personification of evil, and as long as he was in charge, all humanity was at risk,” he told the group. “Ahmadinejad, if he gets the weapons, will be every bit as evil as Hitler. He tells us this all the time, and only our unwillingness to admit that two plus two equals four blocks us from seeing what he is doing.”
He also called for regime change in Tehran and possible military strikes to take out its nuclear program.
Other speakers warned of a possible clash between the two governments over the issue.
Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, said that diverging policy on Iran might produce “the most serious face-to-face disagreement between the United States and Israel in the 61-year history of the relationship,” according to a JTA report.
Both sides see Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and Iran linked, but in different ways.
The Obama administration believes quick progress and strong U.S. involvement on the Israeli-Palestinian front are critical to its broader regional priorities — which include curbing Iran’s nuclear program and its support for terrorism.
The Netanyahu government, while viewing the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel, also believes stronger U.S. pressure could cause Iran to reduce the pressure it may be putting on Hamas to reject any compromise with the Palestinian Authority.
“Push back on Iran and it could give more breathing room for the negotiations [with the Palestinians],” said Lenny Ben-David, a former AIPAC official and Israeli diplomat.
Robert Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University, said it is “too early” to tell if there will be a Washington-Jerusalem clash over Iran policy.
“There is reason to assume this administration has a strategy that involves both public outreach to Iran coupled to a very strong determination that they not go ahead with their nuclear ambitions,” he said.
“There’s reason to assume that they’re reaching out to see what kind of response they will get from Iran. If Iran is unresponsive, I would assume they will go to the Europeans, the Chinese and the Russians and say, now we need really serious sanctions. They will use dialogue as a lever.”
But, echoing the concern of many pro-Israel leaders, he said, there is a danger that dialogue won’t work and that the call for tougher international sanctions is likely to fall on deaf ears.
“That’s the point where there may be a real divergence between the two governments,” he said.
And AIPAC, which emphasized new Iran sanctions legislation during hundreds of lobby visits on Tuesday, could get caught in the middle.
“The real dilemma for Jewish groups: what happens if dialogue and sanctions don’t work?” Lieber said.