Israel is imperiled, facing an existential threat from Iran, caught up in a rapidly and dramatically changing Mideast that is becoming more dangerous every day, and fighting an insidious international delegitimization battle.
Israel is strong militarily, resilient emotionally, remarkably innovative and successful technologically, and fortunate to have the unshakeable financial, diplomatic and security support of the U.S., the most powerful nation in the world.
These two messages, seemingly contradictory, were driven home repeatedly at the three-day annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference this week in Washington, D.C., attended by some 13,000 enthusiastic delegates from around the country.
Another mixed message, implicit but strongly sensed, was that while the U.S.-Israel relationship was described by headliner political leaders as stronger than ever, with no “daylight” or “space” between the two allies, there are actually a number of serious, if subtle, gaps between Washington and Jerusalem, as noted in more than a few breakout sessions.
It was there that experts shared worries about key administration appointments (like Secretary of State John Kerry and especially Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel); the troubled personal relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; the lack of American action in Syria, which could become a failed state; the U.S. effort to woo Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader; and perhaps most worrisome, that the U.S. and Israel don’t seem to agree on whether, and at which point, the ineffective diplomatic talks with Iran should lead to military action.
At two sessions on Iran — one on the consequences of it becoming a nuclear power and one on its internal politics — the various experts appeared to agree on a number of points: that the regime is cold, calculating, rational and brutal, that it is determined to achieve nuclear arms, that current talks and economic sanctions are not enough to stop the mullahs, who have yet to be convinced that the U.S. would use military power against them, that the problem is not just Israel’s but that of the region and the West, and that the consequences would be horrendous, even if Tehran did not use the bomb.
Michael Makovsky, foreign policy director of the Bipartisan Policy Center, noted that Obama speaks of preventing Iran from having nuclear arms, while Israel says Iran must be stopped earlier, at the point where it has the capability of producing the bomb.
The U.S. position is “the wrong one,” he said, asserting that allowing Iran to have nuclear capability would give it “most of the advantages” of being a nuclear power without the repercussions, and would not trigger U.S. action. Unacceptable.
Makovsky also faulted Israel’s position, which he said focused almost exclusively on Iran reaching 20 percent enriched uranium — Netanyahu’s famous red line, drawn during his United Nations speech last fall — which could quickly lead to 90 percent.
Calling Israel’s stance “too narrow,” he said Iran is shrewdly “playing” Israel by adjusting the rate of its actions so that it could reach its final goal very quickly.
“I fear that we could have an ‘oops’ moment,” Makovsky said, “as in ‘oops, they got there,’” where Iran, undetected, could complete a bomb in the six-week period between visits from the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.
Emily Landau, senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, emphasized that if Iran is allowed to go nuclear, “it proves a state can lie and cheat and get away with it — a terrible message,” and one that would lead to other states in the region seeking to become nuclear powers, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey.
Avi Jorisch, founder and director of the Red Cell Intelligence Group, described several steps the U.S. could take to prevent Iran from achieving its nuclear aims, including closing off loopholes in economic sanctions, like cracking down on international banks that still deal with Iran and inspecting oil tankers to see if they are carrying Iranian oil.
Internally, the Iranian people, and particularly the youth, are unhappy with the regime, several experts said, especially after the rigged election four years ago and the fact that the country’s oil wealth does not trickle down to the masses.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the focus of anger for Israelis and Jews everywhere, and deservedly so, it was noted, but it is the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who makes the key decisions, and who will choose the next presidential candidates. (Ahmadinejad, who is in an open political battle with Khamenei, cannot run for another term.)
Though the people are dissatisfied, suffering from corruption, economic hardships and religious restrictions, there is no credible alternative to Khamenei, and the regime is not likely to fall anytime soon, the experts agreed.
An Impressive Show Of Clout
In addition to Iran scenarios, many of the dozens of breakout sessions at the conference focused on the myriad new Mideast problems, the U.S.-Israel relationship, and Israel’s political, military and technological future.
But the AIPAC policy conference is far more than the sum of its sessions, whose speakers hold a noticeably similar point of view on the Mideast, ranging, for the most part, from center to right. It is a happening, a kind of pro-Israel Woodstock in the sense that people are energized just to be part of such a large crowd.
In addition to the sheer number of delegates, there is the mix of ages (2,000 college students attended) and geography (all 50 states were represented), and the professionalism, discipline and messaging of AIPAC leadership — lay and professional.
The multimillion-dollar program, with its slick videos and graphics, has a drumbeat theme, urging people to get politically involved to make a difference in the future of Israel and the Jewish people. The approach has proven to be a great and growing success in terms of funds raised and delegate attendance at a time when other Jewish organizations are struggling.
People come to be charged up, and they are. The major plenaries, in a room the size of three city blocks, featured Vice President Joe Biden, outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Netanyahu (live, via satellite) and a who’s who of national government officials, Republican and Democrat, outdoing themselves in pledging support for Israel.
AIPAC is avowedly bipartisan, but one could not help but note the spontaneous ovation for Sen. John McCain and the polite applause when Obama was mentioned. There was talk in the halls of concern over the upcoming Obama-Netanyahu meeting and, more generally, whether the administration is up to the challenges the new and increasingly chaotic Mideast represents, not to mention the looming Iran showdown.
Surely the most popular Democrat in the room this year was Biden, a trusted friend over the years whose role seemed in part to assure the crowd that Obama shares his vice president’s affection for and commitment to Israel.
Biden broke no new policy ground, but his enthusiastic speech hit the big notes: invoking the Holocaust and pledging “Never Again,” affirming that a nuclear Iran is not only a threat to Israel but to U.S. and the world, and recalling his association with Israeli leaders going back to Prime Minister Golda Meir, who told him Israel’s secret weapon was that it has nowhere else to go.
In a telling observation, Biden said that contrary to the well-known phrase that “all politics is local,” he believes “all politics is personal.” It’s about building personal relationships, he said, particularly regarding foreign policy. Though that was surely not his intention, the comment seemed to underscore why many pro-Israel supporters feel more confident about Biden, outspoken on Israel for decades, than the president.
“President Obama shares my commitment,” he assured his audience, asserting that the U.S. is committed to preventing Iran “from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Period.”
He added, to loud applause: “President Obama is not bluffing.”
He said the president was looking forward to his scheduled March 20 visit to Israel, and, speaking live via satellite from Jerusalem immediately following, Netanyahu spoke warmly of Biden and Obama and said the three primary topics he and the president will discuss on the visit are Iran, Syria and peace talks with the Palestinians.
In all, the atmospherics were warm at the Biden plenary, with no talk of settlements this time or of pressure on Israel to make concessions to get the long-dormant peace talks back on track. Clearly the focus for now is on dealing with the most pressing problems presented by Iran’s nuclear race, Syria’s collapse and what comes next.
As the scene is about to shift to Jerusalem for the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, AIPAC did its job of setting the table, having the administration and congressional leaders pledge their solid support, and charging its own delegates to press forward with their lobbying efforts, meeting face to face with their representatives on Capitol Hill.
As Joe Biden said, “all politics is personal.”