Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about what was said at the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington this week, attended by some 13,000 delegates, clearly the biggest pro-Israel gathering of its kind.
(See story, page TK.) What strikes us as worth noting as well was what was not said at the plenaries addressed by Israeli and American leaders like Vice President Joe Biden, outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and by live satellite, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The overall message of the conference each year is to emphasize the importance of bipartisan support for Israel in Washington, and to note the political and practical as well as moral imperatives of a strong U.S.-Israel alliance. But depending on the political climate at the time, each year’s event has its own dynamic.
In recent years President Barack Obama and Biden pushed for urgent progress on the Palestinian front, detailing a plan to achieve a two-state solution through various compromises and concessions, with an emphasis on the settlements as a major impediment to progress. And there was pushback from Netanyahu, insisting that Israeli security was paramount and that he would not bend to pressure. The mood those years was tense, and the acrimony between the Israeli and American heads of state seemed palpable at times.
Not so this year.
The policy positions in Washington and Jerusalem haven’t changed, but the Mideast itself has, and crises in Egypt and Syria in particular have shifted the focus to more immediate concerns for U.S.-Israel strategic interests, even as the showdown with Iran over its efforts to build a nuclear weapon appears close at hand. (One speaker at the conference said that if Iran continues its effort at the same pace as now, it could reach its goal by June. But he noted that Tehran seems to be “playing” Israel by staying short of the red line drawn by Netanyahu at the United Nations last fall, intending instead to make a fast dash to the finish line when ready.)
Seeking to assure Israel of American support as the Mideast becomes ever more dangerous, Obama will visit Jerusalem later this month to discuss Iran, Syria and the Palestinian situation with Netanyahu. Indications are that Iran and Syria will demand their immediate attention and cooperation, and that, wisely or not, the peace process will be tabled, except for pledges to seek new ways to get the parties talking.
One veteran Israeli diplomat suggested this week that the U.S. and Israeli governments may be “just weak enough” to make progress with the feeble Palestinian Authority, but acknowledged that was “a long shot.”
In any event, Biden made no mention of the settlements or detailed peace plans at the AIPAC plenary, emphasizing the most recent and tangible symbol of U.S.-Israel cooperation: the Iron Dome, which intercepted more than 400 rockets from Gaza during the eight-day confrontation in November. And of course he spoke of the administration’s firm commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Whether or not the personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu will improve when they meet, the Mideast crises they face underscore the need for Washington and Jerusalem to work closely together politically and diplomatically, as they have in coordinating military and intelligence plans. The dangers of a failed Syrian state, ripe for takeover by militant Islamists, and of a nuclear Iran that would threaten not only Israel but the whole region, and the West, are too serious for anything but the closest cooperation between the two democratic allies.