Over 12,000 enthusiastic delegates descended on Washington on Sunday for what may very well be the greatest pro-Israeli show on earth – the annual Policy Conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, better known as AIPAC.
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This year, however, calendar and circumstance have combined to color the backdrop to the conference with a more than a tinge of apprehension and trace of uncertainty. With a government in Israel yet to be formed, a renewed Administration in Washington just getting its bearings, aid to Israel actually contracting in the vise of sequester and a complex Middle East that increasingly defies easy answers or pat solutions - the substantive side of the conference may come up short in terms of definitive statements, clear cut policy directions or attention grabbing headlines.
More significant, perhaps, is the timing of the conference, essentially trapped, between a rock and a hard place: just before President Obama’s historic visit to Israel, in which AIPAC is not a main actor, and immediately after the bruising and divisive battle over Chuck Hagel’s appointment as Secretary of Defense, from which the lobby tried to stay way.
The upcoming presidential visit moves the spotlight on U.S.-Israeli relations from the conference plenum in Washington, often the venue for pivotal presidential addresses, to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, where Obama will hold critical talks with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and to the potentially historic addresses he is expected to make in the Knesset and elsewhere. Vice President Joe Biden, who is the Administration’s keynote speaker at the convention - and who may very well be the best liked and most trusted senior figure in the new Administration, - will be warmly greeted and respectfully heard, but he is not expected to break new ground or to steal the president’s thunder (unless he pulls a Biden).
And while AIPAC wisely steered clear of the Hagel brouhaha, it may not be immune to its fallout or its myriad ramifications. Israel supporters, Washington insiders and Middle East aficionados may differentiate between the various lobbying and advocacy groups that purport to speak in Israel’s name, but the lasting impression created by the battle, J-Street protests notwithstanding, is that the “pro-Israeli community” fought tooth and nail to block the nomination, and lost. AIPAC’s stature, prestige and ability to “intimidate” lawmakers, as Hagel once put it, could potentially be part of the collateral damage.
By stepping to the sidelines, as it should have, AIPAC created a vacuum that allowed other players, such as the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Emergency Committee for Israel, to wage “the good fight”, as they called it, for a cause with which many Jews probably identified, rightly or wrongly. Usually lambasted by the left for its perceived bend to the right, AIPAC is now being criticized from the right for having abandoned a battle that may have turned out differently, it is claimed, had the lobby thrown its hat in the ring.
Unlike the wild and sometimes wacky campaigns waged by billionaire-financed right wing organizations whose not-so-hidden agenda is to bring American Jews to vote for the Republican Party, AIPAC’s effectiveness depends on its ability to work with both parties and to project an image of responsibility, professionalism and sound judgment. But in a political world and a media circus increasingly marked by radicalization, polarization and vulgarization, AIPAC may soon face the same challenges that threaten sensible politicians and sober pundits who must struggle to stay relevant and to get their voices heard, before they go the way of the dodo.
The task becomes doubly difficult when hyper-partisan Republican or conservative organizations such as ECI and RCJ seem to echoing the true sentiments of the current Israeli powers that be. And there is perhaps more than a lingering sense of unease at the vicious campaign that these groups – widely perceived to have been aided and abetted by Prime Minister Netanyahu - conducted during last summer’s presidential campaign: it may not have yielded many Jewish votes but may have created reservoirs of bitterness and wariness towards the overall “pro-Israel community” throughout the Administration and the Democratic Party.
Which brings us to the truly unique and in many way unprecedented political logjam that is currently plaguing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s efforts to set up a new governing coalition. Although it still seems almost certain that Netanyahu will ultimately succeed in setting up a new government before his March 16 constitutional deadline - and thus be ready be ready four days later to greet the president at Ben Gurion Airport - it is far from clear what kind of government he will have and what positions it will take on many issues that are of primary concern to AIPAC, from Iran, through the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and all the way to Israel’s troubled relations with non-Orthodox groups, to which the great majority of AIPAC members belong.
The new realities created by Yair Lapid’s stunning success in the January elections and by his subsequent axis with Naftali Bennet’s Habayit Hayehudi - for which the term “strange bedfellows” seems far too feeble - have confounded not only foreign diplomats and observers but veteran Israeli pundits and politicians as well. Thus, the traditional AIPAC forums devoted to expounding the policies and viewpoints of the Israeli government of the day are bound to be no more than collective exercises in futility, speculation and groping in the dark.
Similarly the situation in many Arab countries, including Egypt, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian territories – is so complex that even the Israeli government finds it hard to adopt a coherent policy. And even on Iran, on which Israel and its supporters are united in their demand for a stronger US policy, it is a delicate tightrope that one needs to walk lest Jerusalem and its supporters be perceived as pushing America to a war it does not wish to conduct, at this point at least.
So what is left for the thousands of delegates to do? To pursue what was, after all, their main objective in coming to the Washington conference in the first place: meet friends, schmooze with bigwigs, kvell at the always impressive demonstration of American political support, draw inspiration from the force of their numbers and the strength of their common purpose and, of course, express their genuine love and support for Israel. And try to ignore the dark skies above, the murky road ahead and the ground that may be shifting under their feet.
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