After Iran Sanctions Debacle, AIPAC Conference Looks to Netanyahu as Consoler and Cheerleader

PM and delegates of pro-Israel lobby see completely eye to eye on most issues: they would probably have him as their leader while he would gladly exchange them for his hostile Likud Central Committee.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Prime Minister Netanyahu always receives an exceptionally warm welcome at AIPAC gatherings, but this year might be something special, even by his own high standards. Netanyahu is popular among AIPAC members, possibly more than ever, but that won’t be the main reason for the loud cheers and enthusiastic applause that will greet him at next week’s Policy Conference in Washington: the noise will also be meant to drown out a growing sense of discomfort, a creeping crisis of confidence, a fear of an approaching age of uncertainty.

Whistling in the dark, it’s called, or, in another version: whistling past the graveyard.

The special effects and the décor will be impressive as always, of course, as befits the Jewish world’s most impressive annual gathering. There will be senior figures from the Administration and Congress, ministers and politicians arriving in droves from Jerusalem, outstanding displays of Israeli ingenuity and start-up nationhood, a top notch professional production and 14,000 delegates with love of Israel in their mouths and in their hearts. A steady stream of conviction and confidence, verve and gusto, energy and devotion will emanate from the podium while everyone tries to ignore the earth that seems to be moving underneath and the stench of failure hanging in the air.

Though AIPAC remains strong and influential, a combination of unique factors have created the backdrop for what seems to be a sense of looming crisis. The lobby has always been viewed on the liberal left as an instrument of the rigid right, but now it is also coming under attack from the hawkish right for being “soft” and indecisive. It is caught in the ongoing internal contradictions between an administration that most Jews voted for but which nonetheless elicits constant suspicion. And it is dealing with a Jewish community that is increasingly concerned about boycott barbarians at the gate, is incapable of regulating its own internal debate and is finding it harder and harder to conceal an evolving internal schism concerning Israel and its policies.

AIPAC, understandably, cannot discern in which direction the wind is blowing in Jerusalem concerning Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to achieve a breakthrough with the Palestinians, but it also failed to read the map in Washington when it decided last year, much to the chagrin of its Republican allies, to support a military attack in Syria which Congress opposed and the Administration soon abandoned. And all of these pitfalls and setbacks are dwarfed by what currently seems to be the epic failure in the battle against the interim nuclear agreement with Iran and the now-stalled additional sanctions bill.

In an article published this week in the New York Times, AIPAC Chairman Lee Rosenberg and President Michael Kassen reaffirmed their commitment to the bill, which only a few days earlier they had opted to postpone. The content of the article didn’t make too much waves – a worrying symptom in and of itself – but the language it used raised more than a few eyebrows among American Jewish leaders. After consistently denying that they were the initiators of the Senate bill, AIPAC was suddenly using a presumptuous and imperial “we”, as if they were talking on behalf of the United States itself, while placing itself on center stage: “The approach we outline,” Rosenberg and Kassen wrote, “our message to Tehran should be” “the President should” this and “Congress should” that.

“It’s a clear signal of distress”, one perturbed Jewish official told me.

After all, no one is happy with AIPAC’s performance in the Iran sanctions debate: not the Republicans, who now accuse the lobby of folding too quickly, not the Democratic senators who fought for the bill and now complain that they were left stranded on the battlefield, and certainly not the White House which accused the bill’s supporters of warmongering while suspecting AIPAC of political collusion with President Obama’s rivals and enemies. The Prime Minister’s Office was disappointed, AIPAC’s hawkish donors were incensed, the organization’s dedicated rank and file know that something is amiss and only the lobby’s critics - of which a sizeable portion are genuine haters of Jews and Israel – have reasons to rejoice.

The failures, follies and repeated zigzags of recent months have damaged some of AIPAC’s strategic assets, including its power of deterrence, its image as a successful political player for whom failure is not an option and its claim to be a completely bipartisan actor. Republicans have become the lobby’s natural allies on everything that is Israel and the Middle East, but their far out positions on many social issues continue to serve as a barrier to most American Jews. Democratic lawmakers, on the other hand, continue to support Israel and to enlist in AIPAC’s causes, but no one is ignoring the arctic winds blowing on the liberal left that will inevitably cool the Democratic establishment’s relations with Israel as well.

When he addresses the conference on Tuesday, Netanyahu will be cast as part consoler, part savior and a bit of a father figure as well. Of all the Israeli or American politicians in office or on the horizon, it is Netanyahu that AIPAC delegates feel most comfortable with – and the feeling is entirely mutual. AIPAC is Netanyahu’s dream team, the embodiment of his own self-image - well-heeled, well-to-do, well behaved, ethnocentric and English-speaking - the kind of Likud Central Committee that the prime minister can only fantasize about, instead of the legions of coarse and extreme politicians that he has to contend with at home.

His positions, after all, are their positions: militant suspicion of Iran, theoretical support for a two-state solution coupled with complete distrust of the Palestinian partner, a complex love-hate, respect and suspect relationship with the Obama administration - all wrapped in a world view of constant danger, threat and siege.

Netanyahu will come to the conference 24 hours after his White House meeting with the President, which may be difficult and tense because of the sharp disagreements between the two leaders over Iran and the President’s renewed motivation, according to the New York Times, to personally intervene in the negotiations with the Palestinians. The AIPAC delegates will want to support Netanyahu’s and bolster his resolve, as always, but this time they are expecting something in return: they want him to comfort them, to persuade them that business is as usual, to cast out the doubt and to instill renewed passion.

“They will want him to be their cheerleader”, one worried Jewish official said. He’s concerned that the combination of the crowd’s expectations and Netanyahu’s possible frustrations may lead him, not for the first time, to mistake AIPAC for America. He might then make a militant speech that momentarily rallies the troops but also inflames tensions with the Administration, thus driving the lobby even further into the corner that it has managed to push itself. “Maybe you should write something,” he suggested.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at past AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom GPO

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