Culture, Global, Israel, Politics

So What Happened at AIPAC?

Dr. David Albert, PhD, teaches Political Science in Austin, TX at Huston-Tillotson University, Austin Community College, and University of Texas – Extension Division.
Bibi Netanyahu (courtesy of the Washington Post)The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held their annual Policy Conference in DC this week with 6000 delegates and a plethora of political figures. They are sailing in somewhat rougher political waters than they were last year when all three Presidential candidates – Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain – and all four Congressional leaders (Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, and John Boehner) spoke at their Conference. They face a new President, Barack Obama, who has said he is committed to achieving a two-state solution (and won overwhelming support from American Jews in the Presidential election) and a new Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who is squarely against a two-state solution.
So what did AIPAC do? They did what they always do; they tried to separate – in my dissertation I call this process “compartmentalizing” – the US-Israel “special relationship” from the peace process. They put forth the case that their “special relationship” between Israel and the United States is permanently derivative of shared strategic interests and cultural values. They argue that U.S. and Israeli interests are synonymous. They put forth a political argument to the Congress and the new President that the “special relationship” does not depend on the peace process, but rather that it transcends the peace process. They argued that the U.S.-Israel alliance should remain central to U.S. Middle East policy regardless of whether or not Israel actively seeks to advance it.
The centerpiece of this strategy is the threat to Iran. The argument placed front and center is that Iran is the central threat to both U.S. and Israeli interests which must be confronted. They exaggerate the real and genuine threat that Iran poses, because it is a lever of shared interest for binding together the “special relationship” in the same way that the Cold War once was. The potential for Iran gaining nuclear weapons must be ended by diplomacy, if possible, but they would prefer to do so through military force as soon as possible. Although, in a sense, they’d rather have the threat continue unabated, because it glues the relationship together. While AIPAC is circulating a letter in Congress in support of a two-state solution – with a lot of “ifs”, “buts”, and “maybes” – AIPAC’s – and Bibi Netanyahu’s – central argument is that the peace process can only be addressed once the Iranian threat is extinguished.
And the dirty little secret is that that the Iranian threat – which is a real, if limited one – will never truly be extinguished. If Iran ceased to exist tomorrow, a new boogey man would quickly be invented. The fear mongering is pervasive and the next Holocaust remains the ever-present threat to Israel’s survival. If you listen to Newt Gingrich’s speech you hear him comparing Iran to the NAZIS and the Soviet Union with warmed over Bush/Cheney rhetoric of the late Dr. Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.” They implicitly argue that as long as there is an Iranian threat, the two-state solution must remain on the backburner. In its place, Bibi suggests rather tepid proposals for Palestinian institution-building and economic development that will do almost nothing to advance the peace process.
So how did AIPAC do? The answer came Tuesday morning from Vice-President Joe Biden who delivered a mixed message on behalf of President Obama. He stated as every speaker does that the American commitment to Israel is absolute, unshakeable, unconditional and non-negotiable. He even called Israel “our most treasured ally.” In other words, whether Israel advances the peace process or not, the United States stands by Israel. He accepted at least rhetorically that the “special relationship” is above the peace process. He went on to talk about his personal commitment to Israel dating back to his meeting with Golda Meir in the early 1970s. He made clear that both he and President Obama are personally committed as Christians to the survival of Israel. By personalizing the relationship with Israel Biden was reinforcing that the commitment to Israel is a cultural one going beyond simple strategic interests.
About half-way through the speech, the Vice-President Biden finally got specific. He affirmed AIPAC’s position that the Iranian threat must be addressed diplomatically and militarily, if necessary. But here’s the rub. AIPAC and Bibi Netanyahu seek a U.S. policy of Iran first and only MINUS the two-state peace process. Biden didn’t give them that. Biden argued that the resolution to the conflict must remain a primary focus as a means of containing Iran and blunting its influence. Implicitly, he argued that a coalition with the Arab states against the shared threat of Iran will be much stronger in the context of an active, engaged peace process. He went on to discuss the appointment of George Mitchell as a Presidential envoy, a two-state solution, the Road Map, and the Annapolis Peace Conference. While he also called for the standard litany of positive efforts by the Arab states and the Palestinians, his demands were not completely one-sided. He challenged Israel to freeze settlements, dismantle outposts (which he called “outposts” not “illegal outposts”) and to allow the Palestinians more freedom of movement and access to economic opportunities (presumably by ending the siege of Gaza). He also asserted that U.S. will continue to aid the Palestinians in Gaza and pursue the Syrian peace track. In other words, he gave them a U.S. policy of Iran PLUS the two-state peace process.
So did AIPAC succeed in bullying the administration to do what it wants? Well, at this stage it is too early to tell and, of course, ultimately, actions will speak louder than words. We will learn more in the coming months as Obama meets with Bibi and makes his first trip to Israel. But the administration hasn’t blinked – at least not yet. It gave AIPAC some reassurances on Iran, but it didn’t back down on its insistence for progress towards a two-state solution. The administration didn’t give sacrifice their peace-making agenda at the altar of AIPAC. The Obama administration let AIPAC know that unlike the Bush administration they will not automatically give in to the policy agenda of the Israeli government.
So some very real questions remain. How much pressure is President Obama willing to apply on Bibi on the peace process? Is Bibi really an immovable roadblock on the road to peace as he how seems? And if he does resist President Obama how long will his government last before Israelis reject his intransigence and the damaging that will have on the vital U.S.-Israel alliance? What sort of resistance to President Obama will AIPAC put up via Congress and the mainstream Jewish community? Are the emerging “pro-peace, pro-Israel” voices in the Jewish community – Brit Tzedek v’ Shalom and J Street – ready to provide a counterbalance to AIPAC? The only thing that is certain is that we are entering a new and phase of the U.S.-Israel alliance. How different this administration will be from the last one remains to be seen. I remain highly skeptical that this Israeli government will ever agree to a viable two-state solution, but I very much hope that I will be proved wrong on that point.

21 thoughts on “So What Happened at AIPAC?

  1. I just wrote to my congressman and told him to have some backbone and stand up to AIPAC
    When half the Congressmen show up at a pro israeli lobby dinner and have to stand up for a “roll call” of support for whatever the current Israeli policy you know who is the puppet and who is pullng the strings.
    If America has to beg Israel for permission everytime it wants to breath, we should just pay our taxes to Israel instead of the US government
    I for one and tired of the extremist in Israel and Palestine running the show. They’ve had 60 years to settle their differences and they are not a step closer to a peaceful solution. Their methods have failed for the past 60 years.
    Time for new solutions

  2. Uzi, That is one of those questions where the answer is yes and no. Generally, AIPAC focuses its fire power on Congress while the Conference of Presidents is responsible for the Executive Branch, but that’s sort of a deceptive distinction. AIPAC uses its lobbying of Congress to pressure the Executive Branch. For example, they often circulate Congressional letters signed by members of Congress to be sent to the President or Secretary of State. So they are lobbying Congress to lobby the Executive Branch decision-makers who actually make the key foreign policy decisions. They may press for hearings where their Congressional allies will grill members of the Executive Branch. In our system of checks and balances, lobbying Congress and lobbying the Executive Branch are closely interrelated activities.

  3. Thanks to Norri — hells yeah. Living in Israel under Israeli politicians is like living permanently under Bush and Cheneys for 30 years. (One breif exception, until he was killed.)
    From BTShalom:
    Call your Senators and Representatives to support Obama’s aid money to Palestinians, his approach to engaging with a possible unity government and his efforts to engage diplomatically with Iran.

  4. If America has to beg Israel for permission everytime it wants to breath
    When is America begging Israel for anything? Israel is the one begging!
    I for one and tired of the extremist in Israel and Palestine running the show. Time for new solutions
    So your solution is to sell the Jews out to Arabs extremists? Thanks, but no thanks. Take your tax money and stuff it.

  5. *Sigh* Firouz, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t demand U.S. tax money claiming an existential threat, then tell them to stuff it when they use that leverage to mold your policy in ways you don’t like.
    Listen to the extreme right wing of your faction. They don’t want to be pushed around by foreigners, because Israel can stand up for itself. And they’re right.

  6. B.BarNavi,
    I am not demanding US tax money. I think it serves America’s interests to equip Israel as a regional military power, for purely strategic reasons we’ve discussed before – keeping Egypt and Jordan loyal to the US, containing Syria, etc. (not to mention US military-industrial policy). That said, this money is no longer vital to Israeli security, and is certainly not sufficient to be referring to Israel as a “vassal state”.
    Glenn Reynolds had it exactly right today:
    If I were the Israelis, I’d go rogue. You’re obviously better off being a problem to be placated, a la Iran or North Korea, than an ally, which just gets you jerked around.
    The Palestinians do not serve a strategic role in the region – they are a destabilizing tactical problem for several states, including Israel. Obama could very well accomplish everything he needs to without pressuring Israel to do a thing and letting Bibi unveil the “economic peace”/”limited sovereignty”, which would serve all regional actors, and even the Palestinians themselves.
    But no, Obama is specifically pushing Israel to prove he can and trying to leverage the atmospherics. Those atmospherics won’t help him to deal with Iran. They won’t help him to coral Arab states, who are already under America’s banner. He is doing it just because he can, and because there are those in his administration (and on this blog) who think its just fine that the Jews get a spanking.
    Well, it’s not fine. What Obama is doing is reckless, irresponsible, and it endangers Jewish and non-Jewish life in the Levant.
    As things stand, the emerging Obama policy towards Israel is unacceptable. While some here are gleeful that Israel is being put in it’s place as a rightful “vassal state”, or still flying high on a “Obama the Messiah” complex, the majority of Jews in America and the world are plain stunned. They don’t understand if this is just theatrics or actual policy, and they don’t want to jump the gun and oppose a popular Obama before they know for certain.
    If this is policy, the pushback will come. The Middle East is a graveyard for hope and change, and events overtake policy as a matter of routine. You’ll remember that Sharon was the first world leader to say “no” to Bush after 9/11, and that presidency ended up being the most pro-Israel in history.

  7. containing Syria
    Thank God, thank God, thank God Israel has no treaty with the Assad regime. I was just thinking that today, while watching everything that’s going on in Egypt. Perhaps the Western world will finally wake up and admit that the way to solving the problems in the Arab world is not to turn “bad” dictators into “moderate” dictators. That’s just a recipe for extremism and hopelessness.

  8. But Israel does have a treaty with the dictatorships in Egypt and Jordan. Are you saying it shouldn’t have made those treaties because those countries are non-democratic? Do we want Arab countries to be democracies? Would Islamist democracies preserve peace, or rile the mob for war against the Jews? Is this really about political freedom, or merely poverty? If Egypt remained a dictatorship but with 10% yearly economic development, on the scale of China, would there be riots in the streets?
    Benjamin Kirstein has a good article up about watching Egypt from Israel.

  9. Are you saying it shouldn’t have made those treaties because those countries are non-democratic?
    I’m saying that the Egyptian treaty worked out well, given the time and place in which it was signed–it really worked out well, but 1979 is a completely different global situation than today.
    The Jordanian treaty simply codified an arrangement which already existed for decades, so, in contrast, it really wasn’t that important of a deal.
    But, on the other hand, the problems in the Arab world are numerous, and the West is deluding itself into thinking that the answer is to empower more “moderate” dictators. Syria is a case in point. Israel shouldn’t make a deal with Syria, even if Israel could keep the Golan under a deal. Why perpetuate these problems, and turn another “bad-guy” dictator into a “moderate” dictator?
    Would Islamist democracies preserve peace, or rile the mob for war against the Jews?
    Frankly, I think it’s better to have Islamic takeovers–in the long-fun. At least that way the people in countries such as Iran see what their choices are, and know who to blame for their problems. On the other hand, if we were a man on the streets of Cairo, how much would we hate the American hypocrisy regarding our “moderate” dictator.
    It’s a long-term recipe for disaster.
    Is this really about political freedom, or merely poverty?
    It seems to be both, and the two issues seem to be interconnected.

  10. I also agree that the Egyptian treaty made sense at the time. There are no good options. Support moderate autocrats and you oppress millions of Arabs. Support democratic reforms and you empower Islamists who may attempt to kill you and your family.
    Will an Egypt more Islamist-governed than it is now help limit arms trafficking to Gaza? What will Israel do if rockets are fired from Sinai, or if weapons are transferred to Hamas?
    We live in a time when we’re not supposed to be against people, merely against governments, but what if “the people” really are our enemies? Maybe Egypt will become like Iraq, internally fractured, too focused on its own concerns to bother anyone else. But if it doesn’t… 80 million people. Factories for manufacturing American M1A1 tanks, and hundreds in service. 300 F-16s.
    As for the peace advocates, you should be worried the most of anyone. All Israeli land concessions have been predicated on a secure southern border. If Egypt goes hostile, all those cute, pie in the sky notions of a peaceful Palestinian state bordering Israel’s population centers get very stale, quickly.

  11. Which begs the question, Jonathan1, continuing a discussion we’ve had for years, now. Imagine a reasonable peace treaty was struck in 2008, or even in 2000. The consider the scenario we’re facing now, with Egypt, then maybe Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon, every Syria being run over by Islamist governments.
    Even if a Palestinian government really wanted peace with Israel, if the Arabs of the region wanted war against the Jews, could the Palestinians resist being dragged into it?
    The reason I bring this up… You and I have talked before about how neither of us expects the Palestinians to want real peace, but that Israel should withdraw behind the Green line anyway, because from there it will be easier to defend the country politically, and deal with the Palestinians in reprisal attacks. This was premised on the notion that a Palestinian state couldn’t really do any real damage – launch mortars or rockets at Tel Aviv, or send a homicide bomber or two. Painful, but manageable.
    What if a Palestinian state plays host to 30,000 Jordanian troops? Does that change your calculations?

  12. What if a Palestinian state plays host to 30,000 Jordanian troops? Does that change your calculations?
    On the one hand, Israel has committed many grave human rights abuses in Gaza and the West Bank since 1967, and that is certainly something that bothers me, because it’s terrible for the human beings who live in Gaza and the West Bank, and because it’s messed up Israeli society in certain ways.
    The best way forward seems to be partition–to me.
    But, if you think I’m going to sit here and tell you there won’t be HUGE security risks in partition, I won’t.
    I just think the benefits of partition outweigh the costs.

  13. I much prefer Victor’s inexact use of “begs the question” to the complete, rampant misunderstanding of the word “random.”

  14. Count me as a supporter of x Jordanian/Egyptian/Iraqi/Saudi/American troops in the West Bank and Gaza, where x = a number large enough that no Israeli general will even think of crossing the border (Green Line + mods), via land, air or sea with armed troops.
    Ditto for the Golan.
    Strategic Parity is the recipe for peace. Qualitative Military Edge is the recipe for endless war.

  15. Parity is all good and well, JG, but 30,000 Jordanian troops in the WB under the command of an Islamist regime is not parity, but a disparity that begs war as remedy. Parity, in the case you suggest, would necessitate 30,000 Israeli troops on station fifteen miles from Amman.
    BZ, thank you.
    Jonathan1, the benefits of partition notwithstanding, if an aggressive Islamist regime takes hold in Egypt, and Israel is forced to return to the war-footing of the 50s and 60s, partition won’t happen.

  16. Count me as a supporter of x Jordanian/Egyptian/Iraqi/Saudi/American troops in the West Bank and Gaza, where x = a number large enough that no Israeli general will even think of crossing the border (Green Line + mods), via land, air or sea with armed troops.
    Ditto for the Golan.
    Strategic Parity is the recipe for peace. Qualitative Military Edge is the recipe for endless war.

    Of course. An open, flourishing Syria, and an open flourishing Arab world, is not the recipe for peace.
    What’s important is the dictator Assad having an army as strong as Israel’s at his disposal, with the Golan in his hands.

  17. Jonathan1, the benefits of partition notwithstanding, if an aggressive Islamist regime takes hold in Egypt, and Israel is forced to return to the war-footing of the 50s and 60s, partition won’t happen.
    And where will that leave us? Is this the kind of Israel about which we dreamed?

  18. Have you seen the miniseries John Adams? If you haven’t, I recommend it. There is a scene, with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in France, entertaining Parisian aristocracy in the hope of obtaining loans for the American war effort. I don’t remember quite how it all began, perhaps with one of the Frenchmen gaily belittling Adams for his lack of knowledge of music and art.
    He responds that his generation practices politics and war, so that the next generation can study science and mathematics, so that the generation after that can indulge music and art.
    Jordanians and Egyptians are rioting because they can’t afford bread. The Israel of your dreams is closer in fulfillment than you give it credit.

  19. @Victor:
    It’s just amazing to watch decades of Western arrogance unfold right in front of our eyes, in Egypt.
    I guess I am a neo-con at the end of the day, because I can’t see how this is so terrible. We’ve backed these awful “moderate” dictators throughout the Arab world–and we see the end result of that. And the only place where the oppressed millions can find expression for their anger is in the mosque, where they’ve been taught the most extreme form of Islam. And then these “moderate” dictators convince the West that they can’t open up their societies too much, because then the extremist Muslims will take over. (And also because their people are so enraged about Palestine–we see what a farce that is now.) It just can’t go on.
    Even if the Muslim Brotherhood were to take over for Mubarak, it’s still better in the long run, IMHO. That’s what happened in Iran a generation ago, and that society seems like it might be about to change for the better. And, even if not, then the West can at least be honest about championing human rights and open societies, instead of the charade that goes on now. Just like I’m guessing the everyday person on the street in Tehran doesn’t blame America for its problems, maybe that could happen in Cairo one day–instead of one US President after another rushing to gain counsel from the “moderate” Mubarak. It just can’t go on.

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