U.S., Israeli Administrations Hear Each Other Out at Aipac Conference

New Analysis

By Ron Kampeas (JTA)

Published May 06, 2009.
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“This relationship matters to me,” one partner says.

“Show me,” says the other.

Such conversations, as any couple can attest, usually don’t augur the happiest of chats.

If this year’s AIPAC policy conference stopped well short of a full-blown spat between the pro-Israel lobby and the Obama administration, it was because each side was listening to the other: Obama officials listened to Israeli fears about the Iranian nuclear threat, and AIPAC and Israel’s prime minister listened to the U.S. administration’s insistence on the inevitability of Palestinian statehood.

“Relationships matter” was the motto of this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, heralded throughout the cavernous Washington Convention Center with billowing banners depicting Israeli and American leaders embracing.

Notably, the shot of President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smiling tightly and locked in a stiff handshake was consigned to the center’s shadowy corners.

The rejoinder, “Show me,” was Vice President Joe Biden’s plea to Israel to facilitate peacemaking through a settlement freeze.

“This is a ‘Show me’ deal,” he said Tuesday, referring also to U.S. demands that the Palestinians quell violence and that neighboring Arab nations support the peace process.

“Israel must work toward a two-state solution,” Biden told the conference on its last day, alluding to Netanyahu’s reluctance to utter the “two-state” phrase. Israel must “not build settlements, dismantle outposts and allow Palestinians freedom of movement, access to economic opportunity and increased security responsibilities.”

Biden prefaced his remark by warning delegates, “You won’t like this, but …”

Yet in a sign of the AIPAC crowd’s proclivities, Biden’s call for a settlement freeze earned measured applause. In fact, as the 7,000 delegates headed for Capitol Hill for a lobbying blitz on Tuesday, one priority was to get members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate to sign letters to Obama encouraging steps toward a “viable Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.”

The letters also back funding for training Palestinian security services – a hard sell among pro-Israel groups and in Washington as recently as two years ago.

To be sure, the letters also bore skepticism about Palestinian intentions, which has been a hallmark of AIPAC’s approach for decades: The House letter called for an “absolute Palestinian commitment to end violence, terror and incitement.”

There was also a “Don’t shout, the neighbors are going to hear” sort of plea: “The proven best way forward is to work closely and privately together both on areas of agreement and especially on areas of disagreement,” said the House letter, initiated by two House leaders and pro-Israel stalwarts, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the majority leader, and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip.

AIPAC’s readiness to deal did not occur in a vacuum. Netanyahu, in a satellite message delivered Monday, backed away from his earlier suggestions that he wanted to focus at first on Palestinian economic development and to place talk of statehood on the back burner.

“We are prepared to resume negotiations without any preconditions,” Netanyahu said, describing a “triple-track” approach covering political, security and economic considerations. While he did not make it explicit, “political” talks necessarily would encompass discussions of statehood.

The pledge helped clear the way for Netanyahu to meet with Obama around May 18. The Israeli prime minister originally was to have appeared live at the AIPAC conference, but those plans were scrapped in part because the American and Israeli sides were still working out a way to discuss the two-state issue.

In another concession, Netanyahu repeated Israel’s demand that Palestinians should recognize Israel’s Jewish character, but said that could be part of a “final peace settlement” and was not a precondition.

The Obama administration, too, showed some flexibility. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman who has emerged as an Obama administration proxy on Middle East issues, threw in an unscripted “non-militarized” when he called for Palestinian statehood; a demilitarized Palestinian entity is on Netanyahu’s wish list of final-status conditions.

More substantially, the speeches by Biden and other leading Democrats emphasized Obama’s determination to couple his recent outreach to Iran with tough threats of isolation if it does not end its suspected nuclear weapons program.

“We will approach Iran initially in the spirit of respect,” Biden said, but should Iran not meet U.N. requirements to stop enriching uranium, it would face international isolation “in which nothing is taken off the table” – an allusion to the military option Israel insists on keeping on the table.

Kerry said confronting Iran’s expansionist ambitions was a cornerstone of the new administration’s strategy, describing three noes that unite Israel, its Arab neighbors and the United States: “No Iranian meddling, no Iranian dominance and above all, no Iranian nukes.”

That would allow Obama to impose tough sanctions on third parties that deal with Iran’s energy sector. Obama has yet to announce his sanctions strategy, and it’s not clear whether he supports proposed bills with far-reaching measures that would cut off U.S. markets to any entity that trades gasoline with Iran.

It was significant, then, that Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a mentor to the president, told the AIPAC conference he was signing on as a co-sponsor to the Senate sanctions bill.

In the House, where AIPAC exercises its strongest influence, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has said that he will use his prerogative to keep the sanctions bill on hold – for now. Hoyer said the Obama administration did not have a blank check.

“The administration is pursuing efforts to change behavior,” he said, referring to the bill. “We want to make sure that Iran is not misled that talk is a signal that action will not be taken.”

Biden and other Democrats gently prodded AIPAC with reminders that its eight-year lockstep love affair with the Bush administration was over.

“The path we have been on in recent years will not result in security and prosperity for Israelis or Palestinians,” Biden said.

There seemed to be some nostalgia at the conference for the Bush era, during which many felt the White House was an uncritical friend of Israel.

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and a possible Republican candidate for president in 2012, earned huge applause when he called for regime change in Iran – a major Obama administration no-no – as well as for military strikes to take out Iran’s missiles.

Gingrich also heard cheers when he said that because “the leading funder of Sunni extremism on the planet is Saudi Arabia,” that “rather than bow to the king, we need a national energy policy to liberate the United States.” It was a reference to right-wing bloggers who claim that Obama bowed when he met Saudi King Abdullah recently; the White House says the president was bending over to shake the king’s hand.

Whatever the political preference of AIPAC’s grass-roots, the organization’s leadership understood that there was a new game in town.

The board announced that a Chicago-based businessman who has become close to Obama, Lee “Rosie” Rosenberg, would be its president-elect. Another Obama funder who recently became the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Alan Solow, appealed to the crowd to embrace a vision of Israel that “can live in peace with its neighbors.”

And appearing in Netanyahu’s stead, Israeli President Shimon Peres cast a poetic sheen on Obama’s election.

“A tsunami of hope is rolling across the globe; its center is right here in America,” Peres said. “Six months ago you elected a new president of the United States. President Barack Obama assumed his duties in a period of deep crises in the world. I am convinced he has the capacity to turn the crises into opportunity.”

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