Something was off-kilter in Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 4 appearance before the annual Washington policy conference of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse.
After five years of raging that the Obama administration was too hard on Israel and too soft on Iran, the Israeli leader faced a record crowd of 14,000 activists ready to storm the barricades for him and told them that things were, well, pretty okay.
It was a startling message to deliver to the thousands of citizen-lobbyists from across the country, moments before they were to head to Capitol Hill for their annual day of hands-on lobbying: There’s not much for you to do.
Certainly, Israel faces grave challenges. Iran is to retain some nuclear enrichment capacity at the end of the current six-power negotiations. This leaves the threat of an Iranian bomb intact. Unfortunately, AIPAC had been forced a month earlier by fierce White House opposition to give up trying to legislate stiffer negotiating terms. The agenda the delegates were bringing to Congress was, as one staffer said in a briefing session, “just a letter” requesting tougher terms. No teeth, no drama.
Beyond that? Negotiations with the Palestinians sounded more hopeful than usual. The prime minister looked forward with almost Peres-like enthusiasm to a new Middle East as Arab states embraced Israel after a Palestinian peace deal. Israel is still threatened by boycott, divestment and sanctions, but this isn’t fundamentally a legislative issue, and therefore not on the agenda of a lobbying organization.
Something was missing, and folks noticed.
“It’s all fuzzy,” said Charles Jacobs of Boston, a pro-Israel militant who founded The David Project and now heads Americans for Peace and Tolerance. “There isn’t a specific thing that they’ve planted a flag around, that gives a strong sense of direction.”
It was a revelatory moment in what’s shaping up to be a period of wrenching transition, for Israel and AIPAC alike.