AIPAC’s annual policy conference is set up to be the great show of Israel-U.S. reconciliation after a couple of tense weeks following the announcement of new building plans in East Jerusalem during Vice President Biden’s trip to the region.
This goal is expected to be achieved not only by having the two key protagonists of the Israel-American drama — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — show up in person and speak to AIPAC delegates on Monday. It will also be reiterated in the letters AIPAC members will ask, in their Tuesday lobbying meetings, members of Congress to send to Clinton.
“We write to urge you to do everything possible to ensure that the recent tensions between the U.S. and Israeli administrations over the untimely announcement of future housing construction in East Jerusalem do not derail Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations or harm U.S-Israel relations,” the Senate letter reads. It ends with an acknowledment that Israel and the U.S. might not always agree on all issues but that “such differences are best resolved amicably and in a manner that befits longstanding strategic allies.” Key sponsors of the Senate letter are California Democrat Barbara Boxer and Georgia’s Republican Johnnie Isakson.
The House version, co-sponsored by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Republican Whip Eric Cantor and several other congressional leaders from both parties, carries a similar tone and even goes further in stating that members of Congress are “reassured that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s commitment to put in place new procedures will ensure that such surprises, however unintended, will not reoccur.”
The combination of Netanyahu’s new assurances provided to the administration via special envoy George Mitchell, along with expected conciliatory speeches by Clinton and Netanyahu and the congressional letters, should be enough to declare the dispute over. This should also make Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama, scheduled for Tuesday, much more pleasant.
But all is not necessarily forgotten. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, is still trying to deal with the fallout of his remarks, which he claims were misquoted, stating that U.S.-Israel relations reached their lowest point in 35 years. Oren, under strict orders from Jerusalem, has refused to have any contact with the Israeli press since the quotes were published in two leading Israeli papers. This proved to be somewhat difficult when Oren came to speak at the AIPAC conference, with news reporters surrounding him. Organizers had changed Oren’s scheduled speech in the opening plenary session to a closed-door conversation with a group of rabbis, but still he was forced to walk silently in the long hallways of the Convention Center while reporters blasted him with questions, hoping for a sound bite.
Critics of the current administration are among those who also do not see this dispute ending quickly. Speaking in a breakout session to a room filled to capacity with AIPAC delegates, former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams said the shift in U.S. policy toward Israel is the most significant change the region has seen in years. Abrams argued that the Obama administration’s pressure on Israel has pushed all other players to take a tougher approach toward the Jewish state, including not only Israel’s Palestinian counterparts but also the European Union.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.