The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) began its annual policy conference this morning with an appearance by Israel’s ambassador, Michael Oren, and a panel with former Middle East adviser Dennis Ross and former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams. Both were interviewed by former CNN anchor Frank Sesno.
If the last few months in Washington have been divisive and partisan, AIPAC’s message (heavy-handed at times, on video, in speeches, on signage and in literature) was that support for AIPAC rises above party and that bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israeli relationship is essential. The problem, of course, is that this lovely sentiment is overshadowed by declining support for Israel by Democrats, an administration that appointed the most anti-Israel secretary of defense in history, and troubling anti-Semitism on college campuses.
But AIPAC is a glass-half-full affair, and it is trying to keep a sunny outlook.
If the U.S. electorate, politicians and administration were like Oren, Ross and Abrams there would be fewer worries. There was overwhelming agreement among all three of them during the two interview sessions: President Obama’s trip to Israel is a good thing; Iran is using talks to gain time to move forward on its nuclear program; and Israel is the only democratic, stable, pro-American country in the region. There were a few noteworthy moments.
First, Ross not once but twice said that Obama’s trip would be a “new beginning” for the relationship with Israel. That’s, as far as these things go, a rather blunt admission that the first term was unsuccessful. As Abrams put it, Obama requires “a delicate operation… called a kishkes transplant” to convince Israel that his words of support are heartfelt. Like Woody Allen said, 90 percent of life is showing up; all agreed the basic purpose of the trip was to signal solidarity between the two allies.
Second, there was skepticism about diplomacy and the efficacy of sanctions on Iran. Oren answered candidly “No” when asked if the diplomatic talks have gained anything. Ross conceded the “rope-a-dope” game has been successfully played for years by the Iranians, and Abrams said that Iran’s strategy is working perfectly. “Ours is not.” That leaves open the issue as to how the military option can be made more credible and whether military force is the only realistic alternative to a nuclear-armed Iran.
Third, the Arab Spring and events surrounding Israel have risen in importance, to a large degree subsuming the “peace process.” On Egypt, Abrams noted, the Muslim Brotherhood is acting as if it won “90 percent of the vote, not 51 percent.” Voicing the sentiment shared by many Middle East observers, he said, “I want the Muslim Brotherhood to fail. I don’t want Egypt to fail.”
And finally, none expressed much hope for the “peace process.” Oren, as he is obliged to do, said Israel is ready “to negotiate not tomorrow but today” a resolution of two countries for two pieces. The problem, of course, is that the Palestinian Authority is now in league with Hamas. Abrams worries that Hamas is infiltrating the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization and that Europe will weaken on its support for the Quartet Principles (Hamas must repudiate violence, recognize Israel’s right to exist and recognize past agreements), in essence negotiating with Hamas and pressuring Israel to do the same.
When you look behind Oren’s expressed gratitude for U.S. support for Israel and Ross’s and Abrams’s analyses of the region, one is left with only two bits of good news. First, as Oren pointed out, the Iron Dome is working well, answering critics of anti-missile defense systems. And second, Ross noted the United States and Israel share a common understanding as to how far along Iran’s nuclear program is. The rest — the failure of sanctions, the PA/Hamas partnership, the growth of Islamist extremism in the region, the concern about Syria’s weapons of mass destruction — is grim. Such is the world in which AIPAC, the United States and Israel must navigate.