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AIPAC opens

The annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington, D.C., opened this morning. Many delegates here at the convention center seem particularly anxious and shaken. There is a reason why the largest number of attendees in AIPAC history (14,000-plus) have shown up. While some might not see the connection between current events in Ukraine and Israel, savvier foreign policy observers know there is one. The problem quite simply is that you cannot be for a strong Israel and not be for a strong America; but America is weak and less reliable than at any time in the past 35 years. Russia threatens Ukraine, Iran threatens Israel and the West, and the U.S. president is AWOL.

Elliott Abrams, a frequent panelist at these gatherings, writes:

The administration’s argument against the proposed Iran sanctions legislation should be reconsidered in the light of today’s news. The Iranians across the negotiating table from us are following Ukraine closely, and judging our country’s willingness to resist when international law is violated–as Putin is violating it today and Iran has been violating it for years. This would be a very good time for Congress to pass the Menendez-Kirk legislation, promising more sanctions if Iran violates pledges it has made and moves toward a bomb. One lesson of events in Ukraine is that relying on the good will of repressive, anti-American regimes is foolish and dangerous. Another is that American strength and strength of will are weakened at the peril of the United States and our friends everywhere.

The morning’s activities began with outgoing AIPAC President Michael Kassen, whose pleas for bipartisanship sound oddly out of place, an echo of a past era. Plainly, the biggest problem facing the Israel-U.S. relationship is a Democratic president unwilling or unable to effectively respond to the countries’ shared enemies and a Democratic Senate unwilling to cross him. (A reference to Kassen’s predecessor, Lee Rosenberg, reminds us that he was one of President Obama’s big cheerleaders and fundraisers. One wonders if he is finally experiencing buyer’s remorse.)

The highlight of the morning, however, was a forceful speech from AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr. After much confusion about whether the group has given up on Iran sanctions, Kohr made clear that AIPAC supports the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act.  “We support continued pressure during these negotiations,” he said. Again and again he returned to the theme that the radical Islamists in Iran will give up their nuclear ambitions if they are forced to do so. And he brushed off the notion that there are “moderates” in Iran whom we need to empower, calling it a “myth.” He chided those who have succumbed to the “Iranian charm offensive.”

The contradiction at the heart of Kohr’s speech and AIPAC’s position is two-fold. First, Kohr makes the convincing case that relaxing sanctions will doom a deal, but that is precisely what we have done. Moreover, the White House is adamantly opposed to sanctions, apparently under the very misconceptions about the regime that he decried. Given that, AIPAC’s refusal to address the root of the problem — not Congress, but the White House — suggests lobbying the Hill, as AIPAC will do on Tuesday, is of limited utility. Second, AIPAC does not have an effective strategy for pressuring Democrats to act on sanctions. AIPAC may be devoted to bipartisanship, but the Senate Democrats are devoted to the White House. Perhaps it is time to make Iran a campaign issue so as to obtain a Senate majority that will vote on sanctions.

These are troubled times for Israel and AIPAC. While the latter’s heart is in the right place, it lacks at this point the will and game plan to shift from bipartisan supporter of  Israel to bare-knuckle fighters in defense of U.S. and Israeli security. AIPAC is a fish out of water in the stormy seas of the Obama administration.