Less overt controversy, more complex undercurrents
By Dr. David Novick
The 13,000 pro-Israel activists who attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. March 3-5 heard harmonious speeches at plenary sessions from Vice President Joe Biden, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and others.
But in the smaller break-out sessions and in informal conversations, the increased complexity and lack of easy solutions to many issues became apparent.
Lobbying Congress on the final day of the conference was, as always, one of the conference highlights, with a large Ohio delegation for our senators and a record-breaking Dayton group that met with our congressman, Mike Turner.
As in past years, encouraging Congress to approve the foreign aid bill, which contains critical military aid for Israel, was high on the lobbying agenda.
Biden emphasized the deep commitment of the United States to Israel’s security. “This has not changed and will not change,” he said. Regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Biden said that U.S. policy is to “prevent, not contain” Iran’s efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon.
“President Obama is not bluffing,” he said, to thunderous applause. He said that while the United States would prefer a diplomatic solution, all options, including military force, are on the table. Biden also spoke of the need for Europe and others to name Hezbollah as a terrorist entity, to support the opposition to Assad in Syria, and to remain engaged with Egypt’s government.
Netanyahu spoke to the group by satellite; he was in the process of forming a coalition government following the Israeli elections. In his speech, he stressed that Iran continues to defy the will of the international community, and that “diplomacy has not worked.”
Iran is continuing to enrich uranium and getting closer to the “red line” that Netanyahu graphically displayed at last year’s U.N. meetings. Israel, he said, knows the cost of being defenseless against those who wish to exterminate us, and that will never happen again.
Netanyahu spoke of the tragedy in Syria, in which more than 70,000 people have been killed, 100,000 wounded, and millions displaced. He expressed concern that terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas will use the instability in Syria to get their hands on chemical and other advanced weapons.
These groups, he said, “are like a pack of hyenas feeding off a carcass. And the carcass isn’t even dead yet.” He also spoke of his desire to seek peace with the Palestinians, but that such a peace must be grounded in reality. Israel has withdrawn twice, from Lebanon and Gaza, and got terror in return. Peace must not compromise security, he said.
Neither Biden nor Netanyahu mentioned settlements or specific negotiating positions on the Palestinian question, issues that had been quite contentious at previous AIPAC policy conferences.
One of the many undercurrents of uncertainty flows from that tragic civil war in Syria, which shows no signs of abating.
Secretary of State John Kerry had announced the week before the conference that the United States would send food and medical supplies to military groups opposing the Assad government.
Some felt that the United States should support the Syrian rebels more aggressively, while others pointed to our limited ability, despite long engagements, to effect changes in Iraq and Afghanistan as a reason to exercise caution. Obama appears to favor the latter approach.
Another area of concern is Egypt. Biden mentioned that the United States should be engaged with the government of Egypt, and that is the only way we can have influence. On March 3, Kerry announced $250 million in aid to Egypt, which faces serious economic problems.
But Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, and his Muslim Brotherhood party have pushed through a contested, Islamist-oriented constitution and worked to consolidate their own power at the expense of opposition groups.
While Morsi has maintained the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, he has tolerated a lawless Sinai Peninsula and made hostile statements about Israel and Jews. The way forward is far from clear.
A third controversy was the recent appointment of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary. As Hagel has been critical of pro-Israel lobbying groups such as AIPAC, some were surprised that AIPAC took no position on Hagel’s confirmation.
AIPAC is a bipartisan organization that includes liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans; it doesn’t support individual candidates for office, so that it can work with all.
More than 100 delegates met with Ohio’s two senators, Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman. We had eight delegates, including three students, in our meeting with Turner in his office on Capitol Hill. We had a good discussion, and the congressman posted a photo of himself with our group on his Facebook page with the following comment: “Great meeting with AIPAC representatives in my Washington, D.C. office today. We must now and forever continue to stand with Israel.”
Please consider attending next year’s policy conference, March 2-4, 2014. You won’t regret it.