AIPAC Policy Conference: A tale of two speeches
By Dr. David M. Novick
Both President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference 2011, which took place on May 22-24 in Washington, D.C. This was the largest AIPAC Policy Conference ever, with more than 10,000 delegates and 500-plus accredited journalists in attendance.
The program consisted of two days of seminars on all aspects of Middle East politics, and speeches from both Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders (AIPAC is non-partisan).
Also included were workshops on the three key legislative issues concerning Israel: 1) Passing the foreign aid bill, which contains critical military assistance for Israel; 2) Tightening sanctions on Iran, to prevent them from developing nuclear weapons; and 3) Congressional resolutions encouraging negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). These resolutions stipulate that if the PA forms a unity government with the terrorist group Hamas, as has been signed but not actually implemented, Israel would not be expected to negotiate with an entity calling for her destruction.
On the last day of the conference, thousands of delegates proceeded to Capitol Hill to lobby their U.S. Senators and Representatives on these issues.
The Ohio delegation of more than 125 people met with Senators Brown and Portman and was warmly received.
The Dayton delegation included my wife, Jane, and me, Ruth and Fred Scheuer, Tina Harry Kasimir, and Jack, Candace, and Dr. Kim Kwiatek. Fred celebrated his 86th birthday by lobbying for Israel. Tina is from Dayton, and although she no longer lives here, has a large extended family in the Greater Dayton area. We had a very friendly meeting with U.S. Rep. Michael Turner, and he and his staff listened attentively to our concerns.
The focus of much discussion at AIPAC this year was on the speeches given by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Three days before the AIPAC Policy Conference, President Obama gave a major policy speech on the Middle East and generated significant controversy when he said that the June 4, 1967 pre-Six-Day War borders of Israel should be the basis of negotiations between Israel and the PA.
This generated much media attention as well as concern among supporters of Israel, as these borders are not defensible. The next day, it was announced that the president would address the AIPAC Policy Conference on the opening day.
There were many positive elements in the president’s speech, and he received sustained applause when they were raised. For example, he said that the United States supports sufficient military aid to ensure that Israel has a qualitative military advantage over her adversaries, and that his administration has provided extra funding for the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system.
On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the president said that peace can only be achieved by negotiations, and that the U.S. would oppose a Palestinian state created by the U.N. or any other entity.
Referring to Hamas, he said that no country can negotiate with a party that does not recognize its right to exist. He also made clear that any future Palestinian state must be non-militarized. Again, the audience responded warmly to these statements.
However, when the president brought up the issue of borders, the large arena was totally silent. There were only a few jeers, due in large part to the efforts of AIPAC staff to ensure that the president was received respectfully. He said that the media did not sufficiently emphasize that his proposal regarding the 1967 lines included mutually agreed-upon land swaps, so that the final border will be different from the June 1967 lines.
He quickly followed his controversial statements by ones with which all in the audience would agree, such as that Israel must be able to defend itself against any threat.
As the AIPAC attendees include Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, there were various opinions on the president’s speech.
His supporters said that he corrected and clarified his view, and they were now more satisfied with his position. Others felt that calling on Israel to make concessions when the PA has consistently failed to negotiate and when the PA leader has signed an agreement with Hamas is dangerous as it rewards the Palestinians’ intransigence.
Furthermore, if Israel were to make concessions on borders before other issues, such as refugees and Jerusalem are resolved, then these latter issues might never be resolved.
This was the setting in which Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the gala banquet the following evening. He was warmly received with the exception of a few Code Pink sympathizers who managed to infiltrate the banquet.
As one of them was being escorted out, the prime minister coolly remarked, “Do you think they have these protests in Gaza?” It should be noted that peaceful protests are always allowed, albeit separately attended, outside of the Washington Convention Center.
The prime minister expressed concern for the recent victims of floods and tornadoes in the U.S. and offered Israel’s support. He spoke of the shared values of the United States and Israel, and stressed that Israel’s one million Muslims are free to practice their faith, as are numerous Christians — and that Israel is the only place in the Middle East where Christians and Muslims can do so together. He expressed appreciation for America’s military aid, including the funding for the Iron Dome, which recently intercepted eight rockets from Gaza. This was the first time that a missile defense system has succeeded in combat. He stressed that he would pursue peace, and he observed that the main problem in the Middle East is not Israel but rather regimes that suppress the desire of the people for freedom, dignity, and a better life. It is time to stop blaming Israel for all of the region’s problems. A fundamental truth, he added, is that the conflict continues because the Palestinians refuse to end it. There can only be peace if the Palestinians agree to make peace with the Jewish state of Israel. Israel must have security and cannot return to the indefensible borders of 1967.
Finally, the prime minister demanded the immediate release of Gilad Shalit, who has been kept in a dungeon in Gaza for five years without a single visit from the Red Cross.
The following day, Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress, where he was repeatedly interrupted by standing ovations.
But the divergence between the executive and legislative branches of the United States government on Middle East policy seems to be greater than it was a few weeks earlier.