AIPAC makes its voice heard in Washington

It was a surprisingly sunny day Tuesday, ahead of an expected snowstorm, when the 12,000 or so AIPAC delegates concluded the three-day annual “policy conference” in Washington this week, ready to move on to Capitol Hill to lobby their representatives. They had been fully primed for a show of political muscle by an organization that never knows a dull moment, and isn’t likely to any time soon, given the coming years of Middle East turmoil. Israel is a tough client to worry about, and the region is a tough region to worry about, and the world has had an annoying tendency to misunderstand the issues. “If Israel ceases to exist,” one attendee sarcastically asked his friend between sessions at the conference, “would Europe still call it an apartheid state?”

This year’s AIPAC conference was bizarrely quiet. In the rooms where the panels of experts and officials were speaking, there was mostly doom and gloom — talk about the war in Syria that isn’t nearly over, about instability in Egypt, about the slim chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace and, of course, about Iran. Iran is surging, and the diplomatic talks, thus far, only serve Iran “to buy time to press ahead” with its program, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the gathering via satellite. Israel isn’t going to sit idly by while the Iranians complete their mission, was Netanyahu’s and outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s message.

“We mean it, we mean it,” Barak said — namely, our threats aren’t empty threats; our warnings should be taken seriously. In the delicate dance of Israeli and U.S. officials around the Iranian issue, there were two main messages: The Israelis asking for “credible threat” — while hinting that the current threat might not be credible enough to make Iran cave. The Americans are asking for trust — the president, Vice President Joe Biden told the group, “is not bluffing.”

Thus, when the delegates were visiting Capitol Hill on Tuesday, one law that they asked Congress to quickly pass was the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act — which promises to toughen the sanctions on the regime by, among other things, blacklisting all companies controlled by the Iranian government. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the bill’s two authors (his counterpart is Republican Ed Royce from California, chairman of the committee), told me Monday that it’s time for Iran to realize that the “West means business.” More precisely, he also seems to accept Israel’s premise that current measures fall short of being persuasive.

Congressman Engel said that, thus far, he has not gotten any indication that the Obama administration opposes the new sanctions bill. He says he expects President Barack Obama to sign the bill, if and when it passes the two houses of Congress. I tried to tease him by asking how Chuck Hagel, the incoming secretary of defense, would have voted had he still been a senator. Hagel used to oppose such bills — one reason pro-Israel activists were worried about his appointment to be the new leader of defense. But Engel, an early and somewhat lonely critic of Hagel among the Democrats (Hagel has an “endemic hostility toward Israel,” Engel said) wouldn’t be teased. The president is going to set the agenda, he said. The Hagel battle is over.

Hagel was a main topic of hallway conversations at the conference, as delegates debated AIPAC’s decision to steer clear of that battle, contending that the organization doesn’t take positions on presidential nominations. Some see that as no more than an excuse for not engaging in a battle that AIPAC couldn’t win; others went further, admitting defeat — but most delegates I spoke to seemed to accept the explanation and are already moving on to worry about other things.

They still don’t like Hagel and cheered enthusiastically when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), speaking Monday morning, said that the United States needs “a national security team that is pro-Israel.” But they also seemed to understand why Defense Minister Barak, speaking Sunday, had only nice things to say about Hagel, who, he said, “will no doubt serve his county with the same pride and honor with which he served both on the battlefield and in Congress.” Barak is a representative of a pragmatic country, and Israel has to keep working with Hagel. AIPAC is a pragmatic organization and wants to keep pushing its agenda without wasting time on Washington skirmishes of yesterday.

Besides, there’s a presidential visit to Israel coming soon, if Netanyahu can put a coalition together in time, and both the Obama administration and the Israeli government are doing their utmost not to interfere with the newfound good spirit that is the pretext for this visit. AIPAC’s contribution was to have a conference in which nothing dramatic happens, nothing that might upstage the visit. A conference that is barely newsworthy. Smooth and dynamic and very well organized, as usual, but no more than that. It is probably better that way, both for U.S.-Israel “relations” and for AIPAC as well. One can’t up the ante of expectations every time, and this year provided AIPAC with a blessed opportunity to somewhat tone down the conference. It wisely chose to take it.

Obama is going to Israel to have “nice pictures,” and so that he’ll be able to say that he was there, Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman of California told me. He expects that the president will make speeches in which he will highlight the “pro-Israel positions” we’ve heard from him in the past.

Biden told the delegates that Obama is looking forward to meeting with young Israelis. He also expects a visit heavy on public diplomacy and lighter on policy. To what end does the president want to meet with young Israelis, to what end does he want to amend his relations with the “people”? Now that’s an interesting question to think about.