September 19, 2018

AIPAC 2018: No News is Good News?

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, U.S., March 26. Photo by Joshua Roberts/REUTERS.

1.

This was the least eventful AIPAC conference I remember, and I’ve been to many AIPAC conferences. It looked uneventful almost by design. The US President, a man of many talents – among which the talent to make headlines – did not attend. His VP visited Israel not long ago and had nothing much to add. Nikki Haley is a rock star, but let’s be honest: vilifying the UN at Aipac is an easy job. And then there is Prime Minister Netanyahu. He made headlines, but not here in Washington. If Israel goes to election soon, if Netanyahu is going to be indicted soon, these will all be post-Aipac events.

2.

So, no major headlines were coming out of Aipac – is that good or bad?

On the one hand, it could reinforce the notion, shared by even some of the participants, that Aipac’s stage is not as important as it used to be in years past.

On the other hand, it could reinforce the message that Aipac clearly aimed to send this year: we are truly bipartisan, we are truly a place where a discussion can take place among people who have different views and still share a goal, or a love of Israel.

An uneventful political event in Trump’s America. Maybe that’s the headline. Maybe that’s what makes it unique.

3.

From several conversations I had, I get the impression that the appeal to progressives in this conference was quite successful. It felt like a real attempt at inclusion, and at least some of the progressive participants were convinced that Aipac is genuine in trying to send a message of a broad tent. Of course, such message has benefit and a cost. It might result in a toning down, or even a watering down, the way Aipac deals with policy and legislation. It might result in enlarging the camp of people that are willing to identify with the organization and its goals.

4.

The appeal to progressives also impacts the relations with Israel – and its quite conservative ruling coalition. Expressing fervent support for a two state solution is essential as you appeal to American progressives. But it will make certain Israelis wonder about Aipac’s priorities: Is it to support Israel, or to appeal to Americans who find it difficult to support Israel? For the time being, this question is not an urgent one, because no major conflict concerning negotiations with the Palestinians is on the horizon. But it still has the potential to become a thorny complication is Aipac’s way forward.

5.

Earlier this week I wrote (in JJ’s Daily Roundtable – I assume you already subscribed to it) that in addition to the obvious reasons – Iran, Palestinians, Syria and Russia – Netanyahu came to Washington carrying two messages to his domestic audience. These messages are linked but are not exactly the same.

One – I am still functioning, and not too distracted by the ongoing investigations to be effective as a leader.

Two – I am indispensable. No Israeli has such standings in America and the world, no one can replace me and have similar success.

Did he succeed in carrying this message? I’d argue that he was upstaged by well timed events at home: a political crisis that could end his term, and the signing of yet another state witness against him. Since his meeting with Trump, and his Aipac speech did not result in a dramatic headline – his trip was not a huge domestic success.

6.

I also wrote that yes, there’s a political angle, as we all understand, but that gossipy cynicism aside, Netanyahu’s plate of issues for this visit includes more than just domestic considerations. If a decision on the Iran nuclear agreement is about to take place, it better be coordinated. If a policy on the future of Syria is something the US is mulling, Israel’s input must be taken into account.

Two days ago, the NYT describes an “American strategic void” in response to Russia’s recent moves. This void worries Israel, and can be of great consequence for its security. Thus, the challenge for Netanyahu was a tricky one: to alert Trump to the need for a more robust US policy, without being seen as too critical or too pushy, as not to disrupt the good rapport between these two leaders.

7.

Were you listening to PM Netanyahu’s speech? It was the sunniest I remember him ever giving. It this Bibi? Or maybe Shimon Peres’s ghost just came back to haunt us? The threats took a backseat to the opportunities. The bad news – there were bad news – took a backseat to the good news. I wonder if this was Bibi’s way to accommodate Aipac’s message to the delegates – or maybe his way to surprise, to keep the delegates awake – what the routine speech on the threat of Iran can no longer do.

One way or the other, it was a change for the better.

A note to readers: I was invited to speak at Aipac’s 2018 policy conference, and was happy to accept the invitation. My travel expenses were paid by the organization.

Conference examines future of U.S.-Israel relations

I’ve just finished moderating two panels at the Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem. I’ve just finished talking to dozens of the people attending and finished listening to other people’s panels. I’m tired and have a headache, and I am still trying to figure out a theme coming out of the conference.

In the meantime, I’d like to share with you a couple of notes from a roundtable on the ‎future of U.S.-Israel relations that was moderated by Mike Herzog. It was closed to the press (namely, to other press), and attended by luminaries such as Stu Eizenstat, Richard ‎Haass, Uzi Arad, Dore Gold, Malcolm Hoenlein, Abe Foxman, Dan Mariaschin, ‎David Makovsky and Alon Pinkas – I can’t name them all, but you get the picture (if ‎you’re not familiar with the names, Google them). Here’s an outline of some of what was said about some of the topics discussed. It does not do justice to the‎two-hour discussion but it will give you some idea of what was going on.‎

Read the rest of the story on Shmuel Rosner’s blog Rosner’s Domain.

Axelrod: Disputes don’t harm U.S.-Israel ties

Israel’s close ties with the United States could withstand the occasional policy dispute, President Obama’s top political adviser said.

“Let’s not confuse the occasional dispute over policy with the fundamental relationship that has guided our two nations for so long and will continue to guide our two nations,” David Axelrod said Wednesday night at an event marking Israel’s 62nd Independence Day held at a hall facing the national Mall here.

U.S.-Israel tensions have intensified since early March, when Israel announced a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden aimed at bolstering the bilateral relationship.

Axelrod, who in his address outlined his own affections for Israel as a Jew growing up in New Jersey, emphasized shared democratic values and Israel’s economic success.

Lee Rosenberg, president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a major Obama backer during the election, also suggested in his remarks that the tensions were a passing phenomenon.

“When we meet again to celebrate Israel’s 63rd year of independence, we can say the United States and Israel remain standing, as always, steadfast together,” he said.

Obama: No ‘crisis’ in U.S.-Israel ties

In his first public remarks on the strain in U.S.-Israel ties, President Obama said there was no crisis in relations between the two countries.

In an interview with Fox News aired Wednesday night, the U.S. leader said Israel’s announcement last week during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit of new construction in eastern Jerusalem has not led to a crisis in ties between Israel and the United States.

“We and the Israeli people have a special bond that’s not going to go away,” Obama said. “But friends are going to disagree sometimes.”

He added, “There is a disagreement in terms of how we can move this peace process forward.”

Meanwhile, in an Op-Ed published Thursday in The New York Times, Israel’s U.S. ambassador said that Israel and the United States have a “deep and multi-layered friendship, but even the closest allies can sometimes disagree.”

Michael Oren said in the article that though the “discord” between Israel and the Obama administration over the housing announcement during Biden’s visit “was unfortunate, it was not a historic low point in United States-Israel relations.” Preliminary approval was granted for a 1,600-apartment construction project in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem.

Oren also wrote that he had never said that relations between the two countries were at their lowest since 1975, despite widely circulated media reports to the contrary.

Two days after the incident, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton berated Netanyahu in a 43-minute phone call and reportedly demanded that he cancel the apartment project’s approval, make a dramatic gesture to the Palestinians such as releasing Palestinian prisoners and agree publicly to discuss all core issues, including the status of Jerusalem, in upcoming peace talks.

Netanyahu and his top seven ministers, called the Forum of Seven, met until late Wednesday night to discuss Israel’s response to the Obama administration’s demands.

The United States reportedly is waiting for a reply, which it had expected as early as Wednesday, before agreeing to allow any top government officials to meet with Netanyahu during his visit to Washington next week to address the annual policy meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Clinton also is scheduled to address the AIPAC parley.