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The Elephant at AIPAC

The AIPAC Policy Conference ended this morning, after an evening gala where the 13,000 delegates were joined by 63 percent of the Congress: 65 senators and 274 House members. The conference has nearly doubled in size from the 7,000 delegates who attended in 2008. The plenary hall extended almost two football fields wide. But the hall was not large enough to hide what Shmuel Rosner called, after the first day of the conference, “the elephant in the room”:

[The] elephant is American policy in the region. In one session after another one hears criticism of American inaction, American hesitation, American lack of coherence. The criticism is at times subtler, and at times more direct, but it’s almost always there. You hear it from the experts on the different panels, from Americans and Israelis. You get less of it, but still some, even in the larger gatherings where the politicians and the leaders speak, where the politicians attempt to make it seem as if there are no problems and no daylight between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government. Americans and Israelis are now all walking on eggshells, making sure not to interfere with the “reset” of relations, not to add new tensions into the delicate relations between the second Obama administration and the second Netanyahu government. The elephant is there though … There’s surely doubt in Israel, and there’s concern in pro-Israel circles in the US (“we need a national security team that is pro-Israel”, Senator McCain said Monday morning).

In an extraordinary address to the gala, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said that throughout his lifetime he had “never questioned America’s resolve and support for Israel … until now.” The video is here, and the transcript is here.

On Monday morning, Vice President Biden asserted that President Obama is “not bluffing” about Iran, but his speech stuck to the now-familiar administration phrase: “acquiring a nuclear weapon,” rather than acquiring “nuclear capability,” which is the Israeli red line. In his own comments Sunday morning, Israeli ambassador Michael Oren made it clear that for Israel the important date is not the one on which Iran may acquire a nuclear weapon, but the date on which it will no longer be possible to stop it from acquiring one. He called the window for diplomacy “small.”   

AIPAC produced its most successful conference yet; the speeches, panels, breakout sessions, and videos were outstanding, and the congressional support for Israel was remarkable. But the conference also served to demonstrate that, as the president prepares to visit the region in two weeks, Israel is more nervous than Iran. When the president chooses two famously anti-war senators as his new secretaries of state and defense; when he stands by month after month doing nothing in Syria, while Iran and Russia act; when he keeps an aircraft carrier and other military forces out of the region for budgetary reasons; and when six months after an American ambassador is murdered he is still searching for the real killers, the actions (and inactions) speak louder than words. At the end of the conference, the elephant was still there.



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