Long on clout but short on agenda, AIPAC conference gets under way

Stagnant diplomatic itinerary between Israel and the US means this year’s gathering lacks the sharp policy focus of previous years

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Israeli and US flags (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
Israeli and US flags (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — AIPAC is many things to many people. For its members and supporters, 13,000 of whom arrived in Washington for the group’s annual Policy Conference starting Sunday, it is a forum for sharing and reveling in their love for Israel.

For Israel’s critics, views of AIPAC run the gamut from an over-zealous lobbying force that helps Israel avoid criticism — the J Street thesis — to a nefarious conspiracy with nigh-supernatural powers — a common view in many Muslim nations.

While the reality is more prosaic than some of the shrill discourse that surrounds the group, it remains a fact of Washington life that one cannot be involved in Middle East issues without having an opinion on, and often a relationship with, AIPAC. The group has built a network of contacts and a foundation of policy knowledge over the years that rivals the top professional lobbying firms in the American capital, and has become a key resource for many elected officials and others on issues related to Israel and the Middle East.

This influence is due in no small part to AIPAC’s judicious use of its power. Unlike smaller, more partisan Jewish advocacy groups, AIPAC did not wade into the nomination fight over Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in recent weeks. And it remained largely mum in recent years as left-wing groups such as J Street attacked it with accusations that it opposed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or was too eager to see a military confrontation with Iran.

The results of AIPAC’s quiet patience: Hagel’s office leaked over the weekend that the new defense secretary’s first meeting with a foreign counterpart will be with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is in Washington this week to address the AIPAC confab. The topic of discussion, the leak went to the trouble of explaining, was the threat posed by an Iranian nuclear program.

And J Street, which once viewed its more established counterpart as a key obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace, is now struggling with a general skepticism in Washington — even among those with little sympathy for either AIPAC or the Jewish state — over whether the Palestinians are themselves willing or able to work toward peace.

Unlike its detractors and competitors to the right and left, AIPAC has successfully navigated Washington’s political shifts without losing its capacity to affect legislation and policy. In the choppy political waters that have characterized the American capital in recent years, that’s high praise indeed.

A conference in search of a theme

Yet for all its famed political savvy, the group cannot set the diplomatic or fiscal calendars to its liking. Its famous, massive annual conference, taking place Sunday to Tuesday in the Washington Convention Center, does not have an obvious overarching focus this year.

In past years, the focus followed the diplomatic priorities of the US and Israel. It dealt with Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, or with Israel’s struggles in the face of the wave of terrorism after talks broke down. It dealt variously with the threat from an increasingly bellicose Iran and the conflicts with Hezbollah or Hamas. Last year, in the midst of a tense election year, AIPAC played host to an eager and electioneering Obama.

But this year has offered no such compelling organizing theme. Palestinian peace talks are on the back burner in both Jerusalem and Washington. Cooperation on Iran continues apace, but largely at the professional level outside the public limelight. Any disagreements on the issue have been buried by the governments, and so could hardly be expected to be raised by the lobby advocating a stronger relationship between the two countries.

Defense ties between the US and Israel are as strong as ever, particularly in missile defense programs which are a top priority for Israel.

And while Israel’s defense budget may face an unplanned loss of nearly $300 million due to across-the-board federal spending cuts known as sequestration, nearly every other interest group in America faces similar unplanned cuts. AIPAC’s sway in this matter will not be decisive, but neither will failure to avert these cuts reflect badly on the group. No one else could do better.

Thousands of conference attendees will spend part of Tuesday pounding the pavement on Capitol Hill to urge their senators and House members to support four legislative initiatives AIPAC is supporting this year: expanding sanctions on Iran, unspecified US support in the event of a military confrontation between Israel and Iran, largely symbolic legislation to designate Israel a “major strategic partner” of the United States, and calls on Congress to attempt to avert sequestration’s bite in aid to Israel.

In short, nothing new or especially compelling.

Expect some pundits to walk away from this week’s conference complaining about the apparent lack of focus. But it is worth noting that it is not AIPAC itself that lacks focus, but rather the diplomatic moment in which the long-planned conference is taking place.

For its part, AIPAC is in the business of long-term relationship-building. And relationships are not built on moments of high drama alone. Equally important are the long, hard slogs in between.

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