I’m here in Washington for meetings and for the annual AIPAC extravaganza, about which I can’t say much since it has only just begun. I can say though, that times aren’t easy, and that the current climate isn’t particularly hospitable to the US-Israel alliance. I can also say that this AIPAC conference was unluckily scheduled for this early week of March (not that anyone could have known at the time):
- Two days after the sequestration, Washington is too busy with other, seemingly more pressing, matters;
- And if it busies itself with foreign affairs, the context might not be convenient for Israel – for the last two weeks I’ve been hearing constant warnings about the likely “cuts” in foreign aid (officials in the Netanyahu government got such signals from high ranking members of Congress);
- There’s also some measure of dubiousness regarding the message that Israel can currently send – since it doesn’t yet have a coalition and a new government, its policies are still somewhat murky;
- Naturally, the administration wouldn’t want the conference to upstage the “visit” (that is, if the next Israeli government is formed promptly enough to enable President Obama to consummate his planned trip to Israel).
The administration made sure to send Vice President Joe Biden – a familiar face – to speak, and not one of the new faces such as Secretary of State John Kerry, or Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
And speaking of Hagel: I still think sending him could have been brilliant, but it would also be risky of course. The sour smell of the Hagel confirmation battle that just ended still hangs in the air as AIPAC delegates convene. AIPAC didn’t take any part in this battle, which was probably the smart thing to do – though it did bring to mind the famous Madeline Albright quip to Collin Powell: “What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?”
Lee Smith, in a stinging article, argued that “by giving personnel a pass, AIPAC has [also] lost the policy debate”. I’m not yet certain it did. There is always a fine line separating the brave from the dumb, the firm from the rigid. If chances to thwart Hagel were too low – or if the cost of battling him was too high – then staying on the sidelines might have been the right decision. That is, of course, if by staying on the sidelines the organization has increased its ability to have impact on the actual policies of the second Obama administration. Opportunities to put such influence to good use will be plentiful: Iran is a major concern, as are the concerning developments in Syria, the deteriorating relations with Turkey, the instability in Egypt and, yes, the possible (even probable) cuts to foreign aid. 2013 promises to be an important, maybe even dramatic year, for AIPAC.
A dramatic year though, doesn’t necessarily mean a dramatic conference. One has to remember that 2013 isn’t an election year, so no exiting candidates are coming to sell their product to the crowd. There will be no Obama-Hillary show like the one of five years ago. In fact, I believe that there will be no great show at all: if last year was the one of Obama defending his policies in lieu of the coming election, and the year before was the one of the Obama-Netanyahu post 1967-speech acrimony – I expect 2013 to be a quiet year for the conference (and if I’m wrong, it won’t take long for me to discover my mistake).
The codeword for current US-Israel relations and for Obama’s upcoming visit is “reset” . This is a term I've been hearing constantly both in Jerusalem and in Washington. And when there’s a “reset” in motion no one wants to make unnecessary waves. So, a boring conference might not be great for AIPAC delegates and for columnists, but it might be exactly what the organization is looking for policy-wise. Make sure to at least enjoy your Salmon.