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AIPAC faithful gather in distracted capital
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AIPAC faithful gather in distracted capital

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

At the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference, approximately 14,000 delegates came to Washington to lobby Congress, but they were met by a real snowstorm in D.C. and a figurative storm growing in Ukraine.  They came to push for Israel’s interests in the current Israeli-Palestinian peace process and to underscore the need to sustain pressure against Iran, while Washington was distracted by the feared resurrection of the Cold War.

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As Prime Minister Netanyahu entered the Oval Office he was already facing considerable fallout from an interview President Obama gave to Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg News. In the interview, Obama signaled that his meeting with Netanyahu and developments between now and the end of April are the make-or-break phase for the Israelis in their peace talks with the Palestinians. He clearly placed the burden to help Secretary Kerry’s proposal succeed in the hands of the Israelis. While the President meets Abbas in two weeks and the Saudi and Gulf States leaders thereafter, more than a few commentators — including David Horovitz in The Times of Israel and Shmuel Rosner in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles — asked why Obama didn’t use the interview to deliver similar warnings to the Palestinians.

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Nothing Kerry told the AIPAC audience in his Feb. 3 talk inspired much enthusiasm — not his calls for supporting his current peace initiative nor his avowals of the administration’s commitment to “preventing a nuclear Iran.” Mention of the president’s name received barely token appreciation. One almost felt Kerry should have begged off the planned AIPAC address and gone straight from the White House meeting with Netanyahu to Kiev.

Similarly, two Israeli business leaders spoke enthusiastically about the Kerry initiative: Ofra Strauss, the head of the Strauss Group, the second largest food manufacturer in Israel, and Yossi Vardi, one of Israeli’s leading high-tech entrepreneurs and the initiator of a new coalition promoting joint Israeli and Palestinian business ventures. Both speakers were met with flat receptions. 

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The attendees continue to evolve at these AIPAC conferences, although the trend line is clear. On an impressionistic basis 25 to 30 percent of the attendees were Orthodox and, based on the applause, at least half are conservative or Republican leaning. This no doubt also reflects AIPAC’s and Israel’s own political swings, as well as a reflection of where their grassroots membership and major financial support is increasingly coming from.

AIPAC knows, as the recent Pew Report made explicit, that the Jewish community is aging. While their core is still totally engaged and supporting its $50 million annual budget, it is not clear that the next generation will be so quick or as forthcoming. The leadership’s decision some years ago to expand the base largely to the Zionist and religiously committed is now clearly being confirmed by the grassroots. While the young people and college students still come to the policy conference pep rally as guests of the organization or their home communities,  it is unclear how AIPAC’s message resonates beyond this activist class.

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One of the most interesting discussions was a March 3 afternoon breakout session related to Syria, featuring former Israeli ambassador to the United Sates  Itamar Rabinovich and Fred Hof, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Special Representative on Syria. It was exceedingly depressing. No one suggested a solution, and the best news for the moment is that, despite a horrific humanitarian crisis, Israel has little to worry about in the short term. Given not only Syria’s internal problems, but a dramatically aging air force and helicopter fleet which it needs to battle opposition forces, the security threat to Israel is minimal. The United States and the West may be coalescing around a strategy to supply weapons to anti-Assad forces, but they clearly are wary, realizing that they lost their real chance three years ago, before Al Qaida moved in. As for the rebel forces, they remain divided and without adequate Western support.

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