WASHINGTON — The reportedly 13,000 delegates to the AIPAC policy conference here came to a city abuzz about a dysfunctional government. After watching the nation cross over the fiscal cliff at the end of December, anyone expecting a more responsible approach from their leaders was disappointed as the president and Congress permitted sequestration to set in with nary a peep.
It was this scene of political gridlock and economic uncertainty that greeted the pro-Israel community as it gathered to lobby on behalf of a government in Israel which has still not been formed. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been given a 14-day extension by President Shimon Peres to form a ruling coalition. The gamesmanship among the various leading parties suggests that Netanyahu might not succeed. In that case, Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, might be given a chance to form a government or Peres may call for new elections.
That made it a strange time to speak about advocacy on behalf of the policies of the Israeli government (and a strange time to be preparing for a visit from President Obama, leading some Israeli news outlets to suggest that if Netanyahu can’t form a government soon, Obama is likely to postpone his visit).
With this curious confluence of circumstances, the entire policy conference had a strange coloration. While there was much action transpiring around the delegates, the tone at the conference was one of boredom. Missing was even the drama that surrounded the last few AIPAC conferences, when tensions between the White House and Jerusalem dominated the headlines.
Not that such tension was completely missing. In fact, John McCain received far more support when he spoke in a panel discussion than did references to Obama’s commitments to Israel and its safety and security.
Still, it was interesting to see the enthusiasm that Vice President Biden appeared to generate. Sent out by the administration to placate those in the audience who do not support Obama, Biden, with a 40-year record of pro-Israel leadership, was sufficiently excited and exciting as he pressed all the right buttons for the administration (and perhaps laid the groundwork for a presidential run in 2016).
He spoke about U.S. commitment to Israel’s strategic needs, intelligence cooperation, and weapons research. Biden sought to reassure Israel and the crowd, repeatedly, that the administration is not bluffing when it says that all options remain on the table to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.
Similarly, Netanyahu — speaking by satellite from Jerusalem — emphasized the Iranian threat first and foremost (leading to chatter that Netanyahu was hyping the Iranian threat in order to create an air of crisis, and thus intimidate some of the waffling parties to join his government). In addition to Iran, Netanyahu referred to the dangers in Syria as well as the need to focus on discovering a common purpose for peace negotiations with the Palestinians — matters, he said, that he and Obama would discuss in Jerusalem in a few weeks.
Or maybe not.
So in an environment of governmental silliness and political maneuvering, AIPAC’s delegates came in impressive numbers and with a sense of general purpose, but with little fire in their bellies, and with little urgency.