Friday, March 9, 2012

Reflections on AIPAC 2012

Reflections on AIPAC

It has been a couple of days now since my return from the AIPAC conference in Washington.  There have been scores of instant analyses written, so there is little I could have added to the initial avalanche, so I’ve allowed my impressions to marinate a bit.  I’ve assembled videos of the main plenary speeches and events here.  My bottom line impression is that the world is a safer place today than it was a week ago.  There will be nervous times ahead, but I believe that an attack on Iran, with all then unknown consequences, is less likely to occur soon and more likely to be done by American forces than Israelis if and when it happens.

Politics and Stagecraft

It is impossible to have been among the 14,000 present and not feel that we were part of a significant historical moment.  We felt this despite the distractions of an exceptionally combative political season.  While AIPAC steadfastly maintains a bipartisan stance, the speeches were anything but that. With the stakes so high in this new world of Super Pacs, where the US approach to Iran has become the prime foreign policy issue of the campaign and where the Obama-Netanyahu relationship has been watched more closely than Pitt-Jolie, it was natural that this would occur.  Natural, but unfortunate – because for this grand exercise in stagecraft to be most effective, the Iranian government had to be convinced that the US and Israel are in lockstep in coordinating a potential military response and dead serious about using force, if necessary.  Much of that message came through, but the partisan bickering diluted it. 

Fortunately, the President and Prime Minister managed to shift the conversation away from their relationship and onto the rock-solid alliance between their countries. They are on the same page regarding several crucial issues: 1) containment of a nuclear Iran is not an option; 2) Israel has the right to defend itself on its own timetable; 3) Crippling sanctions are damaging the Iranian economy significantly (Iran’s currency is down 75% over the past month), and the impact will be felt most fully this summer, and 4) both nations are prepared to use military force if sanctions and diplomacy fail.  It is clearer now that Israel would not be impeded if it felt it were time to strike.  And if Iran passes a certain threshold of uranium enrichment and their intent to build a bomb becomes clear, US military action would likely be forthcoming and would be overwhelmingly endorsed by the Congress.  The President would act, if needed, both because he believes that a nuclear armed Iran is unacceptable and because Congress would give him all the war powers he needs, perhaps even before the final decision to attack is made.

Paradoxically, the hawkish tenor of the conference will make a military strike less likely.  It was that thought, and that alone, that enabled me to overcome my deep concerns about the bellicose mood that prevailed in the hall.  Not everyone present was Jewish – far from it – but I’ve ever been among so many Jews so gung ho for a fight.   I see little hope for negotiation, but I also know that wars rarely go according to plan, and no one should be glib about an operation so complex as this one would be.  On the other hand, I came out of the conference more confident that America does have the necessary firepower to do the job and that a few days of “shock and awe” might suffice in ending the Iranian nuclear threat for the foreseeable future.  This would be a much more limited operation than was needed in Iraq and Afghanistan, with few boots on the ground and presumably resulting in far fewer grieving mothers back home.  Israel and the US would undoubtedly face retaliation.  It’s encouraging, as Senator Lieberman informed our lobbying delegation, that when Obama and Netanyahu met, their security advisors were in the room. Presumably a number of contingencies were discussed. 

It is noteworthy that despite the solid backing of Congress for potential military action, our reps admit that the American people are war weary, and a poll released today indicates that most Israelis would also prefer to avoid a strike on Iran as well.  Few of the 14,000 at AIPAC who were cheering the tough rhetoric would have to be among those risking their lives in jet fighters over Qom or in the bomb shelters of Haifa.
I just hope the Iranians were impressed by the drumbeat.  Early signs indicate that they might have been.  I don’t think they were counting on having to fend off a US attack.  As of today, The Atlantic’s new “war clock” puts us at ten minutes to midnight.  That rounds out to a matter of months, with the prevailing expectation being that Israel would attack.  But in Israel, as Marc Shulman reports, the estimate is that Obama outflanked Netanyahu with his pledge of a US attack when/if the time is right.   Let’s hope that as result of the bellicosity of this week’s conference, we’ll be able to set the hands back even more over the coming weeks, for all the right reasons.

AIPAC usually focuses on three “talking point” items in sending its lobbyists off to Capitol Hill.  This year, the conference was all-Iran, all the time. Despite the contentiousness of the season, the speakers stayed on message.  Message delivered.  The stagecraft was very effective. 

Auschwitz and Jewish Power

I’ve heard the Prime Minister speak to American audiences on numerous occasions and rarely has he failed to bring up the Holocaust (much to the chagrin of his Kadima counterpart, Tzipi Livni). This is not stagecraft.  He really means it.  His world view, inherited from his father and his party’s revisionist roots, is decidedly Auschwitz-centric.  He typically brings up Neville Chamberlain and Munich when explaining why he won’t make deals that in he feels endanger Israeli security.  On Monday he took another tack, reading from a letter he keeps in his desk, a desperate appeal from leaders of the World Jewish Congress to the Americans to bomb Auschwitz in 1944.  The request was refused, in part because “Such an effort might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans.”  Netanyahu was incredulous that anything could be perceived as more vindictive than the Holocaust.  One implication was that no one should worry about how Iran would respond to a strike.  But the other implication was that never again will the Jewish people outsource its self defense to any other nation, that Israel can’t just trust America to “have its back.”  American had, after all, failed the Jewish people back in the ‘40s.

That analogy is dangerously isolationist.  Even when facing an existential threat – which this is – Israel can’t just go it alone.  When Israel was in mortal danger after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, only an emergency infusion of American arms saved her.  Yes, Israel did not depend on others to put boots on the ground, but the planes Israelis flew were American.  Netanyahu knows that Israel made the right decision to let American and coalition troops do the fighting in the Gulf War of 1992, even as Israel absorbed 39 Scuds, any of which could have contained nerve gas.  Without America fighting for Israel on the diplomatic front last fall at the UN, there would be a Palestinian state right now, against Israel’s wishes. 

I heard UN Ambassador Susan Rice deliver an extraordinarily moving speech on Monday to 400 rabbis and cantors of all denominations.  Read about it here and see a transcript here  (and click for Audio and transcript of her Q and A with the Rabbinical Assembly).  She said, “What Israel faces is relentless, it's obsessive, it's ugly, it's bad for the United Nations, it's bad for peace -- and it has got to stop….Not a day goes by -- not one -- when my colleagues and I do not work hard to defend Israel's security and legitimacy at the United Nations."   As Rice concluded her presentation, stating, “Human conflict and human suffering can only be overcome by human courage,” a courage she has amply demonstrated, everyone rose in applause and we began singing a verse from Psalms that she had quoted (in perfect Hebrew, I must add), “Hinay Mah Tov Uma Na’im, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad,” “How pleasant it is when siblings can dwell together in peace.”  For me it was the most life-affirming moment of the conference.  She said that although the UN is still problematic, things are changing.  Did you know that Israel is joining the board of UNICEF this year?  With people like Rice doing the grunt work of diplomacy every day, there can be no doubt that America – and this Administration - has Israel’s back.

Both Obama and Netanyahu stated explicitly that Israel has the right to defend itself on its own terms.  But a worldwide coalition is building against Iran and its proxy, Syria.  Israel’s security needs have never been more supported by so wide an array of nations.  The entire world has even back-burnered the Palestinian cause, barely mentioned at all at AIPAC, because the Iran and Syria need to be handled first.  Eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat would change the region irrevocably, and, if this coalition can be nurtured and this crisis managed with US diplomatic leadership, for the better.

The Auschwitz analogy was very powerful.  I usually cringe when people make such comparison.  It trivializes the enormity of the Holocaust to overuse it in order to score debating points. But when Netanyahu waved that letter, I realized that I was standing at a true turning point for Israel and the world.  Israel has faced three prior moments where its survival was truly in question: in 1948, in May of 1967 and during those first days of the 1973 war.  Now we can add March 2012. 

I can recall 1967 and, more clearly, 1973.  I also know that in 1991, when those first Scuds fell and we didn’t know what they contained, there was real fear for Israel’s future.   We also despaired during the worst of the terror wave in the early 2000s.

But there is a difference between this crisis and all the others.  This time the American President and his three potential opponents, the Secretary of Defense and other cabinet members, the vast majority of the House and Senate and a gaggle of influential, wealthy and powerful people all congregated in one place to declare their devotion to the Jewish state.  No other cause unites so many, and, as AIPAC will always remind us, it’s for the right reasons.  The interests and values of the two nations are completely aligned. 

Not even Mordechai was shown such love by the rulers of his nation.  Never in Jewish history has this happened.  The love is real.  I attended sessions with Israeli leaders (including the celebrated news anchor-turned politician Yair Lapid), and they love America.  I attended a session featuring Christian Evangelical leaders and they truly love Israel.  It was a fascinating session, BTW - the dialogue got into sensitive areas of end-time theology and the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, but there is no disputing that the panelists desire a renewed friendship with the Jewish people, one based on mutual respect.  “We ask forgiveness,” one pastor of a large Georgia congregation said, adding that “bad theology breeds fear and arrogance.”  “The Jewish people are God’s people,” said another minister, “and God never changes His mind.”

The love is real, but I cannot help but think that the fealty among politicians is inflated because of fund raising.  An interesting byproduct of this year of the Super Pac is that candidates are desperate for money from affluent sources – which led them right to the Convention Center this week.  Rick Santorum even appeared in the flesh – on Super Tuesday.  Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich appeared via live satellite feed.  AIPAC is not an inexpensive conference to attend; for that and a variety of other reasons, the crowd skewed wealthy, younger and to the right of the Jewish population as a whole.  There were far more visiting the Republican post gala reception than in the Democrats’ tent (these events were literally in tents).  That has been the case in prior years as well, so it is not an indication of any dramatic demographic shifts in Jewish party allegiances.  As long as AIPAC can keep Israel from becoming a wedge issue between the parties, candidates will continue to come there showing us the love, having consumed the pro-Israel Kool Aid.

This is decidedly NOT the world that confronted the American Jewish Congress when its leaders wrote their desperate letter in 1944. Israel has lots of friends in America, people who genuinely recognize that an Iranian bomb is not in America’s interest, and internationally, the anti-Iran coalition is strong and growing.  While for Israel this is most definitely an existential crisis, it is also an enormous opportunity.  For that reason, I left Washington hopeful. 

At one breakout session, an Israeli journalist told a classic joke from the early days of the state.  A guy came up to Ben Gurion and told him, “If you implement my idea, you will solve all of Israel’s problems in five minutes.”  The Prime Minister was curious, knowing all the growing pains Israel was dealing with.  So he asked what the idea was.

“All you have to do is declare war on America. America will conquer us and we’ll become the 51st state.  No more security problems.  No more political craziness – we’ll have two senators and we’ll send them to Washington.  No more financial problems – our currency will be the dollar.  Maccabi Tel Aviv will play in the NBA. Tel Aviv – New York will be a domestic flight!”

“It’s a very good idea,” Ben Gurion responded.  “But what happens if, God forbid, we win the war?”

Israel’s raison d’être was Never Again to allow Jews to be at the mercy of other nations, never to outsource its ability to defend itself.  But FDR never told the Jewish people he had our back.  It would be a tragic mistake, I fear, if Netanyahu were to elect to go it alone simply because of these Auschwitz nightmares.  If the cool calculations of his military and intelligence experts agree with him, that’s one thing, but we’ve left the world of that World Jewish Congress letter far behind us.  I pray that Never Again will such a desperate letter need to be written.

New Paradigms

I left D.C. feeling that we are entering a very different era, where old paradigms just don’t work.  Just as the “Jew as victim” paradigm championed by Netanyahu rings hollow when displayed against the backdrop of the conference, so do other paradigms no longer hold true.  For example, the Arab Spring has demolished all preconceived myths about the peoples of the Middle East.  As one panelist put it, the people are transitioning from subject to citizen.  We don’t know where that will lead, but it’s hard to imagine them returning to being passive subjects, certainly not in Syria, where the Assad fall is now being universally deemed inevitable.  The Muslim Brotherhood may be strong in Egypt, but few believe they will scuttle the peace treaty with Israel, and it is unlikely that they will gain strength in Syria, which, according to panelist and journalist Ehud Ya’ari, is 40% minority (including many Christians and Druze).   (Ya’ari, one of Israel’s most respected journalists, also reported that Iran is at least a year away from a testable nuclear weapon and two years away from a missile.)  The Arab world now consists of governments that can’t afford to divert their people’s attention to a common scapegoat like Israel.  They actually have to make people’s lives better.  One positive model is Yemen, where a political transition is occurring; the former leader has been given asylum elsewhere and American drones are keeping Al Qaeda at bay.

It’s time for Jews to create new paradigms as well and stop taking shots at organizations or people they don’t agree with, flinging epithets like “anti-Israel” or “Israel firster.”  We need to get beyond the labels and see issues clearly, not through the lens of ancient history and ideological animosities.  I’m as critical of the Likud government as anyone on issues of civil rights, religious freedom, women’s rights and negotiation strategies with the Palestinians (it was amusing – and telling – that the Prime Minister, burned by recent negative headlines,  ended his speech with a shout out for women’s rights).   But I don’t let my concerns cloud my view regarding the dangers of Iran.  At some point, this crisis will pass, maybe a new dynamic will be set in motion in a realigned region, and then maybe the Palestinians will return to the table. At that time, and I hope it’s soon, we’ll need to get back to serious negotiations on settlements, borders, security, rights of return and Jerusalem.   I’m concerned that some on the left have become such knee-jerk opponents of all things Netanyahu that they can’t see the urgency of the current existential threat.  And I’m equally concerned that some on the right have such a knee-jerk hatred of Obama that they refuse to acknowledge that the Israel-America relationship has never been more secure.

One final comment 

The conference was extraordinarily staged, right down to the last detail. They served Chinese food at our clergy luncheon, and my fortune cookie informed me, “You will attend AIPAC Policy Conference 2013.”  But in fact one got the sense that that the appearance of control was a grand illusion.  I’m not talking about the fact that there were mess ups with the food or some sessions went long, or Liz Cheney setting the tone by beginning the opening session with a most inflammatory attack on the President. No, I’m talking about the rumble and the roar.  Every so often I heard a rumble under our feet and a roar overhead.  Most likely the rumble was the Metro and the roar just a hovering helicopter.  But given the extraordinary degree of power concentrated in this hall at any given time, it gave me pause to imagine how easily all this could come crashing down.  There is nothing in the Jewish world so controlled as an AIPAC Policy Conference.  But not even that is immune to a world that perplexes us and confounds us daily. 

That said, for the moment, the skies are clearing and the cherry blossoms are beginning to bud.  Washington looks as lovely as ever.  And the US-Israel relationship has never looked better.
Addendum - As an interesting postscript, see JJ Goldberg's reaction to the 60 Minutes interview with Meir Dagan , former head of the Mossad.  He sets the clock back to up to 3 years for Iran to get the bomb, and evidently he is in not alone among Israeli intelligence experts in trying to convince Israeli leaders not to strike prematurely.  The success of the Iron Dome defense system in intercepting missiles from Gaza this week as an added factor to consider.  As Israel gains more expertise in such defenses of longer and short range missiles, it gives them a strategic advantage - though it in no way makes an Iranian bomb containable or acceptable. I do think that this week's flare up in Gaza has both given Israel more confidence but also shown them once again, how disruptive even a limited missile attack can be.  Attack Iran, and they would have to bear much more, mostly in the north, which may not yet be as prepared with missile defenses.  In a year or two, they will be better prepared.

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