Hidden by Ukraine, AIPAC conference dodges the headlines

By Michael Goldfarb, March 6, 2014
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Prime Minister Netanyahu at AIPAC

Prime Minister Netanyahu at AIPAC

Luck comes in many shapes and sizes.

For Aipac this past week, it came in the form of the Ukrainian crisis.

The annual gathering of the US-Israel lobbying organisation shaped up to be its most difficult in a very long time. The powerful lobbying group suffered a major setback in its attempt to get its friends in Congress to impose further sanctions on Iran against the express wishes of the Obama administration.

Within the Jewish community, Aipac is losing traction — if not its ability to shout down liberal groups like J Street.

The pre-conference mood was summed up by Jennifer Rubin, ardently pro-Aipac columnist for the Washington Post. Her preview piece last week began: “The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, at its most perilous point in years, begins its annual policy conference on Sunday. At issue is the organisation’s effectiveness,” before going on to her usual attacks on President Barack Obama for hating Israel.

But then Vladimir Putin decided to annex Crimea. Russia and the West were suddenly locked into confrontation of a severity not seen in decades. Presto! Aipac coverage largely disappeared from the front pages of the major papers.

The majority of columnists and opinion formers who might have been preparing to go through the ritual defences or denunciations of Israel and analyses of the declining influence of its once all-powerful lobbyists in Washington found themselves with a genuine crisis to comment on.

An interview Mr Obama gave to Jeffrey Goldberg of website Bloomberg View was barely noticed. In it, Mr Goldberg conveyed the President’s message for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a paraphrase of Rabbi Hillel: “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr Prime Minister, then who?”

Mr Goldberg reports that Mr Obama added that, if Mr Netanyahu “does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach… it’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible”.

Interestingly, the New York Times report of that meeting did not mention Mr Netanyahu’s reason for being in Washington: the Aipac conference.

But with his speech on Tuesday, which vigorously endorsed Kerry’s peace drive, Aipac cracked the paper’s front page, a small photo of Mr Netanyahu telling readers the Aipac story was on page three.

From the White House’s point of view, the message to Aipac was: Back Secretary of State John Kerry’s push for a deal with the Palestinians and, arguably more importantly, back off on your attempts to get Congress to enact further sanctions against Iran.

The White House is dealing with Iran in two crises — Syria and nuclear weapons. This is no easy trick when you have no direct diplomatic contact with a country.

Mr Obama sent Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to explain that existing sanctions “are working to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and passing new sanctions now could derail the talks… and splinter the international co-operation that has made our sanctions regime so effective.”

Mr Lew, an Orthodox Jew, was received in silence by the 12,000 delegates.

Secretary of State Kerry addressed the group on Monday evening, and asked members to think about the consequences of military action against Iran. “Those who say strike and hit need to check what might happen after we do that.”

Mr Netanyahu’s meeting with Mr Obama, another of the annual Aipac rituals, was also overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis. Instead of a frosty photo-op while the two men argued about settlement building and whether or not the US should be threatening to bomb Iran, the pair were forced to discuss the impact of imposing sanctions on Russia over Ukraine on the situation in Syria and Iran.

Russia has been helpful in getting the Assad regime to give up some of its chemical weapons and has pressured the Iranian regime to engage in talks over its development of nuclear weapons. Sanctions could derail those twin diplomatic initiatives.

As for the New York Times not mentioning Mr Netanyahu’s reason for being in Washington: Lucky Aipac.

Michael Goldfarb is a journalist and author

Last updated: 1:31pm, March 6 2014