Friday, March 6, 2015

A Report from the AIPAC Policy Conference

   Earlier this week I was one of 16,000 attendees at the annual Policy Conference of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Policy Conference is the major gathering of what AIPAC calls the “pro-Israel community.” I want to share with you some of my thoughts and impressions from the Conference.

            The Policy Conference is always a newsworthy event with high-level representation from both Israel (often the Prime Minister) and the US (sometimes the President or Vice-President, always a Cabinet-level officer.) This year it was even more so as it coincided with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress and all of the controversy surrounding that event. Almost until the last minute there was drama surrounding the lineup of speakers. Would Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog also appear? (He didn’t, although he was invited.) Would the White House snub the conference by refusing to send anyone at all, as a way of showing their displeasure with Netanyahu? (In fact, both National Security Advisor Susan Rice and UN Ambassador Samantha Power spoke -- both considered Cabinet level positions.)

            Although I have attended other AIPAC events before, this was my first Policy Conference. It was an extremely impressive and well-managed undertaking. I registered for all of my breakout sessions online and received my delegate credentials in the mail several days before the conference. AIPAC’s information system knew not only that I am a rabbi but that I am a Conservative rabbi, a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, and automatically added three rabbinic programs and one Rabbinical Assembly program to my schedule. The AIPAC Smartphone App kept track of my program, told me what rooms my various sessions were in and even mapped my way to each room. All of this avoided the dreaded check-in line as well as endless announcements for room changes and so on.

            In general I was extremely impressed with all of the details of running a conference. Seating in the plenary sessions was by lanyard color -- the more you donated the closer to the stage you sat, except that rabbis got lavender lanyards which allowed us to sit with the $1200 donors rather than in the general section. Multiple sections and multiple entrances meant that despite the crowd of 16,000, there wasn’t a huge line to get in to the sessions. For other special interest programs (like those for rabbis) various ribbons attached to your credentials got you into the session, saving the necessity of checking people in at the door. A massive kosher cafeteria was set up in the basement of the convention center. There was never too long of a wait to buy food, and while the food was expensive it wasn’t outrageously so and it was decent if not gourmet.

            The production values were impressive as well. Lots of video screens, some showing the action on the stage and others showing complementary photos or graphics. The sound quality was excellent. At every session there was a bottle of water and a small snack placed at every seat.  All in all, it was like a combination of a political convention, a pep rally and a rock concert.

            The main focus of the event of course was the US - Israel relationship. Whatever the justification or necessity of Prime Minister Netanyahu addressing Congress, it was clear that his plan to do so had angered the White House and put many Democratic legislators in a difficult position. It also carried with it the potential of alienating many rank-and-file Democrats and thus making AIPAC’s job tougher. Remember, AIPAC’s goal is to strengthen support for Israel in the government and the U.S. public across-the-board, a responsibility it takes quite seriously. And so there were a number of panels specifically geared towards making the case for Israel from a progressive perspective, reminding us that for all it’s flaws and problems Israel is light years ahead of its neighbors in women’s status, LGBT rights, and in so many other measures of what makes for an enlightened society. One such panel which I attended featured CNN contributor and Al Gore’s campaign manager Donna Brazile, and another featured Israeli author Ari Shavit of “My Promised Land” fame.

            I want to share a few thoughts about some of the plenary talks and the whole controversy surrounding the Prime Minister’s congressional address. I claim no greater expertise in politics or foreign policy than anyone else in our congregation, nor do I speak for anyone but myself. The purpose of my comments is to try and interpret what I saw and heard and make the disagreements we have intelligible.

            The first thing that needs to be said, in my opinion, is that speakers across the spectrum made it very clear that the goal and necessity is preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The argument is not about whether Iran should be allowed to go nuclear but rather about what is the best way to prevent Iran from going nuclear. That fact is sometimes obscured in all the rhetoric.

            The second thing to bear in mind is that for all their disagreements with Israel, the Arab states fear a nuclear Iran as much as if not more than Israel. A number of speakers pointed out that although the whole world knows Israel has had nuclear weapons for decades, none of the Arab states have felt the need to react by getting their own bomb. But if Iran goes nuclear, they have made it clear, the Arab states will want nuclear weapons as well, thus destabilizing the entire region.

            I’ve made no secret of the fact that I thought Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to speak to Congress was unwise. Of course, time will tell whether this proves to be the case or not. His decision did backfire in at least one respect; Democratic senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey held up his own bill to increase sanctions against Iran until after both the Israeli elections and the March 24 deadline for the Iranian nuclear negotiations. Where it once seemed likely that Congress would pass the Kirk-Menendez bill by a veto-proof majority, it now seems that this won’t happen due to some Democrats’ dissatisfaction with the perceived insult to President Obama by the Speaker and the Prime Minister.

            Having said that, I thought the Prime Minister’s speeches at AIPAC and to Congress were both very good. (He gave essentially the same speech both days.) He made it very clear that he respects both the President and the Presidency; that he regrets his speech has been perceived as a slight to the President; and that he appreciates the support the United States continues to provide Israel politically, financially and militarily. He made the case why he thinks the proposed deal with Iran is dangerous: it would allow Iran to keep many elements of its nuclear infrastructure, it is only for ten years, and Iran has a history of violating agreements it signs.

            If this is the case -- and it certainly is -- why then is the Obama administration moving forward? National Security Advisor Susan Rice made the case in a speech studded with Hebrew phrases and references to her strong support of Israel going back to her first visit there at age 14.

            The question hinges on multilateralism. Is it important for the attempt to prevent Iran from going nuclear to be a joint project of the US with Russia, France, China, Germany and the UK? Or is it sufficient for the US and Israel to go it alone? While it would be great if Iran could be left without even civilian nuclear components, Iran will never agree and the rest of the world will not support that demand, Ambassador Rice said. If the US ramps up its demands Iran will walk away from the table, the other countries in the negotiations will drop their sanctions and Iran will actually be closer to developing nuclear weapons. The Prime Minister thinks Iran can be forced to agree to a more onerous treaty by threat of greater sanctions; the President and the State Department think that won’t work. If the talks collapse and there is no treaty and Iran continues its nuclear weapons program, the only alternative will be military action. Given our recent experiences in Iran and Afghanistan, is that something the US public will support?

            I am grateful to the anonymous Kehilat Shalom member who paid my attendance to this Conference. It helped me to better understand what is at stake in the debate over the Iranian nuclear negotiations and where the differences in the two approaches lie. It made me feel good to be in the same room as 16,000 other Americans who are deeply committed to a strong and secure Israel, even as we might disagree over other political issues as well as what is the best way to keep Israel secure and strong. And I gained increasing respect for AIPAC in its organizational abilities and its commitment to a bipartisan approach. I’ve already signed up for AIPAC’s Rabbinic Seminar in August.