At the AIPAC Policy Conference 20 years ago, Secretary of State James Baker made a widely publicized speech that, if I’m not mistaken, was written by Aaron David Miller. He told the throng:
For Israel, now is the time to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel. Israeli interests in the West Bank and Gaza, security and otherwise, can be accommodated in a settlement based on UN Resolution 242. Foreswear annexation; stop settlement activity; allow schools to reopen; reach out to the Palestinians as neighbors who deserve political rights.
That was greeted with loud boos and catcalls. The audible hostility continued even though Baker also made serious demands of the PLO and the Arab states.
Twenty years later, Vice President Joseph Biden told the AIPAC Policy Conference:
“Israel has to work for a two-state solution. You’re not going to like my saying this…But don’t build more settlements. Dismantle existing outposts. Allow Palestinians freedom of movement.”
The video of the speech indicates there was applause from at least part of the crowd, probably the centrist, moderate Democrats who are part of the AIPAC family, contrary to the popular notion that the organization’s members are all Likudniks, neo-cons and settler supporters. Everyone else was silent. But there was no overt hostility.
I wasn’t there, but based on conversations with two people who were in the room, and based on past attendance at these conferences, I can guarantee that the rest of the crowd just sat there uncomfortably, waiting for the next applause line, hoping and praying that Biden would not challenge the Israeli government again. During these plenary speeches, they wait for chances to give standing ovations to any and every politician who declares a commitment to Israel. That is how they had greeted Biden’s earlier, mandatory statement that America’s commitment to Israel’s security would not change, and was non-negotiable. They were in no mood for a fight, even though Biden’s remarks were confrontational, even though one of AIPAC’s chief goals is to make sure there is no distance between official American and Israeli positions, no public disputes between the two governments.
Why the different reactions to the two speeches? One of them has to do with political style. Bush and Baker were â€œtone-deafâ€ when it came to dealing with the Jewish community, said UCLA Professor Steven Spiegel in my book. He thinks the Bush ’41 team could have reduced at least some tensions with Jews in the U.S. by paying more attention to their fears and insecurities about Israel. A president, Spiegel told me, “needs to reassure them with the rhetoric, then do the right thing.”
In contrast to Bush ’41 and Baker, Obama, Biden and Clinton have a much better feel for the organized Jewish community. They have been doing their best to reassure the community of their commitment to meeting Israel’s core security needs, even though there have been public disagreements with Netanyahu on a number of issues.
Another reason why Biden (and, before him, John Kerry, who also criticized the settlements) got away with it is that these days, AIPAC makes a greater effort to avoid public confrontations with American administrations. Attendees at these conferences are repeatedly told that speakers are guests in AIPAC’s house as well as friends of Israel, and the speakers should be treated accordingly.
AIPAC is terrified of a public spat with an overwhelmingly popular Democratic President and his administration. Contrary to popular belief, AIPACâ€™s highest priority is not to promote the policies of Israeli governments, although it generally tries to do so. The group is more interested in solidifying Americaâ€™s short- and long-term relationship with Israel. For that, it needs access to and good relations with bureaucrats in Foggy Bottom, the Pentagon and the White House. A public squabble with Obama and his team is not helpful to AIPAC staffers who need to get into the right rooms with the right people. They also need to get their board members into those very same rooms because that is an expected perk of voluntary leadership.
Bibi Netanyahu also seems to be doing his best to avoid a confrontation. In his videotaped speech to the AIPAC conference, he endorsed negotiations without preconditions and apparently abandoned his earlier commitment to addressing the Palestinians’ economic plight before serious political talks could occur.
But the confrontation probably canâ€™t be avoided forever. Eventually, Obama will have to decide whether to insist loudly and clearly that, like Palestinian violence and incitement, Israelâ€™s recalcitrant refusal to stop its settlements projects is unacceptable, and against American, Israeli and Palestinian interests.
If he stakes out that position, most American Jews â€“like most Americansâ€”will support him. So will most of the U.S. Congress, although there will be some inevitable squalls from groups to the right of AIPAC and their congressional allies. If that happens, AIPAC will be in a tough position. Bibi should not count on the groupâ€™s ability to wriggle out of it, and give him the kind of raucous support it gave one of his mentors, Yitzhak Shamir.