Tuesday, February 28, 2012

At AIPAC 2012, Iran Will Take Center Stage

The 2012 AIPAC policy conference kicks off this weekend at the Washington Convention Center here in D.C. with speeches by President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Secretary of Defense Panetta, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich.  The conference was pushed up to March this year versus May last year.  This may be in order to give the organization a chance to steer clear of a multitude of contentious political issues including the Republican presidential campaign and possible tension in the Middle East.

In many ways, this year's conference is shaping up to be the least contentious of the Obama administration.  In 2009, the administration was balancing support for Israel over Operation Cast Lead with a liberal constituency opposed to some of the IDF's heavy-handed tactics.  In 2010, the US and Israel sparred over the Obama administration's decision to push Israeli settlement freezes as a first step towards peace negotiations with the Palestinians.  In 2011, a late-breaking conflict erupted over the 1967 borders.  While President Obama invoked the lines as the basis of an agreement on two states for two peoples, Prime Minister Netanyahu saw his language as reneging on previous agreements between the US and Israel.  During his speech to AIPAC he reiterated his claim that "the 1967 lines are indefensible" to a standing ovation from the crowd.

This year, however, a number of factors have incentivized close alignment between the Obama administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu.  Firstly, this being an election year, the Obama administration is fighting an uphill battle to portray itself as sufficiently pro-Israel, especially among middle-aged and senior citizens who may have voted for Obama in 2008.   This election year pressure translates to US and Israeli policy on Iran.  While the US has a much higher rational threshold for preemptive military action against Iran (being 6,000 miles further away from it than Israel), the Obama administration is not eager to be perceived as jeopardizing the security of the Jewish state.

From the Israeli perspective, now is not the time to alienate the country's closest ally.  That the US will express regret if Israel strikes Iran is certain.  However, Israel has little incentive to make this inevitable regret even worse than it has to be.  Responding to any Iranian retaliation, especially from proxy actors like Hezbullah, will require US support.  A lack of such support would seriously constrain Israel's ability to defeat Hezbullah's considerable military capabilities.  Therefore, speeches by Israeli government officials are unlikely to emphasize differences, and will more likely focus strongly on unity against Iran.

The greatest level of conflict at the conference is likely to come from the Republican candidates, who will spar subtly with each other, and not-so-subtly with the Obama administration's agenda.  It would not be unreasonable to expect the candidate's speeches to be more hardline than PM Netanyahu's.  Bibi should play this to his advantage, letting the Republicans take the hardline, saying what must be said, and appear as the grateful recipient of US support and the determined defender of Israeli security.

As the weekend draws closer, both US and Israeli officials will begin framing the message that they will drive home at the conference.  Analysts should pay close attention to these statements, and should anticipate that they will be much more likely to reflect unity than divergence on Iran and issues of Israel's security.

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