Monday, March 5, 2012

Iran Is Beyond AIPAC's Reach, 2SS Is Not

To say that AIPAC Policy Conference 2012 has focused on Iran would be an understatement.  Every major speaker has, in their own capacity, referenced the danger Iran poses to Israel.  The catchphrase of the conference, "Iran must not be allowed to gain a nuclear capacity."  has been repeated by AIPAC officials, President Obama, and will likely be driven home tonight in Prime Minister Netanyahu's gala address to the conference.  

Of course, what constitutes nuclear capacity, and what exactly the US and Israel should do to prevent it is a message not communicated by either the catchphrase or by AIPAC more generally.  Is nuclear capacity a certain percentage of enrichment?  Is it an imminent capability to weaponize?  Similar questions exist surrounding the specifics of the "military option."  Is it a strike on government buildings in Tehran?  Is is a strike on the nuclear facility in Natanz?  Is it a cyber-attack? 

It would be easy to chalk this vagueness up to messaging.  Policy specifics are hardly ever a topic of discussion at such conferences.  But there is a more important reason for the use of a catch-all phrase like "capability." 

It is because Iran is an incredibly complex issue whose outcome is almost entirely beyond the purview of AIPAC.

To not use Iran as an agenda item would be foolish. That multiple speakers have referred to the soap operatic story of Purim in their speeches speaks to the easy usage of the issue for caricature.  Israel is Queen Esther, bravely acting in danger to defend her people.  Iran is Haman, the villain who seeks the annihilation of the Jews.  Pro-Israel lobbyists could not ask for a better Haman than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Middle-Eastern bearded man yelling about the Holocaust and nuclear weapons. 

Clarity about which player is which, however, is as clear as it was when Iran announced the construction of two nuclear sites in Iran ten years ago. The real politics over the Iran issue is a game which is more complex than three-dimensional chess.  Israel wants a green light from the United States to strike Iran.  But this strike would almost definitely have lethal repercussions for Israel and perhaps other Western states.  Prime Minister Netanyahu is not asking President Obama for permission to strike Iran.  He is asking for assurances of support if Israel chooses to do so at an indeterminate point in the future.  Discussions in the Israeli press indicate this issue is still largely a matter of discussion in the Jewish state, just as they are being hotly debated in the United States.

Since the issue is so complex, neither Israel or the United States are clear on what course of action to take.  This means that the best AIPAC can do is advocate for keeping open an option that both the US and Israel have already expressly stated is open. It can keep Iran high on the agenda - just as it has been since early January.  Ultimately, despite what cynics claim, AIPAC is not pushing the US and Israel into a war with Iran - because it's simply unclear to both governments that it would be a wise option.

This all would be fair enough if there weren't also a myriad of other issues on which AIPAC could exert leverage, but does not.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, poses a far greater threat over the long term to Israel than the Iranian nuclear program.  But old habits die hard, and the only discussion in plenary sessions of Palestinians is when they are being described as terrorists, people who hate peace, or agents of Israel's destruction.  It was noticeable the number of times AIPAC's leaders have recognized the 1600 students who are attending the Policy Conference.  Youth outreach is important to AIPAC's longevity as an organization.  However, the long-term implications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain an issue of discussion in the pro-Israel community long after the outcome of the Iranian nuclear issue is known. 

If AIPAC is serious about engaging this younger generation it must engage on issue which matter to them.  There is no better way to do this than to support US-Israel engagements which create meaningful and grounded progress on the two-state solution.