Sunday, March 3, 2013

AIPAC 2013 Kicks Off With Focus On Syria

The 2013 AIPAC annual conference began this morning at the Walter Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington DC.  During the opening plenary, attendees heard from Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, Former Middle East Envoy Dennis Ross, and former Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams.

Syria took particular prominence in the opening hours of the conference, linked to - and even overshadowing - the Iran issue.  Ambassador Oren emphasized that Israel supports Syrian President Assad's departure from power, and reiterated that Syria would be crossing a red line if it passes chemical weapons to Hizbullah.

Dennis Ross took a particularly forward posture on Syria, calling for the US "to provide lethal assistance" to the Syrian opposition, though he did not specify the kind of aid or to whom it should go.  The statement may have been intended to put pressure on the Obama administration with which Mr. Ross is closely aligned.  The administration has recently pledged $60 million dollars worth of non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, but has shied away from providing lethal aid.

AIPAC's policy agenda this year appears slightly less focused than in years past, when the slogans "The 1967 borders are indefensible" and "Containment is not an option" were crystal clear in the opening hours of the conference.  This is because of the ongoing coalition building process in Israel in which Israel's policy platforms are being actively negotiated.  Since Prime Minister Netanyahu will be forced to make compromises - especially now that the talk have gone into overtime - a strong AIPAC policy agenda might have the impact of tying Israel's hands. 

As a result, much of the opening plenary session focused on US issues like bi-partisan support for Israel and the challenge of high Congressional turnover to Israel advocacy in the United States.  Current AIPAC President Michael Kassen warned about the "growing allure of isolationism" on the part of the American public and the US Congress, which has a "different relationship" with Israel than older generations.  He also highlighted the increased representation of minorities in the population of likely voters as a  "challenge."  This framing was an honest but somewhat awkward formulation of the issue - especially in the wake of an African American pastor referencing Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's role in the US civil rights movement and Jews' historic alignment with other American minorities.

The plenary concluded with a showcase of Israeli technology, designed to highlight the non-political aspect of Israel and pro-Israel advocacy in the United States.  While Israeli technology has been a feature of many AIPAC conferences, this was the first time in recent memory it was featured prominently in the opening plenary session.  It is significant that this time block, usually used for a prominent speech by a politician (President Obama in 2011 and 2012), was allocated for non-political use.  It indicates that AIPAC is being cautious in this period of political change not to draw lines in the sand that could limit the same Israeli and American politicians on whose behalf AIPAC tries to create leverage.