AIPAC's annual Policy Conference kicked off yesterday in Washington, D.C. with a program featuring Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Ben Cardin (D-MD). AIPAC's Executive Director, Howard Kohr, also spoke to the 16,000 assembled participants. Both panels focused on a potential Iran nuclear deal and urged Congressional oversight for the bill. This push for oversight is the focus of AIPAC's conference and is a theme that will be repeated often over the next two days.
In supporting a strong deal, both Senator Graham and Executive Director Kohr emphasized the value of reassuring America's Arab allies, particularly those in the Gulf. Given that this is an Israel conference, these statements are significant. The US relationship with Arab countries often takes a backseat at AIPAC conference plenaries. Arab states are grouped together as a common enemy confronting Israel, which must defend itself. AIPAC has lobbied the US government with regards to individual Arab states like Egypt but, does so in reference to Israel's security. These comments are an explicit recognition that the US has ties with Arab states as well as Israel, and that these ties matter to America's strategic posture in the Middle East.
Yesterday's comments are indicative of a shift in the pro-Israel camp towards acceptance of America's relationship with Arab countries. They demonstrate recognition of the strategic importance of the Gulf and other key regions of the Middle East to the United States. In other words, Israel is not the only country whose interests matter to the US in the Middle East. AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups have been criticized for trying to shape US policy in the Middle East based only on US-Israel ties. However, invoking the security of Arab states against a nuclear Iran demonstrates an acceptance in the pro-Israel crowd of a multilateral approach.