WASHINGTON — They pulled out all the stops, pushed every heartwarming button, filled the Washington Convention Center with soaring, uplifting intermission music and harnessed all the king’s horses to the cause of showcasing the enduring bonds of affection between the United States and Israel.
But what the 16,000 delegates assembled for three days here in the largest gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s 62-year history could not do was sustain the bipartisan pep-rally spirit that AIPAC’s conference organizers and the White House had wanted.
The easy explanation is that it was because Benjamin Netanyahu ruined everything.
It’s all Bibi’s fault. With not even three weeks to go before facing Israeli voters in a tight election race against his main challenger, the centre-left Isaac Herzog, the pugnacious Israeli prime minister was unpardonably discourteous to U.S. President Barack Obama in taking up an invitation from Republican leaders to address Congress. Bibi should have stayed home. Worse, he committed the unconscionable impudence of giving backchat about the nuclear deal Obama is on the verge of cementing with the Khomeinist regime in Tehran.
You could also say that it’s really the other way around, that Obama’s Democrats are being less than fastidious about staying out of Israeli politics, and the whole thing is really a matter of the White House having manufactured a rumpus to Netanyahu’s electoral disadvantage. In this analysis, what’s really at work is a cunning strategy aimed at insulating Obama against the prospect of his presidency’s signature foreign-policy achievement being traduced as a catastrophe by the prime minister of the one Middle East ally with a hold on the hearts and minds of the American people.
There was much bipartisan agreement, sure enough. But you can only maintain appearances for so long.
A much warmer reception greeted the brief remarks from Canada’s recently resigned foreign minister, John Baird, than U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power managed to coax with a passionate address on the subject of the abiding American-Israeli friendship going back to the days of John F. Kennedy. During the subdued applause offered up to U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, there were moments when you could almost hear the traffic outside the cavernous convention centre. When Netanyahu addressed delegates on Tuesday, his shout-out to Baird elicited an ovation that was comparatively ear-splitting.
An especially thorny dilemma facing Israel’s most ardent American friends involves the work that will be required to undo the nightmarish damage of an Obama deal that leaves Iran’s ayatollahs anywhere near the trigger of a nuclear bomb. This is precisely what Netanyahu says Obama’s negotiated arrangements, in their still-vague outlines, will inevitably do. Could a successor Republican administration be trusted not to make matters even worse?
Another gathering that was just wrapping up here as the AIPAC conference was raising its curtains was the annual shindig of the Conservative Political Action Committee, where delegates were treated to pitches from an array of Republican presidential contenders. Among them: the freakish Donald Trump, the libertarian crank Rand Paul and a Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, whose claim to be a suitable commander-in-chief in the war against the jihadists who have taken over great swathes of Iraq and Syria rests on his own expertise in the thuggish art of union-busting.
The one brief moment of gravitas at CPAC came courtesy of former Florida governor Jeb Bush. But his handicap is that he’s the brother of Tea Party nemesis and Democratic Party hate figure George W. Bush, and in any case his moment was overshadowed by an outlandish speech delivered by Phil Robertson, a hayseed whose celebrity derives from some role he plays on a reality television program called Duck Dynasty.
While everybody at AIPAC was being respectably bipartisan around the consensus that it would be outrageous to trust the Iranian theocracy even for a minute, and consequently any nuclear deal with Tehran would have to be constantly and carefully policed, certain other questions of trust remained unanswered after AIPAC’s conclusion. Can the Republicans ever be trusted again? Is it just as foolish in the meantime to trust the Obama administration?
House Democratic Party leader Nancy Pelosi, after a grand performance of umbrage-taking to Netanyahu’s remarks on Tuesday (“an insult to the intelligence of the United States”), insisted that a nuclear-armed Iran would always be “unacceptable” and that “all options” remained open to the Obama administration.
But what is now known about Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiations is that one of those options is to roll back the sanctions the Obama administration only reluctantly imposed on Tehran in the first place in exchange for a 10-year deal the Democratic Party’s vast spin-management resources should be expected to sell as a brilliant foreign-policy victory, no matter what sort of a shambles or a sell-out it might be.
Whatever one thinks about Netanyahu’s manners, one thing he has not been so intemperate as to mention out loud is the staggering debt Obama has already racked up by making a radical rapprochement with Iran such an overriding personal priority that it has emptied the entire account of his foreign-policy capital.
The main human costs have been borne by the more than 200,000 Syrians who have been slaughtered in the satrapy the Iranian Khomeinists have been permitted to run in Damascus since 2011. The cost of Obama’s liquidation of American investments in Iraq, all to Tehran’s advantage, is as incalculable as it is unrecoverable. In Lebanon, the Iranian proxy Hezbollah, undisturbed by American power, is now stronger and better armed than ever. Yemen, only weeks ago an American project, is now in the hands of Khomeinist-backed Houthi militias.
That’s before we even consider the costs of having sacrificed Iran’s brave dissidents, along with the prospects of a democratic, post-Khomeinist Iran, to Obama’s foreign-policy follies.
In Washington, the bipartisan consensus holds that a nuclear-armed Iran would present as direct a threat to the United States as it would to Israel and to the several Arab states that share Israel’s disquiet about Obama’s gamble-the-farm policies in the region.
What’s at stake for Obama is his swagger, his legacy, his place in history. What’s at stake for Israel is the prospect of annihilation. There’s a difference. And that’s the dilemma.