I got up early Monday to take a long ride to D.C. and try to cover the AIPAC Conference. That’s The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, www.aipac.org annual gathering for OpEdNews. It’s more than a little daunting to drive down, get credentialed and led through security and a maze of people to the Press Section of the Washington Convention Center and try to take it all in, (a three day political, social and cultural extravaganza), in one day. But here goes:
To begin with, over 7500 Jewish activists from every state and congressional district came together to get inspired, scared and prepared with marching orders to mount a successful assault on Capital Hill. The first speaker on the first day was Senator John McCain who would be followed on day three by both Senator’s Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader, Senator Harry Reid are also on the schedule as is Secretary of State Condolezza Rice and Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. It would be kinda like the ultimate name-dropping game if what all these politicians and a slew of others were talking about weren’t the future of the State of Israel, terror, Islamic fundamentalism and the nature and relevance of American foreign policy.
It’s easy to paint a target on AIPAC and assign it the responsibility for all the evils that have befallen the Middle East as “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby.” Noted professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt began a cottage industry with their recent paper and follow up book castigating “The Israel Lobby.” And I believe Nobel laureate and former President Jimmy Carter purposely choose an incendiary title for his 2006 bestseller; “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid,” a work that attacks the Israel lobby unsparingly.
There is simply no doubt that AIPAC is the 800-pound gorilla in the room and remains proud of it.
But how does an old fashioned Jewish liberal deal with the reality, read through the lines and make sense of what AIPAC actually does? To make all this even more confusing after many years and too many attempts there is a brand new organization formed out of many left leaning American Jewish groups called the J Street Project, www.jstreet.org, as an alternative to the right leaning AIPAC.
Additionally, the politics of Israel and Palestine involves two leaders who are characterized as weak, (Olmert who is withering under a series of corruption charges and as a result of his conduct of the War with Lebanon and Abbas whose peace platform remains hidden by his ascendancy as the heir to Arafat that had neither the economic or military power to hold onto Gaza in the face of the onslaught by Hamas). While these readings are too narrow they handicap not only the leaders but the future of any meaningful peace process.
The very nature of the exuberant Israeli democracy has necessitated the positioning of Prime Minister Olmert’s key rivals not only in the opposition, (Netanyahu), but within his own coalition government as both Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister, Ehud Barak. This is far from our American model. And even as President Abbas makes progress in the West Bank with his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, (appointed in the aftermath of the Hamas victory in Gaza), it is telling that the most popular Palestinian is the jailed former leader of Fatah’s militant Tanzim faction, Marwan Barghouti.
There is also another 800-pound guerilla in the room named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has already managed to face down the UN, the US and the Middle East and is winning the battle to make Iran a full member of the International Nuclear Club. It is fair to say that he has no love for either Israel or the United States.
So without going through a detailed analysis of the speeches that I heard, does all this angst and complexity give AIPAC a blank check? I don’t believe so. To travel to Washington as over 7000 political activists did to hear American and Israeli leaders define the challenges for American Jews and the State of Israel is a good thing. So few of us pay enough attention to become engaged in the political struggle over a piece of legislation let alone the future of a people.
Israel was born some 60 years ago in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Today it looks around and hears the words of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and considers a future that is insecure. It has been an imperfect experiment in democracy that needs both our understanding and our assistance to transform into a vital partner with the Palestinians that together will adopt a secure and economically viable two-state solution.
Do the marching orders of AIPAC promote this outcome? I believe they do. I believe that deep in the Jewish heart there is a recognition of human rights for Palestinians, a recognition of the terrible costs of the occupation, a recognition of the weariness of the Israeli people and of its desire for peace.
I also believe that AIPAC is realistic about the impediments to any peace that include not only the rockets of Hamas and Hizbollah, but the ambitions of Iran, Al Qaeda and millions more believers in the Muslim Brotherhood. It is a tough neighborhood and to paraphrase the words of former Ambassador Dennis Ross: Far too often America has been inconsistent in its use of carrots and sticks in the Middle East. There is a role for AIPAC.
But I believe there is also a role for people of all faiths to work for peace and to build relations between Muslims, Christians, Jews and others here in America and in Israel/Palestine. It is this second track of dialogue and diplomacy between people that can help our nation and theirs to accept an “other” and begin meaningful reconciliation in schools and on the ground. It is through this person to person education that I believe together we can remake our communities and our world. If we don’t do this work, then AIPAC is left to defend the State of Israel against all comers and worse, America will rot from the inside out.