AIPAC 2018: Wag the Dog Edition

Beginning this Saturday, DC will once again play host to the annual AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) Policy Conference. Over the course of three days, several thousand attendees will be treated to a smorgasbord of speakers and panels on a variety of topics. The event wraps up Tuesday when the delegates, armed with talking points learned over the course of the conference, head up to Capitol Hill to press legislators to take on more Israel-friendly positions.

There are rarely any surprises at AIPAC. After all, everyone is there for the same reason: to promote the United States’ unwavering support for Israel. It is not a moment for a serious debate about the nature of this relationship or introspection into Israel’s shortcomings. It’s more like freebase for the “Israel: Right or Wrong” crowd.

Security is always an important topic with Israel, but the discussion at AIPAC will be limited in scope. Few, if any, speakers will directly address the Occupation, for example, and even the ones who do will not do so in critical terms. On the other hand, there will be plenty of talk about Iran.

A quick glance at the speaker roster reveals quite a few people who have long espoused hawkish — if not downright militaristic — views on how to address the Iranian threat. On the American side, this includes Trump administration officials, led by Vice President Mike Pence, as well as prominent lawmakers such as Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio. Alarmingly, John Bolton, whose desire for preemptive military action apparently knows no bounds, is also on the agenda. From the private sector, voices like Emily Landau from INSS and Omri Ceren of The Israel Project are sure to talk up the need for increased pressure on Iran.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government delegation will be led by none other than the Prime Minister himself, who is attending the conference in person for the first time since 2015. Not coincidentally, Iran was also a significant issue during Netanyahu’s last visit to the conference. Back then, Iran was on the verge of a comprehensive agreement with the P5+1 powers (permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) over the fate of its nuclear program, which Netanyahu strongly opposed.

In his speech to the convention that year, Netanyahu railed against the Iranian regime. “Iran,” he said, “envelops the entire world with its tentacles of terror. This is what Iran is doing now without nuclear weapons. Imagine what Iran would do with nuclear weapons.” He framed the fight as a clash of civilizations, with Israel and the United States united “to defend our common civilization against common threats.” The next day, in front of a joint session of Congress, Netanyahu suggested that the Iranian desire to destroy Israel was a modern extension of a 2500-year-old Persian plot commemorated annually during the festival of Purim.

I’d expect more of the same this year.

As Israeli journalist Barak Ravid reported earlier this week, Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Trump at the White House ahead of his speech to the convention Monday evening. On Twitter, Ravid quoted a senior Israeli military official as saying, “It is comfortable for the Americans to let us be their sub-contractor against Iran in Syria. We are very worried.” Netanyahu is expected to press Trump for increased American military action against Iran in Syria. Given the President’s propensity to agree with the last thing anyone says to him, Netanyahu will likely come out of that meeting with a promise from Trump for stronger military commitment.

 

It shouldn’t be controversial anymore to point out Trump’s word on anything means very little. Netanyahu, like the rest of the world, is no doubt aware of this, which would be a good reason for him to publicize any promises Trump makes during their private meeting as quickly as possible. The AIPAC convention provides the perfect platform for this.

Even if Netanyahu chooses not to broadcast the details of his meeting with Trump, the Iranian threat will still dominate the speech. Netanyahu, who has become increasingly more Trump-like in his political and rhetorical style over the past year and a half, will offer lots of red meat to the highly partisan crowd. The optics of several thousand American supporters enthusiastically cheering the Prime Minister will provide a much-needed boost for a man whose government appears to be teetering on the political edge.

Like Trump, Netanyahu is in desperate need of a win right now. More than that, though, both men need something to distract attention away from the growing turmoil engulfing their administrations. They could easily decide that ramping up the conflict with Iran is precisely what is needed to divert attention and boost their leadership ratings. The agenda for this trip seems tailor-made for a big launch event (no pun intended), so I will be watching the Prime Minister’s speech on Monday very closely to see just how hard he tries to wag the dog.

 

Author: Jonathan Leslie

PhD candidate at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

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