AIPAC Policy Conference 2016: Lessons Learned
By: Michele Poltorak
As anticipated the topics of the AIPAC conference centered on AIPAC's legislative agenda. Those items were: responding to Iran's regional aggression, the support of direct negotiations with the Palestinians, to fight the boycott against Israel and to support security assistance to Israel.
Over the course of three days, we heard Congressman and the presidential candidates address these issues, and witnessed through exhibits, videos and personal observations the very real affect these issues have on Israel and the daily lives of its citizens. This article will address each of the agenda items and attempt to weave in the positions taken by our leader and the leadership of AIPAC.
Regarding Iran’s increasing regional aggression, we heard that Congress must send a strong message to the Iranians that the U.S. will push back if it violates its international obligations – both the Iran “deal” and UN Resolutions. We were explained that the "deal" was not a treaty, contract, executive order or any other legal binding document. Rather, the “deal” was a "political commitment" by the international community. And, that the ballistic missile tests did not violate the deal “per se.” We spoke a lot about what options existed for the U.S. Ron Dermer, the American-born Israeli diplomat who currently serves as the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., was our first speaker at the conference. He emphasized that Iran is the biggest threat to Israel. He explained that the “deal” does not dismantle the nuclear program, but puts restrictions that limit its current function. Iran, he said, is the foremost sponsor of terrorism. But now, he reminded us, there are stronger alliances with Arab countries to combat the rise of ISIS. Now, he said, more than ever, we need to strengthen our strategy with these countries, but from “under the surface.” Jonathan Harris, the Assistant Director of Policy and Government at AIPAC, discussed it from the angle of the changing players in the Middle East. He described that the permanent transformation of the region is bad and “it’s going to get worse.” He explained the Russian presence in the area. Russia now has a radar system in Latkia, which overlaps with Israel, so Israel’s planes with either have to go around or ask Russia for permission. We were shown pictures of Russian and U.S. tanks flying Hezbollah flags in Syria. According to recent statistics, there are 36,000 “foreign fighters” (who have passports that allow them to cross from their home country into the region and back), and between 8-10 million under radical control. It was clear that ISIS has “gone fully global.” Uniform was the message that this “new phenomenon” is getting worse. At one of the “breakout” sessions, I heard from the Hon. Brendan Boyle (D) and Hon. Lee Zeldin (D). Both had opposed the Iran deal. Both agreed that the only reason that Iran came to the table was to have the sanctions lifted, and that Iran has no intent to comply. As for what the U.S. can do they explained: (1) the Iran Sanctions Act, and (2) making sure that Israel has the strength and support that it needs.
Regarding the second agenda item, our support for direct negotiation, AIPAC emphasized that Israel is committed to a two-state solution, but peace can only be achieved through direct bilateral negotiations. Any push by the UN to force the parties together would be a mistake, and that the U.S. should resist that process. Ambassador Dermer discussed the history of Israel’s attempts to negotiate, and how all efforts have been refused. He described how Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, has not prepared his people for peace. Rather, Abbas has poisoned a generation of Palestinians. Dermer implored the Palestinians to stop paying terrorists. When they teach their kids peace, he said, we will be on our way to peace. If they preach hatred, he explained, there will be no possibility of resolution. Interestingly, when the speaker for the opposition party spoke to AIPAC, he too agreed that now is not the time for peace with the Palestinians.
AIPAC also pushed the fight against the boycott of Israel and its products. The leadership stressed that in the U.S. we need to combat the rise of BDS, and combat against state-sponsored BDS movements. Key, however, is also to bolster the economic ties with Israel. Over the three days, almost each speaker stressed the fact that AIPAC had over 4,000 college campus delegates and young people at the conference who combat the BDS movement on their campus each day. It was heartening to see "our future" represented. Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado spoke of how the State disallowed pension fund companies who divested from Israel. We also viewed video clips of the current relationships that Israeli companies have with American, including in the sectors of technology, energy and water.
AIPAC emphasized a push to our Congressman of the support for security assistance to Israel. I learned that the current MOU expires in 2018. And, that we want our Congressman to support the funding remaining in 2016 and 2017, but when it is up for renewal, to vote for the full funding of $3.1 billion to aid Israel's growing defense needs. Ambassador Dermer (and Joe Biden) said that he hoped to have the renewed MOU signed soon. When confronted with opposition (i.e., “Israel is doing so well, why do they still need the U.S. help?”) we were explained that the answer is multi-faceted. First, the aid to Israel helps the U.S. too because a large part of the “aid” goes back to the U.S when Israel buys its planes, etc. from the U.S., and that defense needs are not a function of population or the GNP, but a function of our enemies. Israel needs the assistance to purchase the necessary and expensive weaponry and defense systems.
Throughout the three days, the attendees were shown how the U.S. aid assists Israel both economically and militarily. We saw the wonderful new technology that is being invented in Israel. Inventions on display included an ingestible pill with a camera, which is used for diagnostic and surgical purposes. Another was a method to detect cervical cancer. Another was a company that reinvented the wheel. SoftWheel literally reinvented the wheel by replacing the traditional spoke-and-rim hub with an innovative automatic suspension system for wheelchairs; thus enabling wheelchairs to have freer movements - down stairs, up mountains and over uneven roads. SoftWheel is also in the prototype stages for bicycles and cars.
Aside from the AIPAC agenda items, we were also provided wonderful speakers. As a Washington club member, I was able to attend a lunch and other invitation-only sessions. At the lunch, we heard from Natan Sharansky who shared his personal experiences. We also heard from the daughter of Eddie Jacobson, who told us her father’s story, which I had not heard before. In sum, Jacobson was a friend from life and when Chaim Weizman traveled to the U.S. to plea for the formation of a Jewish state, Truman was not going to meet with him. It was only through Jacobson traveling to Washington at the urging of his daughter that Jacobson convinced Truman to meet with Weizman. As a result, Truman recognized the provisional Jewish state. Another speaker was the son of Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, of the United States Armed Forces, who was taken by the Germans as a POW in 1944. In January 1945, at a POW camp where Edmonds was held, he was the highest-ranking soldier in the American section of the camp. The Germans then announced that all Jewish POWs, only, were to report the following morning. Edmonds, however, ordered all his men (about 1,200) to fallout the following morning – Jews and non-Jews alike. When the German officer, Major Siegmann, saw that all the camp’s inmates were standing in front of their barracks, he turned to Edmonds and exclaimed: “They cannot all be Jews!” To this Edmonds replied: “We are all Jews.” Siegmann took out his pistol, pointed it at Edmonds' head and threatened Edmonds, but the Master Sergeant did not waver and retorted: "According to the Geneva Convention, we only have to give our name, rank and serial number. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war, you will be tried for war crimes." The officer turned around and left the scene. It is approximated that Edmonds saved over 200 Jewish lives that day. Master Sergeant Edmonds was provided the highest Israeli honor to a non-Jew – The Righteous Gentile – and he is the only American soldier to hold that distinction.
Representing the President of the United States at the convention was Vice President Joe Biden. Vice President Biden received a warm welcome from the delegates, and he seemed genuine in his support for Israel. He reaffirmed the soundbites of the “deepening friendship” between the U.S. and Israel. He confirmed that the U.S. “stands with our allies against the thugs and cowards and those who seek to impose their beliefs through fear and intimidation.” He confirmed that the U.S. will not lose its resolve, and in regards to Israel, the U.S. will not waiver. He stated that the “commitment” that the U.S. has to Israel is “unambiguous.” Regarding the recent violence, he shared that there is “no excuse for killing innocents or remaining silent in the face of terrorism.” He agreed that the only way to negotiate a two-state solution is through discussions between Israel and the Palestinians, not through a UN forced resolution. He spoke frankly, and not surprisingly of the President's position that Israel has eroded the two-state solution with building in the territories. Biden did not, however, elaborate any further on the issue, and concluded by reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Israel.
As this year was a presidential cycle, AIPAC invited all presidential candidates. We were told that the AIPAC leadership was provided the speeches ahead of time to vet. Hilary Clinton was the first candidate to address AIPAC. She spoke eloquently regarding the various agenda items listed above. She maintained the U.S. commitment to the Iran deal, encouraged bilateral talks and condemned the violence at the hands of the terrorists – for which they receive payment. She did provide a forward look into what actions she would take in connection to her policy commitments. She stated that the U.S. “must take the alliance to the next level.” She hoped that the MOU negotiation was concluded as soon as possible to secure Israel’s needs into the future. She emphasized the need to “send a clear message” that Israel and the U.S. stand together - united. She expressed her firm commitment to ensure that Israel maintains its military qualitative edge. As President, she committed to the U.S. bolstering its new military defense systems - Arrow and David’s Sling. She committed that her “first thing” would be to “invite the Israeli Prime Minister to visit the White House” and “send a delegation to Israel for early consultation.” She was firm that “together” Israel and the U.S. would continue to build a vibrant relationship.
John Kasich was the next candidate to address AIPAC. His words were not well prepared and his actual presentation was flawed. He did not pause between sentences so they often were run-on and unfocused. He did, however, also tell the AIPAC audience what they wanted to hear from a policy perspective, including the rejection of the Iranian deal, not negotiating with terrorists and moving the capital to Jerusalem. When Trump walked into the area, he received tepid applause. But in his pre-prepared, and positioned speech, he provided what AIPAC supporters wanted to hear on policy – that he would move the embassy to Jerusalem, he would tear up the Iranian deal, that the Palestinian’s should not be rewarded with money and how as President he would provide financial support to Israel. He made several errors. He said that Israel was negotiating with “Palestine” – as opposed to Palestinians – which, as we know, is a made-up UN fiction. But, he clearly needed to undo the “neutral” comment he made several weeks ago. But his policy speech, some argued, was meaningless because he did not outline how he would accomplish any of the policy’s he expressed. Moreover, he made two statements, at least, that caused the AIPAC leadership to comment the next day. “With President Obama in his final year — yay!” said Trump, adding an exclamation, not in the text. And later, diverting from his text again, he called the president “maybe the worst thing to happen to Israel.”
Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz also addressed the AIPAC audience. The first thing he did was correct the misstatement that Trump made regarding “Palestine.” Next, he emphasized the need for a president who will be a champion for Israel. Cruz said that he would not “be neutral” regarding Israel (referring to Trump’s comment from the prior week) and that he would stand with Israel. Regarding what he would do, he said that he would: rip the [Iran] deal to shreds, re-impose sanctions on Iran, respond with the U.S. military might to fight Iran and ISIS, move the capital to Jerusalem (“the eternal capital”), veto any UN imposed resolution to the Palestinian conflict (“I will fly to NY to personally veto it myself.”)
The next morning, prior to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech, AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus and four other leaders, addressed the conference. Choking back tears, Pinkus apologized for Monday night's speeches, implying that Donald Trump had violated a nonpartisan standard. “From the moment this conference began, until this moment, we have preached a message of unity,” Pinkus said. “We have said, in every way we can think of: Come together. But last evening, something occurred which has the potential to drive us apart, to divide us. We say, unequivocally, that we do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense to those that are levied against the president of the United States of America from our stage.”
Lastly, Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the conference. He thanked AIPAC for all of its support. He spoke of the need to defeat terrorist with moral clarity. He emphasized the unbreakable alliance between Israel and the U.S. hope that can conclude the agreement. He again thanked President Obama for his support. “Israel is an island of liberty and democracy that does not divide but units.” He described that the “world is coming towards Israel” and explained that currently there are 161 countries with whom diplomatic relationship countries. If the international community wants peace, he noted, the Arab leaders need to stop inciting violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist. Netanyahu showed a video of what the Palestinian’s were teaching their children, including a little girl, no more than 5, holding up a knife and when prompted as to what she wanted to do she responded “stab, stab, stab.”
AIPAC does marvelous work, and although we were not successful in defeated the Iran deal, it cannot shake our resolve to contribute to AIPAC and ensure that we continue to grow and develop the mutually beneficial Israel-American relationship.