WASHINGTON – Israel’s top envoy in America warned Fatah leaders on Sunday against entering a national unity deal with Hamas, arguing that it would set back prospects for peace.

“We hope that [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas will not follow through on reconciliation with Hamas,” said Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the US, during the opening plenary of the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in the US capital. “We see that very much as a game-blocker.”

His words came after comments on another major dynamic affecting the situation between Israel and its neighbors, the development of the Iron Dome short-range missile defense system that has intercepted scores of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.

Oren characterized the Iron Dome as “a game-changer, not a game-ender.”

The ambassador also reaffirmed the Israeli government’s support for direct talks with the Palestinians “without preconditions, today, anywhere” – including in Jerusalem, Ramallah or even the Washington Convention Center, a joking reference to the location of the AIPAC convention.

Given Israel’s fragile security environment, Oren stressed the importance of US President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel later in the month. The visit sends an important message that “Israel is not alone,” Oren said.

Dennis Ross, a Middle East adviser to Obama during his first term, spoke on an AIPAC panel after Oren and characterized the president’s upcoming visit to Israel as an opportunity for a new beginning.

Obama’s trip, the first of his second administration, comes after a first term filled with tensions with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and a grinding peace process that ultimately stalled.

Elliott Abrams, who served as a Middle East adviser to former president George W.

Bush, praised Obama’s decision to travel to Israel but was more blunt about what was needed for a different era in relations between the two countries, in which Obama demonstrates to the Israeli public that he understands the challenges they face.

“He’s going to need to show a kind of delicate medical procedure [called] a kishke transplant,” he said in reference to the Yiddish expression for “guts,” eliciting laughter from the audience.

Abrams expressed concern that the so-called P5+1 world powers of the US, UK, France, German, China and Russia, in the round of negotiations with Iran held last week, had weakened their stance by offering to roll back some of the upcoming sanctions blocking Tehran’s use of gold in exchange for concessions from Iran.

“The message to Iran is, ‘Just wait,’ and meanwhile of course they do get closer and closer and closer in their nuclear weapons program,” Abrams said.

“The Iranians have been playing a rope-a-dope strategy, there’s no doubt about that,” Ross agreed.

Ross said the P5+1 strategy could be constructive if it takes off the mask about Iran’s nuclear intentions, but it needs to be followed up with consequences if Iranians don’t meet international demands.

“If [the P5+1] are taking away excuses that’s fine,” he said. “But at some point the negotiations have got to focus on verifying, is diplomacy going to work or not?” Some 13,000 attendees are expected to participate over the course of this year’s three-day conference, about the same as last year. About 2,000 are high school and college students, who earned a special shout-out in the introductory event Sunday morning. As a sign of the massive scale of the gathering, for the first time the convention center placed stadium seating at the edge of the cavernous conference hall to accommodate the crowd.

However, AIPAC President Michael Kassen told them their work wasn’t done, that there were more pro-Israel activists to recruit to AIPAC’s cause and to bring to the conference.

There was a growing strain of isolationism throughout America that was “dangerous” for Israel and needed to be guarded against, he warned.

He also cautioned that the large influx of new members of Congress meant that supporters of Israel couldn’t take for granted that legislators in the future would “get it” when it comes to Israel, and that complacency must be combated. •

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