Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 2014 AIPAC annual conference.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Amid the ongoing controversy over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned March 3 address to a joint session of the US Congress, there are reports that top-level administration officials may skip AIPAC’s policy conference in early March in Washington.
AIPAC officials have been tight-lipped, noting that it is often not unusual for the pro-Israel lobbying group not to know until the last minute which administration officials will attend.
However, coming at a time of what some have termed unprecedented tensions between the leadership in Washington and Jerusalem, the lack of top-level Obama administration officials at the AIPAC summit would mark a further deterioration in the current US-Israel saga.
Former ambassador to the US Michael Oren (Koolanu) expressed concern over the developments. “Should the American government choose to boycott AIPAC, it will essentially choose to boycott its strategic alliance with Israel,” he said.
There is a history of strong ties between AIPAC and US administrations. President Barack Obama addressed AIPAC as recently as 2012. Last year, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke in clear terms to the conference about Israel’s fears of a nuclear Iran. “We will not permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. Period,” he said. “Only strong diplomacy can justify more forceful options if we will have to use them.”
Despite those assurances, bilateral relations at the top have frayed over the last year or so. Washington expressed frustration with lack of progress on talks with the Palestinians, and in October a US official was quoted as insulting Netanyahu with the term “chickenshit.” Now, with the ongoing Iranian nuclear talks possibly leading to a deal in the works, Israel and the US have again come to loggerheads.
Netanyahu apparently doesn’t believe that a “good” deal is possible with Iran and has used every opportunity to make that point. It has apparently annoyed the Obama administration to no end. US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki castigated Netanyahu on Friday, saying, “It sounds like he knows more than the negotiators,” while White House press secretary Josh Earnest added that the US is withholding from Israel information on the progress of Iran talks.
At a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, a week before his planned speech in Washington, Netanyahu once again voiced his disappointment with Washington’s policy.
“It is astonishing that even after the recent IAEA report determined that Iran is continuing to hide the military components of its nuclear program, the nuclear talks are proceeding,” the prime minister said.
The dispute between the US and Israel seems to be getting worse as a deal with Iran seems to be getting closer.
Given the level of this very public argument, it would be a tremendous blow to Israel-US ties if the administration is seen to be boycotting AIPAC. For decades, AIPAC has worked as a bipartisan advocate of Israel, aiming to strengthen, protect and promote the relationship “in ways that enhance the security of Israel and the United States.”
It is entirely proper that allies will have disagreements over issues of vital national importance, such as Iran. It is also understandable that the Obama administration sees the Netanyahu speech as politically problematic, given that he was invited by the Republican speaker of the House and he is going to be criticizing US policy.
But all of that administration displeasure and its own internal disputes with the Republican-controlled Congress should be directed at Netanyahu personally, not at the office of the prime minister and the State of Israel or its bipartisan Congressional allies. In short, AIPAC and Israel should not be punished because of a personal feud, no matter the legitimacy of that feud.
Much of the dispute is symbolic rather than substantive.
US-Israel security ties are as strong as they have been in the past. However, America and Israel’s enemies see any daylight in the alliance between the two countries as an opportunity to work against both Israel and the US interests in the region.
Iran is happy to portray Israel as “derailing” the negotiations they are trying to string along with the US. Iran’s PressTV is already gloating over the AIPAC conference “snub,” part of the Iranian policy to portray Israel as the problem and encourage Washington to also see its Arab allies – Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Gulf States – as standing in the way of a rapprochement with Tehran.
It’s time for Washington and Jerusalem to heal their rift and reaffirm their unshakable alliance. Straight talk is good between allies, but petty public squabbles only stoke the fires and feed the appetites of the enemies of both Israel and America.