What I learned from my first AIPAC

From security to Netanyahu to the Kotel, one MK saw it all at the largest Israel-related conference.

Crews prepare for the speakers at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, U.S., March 6, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)
Crews prepare for the speakers at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, U.S., March 6, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)
“Did you see the Iron Dome already?” a young and enthusiastic student from Florida asked me when we were standing in line to get that brown hot liquid that for some reason is being called “coffee” in America. I wanted to tell my interlocutor that in fact, I’ve seen many Iron Domes in Israel, some of them positioned in near proximity to my house in Modi’in, but then it was our turn.
Later, after a few heated sessions on Israeli politics in which I took part, I came down to the Village to see the Iron Dome. As I looked at the huge crowd from afar, I couldn’t take my eyes from it. The view was truly mesmerizing.
The 18,000 AIPAC Policy Conference participants – women and men, young and elderly, Republicans and Democrats, religious and non-affiliated, people from different countries who spoke many different languages – were there, taking part in a spectacular act of solidarity with my country.
In the left corner of the huge conference hall, a genuine Iron Dome was on display.
People were taking selfies like crazy, and I doubt that most of the Oscar-winning actors would get nearly same attention if they suddenly showed up. Someone even asked me if this system had had a chance to shoot down a rocket from Gaza yet.
The first time I heard the name AIPAC was some 30 years ago, when I was about 10 and lived in Moscow with my family. The sentence, “The powerful Jewish lobby met today in Washington,” which I overheard in the news was vague to me, but the voice variation and the grave look of the anchor’s face suggested that he, or whoever wrote the text, disapproved of the organization which was both Jewish and American. Some years later, after we made aliya and I started working as a journalist and was elected to the Knesset, I got a better understanding of what AIPAC meant and means to Israel – about its strategic and national importance.
I met with many AIPAC groups, read plenty of information about the various aspects of its activities, but there is nothing like the first-hand experience of being there.
Security, security, security
While still standing near the Iron Dome I overheard one of the participants saying that AIPAC is a diplomatic form of Iron Dome to Israel. What he meant was that AIPAC is promoting important legislation that can affect positively the security balance in the region.
Hearing from senators and congressmen from across the aisle talking on the ongoing legislation projects that are carved to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, to introduce sanctions against international companies that continue cooperate with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or Quds Force and to curb the destabilizing role of Iran in the region was the highlight for me, just as it was to every Israeli in the room. True friends of Israel took the stage and got standing ovations every time they mentioned they support of Israel and boosting its security.
However, it seemed to me that some of the distinguished speakers presented a vision that was simply too rosy and perhaps a bit simplistic.
While the congressmen and congresswomen, whose commitment to Israel is strong and unquestionable, mentioned that “they will not allow Iran or Russia to push the US out of Syria,” I wondered if they knew that the current American mandate is extremely narrow and is aimed almost solely at combating ISIS, and also very limited support of some Kurdish elements? Did they know that Iran is not only “seeking to establish military bases in Syria” but that it already has them in Syria? That Iran, rather than Russia, invests heavily today in Syria’s economy – and, at the same time, is rapidly changing the demography in the country, and that all of that has been taking place in Syria for years right under the nose of the Americans? Big, general and fiery statements are easy to make, however, changing the situation on the ground and squeezing Iran out of Syria will be extremely difficult. This goal most probably cannot be achieved solely by anti-Iranian or anti-Hezbollah legislation – as harsh as it might be – if the current strategy on Syria will not change. No reference to that was made.
On another matter, the automatic references to BDS made me think that many on both sides of the stage put the threat to Israeli national security on our northern border and the rather failed campaign of radical elements on the same scale. There is no doubt that the BDS campaign is vicious, anti-Israel and partly antisemitic, however, even the government admits that it failed to inflict any harm on the Israeli economy.
Every mention of BDS as a lethal menace to the Jewish state plays into the hands of its members and satisfies their need for publicity.
Behind the scenes: Kotel, human rights, Bibi and bipartisanship
While the general sessions dealt almost solely with wider security issues and bilateral relations, the smaller ones were dedicated to various issues – the refugee crisis, state and religion, identity politics, and women’s rights. The questions asked by the participants indicated an significant generation gap in spheres of interest and political views.
Many students and young people raised again and again the question of refugees from Sudan and Eritrea, wondering how their future deportation might be compatible with international legislation and human rights issues. They were also the ones who touched the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its perspectives.
In four out of five sessions in which I took part, the older generation expressed concern over state and religion-related issues.
The stalemate on the Kotel, the block on alternative conversions and civil marriages came up, and the sentiment was clear: it was one of pain and disappointment. “I have been an AIPAC member for 30 years, I donate money to Israel and I’m a Conservative Jew. In the last few years, Netanyahu’s government has made me feel that my family and I – we don’t have a place around the Israeli table,” said one of the participants.
His words were echoed by many others.
For me, as a Knesset member who fights for religious pluralism in Israel, it was painful to hear these words. I could only promise those of us in Knesset committed to these issues will continue fighting until we achieve a breakthrough. Many questions had to do with prime minister’s investigations.
Yes, he received dozens of standing ovations during his speech on the last day.
But behind the scenes, the people wanted to know what will happen the day after, certain that Bibi’s era in Israel is nearly at an end.
Among them, there were many supporters of the prime minister, who personally told me they don’t see anything “dramatic” in taking some cigars and champagnes from a wealthy friend.
And finally, not less than the Iranian threat, the participants of AIPAC Policy Conference were felt anxious about the loss of bipartisanship. The recent polls conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that Republicans and Democrats were never as divided on Israel as they are now.
Some of my interlocutors blamed the Democrats, others blamed Trump, the Israeli government or BDS. But all of them were equally worried about the phenomena, which until now has received little attention in Israel. While at AIPAC I clearly understood that it’s time for Israel to seriously address this issue before it is too late.
The writer is a Knesset member for the Zionist Union. She is a member of the legislature’s Foreign Affairs and Defense, and Aliya, Integration and Diaspora Committees.