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Pro-Israel Lobby leans towards tough rhetoric on Iran and the peace process

The 2014 Policy Conference of the most powerful pro-Israel Lobby group in the United States, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), ended on March 4 after three days of high-level speeches, fundraising and lobbying of the US Congress.


The conference brought to Washington, DC over 14,000 Israel supporters from across the country in what is probably the most important public event for the large and influential Lobby. It is meant to highlight AIPAC's policy priorities for the year ahead and underscore the strength of the US-Israel relationship.

On the third and final day of the conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself addressed the large gathering, beginning his speech with "greetings from Jerusalem, the eternal undivided capital of Israel and the Jewish people." Following the speech, the delegates headed to Capitol Hill to meet with all 100 US Senators and 435 members of the House of Representatives.

However, despite AIPAC's renowned influence over Washington's political establishment, the organisation has over the past year witnessed a series of developments that have weakened its standing considerably.

First up was AIPAC's failure to oppose Chuck Hagel's nomination for Defence Secretary 12 months ago, allegedly because of comments he made as a US senator in 2008. At the time, he noted that AIPAC "intimidates a lot of people" in Congress, but "I'm a United States senator. I'm not an Israeli senator."

Last September, the Lobby was also unsuccessful in its attempt to get the Obama administration to launch a military strike against Syria. More recently, AIPAC was faced with the reality of its inability to force a bill through the Senate that would have imposed a new set of punitive sanctions against Iran.

In the run-up to the conference, there was a general understanding that AIPAC could change its tough rhetoric on Iran's nuclear programme during the event due to Obama's opposition to additional sanctions. This is the one topic that has dominated its agenda over the past decade but the three-day conference revealed an entirely different picture.

Instead of backing down on the Iran file, all speakers reiterated Israel's and, by extension, AIPAC's commitment to a tougher stance against the Islamic Republic through more, and not less, pressure on Tehran.

One issue also strongly underscored the conference proceedings in addition to Iran's nuclear programme and the ongoing peace negotiations: the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS advocates "various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law"; it was criticised by several speakers. Perhaps the most outspoken comments came from Netanyahu himself, describing the movement as being on the wrong side of history and nothing but a farce. "It will fail," he added, "because countries throughout the world are not coming to Israel, they're flocking to Israel." Predictably, one Democrat Senator, Chuck Schumer, went as far as labeling the BDS movement as "anti-Semitic". Such morally-charged accusations were a recurring theme throughout the conference.

Instead of laying out constructive and reconciliatory proposals aimed at solving the Iranian standoff and the peace talks, the Israeli prime minister and some of the other speakers delivered a series of strong and inflammatory remarks targeted primarily at Iran, but also at the Palestinian leadership.

This should not come as a surprise given the nature of the venue and the audience. However, while this type of rhetoric may appease an overly eager audience in the short term, in the long run such inflammatory rhetoric may thwart any prospects for reconciliation. Perhaps more strikingly, such an approach may end up derailing AIPAC's recent efforts to restore its claim to bi-partisanship.

In criticising Tehran's policy, Prime Minister Netanyahu placed Iran "on the other side of that moral divide, steeped in blood and savagery" together with "[Bashar Al-] Assad, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda" among others. "The only thing that Iran sends abroad," he warned, "are rockets, terrorists and missiles to murder, maim and menace the innocent."

Although Netanyahu noted that he is "ready to make a historic peace" with the Palestinians, he also urged them to "stop denying history" and warned that he "will never gamble with the security of the one and only Jewish state."

In addition to complicating any chance of reconciliation, this strong rhetoric also puts the United States in the usual, though still difficult, situation of having to move forward with diplomacy in the midst of scepticism and hostility. In spite of the noticeable absence of President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden from the list of speakers, Secretary of State John Kerry did seek to distance himself and the administration from the strong words of some of his fellows at the podium.

The secretary of state, in addition to reaffirming his commitment to Israel's security and to a non-nuclear Iran, also noted that at the end of the day the Palestinians share the same security concerns of the Israelis. "President Abbas wants to be a partner for peace; he's committed to trying to end the conflict, but he obviously has a point of view of what's fair," said Kerry on Monday night. "I know some of you will doubt that, but President Abbas has been genuinely committed against violence."

It is unclear whether Kerry's peace plan will succeed, or whether the Obama administration's commitment to diplomacy with Iran will stop Tehran from ever acquiring a nuclear weapon. What is clear, however, is that delivering such strong and morally-charged words from a stage adorned with AIPAC's insignia may send the wrong message about the commitment of America's largest lobbying group to peace and reconciliation in the Middle East.

Ramy Srour writes for MEMO from Washington. Follow him on Twitter. He is the founder and managing editor of Foreign Policy Today.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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