There are three reasons why monitoring AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) is a valuable use of time for anyone following events in the Middle East.
The first is that AIPAC faithfully reflects the positions of the Netanyahu government (actually it often telegraphs them before Netanyahu does).
The second is that AIPAC's policies provide advance notice of the positions that will, not by coincidence, be taken by the United States Congress.
And third, AIPAC provides a reliable indicator of future policies of the Obama administration, which gets its "guidance" both from AIPAC itself and from Dennis Ross, former head of AIPAC's think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and now the president's top adviser on Middle East issues.
The next few months, as AIPAC prepares for its annual conference (May 22-24), will be especially fruitful for AIPAC watchers. The conference is a huge event, attended by most members of the House and Senate, the prime minister of Israel, and either by the president or vice president of the United States. It is also attended by thousands of delegates from around the country and by candidates for Congress who raise money for their campaigns at the event. This year, the leading Republican candidates for president will also be in attendance, all vying for support by promising undying loyalty to the AIPAC agenda.
The conference actually begins long before it convenes at the massive Washington Convention Center. Right now, AIPAC's top officials are deciding which policies are the most important to be conveyed to the hundreds of officials who will be in attendance. Those policies will constitute AIPAC's agenda not just for the conference but for the next 12 months (see last year's AIPAC policy book here).
In recent years, AIPAC's main message has been about Iran and its view of the dangers posed by the Iranian nuclear program. Speaker after speaker at various AIPAC conferences over the past decade (including, most histrionically, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu) has invoked the Holocaust when discussing the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
These speakers laid the groundwork for AIPAC's presentation of legislation imposing "crippling sanctions" on Iran -- along with the declaration that the military option remained "on the table" if sanctions failed to end Iran's nuclear program. Most of the sanctions legislation enacted by Congress and signed into law by the president originated at AIPAC.
But this year Iran will have to compete for attention with AIPAC's worries about the democratic revolutions that are sweeping the Arab world. For AIPAC, as for Netanyahu, those revolutions have already turned 2011 into an annus horribilis and the year is not even half over.
Early indications are that the main theme that will dominate the conference will be that Israel, once again, has "no partner" to negotiate with. This is an old theme, but one that receded as the Israeli right came to view the Palestinian Authority (led by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad) as not only partners but as collaborators in maintaining the status quo.
As Al Jazeera's Palestine Papers demonstrated, Abbas and Fayyad rarely said "no" to the Netanyahu government -- which made them the only kind of partners acceptable to the Netanyahu-Lieberman-Barak troika.
But, fearing that it might be next to fall to democracy, the PA started showing some spine recently. It refused to yield to U.S. and Israeli demands that it shelve the United Nations Security Council Resolution condemning settlements. It absolutely refuses to negotiate with Israelis until Israel stops gobbling up the land they would be negotiating over. And, most disturbing of all to Netanyahu and company, it says that it intends to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state this summer.
Netanyahu, who needs the illusion of movement to ensure that there isn't any, is suddenly feeling the heat. Even Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor and a staunch Israel backer, both supported the U.N. resolution condemning settlements and told Netanyahu, in a well-publicized February 24 phone call, that the Europeans are sick and tired of him. Haaretz reported:
Netanyahu told Merkel he was disappointed by Germany's vote....
Merkel was furious. "How dare you," she said...."You are the one who disappointed us. You haven't made a single step to advance peace."
A shaken Netanyahu immediately put out the word that he is getting ready to announce his own plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He told political allies that he has to act fast to deter pressure from the so-called Quartet (composed of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia). It is due to meet later this month to set out the parameters for a final agreement. In advance of that meeting, British Foreign Minister William Hague said that the territorial basis for any agreement must be the pre-'67 borders, the last thing Netanyahu wants to hear.
Reports from Israel indicate that Netanyahu's plan rules out any withdrawal to the '67 lines, offering instead a Palestinian state within temporary borders and only a very partial settlement freeze (no freeze in East Jerusalem at all).
Knowing that the PA can no longer afford to even consider such an offer, Netanyahu has decided to preemptively label Israel's old friends in the Palestinian Authority as extremists, with the goal of ensuring that both Congress and the Obama administration back his plan. His hope is that with the United States safely in his corner, any Quartet initiative will be blocked. As always, his goal is to maintain the status quo, which requires U.S. acquiescence in his schemes. Thus far, the tactic has worked.
Hence, the new AIPAC approach: smear the PA. By the time the AIPAC conference ends, the "there is no partner" mantra will have returned to its position as one of Israel's greatest hits -- a true golden oldie.
Check out a few of the messages AIPAC has sent out over Twitter these past few days (the message is old but the technology is new):
AIPAC: PA doesn't want a terrorist organization to be called a terrorist organization, instead it wants unity govt with it.
AIPAC: PA seeks to isolate Israel to gain statehood.
AIPAC: PA to Israel: NO.
By contrast, this is a typical AIPAC tweet before the Palestinian Authority started pushing back.
AIPAC: Can direct talks with PA President Abbas lead to a peace agreement in a year? "Yes, I think so," says Israeli PM Netanyahu.
The bottom line is this. The Europeans, the United Nations, and, it is safe to say, the entire world (except the United States) fear that the Palestinian Authority is on the verge of collapsing and, along with it, the whole notion of a peace process. These same forces are determined to re-start negotiations, which will require seeing Israel actual freeze settlements, at the very least. It seems to understand that a PA that is perceived as Israel's lackey (which is precisely how it is perceived) will not survive. It has no faith whatsoever in the good intentions of the Netanyahu government.
The Israeli government, understanding all this, is determined to put the onus back on the Palestinians to forestall any pressure. Most important of all, it is terrified that the Palestinian Authority will go ahead with its plan to unilaterally declare a state this summer, the only PA plan in years that actually has real momentum. It needs the United States to block that plan by any means necessary, including a full cut-off of U.S. (and even international) aid to the Palestinians (this at a time when Defense Minister Barak is requesting another $20 billion in aid to Israel from the United States). Stopping a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence dead in its tracks is now Netanyahu's number one goal. And getting Obama to go along with him (which shouldn't be too difficult with the 2012 election looming) is the way he intends to do it.
That is why we are about to see a new Netanyahu plan. It is why AIPAC is busy denigrating the PA. And it is why AIPAC will soon have the United States Congress saying, practically in unison, that "there is no Palestinian partner." That will be followed by the demand that the Obama administration support the Netanyahu plan, which will be labeled the most generous offer in history.
At this rate, the Israeli government and its lobby will soon be back to its old mantra (1948-1977) that "there is no such thing as the Palestinian people" at all.
All this to preserve an ugly and deadly status quo. So far, this tactic has worked every time. Don't bet against it winning again. As so often, a winning strategy for AIPAC and Netanyahu is a losing strategy for Israel and the United States.
The Palestinians, on the other hand, would do well to work on achieving some kind of unified strategy with Hamas and to stick with the idea of a unilateral declaration. As David Ben-Gurion would tell them, self-determination often requires going it alone.