AIPAC Conference 2013: U.S., Israeli Policies Towards Iran Differ

The annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference seems to be one of the few events that see bipartisan support in Washington. This alone is a sign of the major role it plays in America’s foreign policy. But for all its power, it is not the sole driver of U.S.-Israel relations. Speaking in the stead of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden’s address to AIPAC highlights the difference between American and Israeli hawks.

Two of the large topics on the AIPAC agenda this year are American sequestration and military support. AIPAC is pushing to keep the deep cuts in the Pentagon’s budget away from the $3 billion plus aid package Israel receives yearly. Also on the agenda is pressing Congress for legislation that would deem Israel "a major strategic ally," something no other country in the world enjoys, and further legislation that would call any Israeli military action an act of self-defense.

These three points are essentially tied; being deemed "a major strategic ally" would likely divorce the aid Israel receives from the aid other countries receive, potentially making it immune to cuts. And of course, military action needs financial and diplomatic (and most likely, more military) support.

While an anonymous AIPAC official stated that the Committee is dedicated to a two-state solution, the 2013 "action principles" do not specifically endorse it and only make reference to keeping the Palestinians from acquiring statehood outside of direct negotiations.

According to the official, the core of this year’s agenda is how to handle the current situation in the Middle East, particularly a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, civil war in Syria (in which Israel has essentially already intervened), and looming largest, Iran’s nuclear program. 

It is also the first time in years neither the U.S. president or the Israeli Prime Minister have been present, though this says little about relations between the two states, as Obama is visiting Israel this month.

Prime Minister Netanyahu did manage to address the event via satellite on Monday, and he was his usual bellicose self. After saying he looked forward to thanking Obama for what he has done for Israel, he called for a "clear and credible military threat" to Iran and claimed that diplomacy and sanctions have failed. He posed Iran as an existential threat to Israel and drew comparisons to the Holocaust, saying "The Jewish people know the cost of being defenseless against those who would exterminate us."

He also referenced Iran approaching "the red line" he drew at the U.N. this fall. This red line is the enrichment limit Israel would allow Iran before a "point of no return." It’s important to note that this line does not entail a nuclear weapon, but a level of enrichment that could eventually lead to a nuclear weapon.

Speaking immediately before Netanyahu, Biden’s tone started off warm and folksy, recalling the AIPAC events he had been involved with in the 1970-80s and referring to his "old friend" Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak as "a stand up guy." Segueing from his "righteous Christian" father’s support of Israel, he reiterated his, and President Obama’s, commitment to maintaining the security of Israel and its status as a Jewish state.

After presenting a list of supposed attempts to delegitimize the state that bafflingly included the Goldstone report on war crimes during Operation Cast Lead and a recent UN fact-finding mission on settlements, Biden turned to Iran. President Obama, he said, "is not bluffing" about preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But, although Biden says options are on the table, he stressed that before force a diplomatic solution ("the world’s preference,") would be tested. The diplomatic solution apparently also includes sanctions that punish Iran’s civilian population.

Despite the talk of long history, close ties, and of working together for security and technological development, the two speeches highlight the fundamental differences in U.S. and Israeli policy toward Iran. Whereas Israel sees a hand-drawn red line as the limit for Iranian nuclear enrichment, the Obama administration is at present set on not allowing Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.  The difference in those limits may be a decade.

All of this must be considered in light of the recent P5 + 1 talks in Kazakhstan which were described by those involved as "useful" and "a turning point." Unlike talks from last summer, there are more on the immediate horizon. Furthermore the chances of Israel attacking Iran unilaterally are slim, if only because it lacks the military capabilities to do so. While the Vice President addressed the lobby with terms of mutual support, the subtext of his speech said that, for the moment at least, the final decision for a unilateral attack on Iran is in the hands of the U.S.