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In era of Trump and Iran deal, AIPAC conference an exercise in managing reality

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) and former CNN correspondent Frank Sesno on the 2017 AIPAC Policy Conference’s stage Sunday. Credit: AIPAC.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) and former CNN correspondent Frank Sesno on the 2017 AIPAC Policy Conference’s stage Sunday. Credit: AIPAC.

WASHINGTON—In recent years, the AIPAC lobby’s policy conferences have centered on hot-button issues such as the emerging and later finalized Iran nuclear deal, tension between the Obama administration and Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress, and the surprising rise of candidate and now President Donald Trump.

For the 2017 iteration of arguably the world’s largest annual pro-Israel gathering, the issues remained sensitive, but reality set in. The Iran deal and a Trump presidency have become facts of life, albeit highly contested ones. The Obama era has come and gone.

At the AIPAC conferences of the past several years, questions on outcomes hovered over the summits: Who will be the next president? Will world powers and Iran reach a deal? This year, there were questions on implementation: How should Trump handle the chaotic and complex Middle East? How can America work to curb Iran’s regional aggression? The discourse on AIPAC’s flagship issue—the U.S.-Israel relationship and its associated priorities—has shifted from changing or creating reality, to managing reality.

‘Meeting of the minds’

Although AIPAC sought to foster an environment of bipartisanship and respect of others’ views through its conference tagline—“Many Voices, One Mission”—Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer did not hold back a carefully worded, but clearly intended partisan statement.

“For the first time in many years, perhaps even many decades, there is no daylight between our two governments,” Dermer said Sunday at the conference’s opening session, presumably referring his opinion that the Trump presidency has purged the “daylight” that existed between the U.S. and Israel under President Barack Obama.

Dermer described February’s White House meeting between Netanyahu and Trump as a “meeting of the minds,” while praising the Trump administration for “finally bringing some moral clarity” to the United Nations. But Dermer made his assertions on the current and past administrations without mentioning Trump nor Obama by name.

‘Call our enemies by their name’ 

Trump’s presence at last year’s AIPAC conference prompted protests before he uttered a word, and his eventual speech drew condemnation from the lobby after he said “yay” at the prospect of Obama’s presidency being in its final year. In 2017, the Trump administration’s top representative at the conference, Vice President Mike Pence, did not elicit similar controversy.

Under Trump, “if the world knows nothing else, the world will know this: America stands with Israel,” Pence told the conference’s 18,000 attendees Sunday, explaining that the administration stands with Israel because “her cause is our cause, her values are our values and her fight is our fight.”

Pence said Trump is “giving serious consideration” to moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, is committed to finding an “equitable and just solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and “will call our enemies by their name”—referring to radical Islamic terrorists.

The vice president also vowed the administration would “hunt down and destroy ISIS (Islamic State) at its source” and “stand strong in the face of the leading state sponsor of terrorism,” Iran.

“This administration has put Iran on notice….Under President Donald Trump, the United States of America will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon,” he added.

Advice for Trump

While Pence laid out the administration’s view, what do some outside experts believe is the best course of action?

During a conference breakout session Sunday featuring former U.S. officials from Republican and Democratic administrations, Michael Singh—managing director at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the George W. Bush administration’s senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council—said he has three pieces of advice for Trump: counter Iran, because Islamic State has emerged in an environment of instability that Iran has helped create; rebuild America’s relationships with allies like Israel, Egypt and Jordan; and pay attention to political and economic reform in the region.

“We can’t only counter one and not the other if we’re to bring some stability to the region,” Singh said of the Iranian and Islamic State threats.

At the same session, Obama’s ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, said it is expected the Trump administration will be “friends and partners to Israel and the Gulf states, but there are a lot questions yet to be filled out,” such as the president’s policies toward Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Although Trump’s proposed foreign aid budget cuts will reportedly not affect Israel, “that means they’re cutting from Jordan and Egypt” if any significant savings are to be had, and cutting U.S. aid to those peaceful Arab neighbors will not be in Israel’s interest, Shapiro said.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who also served as special envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East and still works in the region through his Tony Blair Faith Foundation, at a plenary session said a better future for the Middle East means setting priorities not just based on the regional players’ specific interests, but also on broader human values.

Yet the bottom line, said Blair, is if “you had a benign regime in Iran, all of the problems in the Middle East would be easier to resolve.”

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