INSIDE THE AIPAC CONFERENCE
THE ANNUAL policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, better known as Aipac, tends to be a rather formulaic affair.
Senior politicians from both nations, along with a few other assorted guests (this year’s list included Tony Blair and Rwandan President Paul Kagame) line up to extol the “shared values” and “undying special relationship” between the two countries.
This week’s event was no exception and, as usual, it took a lot of sifting through platitudes to get an accurate reading on the current status of ties between Washington and Jerusalem.
Perhaps the most telling quote came in the speech by Ron Dermer, who is not only Israel’s Ambassador to the US, but also, unofficially, the closest foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“For the first time in many years,” said Mr Dermer, “perhaps in decades, there is no daylight” between the Israeli government and the US administration. A daring statement, even for the lofty rhetorical norms of Aipac.
Is the Netanyahu government really that close to the Trump administration? And if so, what does that say about the foreign policies of both nations? In recent weeks, a constant stream of messaging has come from Washington and various Trump proxies urging Israeli restraint in West Bank settlement building and promising that this administration is serious about an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
The latest signal is the invitation for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to drop in on Mr Trump next month — on Pesach, no less. If this was happening during the Obama years, the emergency warning lights would be flashing in Mr Netanyahu’s office.
But outwardly at least, Mr Netanyahu seems calm. In his video-conference speech beamed to Washington, he promised that “Israel is committed to working with President Trump to achieve peace with the Palestinians and all our Arab neighbours”. Is any of this serious? The hard right in Israel is beginning to fear it may be.
“Netanyahu can’t say no to Trump,” opined one settler leader last week. Like his colleagues, he fears that it will be much more difficult to oppose a diplomatic initiative fronted by the “friendly” Trump administration than it was against the “hostile” Barack Obama.
Their even deeper fear is that Mr Netanyahu himself may not be interested in going against his new friend in the Oval Office. “Bibi outfoxed us” said one right-wing minister who was initially excited at the prospect of a new pro-settlement administra- tion and is now concerned the prime minister, together with the president, could be pursuing a new path towards his own vision of the twostate solution.
Certainly, with an administration that has set itself the goal of fighting anti-Israel bias in the United Nations, transforming new US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley into the biggest star-turn at Aipac, Mr Netanyahu feels more comfortable embarking on another peace initiative.
It can be assumed also that he has received quiet assurances that the administration will back him on his security demands within the framework of any peace plan. And, of course, that he has a firm ally in Washington for forming an anti-Iran coalition in the Middle East.
Chances are, this is all just empty Aipac talk. After all, Mr Netanyahu has always preferred to talk about peace while playing for time, and so far strategic planning has not proven the Trump administration’s forte. But that has not done nothing to allay the settlers’ fears.
US envoy to UN Nikki Haley, the “star performer” at this year’s conference