Other Than That, Mrs. Lincoln, How Was the Show?

I’ve just returned from the annual AIPAC Policy Conference held at the Convention Center in Washington D.C.  If you haven’t attended Policy Conference, I urge you to register for next year’s conference.  The conference features general sessions at which statesman and leading political figures address the group, as well as breakout sessions on a wide range of topics with presentations by analysts, journalists, and experts.  Policy Conference is also a celebration of Israel and her achievements.  With over 16,000 people in attendance (the 2015 conference set a record), there is a powerful feeling of community and purpose created at Policy Conference.  The experience of so many people gathering together to talk about Israel and the US-Israel relationship, to learn about pressing issues faced by Israel, the Middle East and the world, and to advocate for Israel’s needs in the halls of Congress is empowering and invigorating.

I want to tell you about two of the breakout sessions I attended—“Iran in 2015: What to Watch” and “The Way Forward: Israel and the Palestinians in 2015.”  Both of these sessions were highly informative and both offered realistic, eye opening views of two of the most significant issues facing Israel and the world.

“Iran in 2015: What to Watch” was presented by Mark Dubowitz (Executive Director, Foundation for Defense of Democracies), Prof. Charles Freilich (Senior Fellow, International Security Program, Harvard Kennedy School of Government) and Dr. Ray Takeyh (Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations—Dr. Takeyh’s recent column in the Washington Post entitled The Strategic Genius of Iran’s Supreme Leader is a must read).  In a no holds barred and crisp presentation, these three brilliant panelists offered a stark assessment of the current negotiations between the P5 + 1 and Iran and why any deal that will be made is probably going to be a bad one.  The panelists were not preachy and did not advance a personal agenda.  Rather, they presented the cold facts as they are, leaving the participants to draw their own conclusions.  In a nutshell, they were in agreement that the Iranian economy was on the verge of collapse, perhaps 4-6 months away from Iran’s Supreme Leader being faced with a choice between abandoning the ability to enrich uranium and his people being able to put food on the table, when their fortunes changed.  For reasons that history will judge, the notion that “this is the best we can get from Iran” became the P5 + 1’s guiding principle.   The panelists were also in agreement on several related points: that the so-called “sunset clause” which removes any legal obligations on the Iranians after a period of 10 years enables them to simply wait until they choose to develop nuclear weapons; that while the sanctions architecture may technically remain in place it will be impossible to reverse the investments in Iran’s economy that the world will rush to make; and it will be nearly impossible to achieve consensus on violations of the agreement.  All three panelists stressed that while these are the likely outcomes of the negotiations, it’s prudent to wait until the deal is struck before passing final judgment.

“The Way Forward: Israel and the Palestinians in 2015” was presented by Brig. General (ret.) Michael Herzog, an active participant in the recent US sponsored negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and Aaron David Miller, Distinguished Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  Both presenters were insightful and direct.  In sum, they both agreed that there will not likely be any breakthroughs in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in the coming months.  Mr. Miller asserted that such breakthroughs require bold and courageous steps taken by leaders who are not beholden to their constituencies.  They both agreed that most breakthroughs in recent history have occurred without the intervention of the United States (Israel and Egypt, Israel and Jordan and the Oslo Accords all happened without the US even being aware they were happening until the final stages).  And they agreed that while the Israeli electorate doesn’t like Netanyahu, it’s probable that any accord will result from the involvement of a strong, right-of-center leader.  When asked if there is a tipping point, after which it will be impossible to negotiate a two state solution, the panelists answered that there certainly is one, but it can’t be identified or predicted.  A “tipping point” will only be known once it has occurred and set into the minds of the Israelis and Palestinians.

To some extent, both of these sessions were realistic and honest to the point of feeling pessimism.  With Iran on a track to obtain a favorable deal that might very lead to a fanatical state possessing a nuclear bomb and with no serious prospects for a breakthrough with the Palestinians, I thought of the cynically humorous question “Other Than That, Mrs. Lincoln, How Was the Show?”  What is there to celebrate and what are the reasons for optimism?

My best answer is the continued involvement, engagement and advocacy of the Jewish people for Israel’s interests.  While the AIPAC Policy Conference is a time for learning and discussion, it is largely focused on advocacy.  Participants in the conference lobbied their Congressmen to support important legislation that favors Israel.  Whether or not you attended Policy Conference, you can still lobby for these two important legislative measures:

First, urge our Senators to Support the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 (S.269) authored by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ).  The measure supports American diplomatic efforts by providing the president authority to impose additional sanctions on Iran if nuclear negotiations fail to achieve a final agreement.

Second, support the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (S.615), authored by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Sen. Menendez.  The measure establishes a procedure for congressional review of any nuclear agreement with Iran and empowers Congress to bar any statutory sanctions relief.

AIPAC is an important and necessary organization that brings together thousands of people who care about Israel and the cause of peace.  There’s much to learn at an AIPAC Policy Conference.  Between annual conferences, AIPAC needs you to support its crucial work of supporting the State of Israel.  I urge you to get involved.

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