WASHINGTON, DC—From the second one arrives at the Washington Convention Center, the AIPAC spectacle is all-encompassing. From the anti-Israel demonstrators clustering around the entrance to the sparkling, multi-screen plenaries in the main hall, there is a both a sense of showmanship and a sense that this is, for two days, the only show in town.
Even so, the razzmatazz at this year's AIPAC policy conference couldn't quite mute the background murmurs about the organization's declining influence. There was Chuck Hagel's confirmation as Defense Secretary, and there is the ongoing debate about the impact of sequestration on Israel's defensive capabilities. When Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) complained that the Obama Administration still had not delivered advanced F-35 fighter aircraft to Israel, he inadvertently invited his audience to ponder, "All powerful Israel Lobby? What all powerful Israel Lobby?"
Away from the podium speeches that restated, to standing ovations and thunderous applause, the critical talking points of Israel advocacy—"Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East," "all options must remain on the table concerning Iran," "there is no genuine Palestinian peace partner," and so forth—there was serious reconsideration of Israel's current strategic position in the Middle East. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) memorably summarized the stakes involved when he told the AIPAC crowd, "I have not seen the Middle East and the world in a more dangerous situation in my lifetime."
What, perhaps, is distinctive about this "dangerous situation" is that it contains a complex of conflicts in which Israel is not an active participant, but a nervous bystander waiting on a series of uncertain outcomes. The much-vaunted Arab Spring, more accurately described by the Israeli journalist Amos Harel as "the Arab upheaval," has taken different forms in different countries, but the common denominator is that, in not a single instance, has a democratic, open society emerged at the other end. In the Arab Gulf region in particular, long-established repressive and corrupt regimes, most obviously in Saudi Arabia, remain in place; as the American columnist Bret Stephens pointed out, much as we might wish for an end to the Saudi monarchy, in all likelihood what follows them will be worse. Old certainties—like the position of Turkey as a friend of both Israel and the western powers—have been dramatically undercut, as demonstrated by Prime Minister Erdogan's vicious assault on Zionism as a "crime against humanity."
Most of all, there is Iran. While there was little discussion of the one conflict in which Israel is directly involved, that with the Palestinians, the AIPAC parley was dominated by anxiety that Iran is on the cusp of acquiring a nuclear weapon. Speaking at the main plenary, Vice-President Joe Biden accentuated a significant, if subtle, shift in the Administration's articulation of its Iran policy. America's goal, Biden said, "is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, period." Then, for added effect, Biden repeated: "Prevent, not contain, prevent."
The picture that has emerged at AIPAC, then, is of an Israel facing unknown, indeterminate threats that are far greater than the known threats it has encountered in the past. As a consequence, detailed policy prescriptions were hard to come by. Absent from the policy conference were recommendations as to how Israel should proceed in negotiations with the Palestinians (because there aren't any) or maintain its historic 1979 peace treaty with Egypt (because there's not much it can do should that country's Muslim Brotherhood leaders decide to tear it up.) Instead, the focus was on Israel as frontline member of the community of democratic nations, the terrain where the cultural, political and perhaps military struggles between western openness and Islamists strictures will be played out.
That was certainly the subtext of one of the more interesting, if sparsely attended, breakout sessions at AIPAC, on Canada's relationship with Israel. All the Canadian politicians who spoke stressed that the reason Canada goes to bat for Israel so energetically in international forums is based on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's dictum that "we're going to support what's right, not what's politically expedient." Canadian parliamentarian Robert Dochert pointed out that the Toronto riding he represents contains 25,000 Palestinians and 500 Jews, but even so, his support for Israel won't waiver.
What AIPAC this year proves is that there is considerable mileage in the values Israel shares not just with the U.S., but with other western states like Canada. And while enlightened values in themselves don't win wars, it's equally true that without enlightened values, wars cannot be won.