To borrow a line from a colleague: it’s USY International Convention on steroids.
I am thrilled to participate along with 16,000 others at this the largest AIPAC Policy Conference ever. There are more than 500 rabbis and religious leaders here. There are more than 3,000 high school and college students! There are plenty of people I know are here who I haven’t come close to running in to yet.
Though I didn’t arrive in DC in time for the opening general session, I’m told that Mosab Hassan Yousef, aka Son of Hamas, rocked the house as he told his story of transformation from Hamas operative to Shin Bet informant. And as is AIPAC’s custom, bipartisan support for Israel was on display with Senators Ben Cardin and Lindsey Graham opening the show.
I did make it to a fascinating session on Israel’s upcoming elections, featuring The Honorable Yohanan Plesner, former MK and now president of the Israel Democracy Institute, and Dr. Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. They shared many fascinating insights about the election. Notably, Israelis who range from center left to center right tend to agree that the ultimate solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will involve two states. Where they differ is on the question of urgency. The longer Israel waits, does she get stronger or weaker? The hawks believe that as time passes, the Israelis gain the upper hand; the doves feel that Israel loses currency in the court of world opinion the longer the conflict goes unsolved, and so Israel should push to return to negotiations. Regardless, given the current conditions, don’t expect any major shift in foreign policy, no matter who wins the election.
But how does any one party win the election? As we saw in 2009, the party that wins the most mandates doesn’t necessarily get to form the government. This is not merely a question of which leader can piece together a coalition. It is the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, who officially selects the “winner.” And that could get interesting. Though he and Netanyahu both come from Likud, it is said that Bibi didn’t vote for Rivlin in the Knesset’s presidential election. Will that come back to bite him? Unlikely, said our panelists, for Rivlin is known to be a man true to principles. But it certainly makes him a pivotal player in this election.
Next, I sat in on a session called “After Operation Protective Edge: Israel’s Deterrent Capability Post-Gaza. The experts here were Major General Eiten Ben Eliyahu, a former commander of the Israeli Air Force, and Amos Harel, the acclaimed military correspondent and defense analyst for the newspaper Ha’aretz. Harel emphasized that one of the lessons of last summer’s war was how ill-prepared the ground troops were for this latest installment of asymmetrical warfare. The IDF is still training its foot soldiers to prepare for the Yom Kippur War-like doomsday scenario, in which conventional armies attack from all directions. But Israel hasn’t fought such a war in more than 40 years, and it needs to update its training. Most significantly, the intelligence community did well to warn the IDF about the Hamas tunnels, but the IDF was still ill-equipped to deal with them. This problem, Harel believes, new IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, understands and is prepared to address.
General Ben Eliyahu reminded us that Israel understood, from the days of Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion, that Israel’s wars with her neighbors would be recurring events, so that Protective Edge was just another installment. But while the threat to Hezbollah remains real, he doesn’t think tunnels will be a factor on the northern borders, because the terrain isn’t conducive to quiet, undetected digging.
The rabbis were treated to a special session with the Honourable John Baird, who only recently stepped down as Canada’s Foreign Minister. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more supportive lover of Israel in any world government. His shameless and unequivocal support of Israel led him to change all of Canada’s votes on Israel in the UN to reflect what he sees as a common-sense approach to good versus evil. He said that Canada’s values propel him to support Israel, which furthers Canada’s interests, And, unlike some other Western statesmen, he doesn’t hesitate to label the source of worldwide terror by name: radical or political Islam.
In the final general session, we heard from AIPAC’s president, Bob Cohen, and from several devoted African American supporters of Israel. We met 4 extraordinary innovators in the spirit of Start-Up Nation, and from Jeffrey Astroff, a writer on Friends and an AIPAC organizer among Hollywood’s elite. And we were prepped on AIPAC’s lobby strategy, one that we’ll have a chance to put into action Tuesday.
All in all, it was an invigorating day. But the bigger fish arrives tomorrow–the speech by PM Netanyahu is in the morning. So I’m off to sleep so I can pay close attention tomorrow.
Until then, regards from DC!
Rabbi David Wise