First Published: 2011-05-20

 

AIPAC confronts fast-changing Mideast

 

US pro-Israel lobby could hardly have imagined tumult now coursing through Middle East.

 

Middle East Online

By Michael Mathes - WASHINGTON

When planning began for this year's AIPAC conference, America's pro-Israel lobby could hardly have imagined the tumult now coursing through the Middle East.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee gathering convenes beginning Sunday amid unprecedented regional changes that are bumping Arab-Israeli peace talks down the list of priorities and highlighting potential new threats to the Jewish state, analysts say.

Featuring keynote speeches by US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the conference brings together some 10,000 students, powerbrokers, government and military officials, foreign ambassadors, analysts, and rabbis and other religious figures from across the United States and Israel.

And yet while US lawmakers from all political stripes make an annual pilgrimage of sorts to AIPAC to pledge their support for the state of Israel on a grand stage, it is the Arab world that is taking the spotlight in 2011.

In a short few months, the region including North Africa has been rocked by pro-democracy revolutions sweeping longstanding leaders from power in Tunisia and Israeli peace partner Egypt; civil war in Libya; deadly anti-regime unrest in Syria and Yemen; violent protests along Israel's border; and the killing by US forces of terror kingpin Osama bin Laden.

AIPAC is scrambling to grasp the magnitude of changes that have swept the Middle East this year, and assess exactly how they will affect Israel, its chance for peace and its all-important relationship with key ally the United States.

"It's a very different situation than in December... and dramatically so," a senior official in the pro-Israel lobbying community said this week.

A further development for AIPAC to digest when it convenes: the Palestinian Authority government of Mahmud Abbas has struck a high-stakes unity deal with Hamas, the rival Palestinian faction which Washington deems a terrorist group.

"The situation with Hamas has changed everything," the lobby community official said.

Yet broader developments abound, including revolt and unrest on Israel's doorstep.

"This is a tumultuous moment in the Middle East, with great hope and great promise, but also great uncertainty and perhaps great fear," Robert Satloff, who heads the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said.

Israel's relations with the Palestinians is an urgent issue, he said, but the conventional idea of a peace process in the midst of regional convulsion "doesn't seem to be relevant in the current moment."

What is top priority, according to Satloff, is that the democratic changes in the region "proceed well and end positively."

Some analysts note that the popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen had little if anything to do with Israel -- yet AIPAC is watching those nations closely for the emergence of any potential new threats, including populist waves of anti-Israel sentiment.

In his speech Thursday on the Middle East, Obama spoke of "the extraordinary change taking place," and insisted that "the drive for a lasting peace that ends the (Arab-Israeli) conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever."

But Mideast expert Khaled Elgindy, a Brookings Institution visiting fellow who advised the Palestinian team negotiating with Israelis between 2004 and 2009, was blunt about the Obama administration's eye on the region, saying the peace talks issue "is being kicked down the ladder."

What's drawing more attention, he said, is the Arab Spring, which Elgindy described as one of the "biggest game-changing moments in the region's history."

"I'm sure they (AIPAC) will be looking at the changes in the region," notably in Egypt, where president Hosni Mubarak, who demanded stability on his country's borders with Israel, was ousted in a populist revolt.

Also of increasing concern is Syria, whose embattled President Bashar al-Assad had also kept unrest to a minimum with Israel, but which the lobby official described as "this great unknown" now that Assad is facing mounting anti-regime protests and Washington has urged him to lead a transition.

"He's going, and we've got to deal with who comes next," the official said.

Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Arab Spring has been an "uncertain time" for AIPAC.

"They are not saying openly that they are against these transformations, but they are raising old issues," she said, particularly the fear that political transitions could be exploited by Islamic extremists who help install governments more hostile to Israel.

And so AIPAC will use its significant clout on Capitol Hill to burnish the US-Israel relationship, and pressure lawmakers to pledge that they have Israel's back.

With senators and congressmen beating a path to AIPAC's meeting, Ottaway said it's clear the group holds huge sway in Congress.

"The pro-Israel lobby is the only lobby that likes to play down its own importance," she said. "Usually, lobbyists do the opposite."

 

Palestinians react to death of Peres

Syrian army retakes rebel-held Aleppo district

UN Libya envoy warns against ‘political impasse’

Morocco finally adopts Amazigh as official language

Saudi petition seeks 'full' rights for women

Poverty takes toll in rebel-held Yemen fishing village

Kerry threatens to end negotiations with Russia on Syria

Kuwaiti court scraps petrol price hike

Iraq requests more US troops to take on IS in Mosul

Airstrikes hit hospitals in rebel-held Aleppo

Iran nuclear chief says not worried about Trump

Iranian, Italian ships hold manoeuvres in Strait of Hormuz

Gunmen kill three Egypt policemen, civilian in Sinai

Turkey says 32,000 coup suspects awaiting trial

Paris to host international meeting on Libya

Etihad plane in emergency landing in Abu Dhabi

Struggling Saudi Oger lays off 1,300 staff

Israel ex-PM to serve 27 months for graft

Syrian kids return to school in Manbij

World Bank releases $300 million for Syrian refugees in Jordan

Iranian FM in Ankara for Syria talks

Israeli ex-president Peres dies

Oil prices post marginal gains

Russia tries to strongarm US with Aleppo assault

Jordan vows crackdown on online incitement

Assad, Russia press intense Aleppo assault

Iran's Ahmadinejad says will not run for president

Boris Johnson dismisses Erdogan goat poem as 'trivia'

Turkey dismisses 87 spy agency staff over failed coup

Egypt recovers sunken boat, more bodies

Israel's Peres 'fighting for his life'

Bombings kill at least seventeen in Baghdad

Netanyahu chooses diplomacy in US election

Iran sets conditions for joining terror finance taskforce

Who is the destroyer of Timbuktu shrines?

Israel to charge Lieberman party officials in graft probe

Egypt detains owner of capsized migrant vessel

Countless bombings in Baghdad’s Karrada since 2003 US-led invasion

Clinton, Trump clash in fiery first presidential debate

Moroccan gets death threat messages over cartoon posted by killed Jordanian

Saudi king unveils austerity drive

Israel prosecutor general denies going easy on PM

Iran frees Iranian-Canadian academic

Supplies dwindle, strikes intensify in Syria's Aleppo

Rebels, civilians quit Homs under deal with regime