The mood at this year's American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference - the yearly gathering that draws thousands of Israel-supporters to be briefed on issues related to the U.S.-Israel relationship and to lobby their members of Congress - was cautiously optimistic. On the whole, most speakers seemed to voice trust in President Obama's leadership, and the theme of the conference, emblazoned on signs that decorated the main banquet hall and hallways of the Washington Convention Center, was "Relationships Matter." (This was a stark departure from the mood of urgency about Iran's march towards nuclear capability that dominated other recent AIPAC policy conferences. In the words of one attendee, "Look around. It's gone from High Noon to Kumbaya.")
Of course, AIPAC works with whomever is in office in Washington and Jerusalem and is generally very effective at doing so. Now that President Obama is at the helm, the emphasis seems heavy on cooperation with other countries to put the squeeze on Iran's leadership via sanctions.
Among attendees, percolating just beneath the surface one sensed the question, will the relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be fruitful in helping to halt Iran's march toward nuclear capability, and should it become necessary as a last resort, will President Obama support Israel in its self-defense and defense of the region?
The other major theme at the conference was that the Arab states around Israel are getting nervous about Iran, too, and that this may make them open to possibilities--including acceptance of Israel--on which they have never previously budged. In other words, they are also scared of Iran and as a result might perhaps reconsider their refusal to accept Israel, because they may need Israel to protect the region. Several speakers, including Israeli President Shimon Peres, talked about the Saudi Peace Initiative to carve a Palestinian state out of parts of Israel, with a capital in East Jerusalem, and achieve what the Saudis characterize as a "just solution" to the Palestinian refugee problem in exchange for acceptance, by the other countries of the middle east, of Israel's right to exist with a complete withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders.
Peres spoke of the Saudi Peace Initiative as marking a "serious U-turn" in relations between Israel and other countries in the region.
He continued, "Israel wasn't a partner to the wording of their initiative. Therefore it doesn't have to agree to every word. Well, nevertheless, Israel respects the profound change. Israel hopes it will be translated in real action, the sooner the better.
"Dear friends, let me make it clear. We trust the leadership of President Obama. We trust he may make a way to open both a regional agreement and meaningful bilateral negotiations. It can be done, both, together, right away. It is a real change in the situation..."
Wise to keep in mind that Peres, who went on to rhapsodize that "peace is not necessarily the result of detailed negotiations with many lawyers --my god --with many map designers, my god. I know that peace bears from the soil, like a geyser. It is beautiful to behold. It is impossible to contain," was a prime architect of the unsuccessful Oslo Peace Accords.
On the other hand, with the specter of a nuclear Iran looming on the horizon, no one knows what the future holds. And at AIPAC this year, along with some pretty tasty sweet potatoes and chocolate covered strawberries, all options were on the table.