I know what former President Bush would say if he had to comment on the results of AIPAC's conference this week. He would turn to Howard Kohr, its long time director, and say "heckuva job, Howie."
AIPAC supposedly exists to promote US-Israel relations or, more precisely, to promote them to the point where Israeli policies are never challenged by the United States. Most important to AIPAC is that the $3 billion aid package sails to Israel unimpeded, no matter what budgets cuts are inflicted here at home and no matter what the current president thinks.
AIPAC wants to put on a nice Washington show of power but without egregious poking of American eyes. For instance, the 7,800 delegates were warned in advance not to boo or hiss Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she discussed achieving peace with the Palestinians -- and they didn't. They allowed their feelings to show only when they stood and applauded her requisite criticisms of Palestinians while giving scattered applause to her calls for Israeli concessions.
But then came the most massive miscalculation in AIPAC's history. Just days earlier, a crisis erupted between the United States and Israel after the Israeli government announced that it would build 1,600 new settler units in the heart of Arab East Jerusalem while Vice President Biden was in Israel.
The Netanyahu government was well aware that building in East Jerusalem is strongly opposed by the United States and that the Israeli government is the only one in the world that recognizes the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as part of Israel. The rest of the world, including the United States, believes that the final status of Jerusalem -- like that of Hebron, Nablus or any other place won by the Israelis in the 1967 war - can only be resolved in negotiations.
The announcement of the settlement units while Biden was in Jerusalem was a slap in his face, and the Obama administration took it as such. It was not so much that Netanyahu had publicly dissed the Vice President, it was the substance. The United States has made its position clear for years and last year Netanyahu yielded to President Obama's insistence on a settlement freeze (though not in Jerusalem). But his government announced the expansion while Biden was in town, thereby implicating the United States in the decision.
That move led to an unprecedented "condemnation" of Israeli behavior by the United States government (and our European allies).
Shortly thereafter, Netanyahu was en route to the United States to address the AIPAC conference taking place a few blocks from the White House.
Most observers assumed that Netanyahu would deliver a conciliatory address. After all, he was in Washington. He was addressing thousands of American citizens. The last thing anyone expected (although AIPAC probably knew what he was going to say) was that he would publicly challenge the president by saying that "Jerusalem is not a settlement" (no one said it was) and that he would no more freeze settlements in East Jerusalem than in Tel Aviv.
The 7,800 delegates went crazy cheering. Netanyahu had laid down the gauntlet and the AIPAC crowd was saying "we stand with you."
But here's the kicker. Netanyahu wrote his speech before Obama's health care reform victory. He is very close to Eric Cantor and other Republicans and believed (hoped, prayed) that by Monday night, when the speech was to be delivered, Obama would have lost and would be holding a ticket on the one-term express.
Instead, health care reform passed. And Obama supporters (including the 78% of Jews who voted for him) were ecstatic. Suddenly our laid back President seemed like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Republicans were (and still are) flailing and Obama is stronger now than at any other time in his Presidency.
For Netanyahu, this was a disaster. If AIPAC still knew how to do its job, it would have told him to scrap his speech and deliver a conciliatory one.
They didn't and he didn't.
And when Netanyahu came to see the President to explain that he didn't know about the settlement expansion and unrolled a flow chart to show he is not really in charge, Obama blew him off. He told Netanyahu that he was eager to talk to him after he agreed to freeze settlements and ease living conditions for the Palestinians.
Netanyahu returned to Israel humiliated.
Here is what Eitan Haber, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's chief of staff, wrote in Yediot Achronoth today:
The Americans play no games. The moment Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's entourage was told that there will be no joint statement, that the media won't be allowed into the Oval Office, that there will be no photo-op, and that the meeting will be held at a late hour of night, the PM should have realized - and he did - that this won't be a happy funeral.
The Americans...were not impressed or scared off by the loud applause Netanyahu received at the AIPAC Conference. It may have worked the other way around: The loud cheers may have encouraged White House officials to show the Israeli delegation and its US supporters who's the boss in America.
But now AIPAC has another plan to win the game for Netanyahu.
An AIPAC letter circulated by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman, and Middle East Subcommittee chairman Gary Ackerman along with Republicans Eric Cantor, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Dan Burton sends a message to Netanyahu that they think the US-Israel confrontation is much ado about nothing. (A similar letter is being circulated in the Senate by Sens. Barbara Boxer and Johnny Isakson.)
300 House Members have signed the letter which contains not one word of criticism of Israel -- not one -- while calling on the President to keep differences with the Israeli government quiet and away from public scrutiny.
It quotes AIPAC's mantra (actually uttered by Biden in Israel before he understood the trap that Netanyahu had set for him):
"Progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to security, none. No space."
No space! In agreeing to this arrogant formulation, 300 members of Congress reject the famous warning George Washington gave in his 1796 farewell address, a speech that is read aloud in Congress each year on his birthday:
So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.
I wonder what President George Washington would think about the AIPAC/Congressional letter. The good news is that the Israeli public -- eager for peace -- is appalled by Netanyahu's behavior. They must be amused, or angered, that their supposed friends here don't understand the damage their prime minister has done. But then, nobody, not even Israelis, can possibly understand the motivations of American Members of Congress in an election year.
The Congressional letter should be torn up. At the very least, no Democrat should sign a letter designed to weaken their President at a moment when he is on the verge of helping Israel and Palestinians achieve peace and security for both peoples.