When an estimated 14,000 pro-Israel activists descend on Washington over the weekend for the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Philadelphia region will be well-represented, with some 400 area residents slated to attend the three-day event.
The gathering, which draws the capital’s top political figures and sends a powerful message of support for Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship, comes at a particularly critical time this year, as tensions run high over the Iranian nuclear question.
Until recently, Israel and the United States appeared to be on basically the same page on the issue that ranks as the No. 1 agenda item in the pro-Israel community. Both nations vowed that Iran could never be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. AIPAC and its successful lobbying machine was instrumental in pushing strong sanctions legislation in Congress, measures that the Obama administration convinced the world to go along with.
The sanctions worked, bringing economic distress and a new president in Tehran willing to come to the negotiating table. But now, with an interim deal in place and talks ongoing to reach a permanent agreement, tensions are mounting over the nature of the deal and whether a new round of sanctions should be put in reserve in the likely event Iran fails to comply with the conditions or reach a final deal.
Supporters of the sanctions legislation say it would strengthen the hand of the negotiators. But the Obama administration has fought hard against it, suggesting that its supporters are warmongers and that such an action would provoke Iran to walk away from the negotiating table. It has strong-armed even some usually staunch pro-Israel Democrats to back away from the legislation as well.
The rift has been portrayed as a defeat for AIPAC, which is now publicly saying that the time is not ripe to push for the legislation because it needs more bipartisan support. But what’s really been lost is the opportunity to send another powerful message to Iran that there will be consequences if it breaches its agreements or continues to move toward nuclear capability.
As AIPAC’s top officials wrote in a New York Times opinion piece recently: “Diplomacy that is not backed by the threat of clear consequences poses the greatest threat to negotiations — and increases prospects for war — because it tells the Iranians they have nothing to lose by embracing an uncompromising position.”
We all hope that a deal with Iran is possible, but we must keep the pressure on if there’s any chance of turning that hope into reality. That’s the message that must ring strong in Washington.