While Iran Dominates the Headlines, Palestinian Issue Is Big Topic at AIPAC

BY P.J. Tobia  March 6, 2012 at 3:22 PM EST

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; photo by Chris Kelponis/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC conference on Monday. Photo by Chris Kelponis/AFP/Getty Images.

The major storyline coming out of this week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington, D.C., was the possibility of war with Iran.

Nearly every A-list speaker who had a chance to address the 13,000-plus AIPAC attendees in the conference center’s main hall spoke of the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran and the importance of stopping its nuclear program.

But in the much smaller breakout sessions, seminars and panel discussions that actually make up the bulk of AIPAC conference activities, there was far more talk about Palestinians and the all-but-dead peace process.

One such seminar was overflowing with attendees who wanted to hear Martin Indyk, the former Clinton administration ambassador to Israel, and former National Security Council senior director Elliott Abrams debate the future and likelihood of a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Ditto the discussion with the Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller, NewsHour regular David Makovsky and retired Gen. Michael Herzog, both of the Washington Institute.

These panels, and others focusing on Israeli-Palestinian issues, were standing-room only, with many attendees sitting on the floor and lined up at microphones to ask impassioned, multi-part questions.

In fact, of the more than 120 forums that AIPAC delegates could attend, only 14 were about Iran’s nuclear program, while 20 were about the “Palestinian question.” Add in the discussions that focused on broader Arab-Israeli relations, in which Palestinians figure prominently, and that number skyrockets.

Given the high drama around Monday’s White House meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama and their apparent differences on the way forward with Iran, it’s no surprise that Iran’s nuclear program dominated the news coverage coming out of AIPAC. But that may be more of an indicator of where the U.S.-Israeli relationship stands than what AIPAC’s members care about.

Netanyahu has “clearly won the debate about priorities,” said former U.S. diplomat James Dobbins. “The U.S. priorities were, ‘Let’s settle the issue of Palestinians first and then we can deal with Iran.’”

Netanyahu wanted to proceed with Iran first, Dobbins said, rebuffing President Obama’s plan to re-start the peace process last year in what proved to be a tense White House meeting and a low-point in the relationship between the two allies.

Regardless of the mood at the top, in the AIPAC trenches the issue of how to deal with the West Bank, Gaza, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority is still very much on people’s minds.

Barring a major step forward in the peace process, that’s not likely to change at next year’s AIPAC conference, no matter the news of the day.