Obama aide to address Aipac rival conference

Obama aide to address Aipac rival conference
President Obama's chief of staff will attend a J Street conference, signalling the US' continued opposition to Netanyahu's "anti-peace" policies and rhetoric.
3 min read
22 March, 2015
McDonough will address the J Street conference, deemed to be Aipac's more liberal rival [Getty]
One of the US president's closest aides, Denis McDonough, is expected to make the keynote address at the opening of an event widely viewed as a Jewish counterweight to the Zionist lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac).

Divisions between Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu continue to widen, and the move is seen as another sign of Washington's opposition to the right-wing leadership in Tel Aviv.

The American-Jewish J Street movement will hold its fifth national conference in Washington on Monday.

Although it describes itself as "pro-Israel", it is seen as a more moderate voice, and by association, anti-Netanyahu, than Aipac.

US-Israel rift

Relations between the Obama administration and the Israeli leader reached a new low when the White House hinted it might re-evaluate its relationship with Israel after Netanyahu won an election campaign marked by controversial rhetoric.

During the campaign, Netanyahu vowed to prevent an independent Palestinian state being established - a cornerstone of the two-state solution being pushed by the US.

McDonough, the White House's chief of staff, is set to address J Street's fifth national conference.

It is a sensitive moment in the relationship between Israel and the US, and it is unlikely that McDonough would participate in a conference that opposes many of Tel Aviv's policies without Obama's specific blessing.

His role as chief of staff makes McDonough one of the most important policy makers in the United States.

He is seen as being close to the president and has served as a deputy national security adviser before he was given his current post.

Aipac counterweight

J Street's founder and executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami recently lashed out at Netanyahu and Israel's ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer.

"Netanyahu and Dermer caused incurable wounds to the peace process and they are not doing anything to heal the wounds they opened," said Ben-Ami.
     The days and weeks ahead will be critical.

- President Obama, addressing Iranians for Persian new year

Ben-Ami defended Obama, attributing his conflict with Netanyahu to the Israeli leader's policies.

He said the Obama administration's refusal to allow Netanyahu to backtrack on comments he made about not allowing a Palestinian state to exist was appropriate, stating "such statements should have consequences".

US analysts say that the crisis between the two leaders is likely to deteriorate even further. Washington and Iran look set to sign a nuclear deal, which has been vehemently opposed by Netanyahu.

Israel's continued confiscation of Palestinian lands and settlement expansion, which are likely to increase under Netanyahu's watch, is also likely to draw a stronger response from the US than before.

Sources say that Netanyahu may be diplomatically "isolated" and "marginalised" if a US deal with Iran is struck.

One Arab diplomat in the US hinted at the panic in the Netanyahu camp, saying that pro-Israel lobbying groups in Washington were seeking the help of "moderate" Arab states to warn the West against a deal with Tehran.

Sources say that although the diplomats were strongly opposed to the nuclear deal, they did not respond to Israel's requests.

Some voiced their concerns that opponents of the nuclear deal wanted to start a new war in the region that "would be more destructive for the Arabs than for Israel".

Obama has called on Iran not to miss an historic opportunity over a nuclear deal that could effectively normalise relations between the two countries after three decades.

In a video message to mark Nowruz, the Persian new year, Obama said the deal was the best opportunity in decades for the two countries to come to an understanding.

"The days and weeks ahead will be critical," the president said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif said that "good progress" was being made on the nuclear deal talks being held in Switzerland.

There is a deadline of 31 March for a political agreement, and the final agreement should be complete 1 July if talks are successful.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.