Despite the fact that there were over 18,000 attendees, 4,000 of them students, the story at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy convention — even before his arrival — was Donald Trump. There was no overriding, compelling issue this year as one of the largest advocacy groups in the country came for their annual gathering in Washington to lobby Congress with the aim of maintaining a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.
Unlike last year, when the primary issue was the Iran agreement, this year’s major conversation was about what Trump would say and what would be the push-back. Would there be a walkout and if so how large? Would AIPAC’s repeated plea to be respectful to all speakers (read Trump) be heeded by all? Did he disappoint?
The AIPAC leadership and some of the speakers — especially the Republicans — clearly are still agitated over last year’s lost fight over the Iran nuclear deal. They are not only working on ensuring that it will be properly implemented and overseen — they are still protesting the deal itself and those who supported it. With the exception of Hillary Clinton, what was heard from many of the speakers was various forms of Obama-slamming. As far as AIPAC itself was concerned, it wasn’t even widely known that until a few weeks before the policy conference the organization had not invited to address the conference members of Congress — including the annual scheduling of the House minority whip Democrat Steny Hoyer — who had supported the Iran Agreement. Because of this issue, both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary Clinton did not receive a very warm reaction when they referred to the agreement in their remarks — precisely the opposite of the response that candidates Trump, John Kasich, and Ted Cruz and House Speaker Paul Ryan received.
Candidate Hillary Clinton
The presidential candidates were introduced not by AIPAC officers — as is traditionally the case — but by an off-stage announcer. (Someone had suggested there was no AIPAC officer willing to be tapped to introduce Trump.) Hillary Clinton, who was received with enthusiasm, delivered her remarks touching all the bases. She sought to accomplish three things in her address: tell the Jewish community what it wanted hear; create separation from President Obama, thus demonstrating that she is her own person and leader; and repeatedly hit the Republican aspirants without mentioning them by name.
Clinton looked presidential and totally in command of the issues and all their details. She addressed the issues of combating terrorism, containing Iran, and fighting efforts to delegitimize Israel. At the same time, she repeatedly hit hard on the Palestinian Authority for its failure to condemn the random terrorist attacks that have plagued Israel now for months. She also demanded Iran’s active support in condemning and containing ISIS’s actions that have done so much to create the ongoing chaos and violence in the Middle East.
Similarly, Clinton tried to distance herself from Obama by suggesting she would invite the Israeli prime minister to the White House soon after taking office and urge that the pending Memorandum of Understanding for military assistance to Israel be completed expeditiously. She also attacked some in the administration for failing to call out PA President Mahmoud Abbas directly and for not doing enough to fight the current scourge of violent terrorist attacks.
Clinton’s least subtle hits, however, were reserved for the Republicans — especially Trump — who were scheduled to speak to AIPAC later in the day. She repeatedly mentioned that one cannot be neutral on Israel, that not everything in politics is negotiable, and that we need to push world leaders to fight with us against terrorism.
The GOP candidates
What was most interesting was that Kasich and Cruz ran true to form while Trump issued surprises. Their remarks were well crafted and well delivered, with very little to differentiate them regarding substance. (Trump even appeared to use a teleprompter for the first time, as he was not delivering a stump speech — although he did appear to go off script and ad-lib a few times.) There was no major walk-out for Trump’s speech as had been anticipated and no booing. The Jewish vote is not a major portion of any of these candidates’ key constituencies, but they all needed to protect themselves.
All three men solidified their support within the Jewish community, and Trump demonstrated that he actually can address an issue without being nasty or ugly. In that regard he may have helped himself, although the push-back is that he dissed AIPAC by insulting the president in their backyard. Regardless of what he said in the past, this speech was direct and serious. Trump could well revert to form next time out, but at AIPAC he appeared almost ready for primetime (though not necessarily to be president).
President Barack Obama
Perhaps the real loser in this audience is Obama. Within the AIPAC rank and file and its leadership, judging from their reaction to his name and policies in the Middle East, the president did not receive much positive reaction. Reflecting probably much of the music being orchestrated out of Jerusalem, the AIPAC troops were not lining up to recognize the president for his eight years of solid support for Israel, despite the fact that — except perhaps for the Iran issue and his personality differences with Netanyahu — the U.S. and Israel have worked very closely and constructively under Obama’s watch.