Washington — Taking in the scene at the annual AIPAC policy conference here this week, an Israeli friend summed up in a dozen words the feelings of many of the 18,000 faithful — a new record in attendance.
“The best thing about Donald Trump,” he told me, “is that he’s not Barack Obama.”
More specifically, he noted that Trump, whatever else he stands for, openly favors Israel over the Palestinians and views Iran as “the bad guys.”
And, my friend might have added, the president chose Nikki Haley as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
The former governor of South Carolina, who defined herself here as “the new sheriff in town” at Turtle Bay, clearly was the darling of the conference, receiving extended ovations in discussing her efforts to counter the ongoing bias Israel faces at the U.N.
After several years of policy conferences fraught with a sense of crisis — over the Iran nuclear deal and, in 2016, the presidential election — this year’s event seemed more muted, notably without the presence of Trump or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who addressed the crowd by video). Not that delegates I spoke to complained. Rather they seemed to welcome what one called “a restored sense of business as usual.”
That may come as a surprise to those who figured the new president, a magnet for controversy, would be the No. 1 topic at the three-day program. He may well have been during discussions among the delegates. But from the podium at the Washington Verizon Center, the huge sports arena where the plenary sessions were held, Trump’s contentious personality and policies (aside from his vocal support for the Jewish state) were among the many elephants in the room — indeed, perhaps more than at a Republican circus.
With laser-like focus on the theme “Many Voices, One Mission,” celebrating the diversity of the pro-Israel community, AIPAC, Israel’s largest lobby in the United States, sought to avoid touchy topics. Those included Israeli settlements, new challenges to the two-state solution and, most tellingly, the divisive nature of the president and the polarization it has caused, including within the American-Jewish community.
Rather, the goal of the conference, as always, was to champion the U.S.-Israel relationship, which was tested at the top during the last eight years, and to stress bipartisan support for Israel in Washington, a concept under strain as the Democratic Party has moved further left and the Republicans have turned increasingly right.
With the political center caving, AIPAC has been in a bind in recent years, trying to shed the perception that it is more right than center after fighting Obama’s nuclear deal, supporting Netanyahu’s contentious address to Congress against the agreement, and avowing its support for a two-state solution without commenting on Israeli moves away from that goal.
But straddling left and right is particularly difficult now. The Democrats’ center has given way to the progressive wing of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, often critical of Israeli policy in the West Bank. And Trump is viewed by most American Jews as, at best, a loose cannon, and at worst an authoritarian who endangers democracy. Add to the mix the fact that Trump has warmly endorsed Israel and its prime minister, delighting many U.S. Jews and making others queasy.
Clearly the folks who come to the AIPAC conference, whatever their politics on other issues, are drawn here by their fervent support for Israel. And perhaps that explains why they shed their other concerns — even fears — about Trump, and focus on his full-throated backing of Israel.
One year later
A year ago, Republican candidate Trump, in his address to the conference, described Obama as “maybe the worst thing that ever happened to Israel” and was applauded warmly during, and at the end of, his speech. The next day, in a unique public statement, AIPAC president Lillian Pinkus apologized to Obama, chastised the crowd, and criticized Trump, without naming him, for his offensive remarks.
On Sunday night, Pinkus was on the stage to introduce Vice President Mike Pence, thanking him and the president for their “warm embrace” of Israel. And Pence, invoking Trump repeatedly throughout his speech as a “courageous American” who will stand up to enemies like Iran, was warmly applauded, even when he stated that the administration is “giving serious consideration” to moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — backing off the campaign promise that Trump had made to relocate it.
An Evangelical Christian, the vice president spoke movingly, and at times tearfully, of his lifelong commitment to the Jewish state and of his family’s visit to the Dachau concentration camp.
He pledged the administration’s “unapologetic” support for Israel and made a commitment to never allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. And assuming many AIPACers voted his way, he said: “Thanks to the support of so many in this room, President Trump won a historic victory. All of you helped elect a president I know will make America great again.”
Some in the crowd applauded, others seemed taken aback.
Haley rocked the convention center during her appearance on Monday, describing the “bizarre” behavior of U.N. delegates in devoting more time to bashing Israel than confronting the dire situations throughout a Mideast beset by chaos and violence.
She asserted that her staff will “watch” Iran “like a hawk,” and said, “the days of Israel-bashing are over.”
Haley said the Obama administration’s decision to allow an anti-Israel U.N. Security Council resolution to pass last December “felt like a kick in the gut” and “it will never happen again.” (More center-leaning AIPAC supporters admire Haley for strongly endorsing the two-state solution at a time when other administration officials seemed to backpedal on what has long been U.S. policy.)
Netanyahu, seen seated in his Jerusalem office during the live feed, expressed confidence that Israel’s alliance with the United States “will grow stronger in the years ahead” and described his recent White House meeting with the president as “extremely warm.” He praised the administration for turning its rhetoric into policies, noting Haley’s actions at the U.N. and the full funding of Israel’s military aid “even as the fiscal belt is pulled tighter.”
He did not touch on settlements — a topic of mild disagreement with the administration at the moment — or possible peace talks with the Palestinians. He closed by thanking AIPAC and its supporters for “standing with Israel” and making “the U.S.-Israel alliance stronger than ever.”
The U.S. political divide was front and center at the closing plenary on Tuesday morning. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) criticized an Obama foreign policy marked by “the absence of American leadership” in avoiding conflict. It resulted, he said, in “our enemies learn[ing] not to fear us, our allies learn[ing] not to trust us, and friends like Israel feeling abandoned.” He called for a rebuilt military to “push back” against Iranian aggression and ensure that Israeli security is strengthened.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spoke of the “poisonous attitudes we are witnessing now” after “a presidential campaign where hate speech went unchallenged,” creating an “atmosphere that emboldened anti-Semites.” She also read a letter calling on Trump to “support a just and lasting two-state solution,” noting pointedly that it was signed by 189 Democrats and two Republicans.
In the bubble
Unlike other conferences in the Jewish community, the primary goal of AIPAC’s annual gathering is not to air or debate the issues of the day. This year’s program offered more than 100 breakout sessions featuring experts discussing a range of Mideast issues, though most were closed to the media.
AIPAC’s mission is to solidify and reinforce American — not just Jewish — support for Israel and inspire delegates with the rightness of Israel’s cause. And each conference culminates with the delegates fanning out across Capitol Hill to lobby their representatives on key issues. This year’s message deals with legislation to counter Iran’s aggression and oppose efforts to delegitimize or boycott Israel.
AIPAC does a remarkably effective job of inspiring and galvanizing its base. Not only is the conference the biggest Jewish annual event of its kind, it is infused with passion shared by increasing numbers of young people (including 4,000 students this year) and people of color and different religions.
The policy conference is a kind of Jewish Disneyland — it’s big, expensive ($599 for registration) and has long lines, but it offers the thrill of being with thousands of people passionate about being there.
And it’s a bit unreal — a safe space at remove from everyday worries.
So, for example, while delegates enthusiastically applauded college students like the contingent of 53 University of Florida Gators for Israel on stage, they were shielded from witnessing the hundreds of young people — many of them Jewish — passionately protesting outside the Washington Convention Center, condemning “the occupation.”
It was a telling reminder that the AIPAC delegates, for all of their fervent support and activity, are not representative of our larger, diverse, and polarized community. And the questions and challenges posed by the next generation — including their children and grandchildren — are not going away.