I remember attending the AIPAC policy conference in the late 80s and early 90s with a few hundred activists. On Monday night, I took part in the awe-inspiring spectacle of roughly 18,000 people, including 4,000 students, packing the Verizon Center, in a way the Washington Wizards and Capitals rarely do. The outpouring of support from young and old, Jewish and non-Jewish, provided a devastating refutation of the handful of individuals and far left organizations that desperately peddle snake oil claims that AIPAC and the establishment groups do not represent American Jewry.
Politics is all about numbers and these count, especially when those thousands of citizen lobbyists descended on Capitol Hill to express their constitutional right to petition their government. For many, Obama is a lost cause, so the hope is to encourage Congress to take action that will restore the strength of the U.S.-Israel alliance to the point before Obama weakened it. Already, we can see the fruits of the lobbying effort as members of Congress are pushing for funding for Israel’s anti-missile systems, a 10-year military aid package that will ensure Israel maintains its qualitative edge and new sanctions against Iran to mitigate the damage cause by the disastrous Iran nuclear deal.
Sessions provided plenty of information for delegates, but many are already well-informed so, again, it is the numbers that really impress. Many Jews, especially from small communities or schools, often feel isolated and engaged in a Sisyphean task of supporting Israel, but when they arrive in Washington and see that they are not alone, and that a national support network exists, they are energized and reminded that everyone can make a difference.
When the event was smaller, one of the highlights was the banquet where a majority of members of Congress and other prominent officials felt the need to make an appearance. The conference has outgrown the banquet but there is still no shortage of policymakers who want to be seen by the most ardent supporters of Israel, whose willingness to devote time, money and energy to political campaigns gives them disproportionate influence.
It is also not surprising that presidential candidates would want to address AIPAC. The only exception was Bernie Sanders who is playing the man of the people shtick and didn’t want to be associated with an influential lobby. He also wouldn’t have received a very friendly reception if he said the things he said outside the conference that were inconsistent with the views of the participants and ill-informed Middle East policy prescriptions.
As for who did show up, Clinton received a reception befitting a queen. Most Americans may hate and distrust her according to polls, but Jews still overwhelmingly support her (more on this in a future column on the Jewish vote).
Kasich and Cruz gave very good speeches, but addressing AIPAC is really a paint by numbers assignment. Say magic words, such as, I will move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, I support a united Jerusalem, I will impose new sanctions on Iran, the Iran nuclear deal was a disaster, and candidates will bring the multitude will to their feet screaming their affirmation. Of course, AIPAC members are sophisticated enough not to believe much of what the politicians say as they have heard multiple candidates, for example, promise to move the U.S. embassy and yet it still sits in Tel Aviv.
As expected, the star of the show was Donald Trump. AIPAC was so afraid of the reaction to Trump, a fear that began a few years ago with Obama’s appearance, that it felt the need to send out a letter on conference etiquette, which was a veiled plea not to boo or protest Trump.
Some Jews thought it unsavory to invite someone whose views on topics unrelated to Israel were so divisive; however, this was a selfish campaign of self-righteousness. They were supposed to stage a walkout, but their protest was invisible and did nothing more than assuage their consciences.
The AIPAC conference is about the U.S.-Israel relationship and the thousands of participants wanted to hear what Trump would say on that topic, since he had previously said very little, and made one dubious remark about being neutral between Israel and the Palestinians. Would the maverick “truth-teller” explain to the pro-Israel community that he would indeed be neutral? That he believed Israel should pay for military hardware? That Israel could not expect his support in future conflicts?
Reportedly, Trump’s address was the first one he’s given that was written and delivered virtually word for word. This was not the usual stream-of-consciousness stump speech and whoever wrote it was careful to dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s to cover AIPAC’s talking points and Trump got the standing ovations those sentiments automatically generate.
The next day, AIPAC sent out another strange etiquette missive condemning some unspecified language during the event and expressing anger over what they viewed as a show of disrespect to President Obama. Either the White House or Democratic machers must have read the organization’s leaders the riot act for Trump’s remark that Obama “may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel.” They probably also didn’t like his remark, “With President Obama in his final year — yea!” which provoked loud applause.
On one hand, it may be argued this is good politics as well as courtesy, but it may also be a reflection that even with 18,000 people in the room, AIPAC still fears the president. After the beating AIPAC took on the Iran deal, perhaps that fear is justified.
One other criticism I’ve heard about Trump’s invitation was that AIPAC gave legitimacy to his campaign. Seriously? For better or worse, the guy is leading in the polls, trouncing his opponents in nearly every primary and could be the next president. AIPAC is all about access, which is a major reason for the apologies to Obama, and if its lobbyists want an open door to the Trump House, it behooves them to hedge their bets and stay in his good graces. If others want to lambaste him for positions on non-Israel issues, fine; that is not AIPAC’s role.
What AIPAC does exceptionally well is lay out the key issues and bring in the leading experts to explain them. Taking a page out of the Reagan playbook, AIPAC has learned to tug at delegates’ heartstrings with inspirational stories such as the one about the autistic young man serving in the IDF. The conference is also becoming more and more of an exposition with various Israeli innovations and products on display in the “village.” It really is the must-see event of the year for anyone who cares about Israel.
So what are the main takeaways from the conference?
AIPAC has greater support from the pro-Israel community than ever before. In fact, if not for the high cost, the conference could probably double its attendance.
AIPAC is not a protest movement; it is the establishment and fringe individuals and groups are little more than fleas.
Politicians want to show their faces in front of AIPAC because they believe it can influence their futures.
AIPAC educates politicians and members for the benefit of the U.S.-Israel relationship. When delegates march onto the Hill to lobby every year they are well-armed to make the case to strengthen that relationship.
AIPAC remains bipartisan. This notion of AIPAC being in the bag for the GOP is a myth. The number of Democrats participating as speakers and delegates, not to mention the reception Clinton received, were indications of that bipartisanship. If Clinton should win, you can be sure that AIPAC will be accused of tilting to the Democrats as it was during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.