My first policy conference was in 2013. I was honored and excited to have been invited to speak on a few panels dealing with Iran in the framework of this impressive gathering of staunch supporters of Israel and US-Israel relations. I knew a lot less about AIPAC at that point, but enough to know that I wanted to bring along my son, who had just finished his five-year service in the IDF – three years of compulsory service and another two as an officer in a combat unit that spent a lot of time in the West Bank. I’ll never forget his expression as we sat down in the audience at the opening plenary session and he was surrounded by thousands (13 thousand that year I believe) of people with one common vision: support for Israel. The warmth of that public embrace was powerful and inspiring, and almost unbelievable for him, and for me.
Thinking about my experience at the policy conference this year, and my strongest impressions, the most outstanding as an Israeli is still that feeling of embrace. As someone who participates in many conferences abroad where Israel is either clearly unpopular if not openly denounced, or in the better cases grudgingly accepted, at AIPAC Israel is allowed to shine. I am amazed at the Israelis that AIPAC finds and showcases – innovators and inventors, dedicated volunteers in many areas, and extremely talented people in a host of different areas. Beyond the technological breakthroughs that are always amazing to see, one of my favorites this year was a conversation between Natan Sharansky and his daughter Rachel. I did not even know that Sharansky had a daughter, and this woman was quite extraordinary; extremely bright and articulate, she directed the conversation with her father in a manner that was insightful, real and moving. But the top story for me was the school for guide dogs established in Israel – the film screened at the plenary, which featured Saleem and his dog Winston, and the time I spent with the dogs at the school’s station in the Village and talking to the dogs’ partners, two of them wounded soldiers, from wars in 1973 and 1982.
There is no one that shows this side of Israeli society better than AIPAC at the policy conference. But the policy conference also confronts the thorny political and security issues, and these are discussed frankly and in-depth at the many breakout sessions that take place over the course of the two days of discussions. Topics include US-Israel relations; the Palestinian issue; Israel and the world; regional developments; and Iran. With a mix of Americans and Israelis on many of these panels, US-Israel relations are expressed by means of the speakers’ perspectives, and are sometimes targeted directly as the topic of debate.
When it comes to the breakout sessions, everyone attending the policy conference tends to have a different conference experience and can come away with very different insights and conclusions. With 18,000 participants and so many panels being conducted simultaneously, there is simply no way that the experience can be the same. As a speaker, I spent most of my time on my own panels dealing with the Iran nuclear and regional challenge, so my experience focused more on the interaction I had with the different audiences. In this respect what stood out for me was their level of engagement, and my sense that many of these people would be carrying messages directly to lawmakers on the last day of the conference — devoted to lobbying on the hill. This year was particularly important in that regard in light of the current administration’s efforts to strengthen the Iran nuclear deal, and was an opportunity to offer insights and ideas in that regard.
The final pillar of the policy conference is the speeches and conversations held with leaders and policy makers from both the US and Israel who take the stage at the plenaries. Nikki Haley was no doubt the brightest star among this group – the audience could not contain its open expression of admiration for the work she has done to fight the blatant bias against Israel at the UN. In line with AIPAC’s bipartisan core identity, leaders from both sides of the aisle (or, in Israel’s case, many sides) were present, united in their support for Israel and a strong US-Israel relationship.
Despite the organization’s fierce insistence on a bipartisan approach, AIPAC is often perceived by people – usually those not familiar with the organization’s work – as leaning quite significantly to the right, and this image might have been enhanced by the very fact that J-Street was created as some kind of left-wing alternative to AIPAC. The image might also have been enhanced in recent years by the fact that Israel’s Prime Minister has been right-wing for so long. Yes, the AIPAC crowd will cheer the Israeli prime minister, but not because he’s right-wing – I believe it is because he is the prime minister of Israel. While I did not attend Netanyahu’s session, I can say that Isaac (Bougie) Herzog was very warmly received by the AIPAC crowd. Moreover, from what I know of the organization, they make tireless efforts to bring pluralistic perspectives to the table – at policy conferences, and for the briefings that they arrange for the many missions that they bring to Israel each year, made up of leaders from different communities and outlooks in America, including African Americans, Latinos, rabbinical students and members of the progressive movement.
Every year since 2013 I look forward to the AIPAC policy conference – first and foremost of course for the opportunity to address new audiences about the Iran nuclear threat. But I also look forward to the stories about amazing Israelis and Americans. And at the end of the day it always comes back to that feeling of being surrounded by thousands of people who openly and eagerly support Israel. As an Israeli, the value of the AIPAC policy conference probably begins with this. I wish more Israelis – especially young Israelis, especially soldiers – could come to the policy conference, and feel the love. In today’s world that’s no small matter.