It was a show of love and support. Nearly 19,000 people from across the continental United States converged on Washington’s convention center this week for the annual AIPAC policy conference.
There was Nikki Haley, America’s new ambassador to the United Nations, who received a rock-star welcome alongside all four of the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate – a demonstration of the support Israel receives on both sides of the aisle. Vice President Mike Pence was greeted with admiration and a series of standing ovations. But despite the crowd, the absence of one man – President Donald Trump – stood out.
Trump’s absence wasn’t by chance. White House officials haven’t forgotten what happened when the president appeared before the conference last year as the Republican nominee. At the time, almost no one in America thought Trump stood a chance at winning the election and after he gave a speech in which he slammed Barack Obama, AIPAC’s leadership took the rare step of apologizing to the outgoing president.
AIPAC has always striven to remain above party politics and was trying, at the time, to prevent any damage. Trump’s attack on a serving president, the organization feared, could undermine that status.
But even though he wasn’t physically present, Trump featured prominently at the conference, which focused on US-Israeli relations. Just two weeks ago, presidential envoy Jason Greenblatt returned from a comprehensive visit to the region. He met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah. He sat with settler leaders as well as Palestinian students from a refugee camp.
As the conference took place in DC, Greenblatt was again making the rounds in the Arab World, attending a gathering of the Arab League in Amman and sitting for meetings with Abbas, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi and others.
Israel is not yet clear what Trump’s plans are for the Middle East. His expressed desire to achieve what he refers to as the “ultimate deal” seems sincere, although the path to that so-called deal remains vaguely marked.
Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House in February, discussions between Israel and the United States have been centered on two main topics. There are the talks on settlement construction that Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer is leading, with the goal of taking settlements off the table early in the administration’s life.
It is a smart move. For eight years, the Obama administration viewed Israel through the prism of settlements. Every discussion with Obama officials started with settlements and ended with settlements.
Pence vows US loyalty to Israel during AIPAC speech (credit: REUTERS)
When Israel, for example, announced plans in 2010 to build homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, some US officials said that the construction announcement put into question Netanyahu’s commitment to Israel’s alliance with the United States. Not his commitment to peace. To the alliance with America, no less.
The objective is for everyone to be on the same page so that does not happen again.
The second level of talks is a bit wider. It includes a dialogue on the big issues right now in the Middle East – like Iran and the future of Syria. On this level, Israel finds itself in a unique position. The administration is still crafting policy and is looking to Israel for input and support. Due to the genuine friendship between Trump and Netanyahu, Israel has an opportunity to help the White House craft what will ultimately be decided, or at the very least to significantly influence the process.
But for that to happen, Israel needs to keep its eye on the prize, which is in this case Iran and not a few more homes in a West Bank settlement. The question is whether Netanyahu’s coalition – and specifically Bayit Yehudi – will be able to put their politics aside and understand that this is time for statesmanship, not petty political maneuvering.
Let’s imagine for a moment that Israel fails to reach understandings with the Trump administration on settlements. If, for example, what Israel is willing to give does not meet the minimum of what the Americans demand.
If that happens, Israel runs the risk of being perceived by the administration as the intransigent side to the conflict. That could have negative repercussions way beyond settlements and undermine the higher-level coordination needed to protect Israel’s security interests when it comes to the greater challenges like Syria and Iran.
The problem is that in Israel, politics tend to get in the way of strategic policy-making. If, for example, Naftali Bennett decides to take a stand on the settlement issue, Netanyahu will find himself facing an even greater coalition crisis than the present one over the new broadcasting corporation. The White House might not be so tolerant and forgiving.
So, what can Trump do? First and foremost, keep in mind what Israelis truly seek from a peace process with the Palestinians. The answer: security and a better future.
Trump already seems to understand the first part. By sending Pence and Haley to AIPAC and making it clear that there will be no daylight between America and Israel as during the Obama years, Trump is taking an important step at giving Israel the feeling that it, too, can take steps toward peace – because the US has its back. Obama tried the opposite. He thought that by creating daylight between America and Israel the pressure would get the job done.
But how can Trump give Israelis a feeling that there is a better future for them in the Middle East?
There are different options, but one way could be to convene a public peace summit attended not just by the obvious players – Israel, the Palestinians, the Americans, Jordan and Egypt – but also by senior members of the Saudi royal family as well as other heads of state from the Gulf.
A summit on its own will not bring peace, but images of Netanyahu shaking hands and speaking with the Saudi crown prince would give Israelis a feeling that they can potentially have a better future one day in the Middle East.
It would be an important first step, one that Trump has the power to make possible.
There was a moment at the opening day of the AIPAC Policy Conference that left very few people unmoved. It was Sunday night at the Verizon Center – home to the Washington Wizards – where some 19,000 conference participants had gathered to hear Vice President Pence.
A movie was shown on the stadium’s massive screens telling the story of Amnon Weinstein, a second-generation violin maker. Weinstein is not an ordinary luthier. He specializes in refurbishing and restoring Jewish- owned violins that survived the Holocaust and eventually made their way to Israel.
Many of the survivors who brought Weinstein their instruments did not want them back. They couldn’t bear throwing them out, but they also couldn’t bear holding on to them. Keeping the violins reminded them of their murdered families and the vibrant communities they came from that were engulfed in the flames of the Nazism they had fled.
Weinstein’s father collected them and, for the last 20 years together with his son Avshalom, he has worked to restore them.
At one point during the movie, renowned Israeli virtuoso Hagai Shaham appeared on screen, playing one of Weinstein’s special violins. Suddenly, out of the darkness, he appeared live on stage, picking up the tune from the exact point where the movie had stopped. The crowd sat in silence. But then Shaham started to play Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem. One after another, the audience rose to its feet and started to hum the lyrics. First softly and then a bit louder.
No one asked anyone to stand. No one announced that Shaham would play Hatikva
. It happened spontaneously, just moments before Pence took center stage. It was a display of genuine love and support for Israel that cannot be taken for granted. It needs to be maintained and nurtured.
Diaspora Jewry has a responsibility for Israel, but Israelis have no less a responsibility for the Jews of the Diaspora. It is a two-way street and one that should always be on our minds as we negotiate it carefully.