Every year I attend the remarkable AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC. It’s an incredible spectacle.
Close to 20,000 people mill about the massive Washington Convention Center, socializing, networking and educating themselves in the myriad panels and lectures offered at the mega-event. There’s even a fully kosher village dining hall that feels roughly the size of an international airport runway.
The plenaries rank as some of the largest Jewish events on earth. But what people really come for is the incredible lineup of speakers, which features stars from all across the political spectrum – whether from Congress, global leaders or most importantly, the administration.
This year, though, things might be slightly less incredible.
AIPAC will head into its main event without the participation of the man who lit up the conference last year with one of its best speeches: Donald Trump, who has since gone on to become president of the United States.
Vice-President Mike Pence, a stalwart friend of Israel, will be representing the president at AIPAC and will no doubt deliver a strong speech.
Twelve months ago candidate Trump was invited to speak at the Policy Conference. And speak he did. Trump delivered a compelling, eloquent and comprehensive speech on the state of American relations with Israel and how he’d work to improve them. At a certain point, the candidate swerved off the planned text and said of Obama’s last months in office: “With President Obama in his final year. Yay!” The comment earned mass applause.
He later referred to Obama as “maybe the worst thing to happen to Israel.” The audience, many of whom were growing weary of Obama’s undisguised animus toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, another conference participant, rose in huge applause.
I was there. Trump electrified the massive arena.
The very next day, AIPAC president Lillian Pinkus introduced Netanyahu’s televised address with an emotional display at Trump’s comments. Choking back tears, she spoke of how despite her having “preached a message of unity... last evening, something occurred which has the potential to drive us apart, to divide us.”
She went on to say that AIPAC’s leadership took “great offense” at the “ad hominem attacks... levied against the president of the United States of America from our stage.”
Pinkus went on to say how “deeply sorry” she was for those “members of the AIPAC family” who had been “deeply hurt.” And, with regard to the applause from the audience, Pinkus said she was “disappointed.”
Pinkus’ response was uneven and questionable.
Moments after Trump spoke, Ted Cruz compared Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran to the 1938 Munich agreement that empowered Hitler. Yet, he was spared.
I love AIPAC. It’s an incredible organization of dedicated Jewish communal volunteers and professionals who are wholly dedicated to the America-Israel relationship. AIPAC is a modern miracle of Jewish organization and commitment and its executive director, Howard Kohr, is a man of humility and a gentleman in every sense of the word.
AIPAC’s reaction to Trump’s speech, however, was out of character for an organization famous for its diplomacy and inclusiveness. Surely president Barack Obama wasn’t going to hold the organization accountable for remarks delivered from its podium by independent speakers.
And if AIPAC’s members welcomed Trump’s remarks, that was their prerogative. Surely AIPAC celebrates First Amendment rights of self-expression. And by any measurable standard Trump’s speech was extremely compelling, even if it was a sharp critique of president Obama’s policies.
An organization is not liable for the words of its guest speakers and therefore cannot censor them. In a political venue in an election year, strong opinions will appear. To try and restrict them would leave the speakers with nothing much to say.
Some at the time claimed that the organization’s decision to criticize candidate Trump was taken to alleviate tension that might arise with an African-American community who might take offense at Trump’s barb at the first black president. But I can’t imagine that was the thinking.
The African-American community, like the Jewish community, is not monolithic and can handle criticism of African-American leaders and policies, just as the Jewish community can in relation to its leaders.
Perhaps AIPAC’s leadership believed, as did so many back then, that Trump didn’t have a chance. Better to offend a businessman than the president of the United States and a party that would almost certainly inherit the White House.
Whatever the reason, AIPAC’s reaction was unfortunate, resulting as it did in the marginalization of America’s premiere pro-Israel group.
President Trump is an extremely pro-Israel president. His defense of Israel at the UN so early in his administration has been particularly impressive, especially given Obama’s parting shot at Israel with UN Security Council Resolution 2334.
Even before becoming president, Trump was using his future influence to protect Israel. Last December – as genocide raged in Aleppo – president Obama decided to use his last weeks in office not to protect Arab children being murdered with mustard gas but to assail the Jewish state at the UN, breaking America’s long-standing tradition of using its veto power to protect Israel from unfair attacks in the Security Council.
Obama eventually succeeded in helping to pass an anti-Israel resolution, but only after Trump lobbied Egypt into dropping the bid, forcing Obama to turn to other countries to introduce the resolution.
Trump then used his Twitter feed as a weapon in defense of the Jewish state. “Stay Strong Israel,” he tweeted, “January 20th is fast approaching!” Since assuming office, Trump has, along with his phenomenal UN ambassador, Nicky Haley, completely reversed the decline of American support for Israel at the UN.
Last month, Haley joined other Trump forces in Washington in blocking UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres from selecting Salam Fayyad, a former Palestinian prime minister, to run the UN mission in Libya.
She remarked that “for too long the UN has been unfairly biased in favor of the Palestinian Authority to the detriment of our allies in Israel,” adding that the US “does not currently recognize a Palestinian state or support the signal this appointment would send within the United Nations.”
Just last week, the Trump administration solidified its stance on Israel by pressuring the UN into dismissing a report by rabid Israel hater Rima Khalef, chairman of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA). The report, drafted at the request of 18 Arab countries, depicted Israel as “an apartheid regime that dominates the Palestinian people as a whole” and went on to claim that Israel was “designed” for this purpose.
Khalef, who refused to repudiate her Israel-bashing report, has since resigned. Ambassador Haley’s response: “When someone issues a false and defamatory report in the name of the UN, it is appropriate that the person resign.”
In an op-ed for CNN, Richard Roth summed it up perfectly: “Memo to critics of Israel inside the UN system: Prepare to pay a price.”
Just months into his term, Trump already has the track record to earn AIPAC’s respect and applause. The organization should do everything in its power to mend fences with the president. They ought to take advantage of their premiere event this year to try and mend what is undeniably their most critical relationship.