WASHINGTON — Held a little more than a month apart, the recent AIPAC and J Street conferences represented two wildly different takes on what the Trump presidency means for the long-term future of the US-Israel relationship.
If you were dropped in at AIPAC’s confab last month at the Walter Washington Convention Center in downtown DC, you would think things had never been better. Although the president himself did not attend, his vice president and his UN ambassador did, and while both gave strong, considered speeches, they could have read the phone book in front of the powerhouse pro-Israel lobby’s crowd and still received standing ovations.
Mike Pence and Nikki Haley each extolled Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, his commitment to moving the US Embassy there, his more aggressive posture toward Iran, and his administration’s robust defense of Israel at the United Nations. “We stand with Israel because her cause is our cause, her values are our values, and her fight is our fight,” Pence said, to raucous applause.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also showed up, and gave a 30-minute speech that electrified the audience. He thanked Trump profusely, going so far as to compare him to King Cyrus, Lord Balfour, and former president Harry Truman, inserting the current American president’s name into the pantheon of Zionist heroes.
But if you were dropped in at J Street’s confab this week — which was at the Omni Shoreham Hotel with a substantially lighter, though still impressive, crowd — you would think things had never been worse.
Trump, you would have heard, is a threat to American democracy and American pluralism, a mean-spirited bigot who delights in his cruelty to Muslims, immigrants, and the many varieties of Other he so consistently offends, and an enabler of the self-destructive and reactionary policies of Netanyahu.
Netanyahu, you’d also have been told, is a threat to Israeli democracy and Israeli pluralism, a short-sighted flimflam willing to subvert his country’s best interests for his own political survival, the man largely responsible for Israel’s partisan divide in the United States, and the erosion of any possibility for a two-state solution with the Palestinians, and an enabler of Donald Trump.
For AIPAC, in short, the Trump-Netanyahu bromance is a marriage made in heaven; for J Street, in hell.
This divide is hardly a surprise. AIPAC is still AIPAC and J Street is still J Street. The former is there to lionize Israel and boost its relationship with whomever occupies the White House, while the latter sees itself as taking up the mantle of the dissident patriot, too caring to let friends drive drunk.
J Street is, after all, a left-wing organization that has existed mostly with a right-wing Israeli government. Founded in 2007, J Street’s modus operandi has been Benjamin Franklin’s admonition: Be grateful for our critics, for they do show us our faults.
But there were a few developments this week that suggest the divide may have reverberations for years to come. For one, J Street is looking more important to Democrats, even those — perhaps especially those — who have long been aligned with AIPAC and have had different policy views than J Street in the past.
Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland and the last ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, addressed the conference for the first time this year. Having voted against the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and recently authored a controversial anti-BDS bill that the liberal lobby opposes on free speech grounds, he was not the obvious choice to be a keynote speaker. But Cardin is in a re-election year and looking to make amends with progressives who consider him overly hawkish, while J Street is looking to make inroads with Democrats and deepen its reach on Capitol Hill. (It helps that Cardin, once an Iran deal critic, is now urging the Trump administration to remain in the accord.)
In his speech, Cardin castigated Netanyahu for addressing Congress in 2015 — when the Israeli prime minister warned against the Iran deal, aligning himself with then president Barack Obama’s domestic opposition — and for threatening to deport African asylum seekers from Israel, which Cardin compared to Trump’s executive order banning refugees from some Muslim majority countries. “We speak out!” Cardin said, especially against “the policies of Israel or the United States that are not consistent with our Jewish and democratic values.”
There’s little reason to suspect Cardin will be any less of a pro-Israel stalwart from now on, but there’s good reason to suspect that Democrats will not be able to get away much longer with being completely uncritical of Israel. Not with the Netanyahu government in power, and especially not with the Netanyahu government so inextricably linked to Trump.
It was not a surprise that the biggest hit of the J Street conference was Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who gave a scathing critique of Israel, particularly its conduct in the latest Gaza eruptions. The second biggest hit was probably the PLO’s envoy to the US, Husam Zomlot; there were no Palestinian officials who spoke at AIPAC.
Both seized on their own and the crowd’s anger. Trump’s Jerusalem decision was not merely a case of “taking Jerusalem off the table,” said Zomlot, invoking the president’s oft-repeated phrase, but “removing the table all together.”
These and other lines elicited massive applause, especially from the thousands of students there from J Street U, the college branch of the organization, who have been organizing campaigns against Trump’s nomination of Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state, and the Israeli premier’s plans to raze Palestinian villages in the West Bank.
Political organizations tend to do better when they’re in the opposition. More people feel inclined to donate money when they think their values or causes are under threat. AIPAC, to be sure, also saw a boost in fundraising after the Iran nuclear deal.
But the two conferences showcased more than just competing ideologies or political goals; they reflected different interpretations of this political moment. While AIPAC is leading you to believe that the Trump-Netanyahu axis is bringing the US closer to Israel, J Street is saying the two allied governments are pushing a whole generation of Americans further away from the Jewish state.