At AIPAC confab, Pence goes high on enthusiasm, low on details

Crowd buzzes over Trump administration’s UN achievements, but positions on Israeli-Palestinian peace, embassy move remain vague

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at AIPAC's annual Policy Conference on March 26, 2017 at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC (Ron Kampeas/JTA)
Vice President Mike Pence speaks at AIPAC's annual Policy Conference on March 26, 2017 at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC (Ron Kampeas/JTA)

WASHINGTON— US Vice President Mike Pence took the main stage at AIPAC’s Police Conference event on Sunday night with one clear assignment: fire up the audience about the Trump administration’s commitment to supporting Israel.

It is not an unusual duty for a vice president — his predecessor Joe Biden also made appearances before the annual confab.

In Pence’s case, it seemed to be a pretty easy sell. He was high on passion but low on details during the keynote speech before an enthusiastic crowd at the plenary.

Pence strategically wove his lengthy pro-Israel Washington bona fides – decades of work with AIPAC, multiple trips to Israel – together with name-drops of his boss, US Donald Trump, whom he described as “a true friend of Israel and courageous defender of freedom.”

AIPAC is traditionally a venue for administration officials to trumpet their pro-Israel actions and agenda. In Pence’s case, he stressed his pride over Trump’s condemnation of anti-Semitic threats and incidents, and repeatedly referred to the efforts of US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who spearheaded a US protest boycott of the United Nations Human Rights Council for anti-Israel bias.

It was, in fact, Haley’s mention that garnered the most enthusiastic applause in Pence’s speech, although the thousands of attendees at Washington’s Verizon Center also applauded Pence’s multiple references to the president.

“The United States will not allow the UN to be used as a forum for invective against Israel or the United States,” Pence vowed to loud applause.

Newly confirmed Ambassador to Israel David Friedman also got a shout-out and applause, with Pence assuring the audience that Friedman’s presence would further improve relations between the two countries.

But while Pence’s speech was high on enthusiasm, it was light on specific details looking forward.

“The president is giving serious consideration to moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to the capital,” Pence told the audience, referring to a specific election promise made repeatedly by then-candidate Trump.

Presidential hopefuls have a long past of making big promises to AIPAC audiences in election years. In 2008 Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, famously promised to move the US embassy to Jerusalem – a promise that remained unfulfilled throughout the eight years of his presidency.

Trump did the same, telling the audience that, if elected, “we will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”

The timeline on the move, which many believed the president would undertake within his first hundred days in office, has remained vague in the months since Trump’s January inauguration.

Similarly, Pence’s statements on Iran were forceful if not detailed. The vice president warned that “this administration has put Iran on notice. America will no longer tolerate Iran’s efforts to destabilize the region and threaten Israel’s security” and that “under President Donald Trump will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.”

While Obama administration officials tended to emphasize budgetary outlays, such as expenditures for missile defense programs, there was no mention from Pence as to how Israel might fare in the president’s proposed budget.

Pence’s language was perhaps the most vague when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. In recent weeks, the administration waded into the conflict when it sent emissary Jason Greenblatt to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

The administration caught many in the Israeli right off-guard when Trump asked Israel to “hold back” on settlement construction, a sentiment repeated last week during meetings between senior Israeli and US officials.

Again avoiding specifics – or even mentioning the words “settlements” or “two-state solution” – Pence told his AIPAC audience that “there will undoubtedly have to be compromises.” But, he added, “I can assure you all that President Trump will never compromise the safety and security of the Jewish state of Israel.”

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