WASHINGTON — AIPAC’s annual policy conference opens Sunday in the nation’s capital and, on the surface, everything in the garden is rosy.
Even this powerful pro-Israel lobby doesn’t expect the president to grace its flagship event every year, but Vice President Mike Pence will be speaking here, as he did last year. So too will the undisputed star of the 2017 gathering, Nikki Haley, who, after a year of standing up for Israel at the United Nations, is likely to get an even warmer reception than last year’s roars and cheers.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is heading in from Israel for the event — and will be dropping in at the White House in the course of his visit — as are no fewer than three prominent opposition figures, Avi Gabbay, Isaac Herzog, and Tzipi Livni.
Doubtless hanging on their every word will be a predicted audience of 18,000 AIPAC supporters, 3,500 of whom are students — a robust young generation of pro-Israel activists, direct from the campus battlefields.
And yet this year’s policy conference finds AIPAC striving to highlight its commitment to bipartisan support for Israel in an America where there is precious little bipartisan support for anything, and on behalf of an Israel whose leadership under Netanyahu is widely regarded as having thrown in its lot with the Republicans, or, more specifically, with the Trump administration.
Support for Israel truly was an overwhelmingly consensual issue in American politics for many years, but is gradually morphing into yet another area in which Republicans and Democrats are openly at odds. Indeed, it was at AIPAC two years ago that this divide was savagely revealed.
The only Jewish presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, chose to be the sole presidential candidate to give AIPAC a wide berth that year, opting instead to campaign in Salt Lake City. To coincide with the conference, Sanders instead made public a speech that would have gone down like a lead balloon had he chosen to deliver it to the pro-Israel lobby, in which he lambasted Israel for its ostensible “disproportionate responses to being attacked,” criticized its “bombing of hospitals, schools, and refugee camps” in the 2014 war with Hamas, and demanded an end to Israel’s “blockade of Gaza.”
Meanwhile, candidate Donald J. Trump, whom AIPAC leaders had worried might be booed by the crowd, drew increasingly warm applause with a speech not only pledging that “When I become president, the days of treating Israel like a second class citizen will end,” which was just about okay, but also castigating president Barack Obama as possibly “the worst thing that ever happened to Israel, believe me” — a devastatingly inappropriate declaration at the annual gathering of an organization committed to bipartisan US support for Israel. (Trump also chortled untenably, “With President Obama in his final year, yay…”)
With many of its supporters, especially black Americans, deeply offended, AIPAC’s leadership took the exceptional step of going out in front of its crowd the following morning and apologizing for Trump’s anti-Obama comments — without mentioning Trump by name — expressing its “great offense” regarding remarks “that are levied against the president of the United States of America from our stage.”
That step reduced some of the outrage on one side, but also, inevitably, infuriated many in the Trump campaign — and has not been forgotten. It will be interesting to see whether this president — so supportive of Israel, as evidenced by his early visit to Jerusalem, his stop at the Western Wall, his moving of the embassy, and his involvement of Israel in considerations over how to handle Iran and the nuclear deal — does speak again at AIPAC in one of the coming years. It is a fairly safe bet that, even if he hadn’t been embroiled in crisis right now, Jared Kushner, peace envoy and son-in-law, would not have been here this week.
Meanwhile, a Pew poll last month showed very strong Republican support for Israel, and sliding backing from the Democrats. When the next presidential campaign rolls around, Republican candidates can be relied upon to talk up their pro-Israel bona fides. Democratic would-be presidents? Not so much.
Even with the benefits of hindsight, it’s hard to see how AIPAC could have handled its near-impossible task of maintaining a bipartisan consensus on Israel in so divided an America. Regarding the 2016 fiasco, for instance, it could hardly not have invited candidate Trump, and it very probably sought to ensure ahead of time that his speech was appropriate; the Obama-bashing was likely ad-libbed.
In the Obama era, AIPAC was criticized by some of its right-wing supporters for not being publicly tougher on the administration, notably over the Iran deal and the candidacy of defense secretary Chuck Hagel. In the Trump era, some of its left-wing supporters are so appalled by the presidency that their hostility to Trump can overwhelm their concerns for Israel — especially an Israel that can be alienating. They’ve seen Netanyahu freeze the painstakingly negotiated Western Wall religious pluralism compromise, for instance, and many regard the government as intolerably hard-hearted in its treatment of African asylum-seekers.
Pence and Halley will be received with great warmth. Netanyahu, however divisive a figure for Diaspora Jews, and however deeply embroiled in corruption allegations at home, will also almost certainly garner an extremely warm welcome.
AIPAC, which has almost plaintively given this year’s conference the slogan “Choose to Lead,” has also taken care to give plenty of prominence to speakers from both sides of the House — Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Charles Schumer (D-NY); Representatives Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and so on.
But a very well-received address by candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 was rapidly forgotten amid the outrage provoked in some quarters by Trump’s address just hours later.
The lobby’s leadership is fully aware that the pendulum swings in American politics. As it works to strengthen the US-Israel relationship, it knows that it cannot afford to have Israel perceived as the pet cause of only one side of the political spectrum. But being cognizant of the challenge is only part of a battle that — when fractured America looks at complex, divided Israel — appears almost unwinnable right now.