By David Holzel
WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence told a friendly audience at the AIPAC Policy Conference here last week that he was bringing greetings “from the most pro-Israel president in the history of the United States.”
Pence, speaking to 18,000 supporters of the pro-Israel lobby, sought to back up that claim. He insisted that the Trump administration would end the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, which AIPAC spent much of its political capital opposing, if Congress can’t fix what it sees as flaws in the deal’s enforcement language.
He said that as President Donald Trump had kept his promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, so he would on the nuclear deal.
“Unless this deal is fixed in the coming months, the United States of America will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal immediately,” he said. “I have a solemn promise to Israel and the wider world: The United States of America will never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”
The annual conference, held in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, basked in Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May — a promise he made as a presidential candidate at this conference two years ago. Inside the main ballroom, illuminated by blue and white lights, attendees rose and applauded each time a speaker mentioned the embassy move.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s actually happening after all these years,” said Lisa Schwartz of New York. “It’s very nice that this president is doing something right.”
Added Maryland resident Susan Wolasky, “It is showing that America knows what is best for all parties involved.”
At the same time, AIPAC emphasized its bipartisan, big-tent brand, asserting support for a two-state solution in the face of a non-committal Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We must all work toward that future: two states for two peoples,” Executive Director Howard Kohr told attendees early in the conference. “One Jewish, with secure and defensible borders; and one Palestinian, with its own flag and its own future.”
For his part, Pence made only passing reference to the administration’s long-promised regional peace plan, saying that advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt were “hard at work crafting our administration’s vision for peace.” As for a two-state solution, that would depend on what the parties want, he said.
Netanyahu, the conference’s last speaker, offered a rosy picture of Israel’s future, with or without the Palestinian question being settled. He credited that reality to the Trump administration.
“Remember people talked about Israel’s isolation? Pretty soon the countries that don’t have relations with us, they’re going to be isolated,” he said. “There are those who talk about boycotting Israel. We’ll boycott them.”
For many attendees, political nuance took a back seat to total immersion in a pro-Israel environment.
“I love AIPAC,” said Clara Sandler, 16, from Los Angeles. “It stands for all the things I stand for.”
“AIPAC is like a huge pep rally, where all people come to support Israel,” Lisa Schwartz said. “Sometimes you feel like you’re alone in your support. But here you come and you see how many people really support Israel, how many technological advances Israel makes and the argument for what is just in the Middle East.”
For others, the draw was learning more about Israel, sometimes to use that knowledge as ammunition in its defense.
Alyson Schwartz, 22, a student at Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, N.J., said she came to the conference to make sure she had the tools to combat anti-Semitism on campus if the situation were to arise.
“The main speakers have shown the confidence that people have in Israel and I want to take that confidence back to my community,” she said.
If there was a star at the conference, it was U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. In 2017, she brought attendees to their feet by declaring, “The days of Israel bashing are over.”
Haley largely directed her fiery speech at the United Nations, defending Israel from what she called the international body’s “bullying.” She compared Israel’s geopolitical circumstance to her family’s when she grew up in the only Indian family in Bamberg, S.C.
“My father wore a turban, my mother wore a sari. There were times when we were bullied,” Haley said. “You don’t pick on someone just because they look differently than you. … It turns out bullying is a common practice in the U.N.”
Roberta Winter, 75, of Skokie, Ill., contrasted Haley with Trump, who she called “the chaotic man at the helm.” Haley was the standout star of the administration, she said. “She’s a real hero of our time. She says enough of the one-sided anti-Semitism in the U.N.”
For speakers of any stripe, AIPAC was no place to appear soft. Avi Gabbay, the leader of Israel’s left-leaning Labor Party, gave a hawkish speech March 4, calling for a non-nuclear Iran. While he differed with Netanyahu and Trump by calling for a Palestinian state, albeit a demilitarized one, he also demanded the Palestinian Authority stop making payments to “terrorist groups.” (The Palestinian Authority pays families of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces or serving time in Israeli prisons for participating in terror attacks.)
Gabbay also uttered the taboo word — settlements.
“We must stop building these caravans on hilltops and glorifying these remote settlements because they do not provide any security value to Israel,” he said, referring to the so-called outpost communities built by Israelis deep in territory meant to comprise a future Palestinian state.
Susan Wagner and her husband, Alan Klinger, of New York were finishing lunch in the convention center’s mammoth lower level, called AIPAC Village. A self-described progressive, Wagner seemed to be at the conference on a fact-finding mission — not so much to learn about Israel as about the nature of AIPAC itself.
“Most of the speakers are going to say what Fox [News] is saying all the time,” she said. “I want to see if there are articulate, honest right-wing positions I haven’t heard before.”
Some, eating lunch in the AIPAC Village among the display of the Iron Dome missile defense shield and the walk-through timeline of the Iran nuclear deal, say the organization is moving to the right.
Netanyahu aligned himself with Republicans in Congress when he made plans to address the body against the Iran nuclear agreement without consulting the Obama administration, they pointed out.
Others, like Eiran Warner of Washington, say the reason is his “biggest fear” — that “some elements of the Democratic Party are moving farther from Israel.”
Alan Klinger was willing to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. “We’re here to see if the bipartisanship holds,” he said. The couple had just attended a hopeful session, “Telling Israel’s Stories,” in which “speakers reflected a progressive view and didn’t ignore the Palestinians in their vision,” he said.
That session was closed to journalists. Ironically, so was a session called “Free speech and freedom of the press in Israel.” In addition to the plenary sessions, journalists were granted access to 18 speakers and panels over the conference. In contrast, there were 46 sessions barred to the press on March 4 between 1:15 and 2:30 p.m. alone.
Looking at an increasingly partisan divide when it comes to Israel, Karen and Alan Perleman of Chicago offered several arguments. He said that progressives — “Bernie Sanders Democrats” — “are not necessarily anti-Israel,” but they take a “Palestinians-are-the-victims approach to diplomacy.”
“It’s not AIPAC going to the Republicans. It’s Democrats leaving Israel,” Karen Perleman said. “But AIPAC is also trying to support Netanyahu and he’s pretty far to the right. It’s tough for AIPAC to look mainstream when part of their job is to represent the [Israeli] government’s interests.”
Contributing to this story were Jared Foretek, Connor Graham, Lauren Rosenblatt and Dan Schere, who write for publications affiliated with the Jewish Exponent.