American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its annual policy conference at the Washington Convention Center from Sunday March 4th-Tuesday March 6th 2018. AIPAC which began in the 1950s as a relatively obscure organization has transformed into an influential behemoth becoming pivotal on the schedule of nearly every Washington politician and one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the United States. AIPAC describes itself as a bipartisan organization with representatives from both parties heading to the conference including: Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Rep Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)-with Nancy Pelosi scheduled to attend but an apparent no-show.
Over the years it has been leaning towards the right as the Republican party continues to manifest its stronger commitment to Israel and its priorities. While prior years were sold-out way in advance this year $600 tickets were available up until a couple of days before. This year’s agenda touted AIPAC’s vast accomplishments in advancing its pro-Israel agenda and reiterated its goal of curbing Iran’s power and limiting financial support for the Palestinians while also targeting the BDS movement for its anti-Israel campaign.
The 18,000 attendees this year contained hundreds of students and participants who flew in from California, Israel and other far-flung locales. However, the most consequential year of the convention was 2016 where the electricity of an election year was palpable with candidates Trump, Cruz, Kasich and Clinton heading to the hallowed halls of AIPAC. This convention was more relaxed without the urgency of the anti-Israel Presidency of Obama and without the consequential stakes of a presidential candidacy. In fact, with the most pro-Israel Presidency of all time in place at the White House AIPAC, almost had a celebratory feel to it.
As UN Ambassador to Israel David Friedman strolled the halls the crowd surrounded him with hugs and praise excited at the prospect of the Embassy being moved to Jerusalem. There was also a massive AIPAC village erected with a kosher cafeteria and coffeehouse with David Broza and other musicians playing throughout the three-day convention. The conference hashtags were #ChooseToLead and #AIPAC2018 manifesting the lighter mood of an organization that had previously been in emergency mode.
In fact, Sunday evening contained no speakers with breakout sessions and general sessions being the dominant activities and guests heading to socialize at events held by CAMERA, ZOA, and ELNET at various locations throughout Washington. There was also a Real Estate networking event held at the Convention Center which contained bigwigs from major companies. However, the hotspot was the Marriott Marquis where hundreds gathered in the lobby for meetings and drinks throughout the morning and evening hours. Security was tight with badges being scanned and IDs required at nearly every checkpoint. However, the massive demonstrations of previous years where television crews from around the globe were stationed outside the Hotel were nowhere to be found.
Moreover, the Convention Center was the sole venue for speakers as opposed to the one-mile away Verizon Center of last year where many lazy AIPAC A-listers complained of the endless trek. One major drawback of the Convention Center was the lack of raised levels making it nearly impossible to see the speakers if you didn’t have the right credentials -a fate I was confined to. The first major speeches were held on Monday at 5:00 PM at the Convention Center where lines snaked around the corner to hear US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and VP Mike Pence speak. Similar to last year, Nikki Haley was the star of the convention with the crowd giving her lengthy standing ovations and screaming “We love you Nikki” from the audience.
Not only is she beautiful, donning a Chanel-like light blue dress, but she is humble, brilliant and soft-spoken. She recounted her upbringing as a child of Indian immigrants who was often bullied by her neighbors and who hates bullies-including those at the UN who she said bullied Israel. After receiving multiple ovations, she declared that in making Jerusalem the capital of Israel President Trump was recognizing a reality that had been denied for too long. She then said the United States was taking names to see who voted against Israel when it made determinations regarding foreign aid-an unbelievable declaration.
She praised Guatemala, which she recently visited, for moving its embassy to Jerusalem and said she can’t understand why an organization such as the UN which is comprised of 193 countries spends half of its time attacking Israel. She scoffed at the notion that the US was showing favoritism to Israel declaring there was nothing wrong with appreciating an ally. There were some in the audience expressing hope that Haley might run for President as the crowd’s adoration for Haley was insatiable.
When Chuck Schumer arrived to comparatively tepid enthusiasm he started his speech, as he always does, with a lengthy joke. Schumer has proven himself to be a weak friend of Israel; hesitant to denounce the disastrous Iran deal and recently calling on Orthodox Jews to denounce Trump’s failure to confront hate groups despite Trump’s unabashed and unprecedented support of the Jewish people-let’s not forget Trump’s recent pardoning of Sholom Rubashkin.
Schumer spoke out against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and the need to contain the significant threat of Iran taking up residency in Syria becoming dangerously close to Israel’s border. While saying all the right things Schumer’s continued use of Hebrew words such as Hashem and “Am Yisrael Chai” came across as pedantic and insincere as it was clear he was trying to curry favor with his massive audience.
Contrastingly, a sincere friend of Israel, VP Mike Pence, who became the first US Vice President to address the Knesset in January where he received one ovation after another as he referenced various Biblical passages and expressed his resolute support for Israel and the Jewish people, spoke once again of his and the President’s unflagging support of Israel. He mistakenly called Trump the most “pro-life” President when he meant to say pro-Israel and reiterated that America stands with Israel because “it believes in liberty over tyranny”. He spoke of his pride in President Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal and declared to tepid applause, that the President, with the agreement of both sides, would support a two-state solution. He ended his speech with the prayer “Shehecheyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higiyanu la ‘z’man ha’zeh”-not bad for a non-jew from Indiana.
As the speeches concluded at 7:00 PM guests headed to AIPAC village for a VIP reception replete with delicious food and revelry. There was a UJA reception at the Marriott where CEO Eric Goldstein was accompanied by AIPAC President Mort Fridman and Executive Director Howard Kohr. At the beginning of the conference, Kohr controversially declared his support for Palestinian statehood and expressed hopes that peace would be achieved between the two countries. Tonight his remarks were brief as he thanked CEO Eric Goldstein for his leadership.
As attendees gathered in the Marriott many were excitedly anticipating Netanyahu’s speech the next morning. With security tight long lines gathered early on Tuesday morning to make their way to the Convention Center. Netanyahu who rarely addresses AIPAC live, was embraced by the lively crowd and praised President Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and for moving the embassy to Jerusalem this May-Israel’s Independence Day. Netanyahu addressed the disastrous Iran nuclear deal and said peace with Abbas could only be achieved if he stopped supporting terror. After Netanyahu’s warm reception attendees headed to their training sessions to practice talking points for the afternoon’s lobbying sessions-the raison d’ etre of AIPAC: the most consequential Jewish organization in existence.