Vice President Mike Pence violated a longstanding AIPAC norm during his headlining speech at a packed Verizon Center on Sunday night, but it’s unclear how many delegates even noticed or cared. During the front half of his 20-minute speech, which was almost totally lacking in policy specifics, Pence managed to throw in a jab at the former president. “For the first time in a long time, the U.S. has a president who will stand with our allies, and against our enemies,” he said. Pence’s boss ran afoul of AIPAC at last year’s policy conference, when he called then-president Obama the “the worst thing to happen to Israel,” prompting an unprecedented official apology from the lobby.
Policy Conference is supposed to be a scrupulously bipartisan affair, and it’s considered an abuse of the group’s sizable platform to use it to attack a political opponent, even implicitly. This norm has been glimpsable in what hasn’t been discussed at Policy Conference this year. The big-ticket speeches, including that of AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr, have touched on the Trump Administration’s efforts to counter anti-Israel initiatives at the UN; torrents of cheers have greeted the mere mention of UN ambassador Nikki Haley’s name. But UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which passed as the result of the Obama Administration’s decision not to veto the controversial measure last December, hasn’t been mentioned during any of the plenary addresses—despite being one of the most important Israel-related developments of the past year.
Pence received enthusiastic applause from the crowd at times during his speech, which is only natural: He is the highest-ranking administration official to address this year’s conference, and his speech validates the importance of AIPAC’s agenda at the highest possible levels of the U.S. government. The applause shouldn’t necessarily be mistaken for approval of Pence himself, or of Trump. Still, a cynic might think that Pence exposed the pro-Israel community as cheap dates. Virtually the only evidence of any specific Trump agenda on Israel was a single, cryptic mention of the president “giving serious consideration” to moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Never mind that even “serious consideration” represents a reversal of an oft-repeated Trump campaign promise to move the embassy, full-stop. As with Pence’s sidestepping of one of AIPAC’s most important unspoken rules a few moments earlier, the embassy retreat was greeted with cheers.
Bipartisanship is AIPAC’s prime directive, and officials from the recently departed Obama Administration haven’t been hard to find here. During an afternoon breakout session, U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro talked up Israeli relations with the Gulf States. “We can go a long time in a conversation with a Saudi or an Emirati before the Palestinian issue is raised,” he said of his fellow U.S. diplomats. “Sometimes we’re the ones that raise it.”
At a different panel, Richard Nephew, a State Department official and sanctions expert who helped negotiate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—which AIPAC spent over $20 million to oppose—gave a cogent argument against designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization. During a late afternoon panel discussion, Robert Malley, Obama’s one-time Middle East pointman, argued against the claim that Obama had “disengaged” from the Middle East, noting during a late afternoon session that the region consumed more of the administration’s time and energy than anywhere else on earth. During the question-and-answer periods, the AIPAC delegates showed no signs of hostility towards the former Obama officials, who were involved in formulating and implementing policies that many of them surely disliked—one questioner thanked Nephew for his decades of work in government.
AIPAC projects the image of being one of the few groups in Washington that has managed to circumvent America’s intensifying political polarization. Sunday offered some compelling proof that this appearance has a basis in reality. During the afternoon, Tom Perez, the newly elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee, appeared at an off-record event before approximately 700 Congressional Club-level AIPAC members at the Marriott Marquis. Perez, who was introduced by former AIPAC president and fellow Marylander Howard Friedman, reminisced about his former boss Ted Kennedy’s commitment to bipartisanship, conjured a non-controversial vision of a two-state solution, and recalled his admiration for Israel’s tech sector that he developed while serving as Obama’s secretary of Labor. If there’s a drift on Israel among Democrats, for the time being it isn’t reflected at the top of their party—after all, Perez quoted the Democratic Party platform’s opposition to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement during a talk in front of several hundred AIPAC donors. Eric Greitens, the newly elected Republican governor of Missouri, spoke shortly after Perez at the same event.
One of the more revealing statements from the conference’s opening plenary came from Rwandan president Paul Kagame, a former ethnic militia commander who became one of the most brutal and respected leaders in post-Cold War Africa. During his talk, Kagame said that he admired Israel because of its “single-mindedness about survival.” To his critics, Kagame’s career is a cautionary example of the dark places that “single-mindedness about survival” can lead: He is credited with rebuilding his shattered country after its 1994 genocide, a convulsion which claimed the lives of some 800,000 members of Kagame’s minority Tutsi ethnic group. In the process, Kagame also created one of Africa’s most thoroughgoing authoritarian states, and committed ghastly human rights abuses in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kagame has pursued an aggressive policy in his region, and it’s clear he sees certain similarities in Israel’s willingness to invite international scorn in the course of defending its interests. “Our experience in Rwanda is that you cannot simply introduce solutions to people from outside,” Kagame said when explaining why his government abstained from a crucial UN Security Council vote on Palestinian statehood. Kagame is the first African head of state ever to address the AIPAC conference, and he’s shrewdly positioned himself as one of the continent’s most ardently pro-Israel leaders. It’s clear why a friendly foreign head of state was speaking at the AIPAC conference, and why a small, vulnerable country like Israel would want him as an ally. But the parallels that the ruthless Rwandan president apparently sees between his own experience and that of the the Jewish state cast the Rwandan-Israeli relationship in a somewhat disquieting light.
The schmooze factor sucks some of the urgency out of the event—most people are here out of their commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship, but plenty of other people are here because everyone else is here, too. AIPAC is a bonanza for the young Jewish networker. Maybe it’s even too much of a bonanza.
“Oh, cool, you worked five years at CAMERA,” one think tanker said with a sarcastic eye roll, reenacting a conversation he’d had about a dozen times over the previous six hours.
“Everyone here is looking to trade up,” another public policy professional noted to me. Earlier, he’d half-jokingly wondered to me whether his bashert was somewhere in the AIPAC throngs. Maybe he’s not the only one: a push notification from the Jewish-focused dating app J-Swipe noted that “for the next 24 hours, D.C. has more Jewish singles than the Upper West Side.”
The networking free-for all, and the occasionally mercenary motives of attendees, arguably has a dulling effect on Policy Conference’s messaging, which is often channeled through relatively uncontroversial topics, like military cooperation. “You can’t talk about values,” one rabbinical student attending the conference fretted to me. “It’s all about security, or a particular vision of security based on what they can say is bipartisan.”
My first impressions of the opening plenary of AIPAC’s 2017 policy conference on Sunday had nothing to do with Donald Trump, the Iran deal, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fraying bipartisan consensus on Israel, anti-Semitism, or really anything from the gab-bag of uncomfortable issues hovering over the U.S. pro-Israel lobby’s annual event. My all-consuming thought for the first hour of the conference, which opened at the Washington Convention Center, was, “Man, this room is just freakin’ terrifyingly big.”
Could you fit a zeppelin in the space where Policy Conference opened? Better question: could you fit two of them? Did this room have its own weather patterns? Were there unmapped regions of it—places where no human had ever set foot? I saw at least 15 giant screens in there, but there must have been more. From the press pen, you had to squint to tell just how far the room even stretched.
Policy Conference conveys a staggering hugeness. There are 18,000 people here, from over 50 countries. The lines for the escalators to get in and out of the event’s “village” area—a seemingly square-mile-sized chamber beneath the convention center where one can find the exclusive precincts of the Congress Club lounge, $6 bottles of Diet Coke, an F-35 simulator, a BMW painted in the colors of the Israeli and American flags with LUV IDF Florida license plates, and a Museum of the Bible exhibit that features real, actual fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls—are 30 people deep at nearly all times. The line for the security check to get into the Verizon Center for the evening plenary ran a third of a mile down 7th street.
Policy Conference is big, and things this big always have a look of heft and permanence to them. These many people must be here for a reason, and it must be a really good reason, in light of the number of people that are here. Weak organizations don’t rent out the Verizon Center, after all. AIPAC’s annual meeting is an overpowering show of size and wealth, dazzling enough to crowd out the obvious anxieties and disagreements, at least for a couple of days—appropriately, the theme of this year’s conference is “Many Voices, One Message.”
Related: No One Is Afraid of AIPAC