Cast against the ominously polarized state of the country’s political and civic life, AIPAC’s achievement over the past few days is almost miraculous. The message of Policy Conference in the age of Trump is that the pro-Israel world doesn’t need to look like the rest of American’s benighted political scene: There’s a better way and the pro-Israel community has made it a reality. The conference’s good feelings provide a chance to reflect on how menacing the alternatives now look. “It is a little more bipartisan,” one Democratic political consultant told me, contrasting this year to recent Policy Conferences. “Everyone understands the stakes. Everyone understands how fucked up things have been the past couple of months. Does anyone want to go over the brink?… The Jewish community in most cities is a tinderbox. We need a place where we can have these conversations about policy issues.”
AIPAC is still something close to a consensus organization for most of the Jewish and American political spectrum, and that’s no small accomplishment these days.
So then what to make of the schizophrenia of the conference’s final plenary session on Monday morning, which featured some of the most awkward moments of the entire event, courtesy of some of its most important speakers? Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell criticized Obama by name over the nuclear deal; New Jersey Democratic senator Bob Menendez was sure to mention “the white nationalist dog whistles blown by Steve Bannon from the West Wing” in the context of a broad condemnation of anti-Semitism.
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer gave a thunderous, feel-it-in-your-kishkes address that seamlessly connected policy to a broader narrative of what the Jewish state personally means to him. But Schumer was then followed by House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who read the entirety of a letter calling on President Donald Trump to endorse and advance a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More than once, Pelosi said that the letter had the signature of 189 Democratic lawmakers, and two of their Republican colleagues—a mere two signatures prevented this missive from being as far away from bipartisanship as one can possibly get.
In front of thousands of AIPAC donors and activists, Pelosi chose to highlight a substantive disagreement between pro-two-state Democrats, and Republicans who are unbothered by what they see as their president’s decision not to prejudge what the Israeli-Palestinian outcome should be. The letter itself, meanwhile, had been both endorsed and lobbied for by the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group J Street, although Pelosi didn’t mention that. “I wanted to read you the letter directly because I want you to hear it as written,” she said. “And I wanted to read it to you in the spirit of strong support for a Jewish, secure, and democratic Israel, an Israel that recognizes the dignity and security of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. That is the Israel we know and love.” Read one way, her speech put AIPAC on notice: This letter reflects the Democrats’ bottom line, which should be your bottom line too, if you want us to stick around.
Another sign that things aren’t moving quite as smoothly as they appear came later in the day, when senator Tim Kaine told Jewish Insider that he was noncommittal on a new Iran sanctions bill that was a key part of AIPAC’s Policy Conference lobbying package. The Democrats’ one-time Vice Presidential candidate had introduced a segment at the conference’s Monday night plenary at the Verizon Center roughly 24 hours earlier.
But at least Kaine and Pelosi showed up to Policy Conference. The Trump Administration was a spectral presence this year, as Vice President Michael Pence was the only major Washington-based Trump official to give a big-ticket address at the conference. David Friedman, the newly confirmed U.S. ambassador to Israel, attended the Sunday night plenary but did not speak. Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy on international negotiations, had an excellent reason not to physically attend—he was at the Arab League summit in Amman, laying the groundwork for possible Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. But what was Jared Kushner’s excuse? Israel falls within the presidential son-in-law’s brief, after all.
Defense secretary James Mattis didn’t speak, even though AIPAC presents an ideal opportunity to bolster his allegedly suspect pro-Israel bona fides. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spent his entire career in the often Arab-world-centered oil industry, and his exact views on Israel are largely unknown. It’s a pity he couldn’t find the time to elucidate them at AIPAC.
The first Policy Conference of a new presidency offers a fledgeling administration the chance to introduce itself to the pro-Israel community. The Trump Administration is badly in need of exactly that kind of opportunity: only 24 percent of Jews voted for Trump, according to one poll, a president whose Middle East policies remain nebulous and who exhibited a curiously defensive approach to the entire topic of anti-Semitism both during and after the campaign. For whatever reason, the White House just wasn’t interested.
The absence of major Trump officials had one practical impact on the last couple of plenary sessions, which featured a number of leading Democratic lawmakers. Nearly every big-time Dem took a moment to address Trump’s budget blueprint, which would raise military spending while slashing funding for foreign aid and diplomacy. On Monday night, congressman Steny Hoyer wondered whether it would be good for Israel in the long run if the country accounted for the vast majority of the US foreign aid budget, and Menendez, the last speaker of the conference, promised to “continue to stand against budgets that propose we get rid of US foreign aid entirely.” With no one to really argue for the administration’s foreign policy vision, Policy Conference attendees didn’t get to hear the pro-Israel case for this Trumpian rethink of the US’s global priorities.
AIPAC’s massiveness has a wonderful leveling effect—here, everyone’s a schmoozer, regardless of who they are. Labor party Knesset member and leading Israeli venture capitalist Erel Margalit carried around sleek laminated booklets outlining his “call to action” for restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “Israel needs to lead to a deal, rather than let others lead it to a deal,” Maraglit said. Although Margalit told me that he met with representatives of non-treaty Arab countries during his trip to Washington, he thinks that the notion of a “regional” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which Arab regimes help deliver a peace deal, is a comforting fantasy. “Without an honest solution to the Palestinian issue, the goodwill goes away,” he says of Israel’s warming ties with its neighbors.
Margalit’s packet, which is entitled “Converging Interests,” largely treats peace as a winning business proposition—one page shows what looks like an airport departure board, listing flights to Dubai and Beirut. In Margalit’s vision, peace will turn Jerusalem into a “regional capital of innovation,” and boost Israel’s GDP by some $61.3 billion a year. Rationality and material self-interest both have a spotty track-record as inducements for Israeli-Arab peacemaking—what about the folks who would gladly forfeit that $61.3 if it meant preventing a Palestinian state from ever existing? Margalit might get plenty of additional, high-profile opportunities to fill in some of the gaps here, since he’s likely going to challenge Isaac Herzog for in the Labor party leadership race this coming June.
Unlike many peace-focused Israelis, Margalit disagreed that the country’s politics are drifting inexorably rightward. That’s partly because of the resonance of cost-of-living issues in Israel, which could bolster more socially conscious political parties. Margalit also sees a political opportunity for Labor and its agenda. “The time of Netanyahu is coming to an end,” Margalit said confidently, since the prime minister is under “serious investigation” over alleged corruption. “People don’t want a country run by oligarchs financing a Prime Minister,” Margalit said. Switching briefly to Hebrew, he added that Israelis don’t appreciate being made to feel like freyerim, or suckers, either—the logic being that there’s only so much shadiness they’ll tolerate out of their leaders. Margalit will be worth watching, if his read on his country’s political mood is ever vindicated: Businessmen-turned politicians are having something of a moment right now.