There was one question on the minds of 18,000 AIPAC Policy Conference attendees during Monday night’s plenary in D.C.: Where does the U.S. ambassador to the UN fall in the presidential line of succession? Nikki Haley’s name has been an applause line unto itself for the past two days, and President Donald Trump’s UN envoy is rapidly approaching folk hero status in the pro-Israel world.
It’s easy to understand why she’s so popular. Safely ensconced in New York, Haley has a 200-mile buffer separating her from her boss’s travails in Washington. Pro-Israel liberals uneasy with the current administration—which still describes the majority of the 18,000 people at Policy Conference—can find something to admire in Haley’s opposition to the BDS movement as South Carolina’s governor and her current pro-Israel posture at the UN. Meanwhile, Trump has made few concrete attempts to satisfy pro-Israel conservatives, publicly calling for Prime Minister Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements” and stalling on a campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Haley is the Trump official who has delivered the most tangible results for supporters of Israel so far—last week her office helped kill a UN report accusing the country of apartheid, and there’s talk of pulling the U.S. out of the obsessively anti-Israel Human Rights Council.
The Verizon Center crowd would have given her the biggest cheers of the conference no matter what she said, but she didn’t play it safe during a dialogue with author Dan Senor. She attacked the Iran nuclear deal: “Why that was ever allowed to go through or ever passed is beyond me,” said Haley.
She was the only big-ticket speaker to broach the uncomfortable topic of United Nations Security Council resolution 2334, a problematic measure which the Obama Administration decided not to veto. Haley was happy to rehash a Democratic administration’s alleged betrayal of Israel. “When the U.S. abstained, the entire country felt a kick in the gut,” she said Haley, apparently in reference to the United States. “We had done something that showed the U.S. at its weakest point ever… To see that happen was not only embarrassing. It was hurtful.”
She discussed the U.S.’s decision to spike former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s appointment as the UN’s Libya envoy in February, explaining that this honor would have been an unearned reward for a recalcitrant Palestinian government. “Until the [Palestinian Authority] comes to the the table and the UN responds the way it’s supposed to, there are no freebies for the Palestinian Authority anymore,” she said. Richard Falk, the author of the apartheid report, “has serious problems,” Haley added (which sure seems possible). She held nothing back, as if to give the audience a first-hand experience of what she’s throwing at the U.S. and Israel’s opponents in Turtle Bay.
Amidst the frequent cheers, Haley squeezed in a compact and instantly memorable statement of purpose that could eventually define her time as UN ambassador, for better or worse. “I wear heels. It’s not as a fashion statement,” she said. “It’s because if we see something wrong we’re gonna kick ‘em every single time.” It’s a slyly gendered image of maximal confrontation, applied to an organization that much of the audience already holds in fairly low esteem—Haley’s avenging high heels sparked one of the biggest ovations of what was easily the best-received speech of the conference so far.
It shouldn’t be that shocking that newly elected Maryland congressman Jamie Raskin, a proud J Street supporter and one of the most liberal members of the House of Representatives, would appear at AIPAC, on a panel introducing new Jewish members of Congress on Monday. The lobby seeks to build relationships with everyone in Congress, and it’s at least understood in Washington that an appearance at AIPAC isn’t an endorsement of everything the organization does. Far more surprising was the apparent attendance of Karim Keita, chairman of the Security and Defense Commission of the National Assembly of Mali, who was scheduled to speak at a Monday session on Israel’s “booming ties” with Africa, according to the conference’s daily schedule. Mali is a Muslim country that has no diplomatic relations with Israel, but the instability in the country’s north, and the rise of jihadist militancy in the Sahel region over the past decade might be causing Bamako to reconsider things. Alas, both events were closed to the press.
The settlement movement is not about to take over AIPAC or the U.S. pro-Israel community any time soon. But it did manage to seize control of a couple hours of Policy Conference, at least for some tiny but vocal minority of the confab’s participants.
On Monday afternoon, the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization representing Jewish communities in the West Bank, held an event at a rented space on F Street, about a half-mile away from the convention center. It wasn’t really counter-programming—none of the half-dozen speakers that I stayed for criticized AIPAC in their talks. But it was at least concurrent programming.
About half the attendees wore Policy Conference lanyards, with a few red Congress Club ribbons scattered among the crowd. Views of the lobby itself tended to be mixed. For some, AIPAC isn’t pro-settlement enough. Marc Provisor, a Policy Conference attendee and activist from the West Bank settlement of Shiloh, said he is “proud of AIPAC,” but still thinks it’s less accepting of the settlers’ perspectives than it should be. “AIPAC has to be open to all sides of Israel rather than being limited,” he said. What’s needed in discussions of Israel, he said, is “informed opinion, rather than manipulated opinion.” Others were less generous. “My sense is that AIPAC wants to do what’s good for the two-state solution…and the two-state solution is the property of people who say Israel is an occupier,” one attendee told me me.
Although he didn’t mention AIPAC by name, Yishai Fleisher, a spokesperson for Hebron’s Jewish community, implied that the Yesha Council event was carrying out the kind of messaging work that other groups were either unwilling or unable to do. “You can’t answer ‘You stole someone’s land’ with ‘We invented a cell phone.’ The answer is, ‘It’s our ancestral homeland and we’re going to hold onto it’” he told me—a line he then repeated almost verbatim for a packed room a few moments later, while introducing the afternoon’s speakers.
The event drew about 1oo people, meaning the vast majority of Policy Conference’s 18,000 participants were somewhere else at the time. But the speaking lineup included prominent Israeli political figures: Housing minister Yoav Gallant, New York consul general Dani Dayan, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan, and regional cooperation minister Tzachi Hanegbi all spoke, giving the gathering a higher-powered roster than all but a few of the actual AIPAC breakouts happening during the same time period.
Policy conference largely deals within areas of broad agreement—at the plenary sessions, Israeli policy in the West Bank is usually discussed indirectly or in passing. At the Yesha event, with its promises of like-minded people and free kosher sushi, supporters of the settlement movement didn’t have to hide behind the requirements of maintaining shalom bayit within the broader pro-Israel movement. The Israeli speakers spoke a little more freely than they might have in front of a more diverse or more skeptical English-speaking audience: “We’re at half a million now. We need to get to one million settlers,” Hotovely said. Dayan boasted that the settler population increased by 40 percent during his six years as head of the Yesha Council. “If that’s not my entrance ticket to Gan Eden,” he quipped, “I don’t know what is.” Gallant, a retired IDF general, called his settlement advocacy “a correction” after a career partly dedicated to destroying things in battle.
Official Policy Conference events can have a dour, perfunctory feel to them at times, partly because of the inevitably dulling and anonymizing effect of any long and crowded event, and partly because of the speakers’ finely honed instinct for staying within the AIPAC consensus. The Yesha meetup was far outside of that consensus, giving the proceedings a freer and slightly raucous feel. “Let’s give it up for Judea and Samaria!” Fleisher happily bellowed before introducing Gallant. Fleisher was in a buoyant mood—the settlement movement had gotten its point across, asserting its presence during the biggest pro-Israel event of the year. “Our people could have only dreamed about eating Sushi at a Yesha event in DC 2,000 years ago,” he said between speakers. “And it was good sushi! Maybe we’ll eat sushi at the third temple. Korban sushi.”
The Monday afternoon AIPAC plenary is, in some respects, the stand-up comedy booking from hell. The obvious material is all Jewish or Middle East-related, but, just you try joking about either of those topics without instantly boring or horrifying a group of 18,000 people. Elon Gold, who warmed up the Verizon Center crowd before the session kicked off, was working within some pretty twisted formal constraints, and stand-up is a hard craft to ply under the best of circumstances. He had to land jokes—again, about Jews and the Middle East—that weren’t eye-rollingly lame, or risky enough to cause actual discomfort.
A few of his jokes were masterpieces of inoffensive Middle East-themed corporate standup comedy. Israelis attempting to speak English is a safe topic—and kind of a funny one! “They take a word that’s singular and make it plural, and a word that’s plural and make it singular. ‘I heard a lot of story about this, but it remind me in particular or this one stories.’ ” There were some uncomfortable truths not even Elon could ignore, though. “Standup comedy is not very easy,” said Gold. “And as Jews, we all think we’re funny.”
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.