Among the many reasons this year’s presidential campaign is unique, consider this one: Running on the Democratic side we have a socialist Jew with non-Jewish grandchildren, and in the Republican race, the front-runner is a billionaire Presbyterian with Orthodox Jewish grandchildren.
And of course there’s also the former secretary of state with a Jewish son-in-law and, according to liberal definitions of Judaism, a Jewish grandchild.
Sounds like a tale in the spirit of Purim, that holiday of topsy-turvy identities. But this is all too real.
So on the eve of both Purim (March 24) and the annual policy conference in Washington, D.C., of AIPAC, America’s largest pro-Israel lobby (March 20-22), it’s fitting to preview the most attended Jewish event of the year at a midpoint between the brutal battle over the Iran nuclear deal last summer and the presidential election in November.
As of press time, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had agreed to speak at the conference, and officials were awaiting word from Gov. John Kasich and Sens. Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. (AIPAC’s longstanding policy is to invite all candidates of the major parties who are actively running for president; the field could be smaller by Sunday.)
In principle and no doubt in intention, AIPAC is grounded in bipartisanship. Its theme this year is “Come Together,” seeing support for Israel as one of the all-too-few issues that Republicans and Democrats can agree on during these deeply divided times. The roster of featured political speakers is evenly divided, Democrats and Republicans, and the lobby maintains that its mandate is laser-focused on support for whichever Israeli government is in power.
AIPAC’s founders wisely recognized that support for Israel in this country is strengthened when both parties support its ideals of democracy. But the irony and awkwardness now is that the prime minister in Jerusalem gives the appearance of having cast his lot with one party, the Republicans, and his gamble may prove a mistake. It has already contributed to his not showing up in person at the AIPAC conference this year.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in the past has combined a visit to the White House with an address to the conference, has decided not to come to Washington despite an invitation from President Obama. Insiders say the Israeli leader was reluctant to visit until the U.S. foreign aid package for Israel is resolved. (Israel is seeking more funds for its self-defense.)
The incident, which has left bad feelings on both sides, underscored again the deeply frayed relationship between the two leaders. Netanyahu thinks Obama has been less than supportive of its major Mideast ally, pressuring Jerusalem on the Palestinian front and seemingly more eager to deal with Iran than bolster support for Israel. Obama blames Netanyahu for the lack of progress with the Palestinians. He also feels the prime minister showed his true colors in defying the White House by accepting the Republican offer to address Congress and deride the “very bad deal” on Iran last March.
Ironically, as we noted last week (“Did Bibi Miscalculate?” Editorial, March 11), Netanyahu’s decision a year ago to show favoritism toward the Republicans — a dramatic move away from Israel’s policy of bipartisanship in Washington — may backfire if Trump emerges as the party’s presidential candidate.
It’s true that Republicans have been more robust and outspoken than Democrats in their support of the Netanyahu government on all foreign policy fronts. (More specifically, Sanders has shown little interest in foreign policy and refused to attend the Netanyahu speech in Congress; Clinton has had a love-hate relationship with the prime minister for two decades, as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state; See story on Page 1 about Israel emerging as key issue in the Democratic race.)
On the Republican side, while Rubio and Cruz outdo each other in singing Israel’s praise and pledging to tear up the Iran deal on Day One if elected, Trump has been uncharacteristically restrained. The billionaire businessman has criticized the Iran deal but has not pledged to reverse it. And though he expresses admiration for Netanyahu and Israel, he seems to have an isolationist stance on foreign policy and has said he would be “neutral” in seeking to broker an Israel-Palestinian peace deal. So while Netanyahu is seeking renewed stability with a post-Obama White House, the prospects don’t look promising for him at the moment.
Traditionally, much is made of the content of the speeches and response of the delegates when presidential candidates address the AIPAC conference. This will be especially true with Trump this year, given the air of volatility and even violence associated with his campaign rallies of late. With Trump, though, when it comes to content, the pattern of his remarks, often off-the-cuff, has been contradictory at times and always subject to clarification or reversal. (The last time he appeared before a Jewish audience, at the Republican Jewish Coalition in early December, the candidate offended more than a few people when he said, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money — you like to control your politicians, that’s fine.” He also played on the stereotype of Jews being good negotiators.)
The AIPAC conference is known as not only the biggest Jewish gathering of the year but also the most disciplined. Delegates are instructed in the “no booing” rules of respect for speakers, though there are no directives about the degree of enthusiasm in their applause. And they are free to sit on their hands.
While other major Jewish groups are striving to keep pace in difficult financial times, AIPAC is a bit of a cultural phenomenon as it continues to grow dramatically. In 2005, the policy conference drew 5,000 delegates. This year’s event, which features 600 speakers and scores of panels and plenaries, as well as high-powered schmoozing and a day devoted to lobbying Congress, is expected to exceed 18,000 delegates, a record. Yet on its most important and highest-stakes priority of 2015 — the Iran nuclear deal — it was defeated, and some have questioned its continued clout on Capitol Hill.)
The delegates are Democrats and Republicans and they come from all over the country, with an increasing emphasis on diversity and youth. Aggressive outreach has resulted in more Christian participants, including Evangelicals, African Americans and Hispanics and about 4,000 high school and college students.
Despite the emphasis on AIPAC’s bipartisanship, though, the feel of the conference in recent years has been increasingly hawkish. In part that’s because the delegates, who pay $599 to register, are attracted to “pro-Israel” advocacy and foreign policy, which tends to skew them to the right of an American Jewry that still votes overwhelmingly Democratic. (AIPAC attendance from the Orthodox Jewish community, which tends to vote on the right, appears disproportionate to its being about 10 percent of the overall Jewish population.) That rightward tilt can be seen in AIPAC’s decision to publicly oppose the Obama administration on the Iran nuclear deal last year.
What of the warnings (or threats) in the heat of battle that those in Congress who favored the deal would lose their political support?
It’s difficult to quantify, but insiders say there have been definite repercussions to the highly emotional battle. While the public position on all sides is that, in the wake of the deal’s approval, the focus is now on assuring Iranian compliance and accountability, an aide to a Jewish congressman who voted for the pact acknowledged there are “still feelings in the community.” He said there was “a lot of heat over the deal and in the immediate aftermath, and some of that anger persists. But others have said we understand the reasoning, even if we disagree, and it’s time to move on.”
Not Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, though. The local businessman and outspoken activist who helped organize the Times Square rally against the Iran deal last summer, vowed at the time to end support for members of Congress who voted with the president, and he hasn’t softened his stand. “We will not forgive them,” he said of himself and like-minded supporters of Israel in his circle. “AIPAC may signal to some big donors” that certain members of Congress deserve continued support, he said. “I understand the game, but we won’t do that for those who crossed the Rubicon” in voting for the nuclear deal.
Wiesenfeld estimated, anecdotally, that 60 percent of Jewish voters in neighborhoods like Brighton Beach, Borough Park and Forest Hills share his views.
Others close to Congress noted that responses among Jewish constituents have been calibrated in terms of less enthusiasm and less dollars for some who voted with the White House, rather than a total shutdown.
For now, AIPAC officials are hoping delegates will rally around their lobbying agenda in Congress to avoid any form of Mideast peace process that doesn’t focus on having the Israelis and Palestinians at the table (i.e., the much-discussed UN resolutions that bring in third parties) and additional U.S. aid for Israel in an increasingly chaotic Middle East.
For the national media, though, attention will be riveted on how Donald Trump’s appearance plays out in front of almost 20,000 pro-Israel supporters.