When the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) announced that Donald Trump would be speaking at its annual policy conference this year, there was a loud cry of outrage. Even some supporters of AIPAC said it was inappropriate to host a man who had fomented violence and racism. More liberal Jewish organizations protested, and some objectors said they would organize a quiet walkout when Trump took the stage.
But when Trump did speak earlier this week, there was no protest, and the respectful applause gradually rose to roaring cheers instead. By the end of his speech, Trump had clearly won the AIPAC crowd over.
AIPAC itself recognized that the imagery here was disastrous. It was especially perturbed that Trump had gotten a huge ovation for saying that President Barack Obama “may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me, believe me.” So much so, in fact, that the group made a statement rebuking Trump and its own audience for egging him on.
But while the boorish Trump was obviously offensive, the substance of his remarks was not terribly different from what the other candidates at the convention had to say. Only he and Hillary Clinton even mentioned the notion of brokering a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. All the candidates at the gathering placed the blame for the ongoing conflict squarely on the Palestinians, with only Clinton even mentioning settlement expansion.
This kind of rhetoric was to be expected at AIPAC, but it was even more extreme than it has been in the past. And the audience, by and large, ate it up with a very big spoon.
AIPAC may have finally demonstrated for all to see that it has completely lost touch with the mainstream Jewish community. Poll after poll has shown that the clear majority of American Jews do not stand with AIPAC’s hawkish positions. They want to see settlement expansion stopped and a two-state solution attained.
Those views actually were reflected by one presidential candidate. He is at once the only Jewish candidate, the only one to have ever lived for a time in Israel, and the only one not to speak at AIPAC. He is, of course, Bernie Sanders.
Sanders had written a speech for a potential appearance at AIPAC, and when the group refused to let him address the crowd via video link (which it had permitted Mitt Romney to do from the campaign trail in 2012, as well as Benjamin Netanyahu at the latest conference), he asked AIPAC to distribute the text of the speech he ultimately delivered in Utah, while the Republican candidates were on the AIPAC stage.
It was an unfortunate missed opportunity for Sanders to make a big splash with a powerful foreign policy statement. With the controversy swirling around Trump, his words could have made their own headlines, rather than being largely ignored by the media.
Sanders was clear about his deep connection and concern for Israel, and was just as firm that he would, if elected, continue to ensure Israel’s security. But he also insisted that Israel could not be secure without a peace agreement, and, most pointedly, that “peace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic wellbeing for the Palestinian people.”
That would have brought boos from the AIPAC crowd, and what a spectacle that would have been. The first Jewish candidate to ever make a serious run at a party nomination—who has lived in Israel and whose voting record on the issue has been described as “a critical but supportive posture on Israel”—booed by a crowd that cheered Donald Trump.
Sanders laid out an even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, while expressing strong support for the nuclear deal with Iran. Indeed, for a candidate who has been justifiably criticized for avoiding any serious statements about foreign policy, what he outlined in Utah demonstrated a thoughtful approach that leans heavily on coalition action to combat terrorism and international cooperation to resolve conflicts like the catastrophic civil war in Syria. It is a position that contrasts sharply with that of all the other candidates—including Hillary Clinton’s.
Still, the Trump spectacle by itself spoke volumes. There is reason to hope that this debacle can begin to change the discussion in Washington, even without the impact that a Sanders speech would have had.
The reaction to Trump in the room was sharply at odds with the views of mainstream Jewish organizations. While AIPAC did rebuke him for his comments about Obama, that was the extent of its disavowal. It would be going much too far to say that AIPAC, institutionally, likes Trump (the organization does not endorse particular candidates in any case), but Trump’s performance and reception displayed, for all the world to see, the massive gap between AIPAC and the majority of American Jews.
This is a point that needs to be brought home to Congress. It’s important to note at the outset that AIPAC is not some omnipotent collective that can dictate U.S. policy, as some believe. While it’s certainly true that certain individual donors (such as Democrat Haim Saban and Republican Sheldon Adelson) hold disproportionate sway over elected officials, AIPAC, while a very effective and potent lobbying organization, is not the hidden hand behind U.S. foreign policy. That was proven quite conclusively with the battle over the Iran nuclear deal last year.
Still, AIPAC is very effective at making its case, entirely aside from any issues of campaign contributions. That case includes the notion that it represents the feelings of American Jews who fear for Israel’s safety. That has been a powerful tool in convincing members of Congress to back proposals that have been antithetical to the two-state solution, that erase the difference between Israel and the territory it occupies, and that support the current right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, which includes some of Israel’s most radically right-wing parties. That’s why exposing the false notion that AIPAC represents the views of American Jews will be a crucial step toward a more open debate on U.S. policy as it pertains to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Those policies do not, in fact, reflect the views and aspirations for Israel held by the majority of American Jews. Yet the myth that they do has helped make it very difficult to advocate for ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and allowing the Palestinian people the freedom and basic rights that we take for granted. Neither do these policies reflect the views of the broader American electorate.
Israel’s shift to the right, the spectacle of the devastation in Gaza, and expanding settlements have challenged the old narratives in many places. But this has not seeped into the Washington discourse. AIPAC is a big reason for that. Now that the right-wing face of AIPAC has been exposed, it is time for us to amplify the voices of all Americans for a just and reasonable two-state solution—one that brings peace and security to Israel and integrates it into the region, while finally allowing Palestinians their freedom from occupation and the ability to determine their own future.