Five Things to Know This Week: AIPAC Insights And Trump’s Campaign Boost

March, 26 2019

1. AIPAC goes tough, but then what?

An unmistakable air of combativeness set the tone for AIPAC’s annual policy conference. The 18,000 participants, dignitaries, professionals and reporters could not miss the fact that leaders of the pro-Israel lobby arrived not only well prepared for the battle, but even eager to fight.

The enemy was targeted clearly, though rarely named. “They are emboldened and energized, and their false claims are taken at face value by new and larger audiences…They say you can’t be a good progressive and be a supporter of Israel. And now they’re saying you can’t even be a good American and be a supporter of Israel,” said AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr in his opening speech. Who are “they” whom Kohr does not mention by name? It was clear to all that the threat AIPAC was warning against was that posed by Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who had sparked controversy following a series of tweets and comments regarding the lobby’s power and the claim of dual loyalty supposedly plaguing those who engage in pro-Israel advocacy.

In this battle, Kohr may have been the one to set the tone, but he was not alone. AIPAC’s policy conference brought together a variety of players ready to take revenge on Omar, her colleague Rashida Tlaib, and a handful of other progressive Democrats who had challenged the party’s pro-Israel consensus. This coalition of the willing included players from both sides. Republicans are using the platform to slam detractors of Israel who come, conveniently, from the other side of the political aisle. Vice President Mike Pence, the most senior Trump administration official attending, took aim at Democratic presidential candidates who chose to skip AIPAC, comparing their decision to a boycott against Israel, and called to unseat “anyone who slanders those who support this historic alliance between the United States and Israel” from their position in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a clear reference to Omar.

Then there were establishment Democrats who viewed the AIPAC conference as their chance to reposition the party as the pro-Israel bastion it used to be and to distance themselves as much as possible from Omar, Tlaib and their colleagues on the left. House majority leader Steny Hoyer may have overdone it when he stressed in a speech at a plenary session that “there are 62 freshman Democrats—you hear me? Sixty-two, not three.” The three Hoyer sought to single out were Omar, Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. By the next day, Hoyer found himself walking back the statement in order to make clear he did not mean to disparage the three young female members of his Democratic caucus.

The attack launched by AIPAC and its allies on critics from the far left was effective and well-planned. It forced Democrats to grapple with their positions on Israel and return, as a party, to a more pro-AIPAC posture. It also helped frame the powerful lobby as being under attack, a move that can help energize supporters and deflect claims that the pro-Israel lobby has become, as critics claim, too powerful. But this is a short-term victory and a detour on the way to achieving AIPAC’s greater strategic goal—making the lobby truly bipartisan and hospitable to progressive Democrats. The absence of Democratic presidential candidates from the conference this year was an overhyped stunt that had little meaning in the real world. But what will happen next year if serious contenders refuse to show up?

2. Still, AIPAC did make an effort to speak to progressives

Outreach to progressives is nothing new for AIPAC. The lobby has been dedicating resources for years in an effort to make the case for Israel as a liberal cause and for the pro-Israel community as one that welcomes members from the left. This year the effort seemed even more pronounced, with breakout sessions devoted to the issue and a roster of progressive speakers such as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, purposely highlighted among the usual AIPAC speakers.

But in terms of messaging, the conference did little to address key issues distancing progressive Democrats from Israel: its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, the rising nationalistic trends and the Jewish state’s exclusionary approach to non-Orthodox Jewish denominations. True, AIPAC is on record supporting a two-state solution (once a mainstream idea, now a bold position in the pro-Israel world), and has taken a stand for religious pluralism as well as voicing its concerns about Netanyahu’s hospitable approach to racist politicians. But these themes were sidelined as AIPAC chose to focus on its rivals while refraining from questioning any policy of the Netanyahu government in Israel or the Trump administration in the United States.

3. Gantz took a chance and proved a point

It was a risky move for Benny Gantz, leader of Israel’s Blue and White party, who is hoping to deliver a surprise upset to Netanyahu when Israelis go to the polls in two weeks to come to AIPAC. Gantz left the campaign trail in Israel to take on Netanyahu on his home turf—AIPAC’s policy conference. Pundits warned Gantz of the inevitable comparison to Netanyahu, but he survived the experience and lived to fight another day. Gantz, self aware of his public speaking shortcomings (“My English is Israeli, not American,” he told reporters before the speech, “I’m glad to represent Israel even if it doesn’t sound as good in English”) pulled off an impressive show at AIPAC. With reasonable delivery and a thoughtful narrative, Gantz got the attention of the crowd. And more important, he touched on issues they care about and rarely hear from Netanyahu: peace and religious pluralism. “The Western Wall is long enough to accommodate everyone,” he said, winning a standing ovation.

To be fair, Netanyahu cancelled his planned on-stage AIPAC speech due to tensions in the Gaza border that led him to cut short his Washington trip, so there is no way to compare the audience’s response to both leaders. Furthermore, as well as Gantz was received at AIPAC, it will do nothing to change his polling numbers in Israel. But he did prove a point that other Israelis politicians may want to notice: the pro-israel Jewish community in America is open to sophisticated messages, to a nuanced approach to the issues, and even to heavy Israeli accents.

4. The Bibi-Trump bromance on display

At the White House on Monday, two distracted leaders met for an exchange of political deliverables. Donald Trump’s mind was on his victory lap following the Mueller report; Netanyahu was preoccupied with troubling news of a bold Hamas rocket attack back home. But for two hours, the leaders were transported to a world of mutually beneficial friendship and like mindedness.

Trump delivered everything Netanyahu could dream of: a warm welcome, ceremonial signing of a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, endless praise for Netanyahu and a green light to take any action needed for Israel’s self defense. Expect all these gestures to be packaged into 30-second campaign ads in the next few weeks.

Netanyahu also provided Trump with a valuable political gift, though it may not seem as obvious. In comparing Trump to King Cyrus the Great, praising him as the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House, and insisting that Trump has lived up to all his promises, Netanyahu delivered a message tailored for the president’s Christian vangelical supporters who will be key in the 2020 elections. Evangelicals, who had been the first to describe Trump as a modern-day Cyrus and have expressed gratitude for his support for the Israeli government, have now received reinforcement from the leader of the Jewish state. When elections come around, these statements will prove to be very useful for the Trump campaign.

5. Jared and Mueller

Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller report and the special counsel’s decision not to pursue any further indictments means Jared Kushner, among others, is in the clear. Kushner’s conversations with the Russian ambassador to Washington or his participation in a meeting with a Russian lawyer offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton may come up in the full report, but his career will not take a hit. With that hurdle cleared, Jared, alongside Ivanka Trump, may be on their way to an even more powerful stance in Trump’s inner circle. Critics of the couple’s White House work, such as former chief of staff Kelly, have been kicked out, and Jared could now be poised to be Trump’s single most important adviser. His next stop? Rolling out the long-awaited Middle East peace plan.

Pictured above: Head of Blue and White Party Benny Gantz during his AIPAC Speech (Photo credit: AIPAC). 

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