The AIPAC Policy Conference Close Up

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greeted attendees prior to her address to the annual AIPAC conference.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greeted attendees prior to her address to the annual AIPAC conference.

By Marty Schneer

Published March 31, 2016, issue of March 31, 2016.

I had the great fortune of being able to attend the AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C., this past week and I appreciate the opportunity to share my observations and thoughts with readers of the Journal.

What a great pleasure for me to be part of a crowd of approximately 18,000 people who attended the conference because of their love and support of the State of Israel. While those numbers and the scope of the conference for a first timer like me was a bit overwhelming, the fundamental purpose of AIPAC that bonded us was the imperative to seek bi-partisan support for Israel, and additionally to help navigate the potential land mines inherent in a hotly contested election.

Many of you will recall that AIPAC took the rare step of lobbying against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (known as the Iran Deal), a major foreign policy initiative of our sitting president. The three Democratic congressmen that I heard at various sessions at AIPAC were in the minority of their own party as they all had voted against the deal, and one of them participated on a panel reiterating his opposition and bemoaning US reaction to Iranian behavior (e.g. launching of ballistic missiles) since the agreement has been signed. The continuing concern and alarm regarding Iran’s intentions and behavior was palpable and repeatedly expressed.

Along with Rabbi Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead and Rabbi Ragozin of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, I attended a meeting at our local Congressman Seth Moulton’s office, (the Congressman was out of town so we met with his Defense and Foreign Affairs staff person) to lobby on three specific matters that AIPAC is focusing on: 1) keeping the pressure on Iran to comply with the language and spirit of the JCPOA; 2) rejecting any effort to impose a peace settlement on Israel outside of direct negotiations between the parties; and 3) supporting a long-term generous package of Israel aid currently being negotiated, the so-called Memorandum of Understanding. Our local rabbis did a fantastic job presenting the AIPAC position on two of the key items they were assigned during the 30-minute session in the Congressman’s conference room.

In regard to US aid to Israel, it is worth noting that several speakers during the conference underscored the reality that about 75% of aid to Israel ends up being spent in the US, and as the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said in front of a packed house at the Verizon Center, our country receives immeasurable benefits from the US-Israel relationship including intelligence sharing, development of new weapons systems, and the promotion of our shared values.

The session on the “Progressive Case for Israel” included a University of California at Berkeley student who talked about reinforcing those shared values when challenged about Israel, and she spoke about the need to be informed, to be courageous and to be willing to stand your ground. An inspiring message from such a young person.

One of the most moving parts of the conference for me was the video about Eddie Jacobson, and the presence of his daughter, who was interviewed in the video, and the grandson of Harry Truman at Verizon Center. Some may recall that Eddie was Harry Truman’s partner in a haberdashery store in Kansas City, Missouri. After they went out of business during the depression, Truman went into politics and Eddie went on the road selling shirts, ties and other items he could fit in his truck. The two remained close friends during the years leading up to Truman becoming president. As the video explained, Jacobson convinced President Truman to meet with Chaim Weizmann, after he had initially refused, and Weizmann ultimately persuaded the president to support the UN partition plan that would create the new State of Israel. Eddie’s influence led to the U.S. being one of the first to openly support the nascent Jewish State. The importance of members of the Jewish community being actively engaged in politics, not only with those who have risen to high office, but with new and talented politicians just getting started was powerfully driven home by this decades old story.

Some 18,000 people attended the 2016 AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C.
Some 18,000 people attended the 2016 AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C.

In sharing thoughts about the day that four major presidential candidates addressed the crowd at the Verizon Center, I want to clearly state these are solely my opinions and impressions.

Despite all the challenges that face us, I was struck almost immediately with a sense of extreme delight that four of the five remaining candidates would address this major Jewish gathering in the midst of a competitive race to seek our support and express their solidarity with the Jewish people and with Israel. Bernie Sanders, the only Jewish candidate, chose not to attend and was quoted as saying that Israel needs to stop its “disproportionate” response to terrorist attacks.

Hillary Clinton was very well received in the morning and was quite articulate in her defense of Israel. She did repeat her support for the JCPOA, while mentioning the need to vigorously enforce it, and she did also say that bold steps need to be taken to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians. However, it wasn’t clear considering the current state of negotiations whom Secretary Clinton expected to take bold steps and what those steps might look like.

Of course this is election season and there was no shortage of rhetoric from the Republican candidates concerning what should be done. John Kasich, the first evening speaker, seemed to receive the warmest response from the crowd among the Republicans. As the evening went on, I thought the crowd became fatigued from applauding and standing ovations.

I must admit that when Donald Trump took the stage I couldn’t help viewing him as an entertainer, but I was quickly reminded that he is the Republican front runner and a man of unusual talent in this type of setting. While I personally find much of his past behavior indefensible, his words to AIPAC were reassuring, particularly since he had previously talked about his neutrality when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The crowd slowly warmed to him as he bashed the JCPOA and expressed sympathy with Israelis in their quest for peace.

It is important to note that all of the speakers, particularly Clinton and Kasich, received several standing ovations when they mentioned US financial aid, Israel’s right to defend herself and our shared democratic values. Trump hit all those themes but unlike the others he took a more direct shot at President Obama, by suggesting he has not been good for our country or Israel.

Again, the crowd responded with one of the many standing ovations given to each of the presumably pro-Israel politicians vying for our country’s highest office. Of course, the candidates did take their fair share of jabs at each other as well.

Since the conclusion of the conference, much has been written about the “apology” given by AIPAC’s leadership for the crowd’s reaction to Trump’s attack on President Obama. Incoming AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus stated that we do not “countenance ad hominem attacks and we take great offense to those levied against the President”. Personally, I did not think it was an ad hominem attack, certainly not compared to what we have witnessed from Trump during this primary season. In my opinion, the crowd did not applaud the messenger, but rather the message, and it need not be perceived as personal, but in the context of policy differences. How ironic that AIPAC, which took on the JCPOA with considerable energy and resources, only to lose decisively, would expect anything different from a pro-Israel crowd that has become less than enthusiastic with the administration’s positions on a number of Israel-related issues. Through the lens of bi-partisanship which is critical to AIPAC’s very effective legislative strategy, one can appreciate the motivation for such a public and, I believe, unprecedented rebuke. Historically speaking, Trump is not the first candidate to appear before AIPAC and criticize a sitting President.

While the political ground seems to be shifting (even slightly) regarding traditional allies’ support for Israel (though overall support by Americans has actually increased some), I do understand the need to be sensitive to attacks on President Obama, since in some circles such attacks are often perceived as being disrespectful both to him personally and to the office of the President.

You may recall that the black congressional caucus overwhelmingly supported the JCPOA (though not Congressman Alcee Hastings, a longtime friend of Israel, who appeared at the conference) and many refused to attend Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress. This caucus in particular, and others closely aligned with Obama who perhaps feel the JCPOA does represent a signature foreign policy achievement, needs to be wooed for AIPAC to continue to be one of the more powerful lobbying groups in Washington.

Again, while I can appreciate the sentiment expressed by the incoming AIPAC president, let us not forget that this organization rallied support against the deal. Jews didn’t stand because they love or support Trump. In fact, my guess is that he would be near the bottom if a presidential preference poll were taken in the AIPAC hall. Trump, like the other Republican candidates, tapped into the crowd’s angry feelings about, among other things, the Iran deal, Obama’s “daylight” strategy, and his recent poor relations with Israel’s Prime Minister. And so, the crowd reacted.

I understand the need for AIPAC to mend fences as there are many issues that require pro-Israel Americans to court support whenever we can. However to apologize, or to be “disappointed” per Ms. Pinkus’s statement, strikes me as more than a little presumptuous.

AIPAC is an incredibly important organization run by talented and committed professionals and lay leaders. It is surely an organization worthy of our support. As a Zionist and passionate advocate for Israel, I am thankful for all that they do in keeping Israel safe and secure, and in helping to ensure that politicians and average Americans continue to support the Jewish State of Israel. After all, one never knows where and when the next Eddie Jacobson might be needed.

If you have never attended an AIPAC Policy Conference, you should make plans to go, and for those who have already had the opportunity to attend, go again. I hope to go back again. Am Yisrael Chai!

Marty Schneer is a resident of Salem and an occasional contributor to the Journal.

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