The performances by four of the five remaining presidential candidates at AIPAC’s policy conference made this a perfectly strange and unsettling week in Washington.
The entire affair was more of a spectacle than a conference. The setting was a sports arena with 18,000 spectators. The candidates appearing on a stage in center court were shown on huge overhead screens. One by one they were trotted out to perform. And perform, they did, delivering remarkably similar addresses that were mainly variations on a set of familiar themes. They all: professed their love Israel and “Bibi”; want to arm Israel to the teeth; don’t trust Palestinians, whom they accused of incitement; hate the UN; will oppose any effort to sanction Israel—by the UN, EU, or even US student groups; and promise to be better for Israel than President Obama. As the candidates shamelessly pandered before their delirious audience, the political pronouncements they made and policy prescriptions they offered were both dangerous and disconnected from reality.
In speech after speech, Israel was offered unconditional support using the now commonplace terms “unshakable”, “unwavering”, or “unbreakable”. No one spoke of the hardships endured by Palestinians under occupation—in fact, the word “occupation” was never uttered. When the Palestinians were mentioned at all it was to condemn them for incitement and murder. John Kasich charged Palestinians with fostering a “culture of death”, while Ted Cruz resurrected the old canard accusing Arabs of wanting to “drive Israel into the sea”.
Hillary Clinton, Cruz, and Kasich condemned efforts to “isolate, pressure, and delegitimize the state of Israel” and pledged to fight the “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” movement, charging that BDS promoted “hate speech, harassment and intimidation on college campuses”. Cruz went so far as to suggest that it may be “illegal behavior” that could be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law”.
All of the Republicans pledged to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem “the eternal capital of the Jewish people” (that was Donald Trump’s expression). Upping the ante, Cruz said he would begin the effort to move the embassy to “the once and eternal capital” on his “very first day in office”. For her part, Clinton, skipped the Embassy move, but said that “one of the very first things” she would do as President would be to invite Netanyahu to the White House to “take the US-Israel alliance to the next level”.
The unreality of this entire pander-fest was best captured by Trump’s performance. During the course of this year’s campaign he had, on many occasions, incurred the wrath of the pro-Israel Jewish community by: suggesting that they wouldn’t support him “because I don’t want your money”; saying that he would be a “neutral negotiator” between Israel and the Palestinians; hesitating on the issue of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem; and scoffing at the idea of “tearing up the Iran deal”.
At the AIPAC show, Trump took center stage and read a prepared speech that began “I didn’t come here to pander about Israel”. It was his first lie of the night. As he continued, he contradicted every one of his earlier positions, denouncing the Palestinians, President Obama, and Iran. He closed by saying “I love Israel. I love Israel”, then weirdly adding that his daughter was about to deliver “a beautiful Jewish baby”. As the crowds cheered Trump over and again, the entire affair appeared absolutely bizarre because here was Trump contradicting everything he had previously said and no one seemed to notice or care. All that mattered was that he was pandering, and they loved it.
Clinton was the only candidate to mention a Palestinian state—but she offered no proposal other than the vague promise that she “would look for opportunities to create conditions for progress”. While shying away from any criticism of Israel, she did say that “Everyone has to do their part by avoiding damaging actions, including with respect to settlement”. This comment, however, was so oblique that it appeared designed to be missed. And so it was.
At the end of the conference, AIPAC’s “delegates” left for home reassured: that Israel’s hardline government could do no wrong; that Israel would continue to be supported and defended against any and all pressures to change its policy toward the Palestinians; and that every politician could be forced to bend before their pressure and made to say exactly what they want to hear (even if the politician didn’t mean it). Sad, in a way, but also delusional and dangerous.
What the AIPAC crowd missed was the opportunity to hear from the one presidential candidate would have given them a bit of a reality check. Bernie Sanders, the only candidate for president who is Jewish could not make it to the conference and asked if he could deliver his speech via satellite. Although AIPAC had done this for two Republican candidates in the last election, they refused Sanders’ request.
Sanders delivered his remarks to an audience in Utah. It was a remarkably balanced statement that began with the pledge that “if elected president, I will work tirelessly to advance the cause of peace as a partner and as a friend of Israel. But to be successful, we have also got to be a friend not only to Israel but to the Palestinian people”. He went on to say that “Palestinians can’t be ignored. You can’t have good policy...if you ignore one side”.
Sanders called for ending the “occupation of Palestinian territory”; criticized Israel’s exploitation of Palestinian water resources, expropriation of Palestinian land, settlements, and use of disproportionate violence. He decried the blockade of Gaza, its high unemployment rate, and the lack of progress in reconstruction.
Sanders didn’t let the Palestinians off the hook. He denounced Hamas’ use of rockets and diversion of funds for military purposes. And called for Palestinians to reject violence and terror and to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
His speech was sober and smart. It should have been heard by the AIPAC crowd. It would have been a healthy antidote to the Kool Aid they were given to drink while in DC.