WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence told a friendly audience at the AIPAC Policy Conference here on Monday that he was bringing greetings “from the most pro-Israel president in the history of the United States.”
Pence, speaking to 18,000 supporters of the pro-Israel lobby, sought to back up that claim. He insisted that the Trump administration would end the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, which AIPAC spent much of its political capital opposing, if Congress can’t fix what it sees as flaws in the deal’s enforcement language.
He said that as President Donald Trump had kept his promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, so he would on the nuclear deal.
“Unless this deal is fixed in the coming months, the United States of America will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal immediately,” he said. “I have a solemn promise to Israel and the wider world: The United States of America will never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”
The annual conference, held in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center here, basked in Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May — a promise he made as a presidential candidate at this conference two years ago. Inside the main ballroom, illuminated by blue and white lights, attendees rose and applauded each time a speaker mentioned the embassy move.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s actually happening after all the years,” said Lisa Schwartz of New York. “It’s very nice that this president is doing something right.”
Added University of Pittsburgh student Alyssa Berman, who attended the conference with other attendees from Hillel Jewish University Center, “There is so much American support for the State of Israel from the grassroots movement to the leaders of our nation, that as long as we continue to be vocal, we will be able to preserve Israel as a Jewish state in this world.”
“We must all work toward that future: two states for two peoples,” Executive Director Howard Kohr told attendees early in the conference. “One Jewish, with secure and defensible borders; and one Palestinian, with its own flag and its own future.”
Pittsburgh delegation co-chair Amy Weiss agreed.
“In order to have peace, you need two sides to come to the table to talk. Unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership has not promoted peace,” she said. “There would be nothing better than a two-state solution but in order to have two states you need both sides to accept and recognize the other.”
Enjoying a personal moment, Weiss also noted a shoutout her husband, Pittsburgh community leader Lou Weiss, received from Kohr.
Kohr “featured Lou…as a Kenyon College friend who makes the journey to policy conference every year in spite of mobility limitations from his MS,” Amy Weiss said. “He mentioned him as the guy you see shlepping around Capitol Hill with his trekking poles as he visits our congresspeople and makes the case for the U.S.-Israel relationship. They then put our faces on the jumbo screens which I turned into a kiss cam!”
For many attendees, political nuance took a back seat to total immersion in a pro-Israel environment.
“I love AIPAC,” said Clara Sandler, 16, from Los Angeles. “It stands for all the things I stand for.”
“AIPAC is like a huge pep rally, where all people come to support Israel,” Lisa Schwartz said. “Sometimes you feel like you’re alone in your support. But here you come and you see how many people really support Israel, how many technological advances Israel makes and the argument for what is just in the Middle East.”
For others, the draw was learning more about Israel, sometimes to use that knowledge as ammunition in its defense.
Alyson Schwartz, 22, a student at Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, N.J., said she came to the conference to make sure she had the tools to combat anti-Semitism on campus. “The main speakers have shown the confidence that people have in Israel and I want to take that confidence back to my community,” she said.
Pittsburgher Ken Eisner, 58, said the conference gave him a much better understanding of the “interplay” between Israel and other countries in the Middle East, including Syria and Iran. He said he went into the conference most concerned about the nuclear threat North Korea poses but left understanding the greater threat posed by Iran to Israel and eventually to the United States.
“At least the United States and Israel are completely on the same page about the need to disarm Iran’s nuclear capabilities and I think the U.S. is committed to making that happen soon,” said the North Hills resident, a past president of Temple Ohav Shalom.
Eisner said he is not a Trump supporter, but that he is pleased with the president’s foreign policy as it relates to Israel, especially the embassy move. But, because he is adamantly opposed to many of the president’s domestic policies, Eisner said it was “almost a little uncomfortable to be applauding for him when I just don’t support so much of what he stands for.”
On Monday, Haley largely directed her fiery speech at the United Nations, defending Israel from what she called the international body’s “bullying.” She compared Israel’s geopolitical circumstance to her family’s when she grew up in the only Indian family in Bamberg, S.C.
“My father wore a turban, my mother wore a sari. There were times when we were bullied,” Haley said. “You don’t pick on someone just because they look differently than you…It turns out bullying is a common practice in the U.N.”
Roberta Winter, 75, of Skokie, Ill., contrasted Haley with Trump, who she called “the chaotic man at the helm.” Haley was the standout star of the administration, she said. “She’s a real hero of our time. She says enough of the one-sided anti-Semitism in the U.N.”
For speakers of any stripe, AIPAC was no place to appear soft. Avi Gabbay, the leader of Israel’s left-leaning Labor Party, gave a hawkish speech Sunday, calling for a non-nuclear Iran. While he differed with Netanyahu and Trump by calling for a Palestinian state, albeit a demilitarized one, he also demanded the Palestinian Authority stop making payments to “terrorist groups.” (The Palestinian Authority pays families of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces or serving time in Israeli prisons for participating in terror attacks.)
Gabbay also uttered the taboo word — settlements. “We must stop building these caravans on hilltops and glorifying these remote settlements because they do not provide any security value to Israel,” he said, referring to the so-called outpost communities built by Israelis deep in territory meant to comprise a future Palestinian state.
Susan Wagner and her husband, Alan Klinger, of New York were finishing lunch on Sunday in the convention center’s mammoth lower level, called AIPAC Village. A self-described progressive, Wagner seemed to be at the conference on a fact-finding mission — not so much to learn about Israel as about the nature of AIPAC itself.
“Most of the speakers are going to say what Fox [News] is saying all the time,” she said. “I want to see if there are articulate, honest right-wing positions I haven’t heard before.”
Some, eating lunch in the AIPAC Village among the display of the Iron Dome missile defense shield and the walk-through timeline of the Iran nuclear deal, say the organization is moving to the right.
Netanyahu aligned himself with Republicans in Congress when he made plans to address the body against the Iran nuclear agreement without consulting the Obama administration, they pointed out.
Others, like Eiran Warner of Washington, say the reason is the cause of his “biggest fear” — that “some elements of the Democratic Party are moving farther from Israel.”
Although she felt that the speakers offered a wide variety of opinions, political and otherwise, she understood the concern that the conference must remain bipartisan.
“Every issue right now is based on partisan politics,” she lamented. “I think this conference was really designed around finding common ground.
“Those who are pro-Israel really agree on much more than they don’t,” added the veteran of four other AIPAC conferences. “What I’ve taken away [from the conference] is there’s a lot of support for Israel in our government and that’s something we should not take for granted.”
Alan Klinger was willing to adopt a wait and see attitude. “We’re here to see if the bipartisanship holds,” he said. The Klingers had just attended a hopeful session, “Telling Israel’s Stories,” in which “speakers reflected a progressive view and didn’t ignore the Palestinians in their vision,” he said.
That session was closed to journalists. Ironically, so was a session called “Free speech and freedom of the press in Israel.” In addition to the plenary sessions, journalists were granted access to 18 speakers and panels over the conference. In contrast, there were 46 sessions barred to the press on Sunday between 1:15 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. alone.
Looking at an increasingly partisan divide when it comes to Israel, Karen and Alan Perleman of Chicago offered several arguments. He said that progressives — “Bernie Sanders Democrats” — “are not necessarily anti-Israel,” but they take a “Palestinians-are-the-victims approach to diplomacy.”
“It’s not AIPAC going to the Republicans. It’s Democrats leaving Israel,” Karen Perleman said. “But AIPAC is also trying to support Netanyahu and he’s pretty far to the right. It’s tough for AIPAC to look mainstream when part of their job is to represent the [Israeli] government’s interests.” PJC
David Holzel is the managing editor of the Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. Lauren Rosenblatt is the digital content manager of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. Washington Jewish Week staff members Jared Foretek and Dan Schere contributed to this report.