For the first time since freshman Democratic legislators brought renewed scrutiny on the American-Israel relationship — and amidst a rocket attack from Gaza that cut short Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to the United States — AIPAC held its annual Policy Conference in Washington this week. Despite the controversy, politicians from both sides of the aisle sent a clear message: Israel maintains strong bipartisan support in the halls of Congress.
“We are joined this week by leaders of both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Capitol because support for Israel in America is bipartisan and bicameral, relentlessly bipartisan,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at Tuesday morning’s general session inside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. “We are all here connected for good, united in our shared mission to advance peace, prosperity and progress in the Middle East, in America and around the world.”
An estimated 18,000 people, including a sizable delegation from Pittsburgh, were on hand for the three-day conference, which concluded Tuesday with visits by attendees to the offices of their representatives on Capitol Hill.
Pelosi’s attendance was notable for the fact that parts of her own caucus have been highly critical of continued settlement building in the West Bank and the Israeli government’s waning support for a two-state solution. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) has criticized AIPAC itself, arguing on Twitter in February that the pro-Israel lobby effectively buys support from American politicians. “It’s all about the Benjamins,” she tweeted, which was widely regarded as invoking an anti-Semitic stereotype.
In a speech delivered by satellite from Israel Tuesday morning, Netanyahu responded.
“From this Benjamin, it’s not about the Benjamins,” Netanyahu said. “The reason Americans love Israel is not because they want our money, it’s because they share our values. It’s because America and Israel share a love of freedom and democracy.”
Netanyahu was scheduled to be at the conference Tuesday morning to deliver his remarks, but he returned to Israel after a direct hit from a rocket injured seven Israelis, including two toddlers, in a house outside Tel Aviv. On Monday evening, Israeli aircraft struck Hamas targets inside Gaza.
The prime minister is also in the midst of one of his most difficult re-election bids since he returned to office in 2009, as he faces indictment for a bribery scandal following a two-year investigation. One of Netanyahu’s strongest challengers, the Blue and White Party chair Benny Gantz, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, addressed the AIPAC conference Monday morning. He spoke at length about his time as a general in Israel’s army, vowing to maintain Israel’s military dominance and to protect the Jewish state from a hostile Iranian regime. He also told of how his mother survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany during the Holocaust.
But while he commended Netanyahu for returning to Israel, he also barbed the sitting prime minister for his recent decision to bring the far-right, nationalist party Otzma Yehudit into his coalition.
“There will be no Kahanes running our country,” he said, referencing the fact that Otzma Yehudit is regarded as the evolutionary offspring of the banned Kahane Chai party. “There will be no racist leading our state institution, and there will be no corruption leading our way, no corruption whatsoever. The leaders of Israel cannot be led by anything else other than the best interest of Israel and its people.”
While Netanyahu faces increased scrutiny in Israel, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence used his address at the AIPAC gathering to celebrate the conclusion of another high-profile investigation, this one in Washington. Days after Special Counsel Robert Mueller finished his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible obstruction of justice committed by the Trump administration, Pence claimed that President Donald Trump was completely exonerated.
“I just have to say, yesterday was a great day for our country, our president and every American who cherishes the truth,” Pence said Monday. “After two years of investigation and reckless accusations by many Democrats and members of the media, the special counsel confirmed what President Trump said all along: There was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election, and the attorney general confirmed there was no obstruction of justice.”
In his report, Mueller reportedly left the question of obstruction of justice up to Attorney General William Barr, but did not clear the president of any wrongdoing.
Trump is widely popular in Israel for moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and is seen by many as a natural ally of Netanyahu.
Echoing that theme, Pence celebrated another recent foreign policy reset. Last week, Trump became the first U.S. president to recognize Israel’s authority over the Golan Heights, a contested area at Israel’s border with Syria that Israel captured in 1967 and annexed in 1981, a move condemned at the time by the United Nations. Trump signed an executive order to that effect on Monday in the presence of Netanyahu.
“Our president made these decisions in the best interest of the United States, but he also believed they were in the best interest of peace, because a lasting peace can only be built on the foundation of truth,” Pence said, before blaming the lack of movement on a peace process during the Trump administration on Palestinian aggression.
For Pelosi, the ultimate message of the conference was that Democrats remain committed to American support for Israel, and that the issue of Israeli security and prosperity should not be one subject to partisan disagreement.
Democrats in Congress have accused Republicans of trying to make Israel a “wedge” issue through legislative tactics and public statements, but Pelosi promised that support for Israel will always be strong in her Congress.
“From Israel’s founding through the present day, our pledge remains the same. Israel and America are connected now and forever,” Pelosi said. “We will never allow anyone to make Israel a wedge issue. That pledge is proudly honored in this Congress where support for Israel remains ironclad and bipartisan.”
Among Pittsburghers at the conference, Yoshi Mahony was part of a group of Hillel Academy seniors who participated. Mahony was surprised by the conference.
“It isn’t what I expected originally. Before I went on AIPAC I thought it was just going to be an assembly of conservative Republicans and Jews who are pro-Israel, and I think it’s really important to instill in kids in my school and from other schools that it’s all kinds of people from different religions and with different beliefs, and it is amazing that they are united together,” said Mahony.
Classmate Isaac Brown agreed.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re conservative or liberal,” he said. “There is a bipartisan agreement that Israel must be protected and that the U.S. and Israel must have a strong bond.”
Samuel Balyasny, a Hillel Academy senior, said hearing from Pence and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was “surreal.”
“In order to be an activist in any arena you need to be educated on the issues, and I think this is the best place to get that education, because you are not only learning from panelists and speakers but you’re learning from other attendees,” University of Pittsburgh senior Alyssa Berman said. This year’s event was her second AIPAC conference. PJC
Jared Foretek writes for Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. Chronicle staff writer Adam Reinherz contributed to this article.