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In Trump vs. Netanyahu, Who Will AIPAC Back?

Forget this year's cheers for VP Pence and last year's for candidate Trump. In a confrontation, AIPAC will back Israel's elected government against allcomers.

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A confrontation is brewing: Trump-Netanyahu press conference at the White House, February 15th 2017.Credit: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

When Vice President Mike Pence addressed the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington last week there was no need to caution those in attendance to refrain from booing or other discourtesies. That was not the case during the past eight years, when tension between the Obama administration and the government of Israel was the main topic of conversation at AIPAC gatherings. But though the Trump administration has had a bumpy ride in almost every other respect, its representative got a rapturous welcome from the 18,000 pro-Israel activists in attendance.

But a question that still remains unanswered after the conference is what AIPAC will do if, contrary to their hopes, President Trump winds up at loggerheads with the Netanyahu government. If Trump is serious about pursuing a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and curbing the growth of West Bank settlements, a confrontation with Prime Minister Netanyahu may be hard to avoid. If so, some on the left are wondering whether AIPAC will still back the Israeli government against their new favorite in Washington, especially if the dispute is caused by Netanyahu’s hard line settlement movement allies.

Netanyahu’s critics should not be deceived by the warm reception Pence got, or by the willingness of many AIPAC attendees to overlook the same Trump foibles that have led most American Jews to line up with the “resistance” to the president.

If push eventually comes to shove between Trump and Netanyahu — even if the argument is driven by those who oppose a two-state solution - AIPAC will do what it always does: back the elected government of Israel against allcomers.

The cheers will soon be forgotten: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks at AIPAC, March 26, 2017.Credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS

The enthusiasm for Trump is largely due to relief after the years of political combat with President Obama over settlements and Iran. The new administration doesn’t share its predecessor’s desire for more “daylight” between the United States and the Jewish state. Trump’s comments about wanting Prime Minister Netanyahu to hold back on settlement building has shaken many on the Israeli right who mistakenly thought the billionaire would hand them a blank check. But the mood among most AIPAC backers is still positive toward Trump at a time when the president’s popularity ratings are sinking to new lows.

It’s not yet clear whether the ardently pro-Israel figures among Trump’s advisors such as son-in-law Jared Kushner will determine policy or if more ambivalent figures like Secretary of Defense James Mattis will call the tune. But if Trump’s ego leads him to prioritize a push to make the real estate deal of the century with the Palestinians, conflict with the Israeli government could be inevitable.

Would those who cheered Trump be willing to back Netanyahu against him, if the argument resulted from machinations by those to right of the prime minister? Many on the left, who have come to see AIPAC as a bastion of Republicans, think not.

AIPAC is often accused of being an accomplice of the GOP. But the connection here is not so much a function of any deliberate bias on the group’s part, as it is a reaction to a shift in the American political landscape, in which the two major parties have switched places on Israel.

AIPAC will always back Israel's government: Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks via a video link from Israel to the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C., March 27, 2017. Credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS

A half-century ago the Democrats were the lockstep pro-Israel party while Republicans were lukewarm. Today, that is reversed, with the GOP nearly unanimous in backing the Likud-led government. Democrats are divided, with few having sympathy for Netanyahu, and many among its left-wing base buying into the libel that the Israel is an apartheid state.

But what AIPAC’s critics forget is that the lobby has always had only one purpose: supporting Israel’s government across the political spectrum. AIPAC’s success is the result of a strategy that calls for supporters of both parties to establish relationships with their House members and Senators.

AIPAC's impulse to back the verdict of Israeli democracy dictates a willingness to push back against the White House no matter whether its occupant is a Democrat or a Republican. While the group is invested in the transformation of the GOP, it has also been willing to enter bruising battles with every Republican president. Nor did it fail to back Labor governments that were dedicated to the peace process or Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert when they abandoned Gaza and renewed peace offers to the Palestinians.

For all of the sympathy many AIPAC members have for Trump now, neither the administration nor Netanyahu’s detractors should think the lobby will hesitate to oppose him if he winds up following in his predecessors’ footsteps and exerting pressure on Israel. Love it or hate it, and no matter what you think of Netanyahu and his coalition, AIPAC will always back Israel’s government.

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathans_tobin

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