Analysis

Nikki Haley, Rock Star to the Jews and Their Knight in Shining Armor

AIPAC’s rapturous reception for the UN Ambassador marks her as a potential rival to Trump in 2020.

Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley waves to the crowd before she speaks at the 2017 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference held at the Verizon Center in Washington, Monday, March 27, 2017.
Jose Luis Magana/AP

Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, is the new rock star of American Jewry. The former governor of South Carolina has made the defense of Israel into the defining motif of her tenure in an organization that Jews love to hate. Democratic mainstays may have disappointed, Republican leaders can stumble and fall but Haley stood tall at this week's AIPAC Conference as the only Jewish hero in sight. 

Nikki Haley interview at AIPAC's annual conference.

Haley was the exception in an otherwise dull and uneventful AIPAC confab that concluded Tuesday. With no Donald Trump or Benjamin Netanyahu around to make headlines and with AIPAC leaders doing their best to maintain unity and reach consensus, Haley was the only politician who supplied some fireworks. Besides Tuesday’s ironic scene in which House Democratic Leaders Nancy Pelosi read out a letter recently signed by 191 lawmakers, in support of a two-state solution, which was actually inspired by rival lobby J-Street, Haley was the main source of real excitement.

It isn’t hard to understand the secrets of her charm, at least for the Jews. Haley isn’t your standard white Republican male but the daughter of Indian immigrants who tasted discrimination and abuse during her childhood. She is a true conservative, perhaps, but one who has weaned herself off the rigid ideology she embraced when she started out in politics. She is eloquent and, forgive me, photogenic as well. She handled the potentially volatile aftermath of the June 2015 massacre in an African-American church in Charleston with firmness and grace. She had the guts to take on Trump when he badmouthed immigrants, but the wits and wherewithal to retreat just in time to support him before the elections. When Trump was under pressure to mix up his roster of cabinet secretaries with appointees who aren’t white males, Haley was first in line. He gave her the prestigious posting at the UN, which entails a cabinet position as well as high-profile public exposure.

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Haley embraced the fierce Republican hostility towards the United Nations and is wielding defense of Israel as the sword with which she will slay the organization. In a move described by former Israel envoy Dan Shapiro as “stunningly dumb,” she prevented the appointment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to a high profile position at the UN; She threatened to boycott the Human Rights Council; She convinced the UN secretary general to pull a report labeling Israeli policies as apartheid, bringing about the resignation of the Jordanian Under Secretary, Rima Khalaf who had approved its release; She lit up the crowd at Washington DC”s Verizon Center on Monday when she pledged that January’s anti-settlement Security Council Resolution 2334 “would never happen again," and she brought the house down when she promised, “the days of Israel-bashing at the United Nations are over.”

Haley’s main advantage is that she is operating in a world that, just like the BDS movement, is perceived by Jews as totally black or white. This isn’t the nuclear deal with Iran that AIPAC opposed but not unanimously, or wholeheartedly. This certainly isn’t Jewish settlements or the occupation or the two-state solution, which seem far too uncertain and complex for most Jews, even before Netanyahu supported and then opposed and then started to hedge his bets. Jewish public opinion, force fed for decades by unequivocal condemnations of both American and Israeli politicians, sees the UN’s attitude towards Israel as unadulterated injustice and its anti-Israeli decisions as pure anti-Semitism. Haley’s willingness to battle this monster, with the full backing of the White House and most of Congress, turns her into a knight in shining armor, a righteous gentile who is a soldier in the eternal struggle to protect the Jews.

Her meteoric rise in the consciousness of supporters of Israel stands out even more against the backdrop of disappointment from many of her male colleagues. Not only terrifying Trump or perfidious Obama but also House Speaker Paul Ryan, until yesterday the great white hope of the GOP, came to the stage at the conference after Haley on Monday as her pale shadow. Ryan’s failure to secure a majority for the bill that was meant to replace ObamaCare has cost him dearly in the eyes of both public opinion and the White House. Like most of the other politicians who appeared at the AIPAC confab, when Ryan wanted to hear the audience break out in applause he had no choice but to mention Haley and sing her praises.

Haley may soon find out that she is overestimating the American sway over the UN and its ability to impose its will on the organization. She may discover that her fight for Israel is exacting a steep price from Washington. She could be biting off more that the U.S. can chew and putting it on a costly collision course with the rest of the world, for which Israel might ultimately be blamed. But until that happens, Haley certainly seems to be one of Trump’s more successful appointments, if not the best of all.

Which is why, if I were Donald Trump, and if I saw the hysterical reception Haley got at AIPAC, and if I remembered that AIPAC types not only support Israel but also promising politicians, and if I was already thinking of how to get myself reelected in 2020, I would start to ask myself whether giving Haley a unique bully pulpit was such a great idea after all. Because it might also turn out to be a potentially fatal mistake that will ultimately produce the GOP contender that might one day take away my throne.