WASHINGTON - Vice President Mike Pence brought a distilled and purified version of Donald Trump to the AIPAC Conference in Washington on Sunday and was warmly rewarded by the audience. Pence gave the pro-Israel lobbyists the Trump of their dreams: a determined and resolute Israel-lover, United Nations-hater, Iran-dismantler and ISIS-annihilator, without all the excess baggage of his outrageous behavior, his pathological lies, his hostility towards Muslims and immigrants, his antagonism towards America’s allies and his problematic ties, to put it mildly, with Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.
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Pence, a Christian Evangelical with a “perfect” voting record on Israel, probably wouldn’t have garnered a majority of AIPAC votes had he run for the presidency himself, mainly because of his stance on issues such as abortions, gay marriage and separation of church and state, or lack thereof. But he would be a president that AIPAC could get along with well, and perhaps even learn to adore. He knows how to push all the right buttons to stimulate AIPAC members - never again, eternal allies, Jerusalem forever, Iran won’t get a bomb etc. - and he does it with an aplomb of a professional politician. As in many of his speeches on domestic issues, Pence stuck to general clichés and didn’t make much news - Trump is “seriously considering” moving the U.S. Embassy and is seeking an agreement that will “require compromise” - but he provided conference-goers with a feeling of consistency at a time when capriciousness rules, a sense of stability in an era in which Washington seems to be undergoing heart attacks and brain seizures on a daily basis.
Pence gave his audience what they wanted to hear. Like many in the Israeli right, it sometimes seems as if for AIPAC delegates - contrary to the group’s professional staff, perhaps - the word is often more crucial than the deed, talk is more inspiring than creating facts on the ground and posturing outshines the nitty gritty. Barack Obama may have had Israel’s back, big time, in terms of security collaboration, the $38 billion defense package and countless times he came to Israel’s defense in the diplomatic arena, but whenever he addressed AIPAC or his name was mentioned from the podium the lobby’s leaders had to work overtime to prevent unseemly boos from the audience. Trump hasn’t done a thing besides declaring, tweeting and appointing Nikki Haley, the Jewish people’s new Annie Oakley, as ambassador to the United Nations, but he still gets sustained applause from many AIPACers, as if he’s saved Israel at least twice already.
Benjamin Netanyahu and his right wing ministers are responsible for besmirching Obama and pumping up Trump as Israel’s new savior, though some are already starting to wake up from their delusions. But Israeli Ambassador to the Republican Party, Ron Dermer, outdid them all on Sunday when he said that there’s less daylight today between Israel and the U.S. than there’s been for decades, ostensibly forgetting the close ties between George W. Bush and both Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert or between Bill Clinton and both Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin. If you listen to Dermer you might think that Trump and Netanyahu have already weathered horrible storms and confounding challenges and are the power couple that the world’s been waiting for.
But just as the enthusiastic reception given Trump at last year’s conference, when he was just a candidate, sparked a storm in the Jewish community and even elicited a rare apology from AIPAC leaders, so the reception he got on Sunday in absentia is bound to dismay and perhaps disgust many Jews, whether they were inside the conference or outside among the anti-AIPAC demonstrators. The latter passionately sang protest songs throughout the day, confronted a Kahanist counter-demonstration, chained themselves at one point to the doors at the entrance to the Washington Convention Center, waged a sophisticated campaign on social media and all in all generated excitement and interest in a conference which, with both Trump and Netanyahu staying away, might be seen as uneventful, if not boring.
It’s possible, however, that dull and monotonous are just what AIPAC leaders ordered. The overarching theme of this year’s conference is to narrow differences, create a new consensus and stay together for the coming storm. Some of this stems from the deep divisions created by the bruising 2015 battle over the Iran nuclear deal and from the constant embarrassment caused by the problematic conduct of Netanyahu’s government on pluralism and access to the Western Wall, anti-democratic legislation and muddled policies on the two-state solution. But the main impetus for the wish to regain internal unity is the very existence of Trump at the White House. Applause on Israel notwithstanding, the new President sparks unease and apprehension among Jews, spurring them to circle the wagons like in the Old West and to seek protection and solace by trying to recreate a fleeting sense of unity.
Trump is the main topic of conversation and the only game in town, after all, and not because of his positions on Israel or the settlements. AIPAC is trying to tiptoe around him as if it’s walking on eggs: the last thing it needs is a flare-up between Trump supporters and critics. Nonetheless, in a truly extraordinary and telling incident, in one breakout session on American politics, part of the listeners broke out in cheers when anyone from the podium or the audience raised the possibility that the President would soon be impeached because of his Russian ties. No less amazingly, no one deemed it necessary to silence the Trump opponents or try to shut them down.
AIPAC is trying to reclaim the center at a time when it is being threatened by increasing polarization on both sides of the political divide. It wants to accentuate its bipartisan nature at a time when Washington seems anything but. In this year’s conference it’s not only ignoring the presidential elephant in the room, it’s also trying to avoid discussion of the two-state solution, as much as it can. Unlike the imaginary achievements that Trump’s acolytes try to credit him with, here is a genuine accomplishment that the President can already be proud of. Because of him, AIPAC appears to be softening at the edges, moderating positions, trying to grow more tolerant of dissenting views and tending to itself more than before. In these days of dread and uncertainty, which include the possibility that AIPAC itself will be weakened if not disabled, the powerful lobby is investing in the consolation embodied in the Psalms saying “How good and how pleasant it is for brethren (and sistren, CS) to dwell together.”