Donald Trump is an international brand. He makes more money from licensing the use of his trademark name than he does from the real estate, golf courses and other properties that he owns. He has made hundreds of millions of dollars by allowing his name to be used on a wide range of products, from residential towers and exotic resorts to home furniture, men’s clothing and energy drinks. Next week’s annual AIPAC Conference is also likely to be remembered as the Trump Conference, or perhaps the Trump/AIPAC Conference, though this certainly isn’t what its organizers had in mind.
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The focus on Trump at AIPAC, which is already stirring debate inside the Jewish community, is sure to intensify once the dust settles on Tuesday’s crucial primaries. All the elements of a blockbuster television spectacle are already in place: the appearance of one of the most divisive presidential candidates in modern American history, before the annual convention of one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, on a topic with both internal and external ramifications, Israel and the Jews, which sparks substantial media interest even when times are normal.
Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton have already accepted AIPAC’s invitation to address the conference, and other candidates might join them. The question of Bernie Sanders’ appearance is also sparking considerable debate among his supporters, between those who are urging him to speak his stark, even-handed truth to the powerful lobby and those who claim he shouldn’t legitimize a group that the radical left views as reactionary war mongers. But this mini-brouhaha doesn’t come close to the potential earthquake-level reverberations of the much-anticipated Trump speech: perhaps AIPAC will try to avoid the controversy by making it hard to fit the speech in Trump’s campaign schedule.
In the meantime, his very invitation is being challenged. Rob Eshman, editor of the Los Angeles based Jewish Journal wrote this week that Trump should never have been invited, but once he was, AIPAC is duty bound to condemn his racism and bigotry, otherwise it would “allow his stain to spread over AIPAC’s good name.” An AIPAC official said in response that it is long-standing policy to invite all the “active Democratic and Republican presidential candidates." The event “provides our community with an extraordinary opportunity to hear, directly and on-the-record, the positions of the presidential candidates on the U.S.-Israel relationship.” But Jewish figures close to AIPAC concede that it is caught between a rock and a hard place: it could not avoid inviting Trump, but is well aware of the potential damage involved.
Trump won’t be making money from this appearance, but he could nonetheless emerge with a handsome profit. The sharp-tongued, shoot-from-the-hip billionaire certainly isn’t lacking for publicity, but at AIPAC he could deviate from his image as a divisive brawler and gain a measure of the respectability that he sorely needs. Since the start of his astonishing campaign, Trump hasn’t appeared before a bipartisan forum that enjoys such prestige in Washington's corridors of power. AIPAC could very well fortify the presidential image that Trump would need in order to win the general elections: this, of course, is exactly what infuriates his critics.
A lot depends on the tone of the speech Trump will choose to deliver, but no less on the kind of reception he will get from the AIPAC audience, which will reach close to 20,000 this year. Although AIPAC is seen as leaning decidedly right on matters concerning Israel and the Middle East, many of its members are still card-carrying Democrats with liberal views on domestic affairs. Many of them are uncomfortable with Trump’s appearance, including the leaders and rabbis of the Reform Movement, who have already promised to protest, though they haven’t specified how. Trump might encounter the same kind of sporadic interruptions to his speeches that he has met on the campaign trail, but he probably won’t repeat his encouragement to fans to make sure the protestors are smacked or carried out on a stretcher. That might not go over very well at AIPAC.
The irony is that Trump’s problematic statements on Israel and the Middle East won’t be the main source of tension in the auditorium at the Washington Conference Center next week, despite the fact that AIPAC is a pro-Israeli lobby that claims to distance itself from internal politics. Trump’s declarations that he would remain “neutral” in order to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, his hints that Israel is responsible for the breakdown of peace talks, his refusal to acknowledge the unity of Jerusalem or to promise to abrogate the Iran nuclear deal and even his anti-Semitic sounding comments at a recent Republican Jewish Coalition forum about Jews wanting to buy candidates for money - all of these might have generated intense interest at AIPAC were it not for the far more incendiary controversy surrounding Trump for other reasons. His denigration of Mexicans and Muslims, his exhortations to violence and strife, his image as a candidate who thrives on incitement and confrontation and racial enmity - all of these will fuel the hypertension surrounding his speech.
Uncharacteristically, the opposition to Trump unites right and left in the Jewish community. It encompasses liberals who either are or aren’t engaged with Israel as well as die-hard hawks and conservatives who have been the bedrock of support for Israel, in general, and for Benjamin Netanyahu, in particular. But not everyone shares the negative view of Trump: interviews in recent days with Florida Jews, both American and expat Israelis, indicate that Trump will pick up support among Jews who either agree with him on Muslims and illegal immigration or view him as the lesser evil on Israel than Sanders or Clinton, who would only continue what they perceive as Obama’s awful legacy.
From that point of view, the friction caused by Trump at AIPAC is merely a harbinger of the potential internal strife in the Jewish community that would be generated if Trump were the GOP candidate. In recent years Israel is said to be splitting the Jewish community but Trump would amplify the problem many times over. His opponents, who will outnumber his supporters by far, will reject any attempt to whitewash a vote for Trump on the basis of his stand on Israel. They view Trump as a candidate who is morally repugnant and a danger to American democracy. When these are the perceived stakes, the clash is inevitable, as is the price that will likely be paid by both Israel and AIPAC. Perhaps this is the reason, rather than his tense relations with Obama, that Netanyahu preferred to stay home.