As it does every year, the AIPAC Conference, which got started in Washington on Sunday, will deal with a wide range of issues: U.S.-Israel relations, the nuclear deal with Iran, the civil war in Syria, the changing Middle East, the threat of ISIS, etc.
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This time, however, these discussions will only serve as diversions, a way of passing the time until the one and only show in town gets underway, starring America’s most notorious presidential candidate, Donald Trump.
Trump’s public appearances are usually comprised of random stream-of-consciousness statements laced with personal invectives, but at AIPAC he is expected to deliver a rare, comprehensive speech about Israel and the Middle East. Instead of thousands of enthusiastic fans who roar at his every word, Trump will face a tough audience of critical Jews, brimming with scorn. And instead of lambasting protestors who interrupt his speeches and recommending that their faces be smashed, Trump will have to exhibit uncharacteristic patience and restraint.
The organizers of the conference are preparing for various kinds of protest, including rabbis walking out, progressives brandishing signs, leftists standing in silence and possibly even radical revolutionaries who will shout their reservations out loud. But AIPAC shouldn’t only be concerned by the audience’s resistance to Trump. It should be concerned by their potential enthusiasm as well, which isn’t totally inconceivable, especially if Trump takes on President Obama. AIPAC has already faced criticism that its invitation legitimizes Trump’s candidacy; acclamation by the audience might be construed as outright endorsement.
Inside the Verizon Center where Trump will appear, the Secret Service is responsible for his security. The Washington Metropolitan Police Department, on the other hand, is concerned about demonstrations outside the arena that usually hosts the mediocre Washington Wizards basketball team. AIPAC conferences always attract demonstrators, usually a few ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists and a smattering of Palestinian activists. Trump, however, could draw a much larger and more unruly crowd of the kind that has been dogging his appearances in recent days.
Trump will address the AIPAC forum on Monday evening, together with his Republican rivals, John Kasich and Ted Cruz. Hillary Clinton will address the crowd a few hours earlier. Cruz, Kasich and Clinton are expected to present different versions of the staple pro-Israel speech, with plentiful love and praise for Israel and no less criticism and condemnation for its enemies. Perhaps that’s why their speeches have drawn scant media attention.
Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, made some headlines over the weekend because of his decision to stay away from the conference and to make do with a written speech, which he hopes, will be distributed to delegates. Sanders has been under pressure from anti-Israeli supporters not to grace AIPAC, which they view as a rabid right wing organization. The Democratic Senator found himself caught between a rock and a hard place: His support for Israel’s existence and right to defend itself grates on the ears of his base in the radical left. But his sympathy for the Palestinians, calls for “even-handed” U.S. policy in the Middle East and push for reviewing American aid to Israel would inflame his AIPAC listeners and anger the American Jewish establishment. Weighing his options, Sanders preferred to stay in Arizona.
Trump also advocates a “neutral” position between Israel and Palestinians, at least in the efforts to achieve peace. In an interview with ABC on Sunday, he didn’t repeat the problematic word but stuck to his guns concerning the importance of achieving peace. In normal times, Trump’s emphasis on a diplomatic solution which many AIPAC supporters either oppose or at least dismiss would have embroiled him in controversy. His refusal to endorse a united Jerusalem would have further enraged his critics. And his comments to the Republican Jewish Coalition about Jews being good negotiators and preferring candidates who are bought and paid for would have poured jet fuel on the fire. But these are not normal times.
Trump disturbs AIPAC members not because of his attitudes to Jews or Israelis but because of his attacks on other minorities, including Mexicans and Muslims. And the anxiety that his candidacy arouses isn’t linked to his positions on the Middle East, no matter how far they deviate from the pro-Israeli Republican norm. It is his harsh and vulgar personal diatribes, his perceived racism and misogyny, his ethnic stereotyping and what is seen as his frequent incitement to violence that have made Trump so toxic, even for right-leaning group like AIPAC and even in a year in which many were possibly primed to defect to the Republican side.
The brouhaha that envelops Trump wherever he goes has turned the AIPAC Conference into the Trump Conference. It has eclipsed any serious discussion of one of the most turbulent years in the organization’s history, following its open confrontation with the Obama administration and its failure to block the nuclear deal with Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech, which is usually a centerpiece of any AIPAC Conference, whether delivered in person or via satellite, has been relegated to the sidelines as well.
Perhaps Obama will be the main beneficiary of the Trump festival; not only will he be making historic headlines in Cuba, but in the shadow of a potential Trump presidency, Obama’s perceived misdeeds may no longer be viewed so severely. Many AIPAC members think Obama was a bad president, but Trump presents the possibility that things could be much worse, if not for their beloved Israel then for their own America.