In the largest pro-Israel gathering anywhere, The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), held its annual conference March 26-28 in Washington, DC. Founded 54 years ago AIPAC's mission is to strengthen the United States-Israel relationship. It is the biggest, most powerful group in the Israel Lobby led by Chief Executive Officer Howard Kohr and President Lillian Pinkus who are exceedingly influential in Washington's inner circles.
AIPAC possesses a highly professional set of lobbyists on the Hill who know how to get congressmen to vote their way. It is bipartisan in nature featuring Democrats Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi along with Republicans Mike Pence, and Nikki Haley. This year 18,000 people gathered, amongst them 4,000 students, to share their love for Israel and engage in two full days of conferences and breakout meetings on how to advocate for Israel when speaking with politicians and the media.
Last year was my first time attending this "happening" and I was astounded when every presidential candidate, excluding, ironically, the Jewish Bernie Sanders, came to speak at this pivotal forum. If that wasn't impressive enough in 2016 the cafeteria at the Marriott called "High Velocity", where the convention was held, was taken over by a kosher caterer who served brisket and beef to its Jewish constituents throughout the evening. This year was a bit different: Firstly, it was not an election year so much of the electricity and anticipation had dissipated; and more disappointingly, the cafeteria had a sign stating its food was not certified kosher.
However, compensating for these deficiencies was the joyfulness permeating AIPAC due to the Trump administration's undeniable alliance with Israel. While Donald Trump was a no-show he sent his emissary, Vice President Mike Pence to the Verizon Center, to ensure the crowd that Donald's bond with Israel was unshakeable. This was in stark contrast to the Obama administration where Joe Biden came last year to scold Israel for expanding its settlement activity in the harshest of terms.
In 2016, Biden exclaimed to the chagrin of many AIPAC participants, "to be frank, the Israeli government's steady process of expropriating land is eroding the possibility of a two-state solution." This year the paradigm had clearly shifted when Pence reiterated that Trump was seriously considering moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Pence reassured the audience, that unlike the prior administration, America would no longer tolerate Iran's effort to "destabilize the region and jeopardize Israel's security." In one of the most heartfelt moments of the convention, Pence spoke movingly and tearfully about his visit to the Dachau concentration camp accompanied by a Holocaust survivor who said to Pence, in a moment he will never forget, "and then the Americans came."
For all those who question Donald Trump's commitment to Israel if you attended AIPAC this year and saw David Friedman, ambassador to Israel, who supports settlement expansion, or Jason Greenblatt, the president's point man in the Middle East, who attended Yeshiva University, your fears would be vanquished instantaneously. Further evidence of this ideological change is the appointment of Nikki Haley, United States Ambassador to the United Nations. Haley recapitulated the sharp divergence between the Trump and Obama administration saying "there's a new sheriff in town," and "the days of Israel-bashing at the UN are over."
She went on to denounce the Obama administration for abstaining on UN resolution 2334-the anti-settlement resolution-and said, the "entire country felt a kick in the gut... Never did we not have the backs of our friends, and we don't have a greater friend than Israel." The crowd went wild for Haley giving her numerous standing ovations lasting for minutes at a time. Haley, who is of Indian descent, noted the vast similarities between Indians and Jews stating that both groups were aggressive, stubborn and didn't back down from a fight.
Another attendee, who recently had to back down from his health care fight, House Speaker Paul Ryan, similarly spoke of the strained relationship between Israel and the United States during Obama's tenure and reassured the audience there would be a new day under President Trump.
Saying he was encouraged to see so many young people in the crowd, Ryan told the AIPAC Confab that, “You are the next generation of leaders and I can’t thank you enough for getting involved.” Ryan recalled that his first trip as House Speaker was to Israel, where he “saw the difference that our support for Israel makes.”
The United States-Israel relationship “is not a one-way street. It is a strategic partnership rooted in shared interests,” he added. Ryan said that the actions of the former Obama administration “damaged this trust” between the countries. “But now it’s time to turn the page. We have a new president, and let me assure you right now: President Trump’s commitment to Israel is sacrosanct. Congress commitment to Israel is sacrosanct,” he stressed.
Regarding the Iran deal, Ryan said it has been “an unmitigated disaster”, noting that Iran has been provided with millions in sanctions relief and in resumed its ballistic missile deal and still has an eye on nuclear weapons. “We must tighten the screws on Iranian compliance and continue to impose non-nuclear sanctions,” he continued, noting that the Trump administration has already imposed new sanctions on Iran following its ballistic missile tests. “We can’t embrace this deal as a fait accompli,” said Ryan, noting that the deal allows Iran to develop centrifuges. As such, he continued, “all options can and must remain on the table.”
“We must fulfill our security commitment to Israel,” he said. “Despite all the turmoil and violence in the Middle East, Israel has been largely able to calm its borders and prevent terrorist attacks. Hats off to Israel.”
At the same time, Israel is still under the threat of rockets from Gaza and Lebanon, and Israel and the U.S. must continue to develop means to stop this threat, he stressed. “We cannot let down our guard, and that’s why I pledge to you: So long as I’m Speaker, we will meet our commitments to Israel. We are there and we will be there for Israel!” said Ryan.
For much of the audience, however, Nikki Haley’s remarks were the highlight of the two-day event.
No AIPAC conference would be complete without having Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu address the gathering. Speaking via satellite on Monday to the AIPAC attendees, Netanyahu hailed the Trump administration for a "warm meeting" last month, and reiterated what is needed from the Palestinians to resume the peace process.
"Israel is committed to working with Trump to advance peace with Palestinians," he vowed. He outlined that in order to do so, the Palestinians must "stop teaching children hate, must stop paying terrorists, and must stop denying the legitimacy and history of the Jewish people."
"The Palestinians must recognize a Jewish state," Netanyahu continued. He added that there is a common danger faced by Israel and its Arab neighbors, referring to the growing threat of nuclear war with Iran, and that it is an opportunity to "build bridges to a better future."
"Our policy has always been that we will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons," he said. Last month, the president and Netanyahu spoke to discuss strategic threats posed by Iran, the premier's office said. "The two leaders spoke at length about the dangers arising from the nuclear deal with Iran and Iranian aggression in the [Middle East] region and the need to work together to deal with those dangers," it said in a statement.
For me, the most spellbinding moment of the convention was the introduction of father-son team Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein who are violin makers in Tel Aviv and started a project called "Violins of Hope." While Avshalom noted that the violin is the instrument most closely associated with the Jewish people he recounted the tragic loss of numerous violins during the Holocaust and the unfortunate, yet common occurrence of the Nazis forcing Jews to play the violin while their friends and family were sent to the crematorium.
Amnon, who lost 400 family members in the Holocaust, decided to restore the violins that survived the Holocaust to concert-level condition in his Tel Aviv-based workshop. He said these violins were praying for those lost souls and giving them life. The audience, was then treated to violin virtuoso Hagai Shaham's playing of the "Hatikvah" on one of these restored violins. A feeling of pride and lugubriousness filled the audience-here we were standing 18,000 strong and yet, just seventy years ago we were nearly annihilated. At that moment, I felt an overwhelming gratitude towards AIPAC and the Trump administration for working hard to safeguard the security of the Jewish people so that "never again" is more than just an axiom.
By: Lieba Nesis