The performances by four of the five remaining presidential candidates at AIPAC’s policy conference made this a perfectly unsettling week in Washington.
The setting was a sports arena with 18,000 spectators. The candidates appearing on a stage in centre court were shown on huge overhead screens. One by one they were trotted out to perform. And perform, they did, delivering remarkably similar addresses.
They all: professed their love of Israel and “Bibi”; want to arm Israel to the teeth; don’t trust Palestinians; hate the UN; will oppose any effort to sanction Israel-by the UN, EU, or even US student groups; and promise to be better for Israel than President Obama. The policy prescriptions they offered were both dangerous and disconnected from reality.
No one spoke of the hardships endured by Palestinians under occupation-in fact, the word “occupation” was never uttered. John Kasich charged Palestinians with fostering a “culture of death”, while Ted Cruz resurrected the old canard accusing Arabs of wanting to “drive Israel into the sea”.
All of the Republicans pledged to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem “the eternal capital of the Jewish people” (that was Donald Trump’s expression). Cruz said he would begin the effort to move the embassy to “the once and eternal capital” on his “very first day in office”. For her part, Clinton, skipped the embassy move, but said that “one of the very first things” she would do as President would be to invite Netanyahu to the White House.
The unreality of this pander-fest was best captured by Trump’s performance. He had earlier, on many occasions, incurred the wrath of the pro-Israel Jewish community by: suggesting that they wouldn’t support him “because I don’t want your money”; saying that he would be a “neutral negotiator” between Israel and the Palestinians; hesitating on the issue of moving the embassy; and scoffing at the idea of “tearing up the Iran deal”.
At the AIPAC show, Trump read a speech that began “I didn’t come here to pander about Israel”. It was his first lie of the night. As he continued, he contradicted every one of his earlier positions, denouncing the Palestinians, President Obama, and Iran. He closed by saying “I love Israel. I love Israel”, then adding that his daughter was about to deliver “a beautiful Jewish baby”. As the crowds cheered, the affair appeared bizarre because here was Trump contradicting everything he had previously said and no one seemed to care. All that mattered was that he was pandering, and they loved it.
At the end of the conference, AIPAC’s “delegates” left for home reassured: that Israel’s hardline government could do no wrong; that Israel would continue to be defended against all pressures to change its policy toward the Palestinians; and that every politician could be forced to bend before their pressure and made to say exactly what they want to hear (even if the politician didn’t mean it). Sad, in a way, but also delusional and dangerous.
What the crowd missed was the opportunity to hear from the one presidential candidate would have given them a bit of a reality check. Bernie Sanders, the only candidate for president who is Jewish could not make it to the conference and asked if he could deliver his speech via satellite. His request was refused although AIPAC had done this for two Republican candidates during the last election.
Sanders’ speech in Utah was a remarkably balanced statement that began with the pledge that “if elected president, I will work tirelessly to advance the cause of peace as a partner and as a friend of Israel. But to be successful, we have also got to be a friend not only to Israel but to the Palestinian people”. He went on to say that “Palestinians can’t be ignored. You can’t have good policy...if you ignore one side”.
Sanders criticised Israel’s exploitation of Palestinian water resources, expropriation of their land, settlements, and use of disproportionate violence. He decried the blockade of Gaza, its high unemployment rate, and the lack of progress in reconstruction.
Sanders didn’t let the Palestinians off the hook. He denounced Hamas’ use of rockets and diversion of funds for military purposes. His speech was sober and smart. It would have been a healthy antidote to the Kool Aid the AIPAC crowd were given to drink while in DC.