With a palpable sense of excitement over the rekindled relationship between Israel and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue now that a friend of Israel presides in the Oval Office, the 2018 AIPAC convention took place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., on Sunday through Tuesday of this week. As usual, the annual convention featured a full roster of speakers from both parties. This year, though, there was added hope in the air due to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the recent announcement that the U.S. Embassy will open in Jerusalem when Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary as a nation in May.
Vice President Mike Pence, who has strong pro-life convictions, began his keynote address on Monday night with a humorous slip of the tongue, “President Trump is the most pro-life … pro-Israel president,” he declared, to laughs from the crowd.
In what was likely a dig at J Street – a supposed pro-Israel lobbying group which actually advocates many anti-Israel policies – Pence noted that AIPAC is the most “influential” Israel lobby in Washington.
“Thanks to the president’s leadership, the alliance between America and Israel has never been stronger. The friendship between our peoples has never been deeper. And I stand before you today on his behalf to convey a simple message: America stands with Israel, today, tomorrow, and always,” declared Mr. Pence to rousing applause.
As is common when politicians speak to the pro-Israel conference, Pence sought to gently inform the audience that Israel will be asked in the coming months to make hard sacrifices for peace. “As we gather here, our team – Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and our great ambassador [David Friedman] – are hard at work crafting our administration’s vision for peace,” the vice president said. “And while any peace will undoubtedly require compromise, know this: The United States of America will never compromise the safety and security of the Jewish State of Israel.” Furthermore, when Pence mentioned the “two-state solution” which has become American policy over the past two administrations, he shrewdly added a caveat, “if both sides agree, the United States of America will support a two-state solution.”
Mr. Pence also acknowledged the efforts of Ambassador David Friedman, of the Five Towns, and stated, “The United States of America was proud to be the first nation in the world to recognize the State of Israel in 1948. And just as Harry Truman made history, President Trump will make history again, when, thanks to the strong efforts of Ambassador Friedman, in May of this year we will open the American Embassy in Jerusalem.”
Perhaps the biggest ovation at the convention took place on Monday night when U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who has quickly become perhaps Israel’s greatest advocate throughout the world, ascended the podium. She regaled the audience with her story of growing up in a Southern town and being the child of Indian immigrants and how there were times that she was bullied. This experience led her to starting an anti-bullying program when she was the governor of South Carolina. “It turns out bullying is a common practice in the United Nations,” she noted. “In the real world, Israel is a strong country with a vibrant economy and a first-class military. On the battlefield, Israel does not get bullied. The Iranians and Syrians can vouch for that,” she said to raucous applause. “But the UN is a different story. At the UN and throughout the UN agencies, Israel does get bullied. It gets bullied because the countries that don’t like Israel are used to being able to get away with it. Well, just like when I was that little girl in South Carolina, that just doesn’t sit well with me.”
Ambassador Haley also addressed President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and touched on a finer point which is often missed when addressing that topic. “There’s one more principle I knew before I arrived at the UN. Like most Americans, I knew what the capital of Israel was. To be more clear, I knew that Jerusalem was, is, and will always be the capital of Israel. This is not something that was created by the location of an embassy. This is not something that was created by an American decision. America did not make Jerusalem Israel’s capital,” she reiterated. “What President Trump did, to his great credit, was recognize a reality that American presidents had denied for too long. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel – that’s a fact – and President Trump had the courage to recognize that fact when others would not.” Haley added that she hopes to be present “on the day when we open our brand-new American embassy in Jerusalem.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the convention on Tuesday morning.
Despite his party’s popularity in Israel, the prime minister is in the fight for his political life back at home and very well may have been addressing AIPAC for the last time as Israel’s prime minister.
Netanyahu began his speech by once again acknowledging President Trump’s courageous acknowledgment of Jerusalem as capital of Israel. “It’s always good to be here, but as I told President Trump yesterday, it’s especially great to be in America’s capital now that he has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Thank you, President Trump, for that historic decision,” he declared, referencing his meeting with Trump the day before.
Netanyahu, comfortable on stage and with his audience, spoke about the “good, the bad, and the beautiful” when it comes to the State of Israel – the good, referring to Israel’s great strides and advancements; the bad when talking about its enemies, particularly Iran; and the beautiful, the strong, eternal alliance between Israel and the United States.
He touted Israel’s strength, intelligence capabilities, freedom, and economy.
“You know, these companies – Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook – guess what? They all have research centers in Israel!” he declared. He quipped, “This is a terrible sentence, but it’s the confluence of big data, connectivity, and artificial intelligence.” He also spoke about Israel’s innovative irrigation technology. “See that drone in the sky? Connected to a big database there are sensors in the field, in the field drip irrigation, fertilization, and now we can target with this tech the water we give, the fertilizer we give, down to the individual plant that needs it. That’s precision agriculture, that’s Israeli!” Never had an audience at AIPAC been so riveted by drip irrigation.
Netanyahu also boasted about Israel’s role in cyber-security. “We’re one tenth of one percent [of the world’s population] and we get a whopping 20 percent of global private investment in cyber. We’re punching two hundred times above our weight. Not two times, not 10, but 200 times above our weight. That’s one heck of a punch. Very strong,” he stated, channeling his inner Trump, perhaps.
Despite the UN’s continued bias against Israel and a rise in the anti-Israel left, Netanyahu painted a different picture, of Israel gaining acceptance around the world. “We’re coloring the world blue. I’ve been to Africa three times in 18 months; I’ve been to South America, Latin America – can you imagine in the 70 years of the history of Israel, a prime minister of Israel never went south of Texas? I love Texas but yeah, I do.
“But we went to Argentina, we went to Columbia, to Mexico, and they say, come back, we want more. That is changing. All these countries are coming to us – India, China Mongolia, Kazakhstan, all of it, Azerbaijan, Muslim countries. [For the] first time I visited Australia, tremendous, far away, though. So we’re coloring the world blue. Remember when people talked about Israel’s isolation? Pretty soon the countries that don’t have relations with us, they’re going to be isolated.”
“There are those who talk about boycotting Israel, we’ll boycott them!” he added.
Netanyahu also sought to convey a sense of urgency regarding Iran. “The force behind so much of what is bad is this radical tyranny in Tehran. If I have a message for you today, it’s a very simple one: we must stop Iran.” Using a screen to show Iran’s activities in the region, Netanyahu noted that “darkness is descending on our region” as Iran builds an “aggressive empire, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, more to come.”
Bibi also addressed President Trump’s effort to restart the peace process. “We appreciate the effort of Trump’s superb team – Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, David Friedman – thank you all for your hard work for peace. But to get peace, President Abbas has to embrace peace and stop supporting terror. Raise your hands high if you agree with me that President Abbas should stop paying terrorists to murder Jews,” he told the audience of 18,000 people. “You know how much he pays? He pays about $350 million a year to terrorists and their families. Each year. That’s about a little less than 10% of the total Palestinian budget. That’s an incredible number! He pays Hakim Awad, the terrorist who murdered this beautiful family of Ehud and Ruth Fogel and their three children and a 3-month-old baby girl, he pays Hakim Awad this murderer. Over the lifetime of this killer he will be receiving $2. I have a message for President Abbas,” Netanyahu said, “stop paying terrorists!”
Although Prime Minister Netanyahu’s current political crisis was not addressed explicitly, he received the warm endorsement of several speakers. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), who was shot and almost killed by a Bernie Sanders supporter while he played baseball last summer, recalled receiving a phone call from Netanyahu after he was shot. “By day three I woke up. And my wife was there. My family was there. They started sharing some of the stories of the people that were praying all around the world. And one of the things that stood out, they said, ‘Prime Minister Netanyahu called for you.’ And I said, ‘Prime Minister Netanyahu called for me?’ I know he’s busy. There’s so many threats and problems that he’s dealing with. And they said, ‘He wants you to call him when you’re able to.’ So finally, about another day went by and the fog had kind of lifted and I said, ‘Okay, I’d love to talk to him.’ And so we arranged the call, and we spent just a wonderful conversation on the phone. And he shared with me some of his personal experiences.”
Scalise continued, “You all know his brother died in a shooting in his service to the military, but he also shared some other personal stories with me. And it was just such a warm expression of the kind of person he is. The fact that he called told me a number of things about him, but it also said something about our relationship. Why would he call a member of the United States Congress who had been shot when he’s the prime minister of Israel?
“You know why? Because our countries love each other. Our countries care about each other. This is a relationship that’s built on this kind of love and respect for what we do.”
Ambassador David Friedman also spoke on Tuesday morning. The Woodmere resident, who now resides in Israel, highlighted certain experiences and lessons he learned during the past year. Although he quipped that what he’s discovered can fill a book and not a speech, he attempted to share some thoughts with the AIPAC audience.
When the ambassador speaks to some American visitors, students or politicians he said that, at times, he hears the phrase that they are “pro-Israel and pro-peace.”
“Pro-Israel and pro-peace sounds like a completely reasonable position. My friends, it is not,” Friedman said. “Using that phrase plainly implies that there are people who are pro-Israel and anti-peace or even G-d forbid, pro-Israel and pro-war. Having served in the country of Israel now for almost a year, I can attest that such people, in anything but the smallest, most minute of numbers, simply do not exist. Pro-Israel and pro-peace is nothing more than a redundancy.”
He reiterated, “If you support Israel, then you must, by definition, support it living in peace with its neighbors. Peace is a core Israeli value, it is a core American value, it is the ultimate line of the priestly benediction that kohanim, of which I am one, bestow upon their congregations each and every day in the land of Israel. Yisa Hashem panav eilecha viyasem lecha shalom.”
Citing everyday Israelis who yearn for peace – parents sending their children to the army, families living near Gaza, hotel owners – Ambassador Friedman said strongly, “If there is no peace in the Middle East as we speak, and regrettably, there is not, I strongly suggest that we blame someone other than Israel for this predicament.”
Addressing his audience Friedman noted that the “ambassador” before his name is written with a capital “A.” “But all of you are ambassadors as well, perhaps just with a ‘lowercase a,’ if you will,” he said. Charging listeners with a mission, Ambassador Friedman exhorted, “As ambassadors, all of you share with me the responsibility for making the case for Israel.” He added, “When, as I know all of you will, you proclaim yourselves to be pro-Israel, please understand that those one and a half simple words without suffix and without apology, you are proclaiming yourselves pro-democracy, pro-religious freedom and perhaps most importantly, pro-American.”
Friedman mentioned his father as he concluded his address. “Hashem oz l’amo yitein, Hashem yevarech et amo bashalom, may G-d give strength unto his peace, may G-d bless his people with peace.
“My father of blessed memory, a pulpit rabbi for some 50 years, ended every one of his Shabbat morning services with this passage. I often wondered what King David meant. If he was asking for peace, why did he first have to ask for strength?
“My friends, in this day and age, we all know the answer,” Friedman concluded. “We all know what King David, the great warrior poet, meant by his request. We will have peace, but first we must be strong.”