AIPAC opens conference with appeal to bipartisanship amid polarization

Ron Kampeas

WASHINGTON (JTA) – AIPAC launched its annual conference with an appeal to bipartisanship, but Israel’s Ambassador Ron Dermer made clear his government’s preference for the Trump administration over its predecessor.

AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus cast the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in her opening remarks, as an island of bipartisanship in an increasingly polarized political climate.

“Our nation is embroiled in difficult debates touching on who we are, what we believe, and what values we prioritize,” Pinkus said. “Americans across the country are retreating into ideological corners.”

Dermer, speaking at the same opening plenary, said that for the first time in years there was “no daylight” between Israel and the United States, and commended the Trump administration for “finally” bringing moral clarity to the United Nations.

Pinkus decried those who highlight political divisions to “score political points.”

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“Support for Israel is not immune,” she said. “Elements on each side of the aisle are trying to fracture our movement.”

AIPAC has over the last year come under pressure from both the left and the right. Right-wing Republicans say divisions between Israel and the United States under the Obama administration were so profound and have so infected Democrats that Israel’s best path forward now is in an alliance with Republicans.

Liberal pro-Israel groups say President Donald Trump’s policies, particularly his animus toward Muslims and other minorities, and his retreat from endorsing a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict necessitate attaching the pro-Israel movement to resistance to Trump.

Pinkus’s message was an old one for AIPAC but freshly relevant to the climate: The best way to preserve the U.S.-Israel relationship is to work with both parties.

“We will not allow, frankly cannot allow, support for Israel to fall victim to the same divisiveness that overwhelms” other issues, she said. “We will work harder than ever before to hold the ideological center.”

Dermer also ostensibly pitched bipartisanship, but made it clear his government was relieved at the departure of President Barack Obama and his team.

“Perhaps for the first time in many decades there is no daylight between our two governments,” he said. Dermer may have misspoke, however; the embassy tweeted out the quote as “many years.”

Dermer listed among areas of comity a joint rejection of the Iran nuclear deal reached by Obama, although it is not clear that Trump favors scrapping the deal.

He also twice praised the Trump administration and its U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley, for “finally” bringing moral clarity to the United Nations. Throughout President Barack Obama’s eight years, the United Nations was an arena where both nations worked closely; that was marred, however, in December when as one of its last acts the Obama administration allowed though an anti-settlements resolution.

Dermer praised several Republicans slated to speak at the conference, but only one Democrat: Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., one of only two Democrats to vote last week to confirm David Friedman as ambassador to Israel. Friedman was seen by Democrats as a divisive choice by Trump. A longtime lawyer to the president, he is heavily invested philanthropically in the settlement movement, and he has heaped abusive language on liberal Jews, something he apologized for during confirmation hearings.

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