WASHINGTON — The American Israel Public Affairs Committee wants you to know it will not be silenced.
“When they try to silence us, we speak up, and when they tell us to sit down, we stand up, we stand up,” Howard Kohr, the Israel lobby’s CEO, said in his set-the-tone speech at the launch Sunday, March 24, of this year’s annual conference.
Mort Fridman, AIPAC’s president, picked up the theme that afternoon.
“None of us are willing to be silenced or intimidated,” he said.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who has had a long and close relationship with AIPAC, made it the center point of his raise-the-roof speech on Sunday evening.
“What weakens us is when, instead of engaging in legitimate debate about policies, someone questions the motives of his or her fellow citizens or tries to silence others through exclusion, disenfranchisement or fear,” the majority leader in the US House of Representatives said.
So 18,000 activists filling the capital’s streets and the halls of Congress will not be silenced. But what exactly are they saying?
The talk of “silencing” and intimidation seemed to be a response to an uprising on the left, emboldened by the controversy over Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.
Weeks before the conference, the House newcomer accused AIPAC of distorting the Israel debate — and Israel’s supporters of an “allegiance” to a foreign country — in ways that Republicans and a good chunk of the Democratic caucus felt to be anti-Semitic.
Omar’s name was never mentioned from the AIPAC stage, but the audience knew exactly who Hoyer had in mind when he also said, “When someone accuses American supporters of dual loyalty, I say ‘Accuse me.’”
At the urging of Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, the AIPAC audience on Sunday rose to its feet to thank President Donald Trump for recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan.
“I think that deserves a standing ovation,” Dermer said.
But even as Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were meeting Monday at the White House and Trump signed the proclamation recognizing the Golan as part of Israel, AIPAC’s legislative agenda lacked any reference to the issue.
Democrats are concerned that recognizing sovereignty over the Golan could encourage Israel to annex the West Bank.
Even AIPAC’s statement welcoming Trump’s Golan announcement carefully avoided the word “sovereignty,” and linked the need for Israeli control of the plateau captured in 1967 to Syria’s current status as a failed state rather than a longstanding claim.
“Given current political and security circumstances in Syria, we have said it was inconceivable to imagine Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights@realDonald,” AIPAC said.
“Trump’s statement marks a dramatic change in American policy, and we appreciate his leadership on this issue.”
Pending Republican legislation condemning anti-Semitism and the Boycott Israel movement may come from the heart, but it is also a convenient way to exploit a Democratic Party split between the party mainstream (who tended to denounce Omar) and its progressives (who defended Omar and also are leading opposition to anti-boycott bills on free-speech grounds).
Vice President Mike Pence told AIPAC delegates on Monday that the Democrats were “co-opted” by anti-Semites.
Dermer took to task several Democratic presidential candidates who want to re-enter the 2015 Iran deal that Trump left last year.
“There are leaders who are calling to return to that deal,” he said, which was “unacceptable.” Asked whether he believed support for Israel was bipartisan, Dermer said, “Yes, I do.”
The legislative package that the activists were to take to Congress on Tuesday includes a House resolution that condemns the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel sponsored by Reps. Jerry Nadler, D-NY, Lee Zeldin, R-NY, and Brad Schneider, D-Ill. All three are Jewish.
The nonbinding measure is a bid by Democrats to cut off bills preferred by Republicans (and backed by AIPAC) that would help states penalize boycotters, which some Democrats believe impinge on speech freedoms.
The resolution is an attempt to split the difference — denouncing BDS while not criminalizing it.
Although Republicans are signed on to the resolution, they also appear determined to press ahead with the separate, punitive anti-BDS bills.
Another bill Republicans reportedly are planning to advance would expand Education Department powers to investigate and possibly penalize campuses deemed as hostile to Jews.
The Nadler-Schneider-Zeldin bill resoundingly backs the two-state solution, which Republicans removed from their party platform in 2016 and from which Trump and Netanyahu have retreated.
AIPAC still formally backs the two-state solution, but the only mention it earned from the group’s officials in the main conference hall was when three of the organization’s top lobbyists briefed activists on the agenda.
The difficulties of resolving the differences between two-state advocates and opponents were made tangible after Monday’s sessions ended. Activists headed to multiple off-campus events: One, at the Renaissance Hotel across the street from the Convention Center, was for “Peace Builders,” attracting AIPAC activists who otherwise are involved in Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation.
The event had AIPAC’s official imprimatur and earned a visit from Kohr; support for two states was explicit and ubiquitous in remarks that organizers and guests delivered.
The speakers celebrated the revival of bipartisan legislation that would fund dialogue programs.
AIPAC is not backing the legislation, which sources say is reviled by a Trump administration that has cut all funding to the Palestinians.
A few blocks away, at the Bible Museum, founded by pro-Israel Christian evangelicals, delegates gathered for the Judea and Samaria reception organized by Israel’s settler movement.
Among those attending were top figures in Netanyahu’s Likud party.
A consensus remains on AIPAC’s bread-and-butter issue, funding for Israel’s defense. One ask was for lawmakers to support $3.8 billion in defense assistance next year.