AIPAC can’t distance itself from Trump any more than the GOP can

Considering the Israel lobby’s history of confrontation with Obama and the roars of approval its members gave Donald Trump for bashing him, AIPAC’s apology rings hollow, to put it mildly.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign event in Las Vegas. (Photo by Joseph Sohm /
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a campaign event in Las Vegas. (Photo by Joseph Sohm /

In a strange twist to the theater that is the annual AIPAC conference, Donald Trump’s attacks against President Obama during his speech on Monday brought the lobby’s president to tears.

Lillian Pinkus issued an emotional apology on Tuesday, the day after Trump celebrated onstage – with a “yay” – Obama’s looming departure from office. “There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night and for that we are deeply sorry,” she said.

This rings hollow, to put it mildly. AIPAC has made no secret of its disdain for Obama and his less-than-cuddly approach to Israel’s leadership. And Trump was met with standing ovations and roars of approval when he spoke at the lobby’s conference. AIPAC can’t distance itself from Trump any more than the GOP can.

Actually, Trump’s AIPAC speech was remarkable for how unremarkable it was. It had all the swagger of a typical AIPAC spectacle – garish praise for the U.S.-Israel alliance, doomsday warnings of the threats both countries face, and blame for the conflict squarely on the Palestinians. He stayed within AIPAC’s playbook – and he even used a teleprompter. The annual Israel love-fest is no time for improvisation.

Hillary Clinton’s performance was more startling for its jingoism and distortion of reality. To hear her speak, it would seem that tolerant Israeli Jews are cowering in their homes as bloodthirsty Palestinian masses roam the streets and American anti-Semites plot a BDS-fueled takeover. There is, of course, no human rights problem. There is no occupation.

I suppose this shouldn’t have been so surprising. Clinton’s tone isn’t new, and it’s been long established that AIPAC’s hold on American politics is so oppressive that when it comes to Israel, right-wing extremism is by no means the province of the GOP alone. But in a primary season that, thanks to her competitor, has moved Clinton significantly leftward, many progressive analysts hoped for something different. We’ve been told she is working on her fledgling appeal to progressives and young people – who are increasingly moving away from unflinching support for Israel, as evidenced by the vibrant protest by young Jews outside the conference.

She may not have gotten the memo. Or perhaps Israel continues to defy any progress in American politics.

The only presidential candidate who didn’t toe the AIPAC line was Bernie Sanders – the only Jew in the race. Sanders didn’t attend the conference, and its organizers refused to let him speak via satellite. The speech he would have given addressed Palestinian human rights, the ruin of the Gaza Strip, and the role of settlement policy in thwarting peace. By ordinary standards, it was not a radical speech. By AIPAC standards, it was beyond the pale.

Despite Trump’s bluster onstage, it’s worth remembering his pre-speech comments, and the ire they raised, on the need for neutrality in negotiations and for Israel to repay military aid. That does nothing to soften the frothing racism he won’t let us forget, but it matters that two prominent candidates, both from outside the establishment, have recently defied AIPAC orthodoxy.

Those wielding political power are out of touch with the rest of the country. AIPAC’s apology is of the same cloth as GOP leaders’ shock over the rise of Trump. Perhaps the lobby is losing control over its minions.