What if Trump asks to speak at AIPAC?
Next Sunday, thousands of pro-Israel activists are expected to make their way to DC to attend AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference. The theme of this year’s gathering, held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, is ‘Choose to Lead’ and will celebrate 70 years of friendship between the United States and Israel. Confirmed speakers include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Vice President Mike Pence, and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. This will be the second year in a row that both Pence and Haley will speak at the conference.
After a year in which the White House recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and began the process of relocating the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv, the AIPAC gathering will likely feature long and loud standing ovations for the Trump administration. The question on the minds of several observers is whether the President himself prefers to be the one delivering the applause lines?
“It’s not out of the question that Trump could decide in the last minute to show up at AIPAC and take personal credit for the Jerusalem decision,” Shalom Lipner, a nonresident senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, suggested.
Just this past Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Trump described how he resisted pressure to delay his promise to move the embassy to Jerusalem. “You know, every President campaigned on, ‘We’re going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.’ … and then they never pulled it off,” the President said during an off-the-cuff portion of his remarks. “And I now know why because when I put the word out that I may do it… I was hit by more countries and more pressure and more people calling, begging me, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.’ I said, ‘We have to do it. ‘It’s the right thing to do… We have to do it.’ And I did it.”
Trump’s CPAC speech also signaled a return of campaign trail Trump. According to a report by Axios, Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski met with the President and Chief of Staff John Kelly in the Oval Office on Wednesday. Lewandowski, the author of the ‘let-Trump-be-Trump’ doctrine, thinks Trump is at his best when he is unscripted. While Kelly is trying to get Trump to focus on governing and stick to prepared remarks, Trump has told confidants he wants to spend lots of time campaigning this year.
“He may or may not come. It just depends a lot on his schedule. It depends a lot on his mood. It depends a lot on what Mr. Mueller is doing that day with his investigation,” Dov Zakheim, former Under Secretary of Defense in President George W. Bush’s administration, told Jewish Insider. “I mean there are just too many variables. I think that the announcement that they’re going to move the Embassy in May, that alone is enough to get him a standing ovation.”
“It’s hard to see how an AIPAC crowd — despite the misgivings of some participants about the move’s packaging — could not applaud recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Lipner added. “It’s a perennial, core talking point of the pro-Israel community.”
In 2016, the morning after Trump addressed AIPAC for the first time, AIPAC leaders rebuked some of his partisan remarks against then President Obama. “Last evening, something occurred which has the potential to drive us apart, to divide us. We say, unequivocally, that we do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense against those that are levied against the President of the United States of America from our stage,” AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus declared.
“Given the tendency of Trump administration officials to deliberately play partisan politics, AIPAC leadership will doubtless be petrified that Trump could ignite some storm that gets push-back from the audience,” Lipner asserted. “This President doesn’t take kindly to criticism, and how he might respond to a ‘mutiny’ among Israel’s supporters is an open and ominous question.”
“In terms of how Democrats will react to that, it seems to me that that issue is almost closed,” Zakheim said. “Netanyahu, whatever he may say, has in practice aligned himself so closely with the Republicans that it’s no longer an issue, and the Democrats simply do not see Israel in terms that they support. Every time Netanyahu has made stakes more difficult to Democrats to support him, he closely aligns with Trump.”
“Recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is supported by most Democrats because it’s the truth and a reflection of reality,” explained former Congressman Robert Wexler, now President of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. “President Trump would gain bipartisan support if moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem was apart of a comprehensive US plan to implement a negotiated two state solution. Absent such an American commitment, Zionists seeking to preserve a Jewish majority and democratic Israel are suspicious of the President’s direction. That is the dynamic that AIPAC is faced with.”