By Simon Johnson, Chief Executive of the Jewish Leadership Council
IN this past week, I went to AIPAC, the world’s largest pro-Israel conference, held annually in Washington, along with the Jewish Leadership Council’s North-West regional manager, Marc Levy.
It is the fourth time I have attended, this time, as a guest of AIPAC — I was to participate in a panel session on the UK Israel relationship, alongside Sir Eric Pickles.
Around 18,000 delegates packed the conference. The passion, the commitment, the vocalisation of support that is exhibited is like nothing that we have experienced in London.
We got a sense of the world view of the delegates from a conversation that Marc had with one of the delegates on the first day.
This particular American told Marc that he thought that AIPAC was not right-wing enough. He had no time for most politicians, apart from “God fearing politicians like Donald Trump and Mike Pence”.
That gave us an interesting sense of the opinions of at least some delegates. We were confirmed in that view by the lukewarm reaction given to Israeli Labour leader Avi Gubbay, as opposed to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
I always find it interesting to observe the overall themes of the conference. Jerusalem and America’s announcement of the move of their embassy to Jerusalem was a big crowd pleaser.
Every time a speaker thanked Donald Trump for recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, they got a standing ovation.
America’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, received a rapturous welcome, befitting more a rock star than a politician. She engaged in half-an-hour of raucously-received UN-bashing.
When she said that, unlike the UN but like most Americans, she “knew what the capital of Israel is”, I thought the roof was going to come off. The president of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales, was wheeled out to the type of reception he can only dream of in Guatemala City. He announced that they, too, would move their embassy to Jerusalem, earning a standing ovation.
So he seized the opportunity, as only the best politicians can, for the AIPAC crowd to visit and invest in Guatemala.
Vice-president Pence dedicated 10 minutes of a largely uninspiring speech to the fact that America is moving its embassy to Jerusalem. His standing ovations seemed to be delivered more out of duty than affection.
The threat from Iran was another major theme. One Congresswoman called it the most pressing foreign policy issue for America. Many speakers promised that America would always keep Israel safe, as though it were a distant grandchild to be protected, with many highlighting the threat from Iran on Israel’s northern border as a concern.
The Iran nuclear deal was a perennial “bogeyman”, rolled out for politicians to criticise. The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, described the Iran deal as like putting a car into cruise control as it approached the edge of a cliff. It was a stretching analogy, but it was lapped up by the crowd.
Ms Haley could have read the telephone directory out to this crowd and would still have got a succession of standing ovations. She plays that crowd like a seasoned professional, with smiling, folksy and yet determined stories of how she has been kicking the UN in the backside over its bias against Israel.
She thinks Israel had been bullied in the UN and talked about standing up to bullies. She reserved special ire for UNESCO. Her biggest cheer was when she announced that America was pulling out of UNESCO for one too many motions delegitimising Israeli claims to the Old City and Western Wall.
She played it tough as well. Two weeks ago, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat had given her some advice, suggesting that she “shut up”. She had the crowd hanging from her every word, when she said: “Mr Erekat, I will always be respectful. But I will not shut up.”
Watch out for Nikki Haley. I said last year that she could well be a future Republican president, and this year only confirmed my view.