The list of high government officials who will speak at the AIPAC Policy Conference, which opens Saturday night in Washington, is long and impressive. It includes Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). The presence of these and other notables on the stage at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center reinforces AIPAC’s reputation as a major force in the political world, and the place to be to address the pro-Israel community.
But the cause of Israel’s security is not helped when politicians tell Jewish audiences what they want to hear at an AIPAC plenum, only to clarify or retract their declarations the next day. Yet, in keeping with AIPAC’s bipartisan balance, “morning after clarification” is a sin that both Republicans and Democrats have committed.
At the 2008 policy conference, for example, then-candidate Barack Obama called for moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, and declared that Jerusalem should be the undivided capital of Israel. The applause Mr. Obama received to those pronouncements was thunderous; but the criticism was swift. And the next day, Mr. Obama amended his view, saying that the final status of Jerusalem would be decided in negotiations.
In 2000, then-candidate George W. Bush pledged to the AIPAC conference that he would begin moving the embassy “as soon as I take office.” But like Mr. Obama, Mr. Bush’s administration found reasons not to follow through on something it probably was not going to do anyway.
We’ve noticed a clear trend. When at the AIPAC Policy Conference, politicians tend to be generous with the use of words like “always” and “never,” even when addressing elements of what they recognize to be a complex international situation. Indeed, many politicians who are normally quite careful with their public pronouncements seem to get caught up in the AIPAC moment, and read lines or freelance commentary that goes beyond what they would otherwise be comfortable saying.
To be sure, an audience of 13,000 or more pro-Israel activists, who are anxious to hear a pro-Israel message, is an inviting venue and an intoxicating opportunity for speakers who are unquestionably supportive of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. The thrill of endorsement and acceptance by the crowd is invigorating. But it often leads to pandering, or the making of statements designed to win over the crowd rather than reflect the speaker’s actual beliefs or positions. Overstatement is then followed by cleanup explanations and excuses the next day, which don’t do anyone any good.
We encourage those speaking at AIPAC’s Policy Conference to express their support of the American-Israeli relationship in the strongest terms. We encourage each speaker to say what he believes. But we ask the speakers to be honest and realistic in what they say. AIPAC’s delegates and the public will all be better served by honest, straightforward rhetoric. And we will all be able to respect the speakers the next morning.