OPINION: Nikki Haley at AIPAC 2017: “the days of Israel-bashing are over”

“There’s a new sheriff in town.”

Nikki Haley, one-time governor of South Carolina and now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, received standing ovation after standing ovation at the 2017 AIPAC policy conference. Every year, the pro-Israel lobby convenes an annual gathering of supporters, boasting an astonishing number of high profile policy makers from both major political parties. Fresh from studying abroad in Jerusalem, I came with an open mind. What I saw disturbed me.

Among others, attendees heard the impassioned speeches of Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, Chuck Schumer, Bob Mendez, Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog, the mayor of Jerusalem, and Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, among others. Benjamin Netanyahu skyped in. Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi shared the same floor. For a moment, support for the US-Israel special relationship transcended partisan rivalries. And as the Times of Israel opined, Nikki Haley was the superstar.

She gave off both the southern charm of a Carolina native and the aurora of Margaret Thatcher. She styled herself as a no-nonsense defender of common sense and bulwark against the ‘absurdity’ and ‘ridiculousness’ of the United Nations. A hypocritical and biased organization, she cast it as bent on undermining and delegitimizing the Jewish state. “I’m not there to play” she remarked.

The daughter of Sikh immigrants and a staunch conservative, she was the first governor to sign state-wide legislation to punish companies and universities that support the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement which seeks to end Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian land. BDS explicitly models itself after the divestment and boycott campaign against apartheid-era South Africa, but for AIPAC, the movement disguises anti-Semitism in the language of human rights. Almost every speaker mentioned the specter of BDS on college campuses, and many put the threat on par with a nuclear Iran and ISIS. As the former PM of Canada Stephen Harper remarked, BDS is the threat “we actually need to take the most serious.” Of course, no American university, government body, or corporation has yet to divest, sanction, or boycott Israel to my knowledge. It’s a debate that you might find at your student government or local food co-op, but hardly at the level of nuclear weapons or transnational terror.

Notably absent from any of the remarks, including Haley’s, was serious concern about Israel’s now 50-year military occupation of the Palestinian territories. Aside from Tibet, it is the longest occupation in the world. Nor did any major speaker express significant worry at Israel’s wealth inequality (the worst in the developed world) or the growing polarization and trend toward hard-right extremism. In my mind, these seem the more likely obstacles Israel faces in the near future. AIPAC now seems to unhesitatingly embrace the narrative of the Likud party. No other conclusion explains why the lobby invited radicals like Naftali Bennet, the Beit Yehudi head and Minister of Education, who openly boasts “I already killed lots of Arabs in my life, and there is absolutely no problem with that.” Why AIPAC, ostensibly committed to the two-state solution, invites a man who advocates for the execution of prisoners without trial and the annexation of Area C (read: Bantustans) under the auspices of true Israel advocacy, is quite telling. It is not the Israel I recognized abroad.

For her part, Nikki Haley committed her upmost to make sure “the days of Israel-bashing are over.” She expressed her outrage at the Iran nuclear deal, which she described as “beyond me” and “terrible.” The multilateral deal, which included the P5 of the Security Council plus Germany, offered sanctions relief in return for dismantling Iran’s nuclear weapons program. With past sanctions failing to stop Iran’s progress, and armed conflict off the table (or not?), it was unclear what Haley had in mind as the alternative. Most other speakers, including Paul Ryan, lambasted the ‘sunset provisions’ of the deal, which lift uranium enrichment and heavy water restrictions after 15 years. Does that mean they will still honor the agreement? Who knows.

She expressed her wholehearted indignation at UN Security Council resolution 2334, passed this past December under Obama’s administration. “Never do we not have the backs of our friends. We don’t have a greater friend than Israel. And to see that happen was not only embarrassing, it was hurtful.” The resolution condemned Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and calls on Israel to fully abide by its obligations as an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The U.S. abstained, allowing the resolution to pass. “Everyone at the United Nations is scared to talk to me about Resolution 2334. And I wanted them to know that, Look, that happened, but it will never happen again.”

Similar declarations met enthusiastic applause. She recalled how a “ridiculous report” written by “a guy with serious problems,” compared Israel to an apartheid state. Was she questioning Richard Falk’s cognitive ability? Taking credit for his resignation, she said “The first thing we do is we call the secretary general, and say, ‘This [report] is absolutely ridiculous. You have to pull it.’ The secretary general immediately pulled the report, and then the director has now resigned.” Enthusiastic applause followed. Debates rage between (and within) pro-Israel and pro-Palestine camps about the applicability of the analogy. What is for certain, however, is that many feel Israel has been unfairly targeted at UN. Haley has before mentioned that Israel is a permanent agenda item in the Human Rights Council, a group that fails to offer similar scrutiny to states like North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Libya. Haley’s delegation have boycotted Human Rights Council sessions, calling the body “corrupt,” and “ridiculous.”

Not all her pro-Israel gestures inspired admiration. In a different point in the interview she bragged, “So when they decided to try and put a Palestinian (the former PA prime minister Salam Fayyad) in one of the highest positions that had ever been given at the UN, we said no and we had him booted out.” Referring to his appointment to the UN mission in Libya, her decision to block Salam Fayyad, known for his moderate pragmatism and high regard in Israeli and American circles, met rebuke and criticism from her peers. “Stunningly dumb” wrote former US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro. “Fayyad is first rate. The UN would be lucky to have him in Libya or anywhere else.” said Susan Rice, former UN ambassador.

While it’s easy to think Haley’s emboldened criticisms of the UN are a fresh wind in an ossified and recalcitrant institution, US defense of Israel at the UN is in fact nothing new. As John Kerry noted in his remarks at the Saban forum last year, the US has often been the only nation in the world to stand by Israel, and under Obama’s administration, the US vetoed more than 10 Security Council resolutions about Israel. Haley’s predecessors Susan Rice and Samantha Power worked to chip away at the long-standing UN tradition to refuse the appointment of Israelis to leadership positions.

“Until the Palestinian Authority comes to the table, until the UN responds the way they’re supposed to, there are no freebies for the Palestinian Authority anymore.” What freebies? Roaring applause followed. Despite zero diplomatic experience and cheesy bromides, she knew how to whip up a crowd. The real question is whether these commitments bode well for Israel’s future and for a just peace for the Palestinians.

To take the words of an Israeli settler I met, AIPAC surely reduces the likelihood that Israel will gain “independence from America” any time soon. AIPAC seems intent on preserving that umbilical cord for the foreseeable future. And for the Palestinian leadership, Haley’s appointment certainly confirms where President Trump’s priorities lie. Under Nikki Haley’s ambassadorship, will Trump be able to negotiate the “ultimate deal”? Only time will tell. But probably not. Peace never was the reason for AIPAC anyway, was it?