Over 10,000 activists from across the country poured into the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Prince George’s County on February 22-25, 2017, for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The conference, which is sponsored by the American Conservative Union (ACU), is held at the site annually. CPAC, established in 1973, is the premier gathering of the conservative political movement. This year’s conference had all of the notable names in conservative politics in attendance, such as Senator Ted Cruz, Ambassador John Bolton, Vice-President Pence, and even President Trump. It marked the first time a sitting president addressed the conference in his first year in office since Ronald Reagan spoke to CPAC in 1981. Trump, who electrified the crowd with his campaign-style messaging, announced that he plans to make history and attend CPAC every year of his presidency. Indeed, Trump is in his element when he can fire up his base around a common cause such as the “fake media.”
With my Where What When media pass, I was granted access to the media filing center in the back of the Potomac Ballroom, where I watched the speeches and panel discussions alongside the more established journalists.
Republicans Are Forewarned
As I listened to the speeches from Governor Scott Walker, former Senator Jim DeMint, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and others, on Thursday of the conference, the overarching theme of CPAC 2017 became clear to me. Each speaker who came onto the stage made the same appeal to Republicans in charge, which essentially went as follows: Republicans, we are now in control of the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives for the first time in years. Winning on November 8th was not enough. We must now deliver for the American people. Don’t squander this unprecedented opportunity, because you many never have this opportunity again. Now is the time to fully implement conservative political principles. In the view of Senator Cruz, such conservative political principles consist of repealing Obamacare, confirming strong conservatives to the Supreme Court, pursuing fundamental tax reform, and defunding the United Nations until they rescind their anti-Israel resolution 2334. If the Republicans fail to implement these principles, he said, they can expect to be held accountable by the electorate the next time they face the voters, in 2018.
Israel Front-and-Center at CPAC
Regardless of whether or not Republicans in office heed this warning from the leaders and grassroots activists within the GOP, I was nonetheless particularly intrigued and inspired by how frequently the CPAC speakers cited support for Israel as a cornerstone conservative belief. Perhaps one of the more riveting lines from CPAC came from Vice-President Mike Pence. The Vice-President inextricably linked Israel as a central component of the conservative political movement, when he passionately proclaimed during his speech, “I’m proud to stand with the President, who stands with our most important ally, the Jewish State of Israel. Israel’s fight is our fight. Her cause is our cause. Her values are our values.” Pence received a standing ovation from the CPAC attendees after delivering these remarks. Clearly, a strong U.S.-Israel relationship is a critical desire of the activists who attended CPAC.
In demonstrating their commitment to the pro-Israel cause, organizers of CPAC went a step further and designated two speaking slots strictly for Israel-related issues. Sander Gerber, Fellow at the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs, spoke about how “the United States must stop funding Palestinian Authority pensions for terror,” and other pro-Israel advocates participated in a panel discussion on how to combat the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement.
Gerber’s speech noted that the United States provides the Palestinian Authority $400 million in foreign aid, which he said enables the Palestinian Authority’s financing of terrorism. “The [PA] laws provide that the more people you kill the higher your monthly salary,” Gerber told the audience. In fact, according to Gerber, $315 million of the Palestinian Authority budget in 2016 was earmarked to paying 36,000 people in monthly payments precisely because these individuals participated in terrorism against innocent Israelis. Gerber urged the attendees to support the Taylor Force Act named after the West Point graduate who was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist while visiting Israel. The Taylor Force Act, which has been introduced into the Senate by Senator Lindsey Graham, would bar U.S. foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority until they cease financing terrorism.
Bolton Speaks to the WWW
Outside the ballroom, media booths had been set up representing the major outlets in the conservative media. Many of the speakers mingled with the activists in front of the media booths and granted requests for interviews. While the WWW did not have an assigned media booth, I had arranged to interview Ambassador John Bolton after his speech to CPAC on Friday afternoon of the conference.
Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN during the Bush administration, is one of the most pro-Israel personalities in the political arena today. Clearly disappointed that he did not get selected by President Trump to be his secretary of state or national security adviser, Bolton made it clear in a press release that he will continue to be the self-described “conservative thought-leader on national security, and an advocate for strong common-sense foreign policies” as well as maintain an active role in the conservative political world. His PAC has raised $6.4 million to support more than 180 GOP candidates.
After concluding his remarks to the attendees in the ballroom, Bolton made his way towards the end of the media booths to sit down for our interview.
Since Bolton is a former Baltimorean, who grew up in the Yale Heights neighborhood of Baltimore, I immediately informed the Ambassador that I had something in common with him, both of us being from Baltimore. He reminded me that he knows Reisterstown Road quite well, because he went to McDonough for high school. We then delved into more pressing matters, such as the current state of U.S.-Israel relations and Iran.
Bibi Meets Trump in the White House
I wanted to know what the Ambassador thought of the first Trump-Netanyahu meeting since Trump became president. “Well, I think their first meeting went very well. They obviously had a large agenda to cover after eight years of really the worst state-to-state relations in the history of modern Israel,” Bolton told me.
Most of the meeting consisted of repairing the damage caused by the Obama administration to U.S.-Israel relations, although the Ambassador reiterated that the fundamental ties between the peoples never changed during the Obama administration. “A lot of it, I think, was just getting back on the keel that we should have been on for a long time,” explained Bolton. Because threats to the region have grown considerably since the start of the Obama administration – with the Iranian nuclear threat, the Palestinian question, Syria, Iraq, and the collapse of state structures in North Africa - Bolton believes that the Netanyahu and Trump teams only scratched the surface. However, Bolton indicated that he heard from both the U.S. and Israeli sides that the discussions were very productive and cordial and off to a very promising beginning.
What Is This Larger Peace Deal?
President Trump stated during the press conference on February 15 with Prime Minister Netanyahu that he was interested in pursuing a “larger peace deal” in the region. I asked the Ambassador, what did the President have in mind, and how is it any different than what has been attempted by previous presidents?
Bolton referred to the proposed larger deal as an “outside-in deal.” An “outside-in deal” means that instead of focusing solely on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, which has not been successful, Israel could reach out to the larger Muslim world for recognition. The hope would be that acceptance of Israel by the larger Muslim world could bring stability to the region and possibly facilitate peace even between Israelis and the Palestinians.
This concept originated out of new ties between Israel and the Gulf States. “The contact between Israel and the Saudis and the other Gulf Arabs are much more extensive than people know,” stated Bolton. Since the Iranian nuclear threat has also endangered the security of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, the proponents of the larger peace deal believe that these countries now have a better understanding of Israel’s security needs. In Bolton’s view, the larger peace deal is “worth pursuing” because of “the potential upsides to the region.” Bolton cautioned, however, that formal political recognition by the Muslim world of Israel is a difficult task and should not be overstated.
Moving the Embassy to Jerusalem
During the 2016 campaign and even after he was elected, President Trump was adamant that he planned to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Presidents Clinton and Bush made similar pledges during their campaigns only to renege on their promises once they won the presidency. However, senior advisor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, announced in December 2016, after the November election, that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is a “very big priority” for Trump, which certainly made people think that perhaps Trump was really serious about moving the embassy. However, once he became president on January 20, President Trump said he was now assessing whether to move the embassy to Jerusalem.
“Why the change in tone,” I asked Bolton. According to Ambassador Bolton, the State Department has been beside themselves for a long time over the prospect of moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Apparently, the State Department intervened only to “slow down the process” as opposed to preventing Trump altogether from moving the embassy. Bolton does not envision the situation now as being like the ones that occurred in the past, in which previous presidents promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem only as a campaign promise in order to sway pro-Israel voters.
“The reality is that Trump is different from most American politicians,” Bolton said, citing the President’s commitment to fulfilling campaign promises as he has attempted to do in the last month. The Ambassador also emphasized that President Trump understands how important moving the embassy to Jerusalem is for the pro-Israel community. So, if that is the case, when will Trump move the embassy to Jerusalem? Bolton did not offer a specific timetable for when the move would take place but maintained that it is still “on track.” Once David Friedman is confirmed U.S. ambassador to Israel, Bolton predicted that discussions on moving the embassy to Jerusalem would accelerate.
The Iranian Nuclear Threat
Following our discussion on U.S.-Israel relations, peace deals, and the moving of the embassy, I turned our conversation toward Iran. Ambassador Bolton recently made news when he stated that preventing the Iranian nuclear threat through economic pressure is nearly out of the question. I was curious as to when the Ambassador believes Iran will acquire a nuclear weapon.
“Iran has had the capability to get one or two or three nuclear weapons for years. But they are not in the rush to have one, two, or three. By the time they announce they have nuclear weapons, they will have dozens, advised Bolton, “because their purpose is to make themselves immune from external pressure and to demonstrate that they are a nuclear power around the world.” The Ambassador is worried that Tehran may now be collaborating with North Korea on enhancing its nuclear weapons program, which he said is a “scary thought,” because it would essentially mean that Iran’s nuclear program is beyond elimination, according to the Ambassador. He urged the intelligence community to determine whether Iran and North Korea are in cahoots.
He also firmly believes that Iran is flagrantly violating the 2015 Obama Iran deal from inside Iran, which is largely why Bolton believes economic pressure is off the table. However, while sanctions may no longer be effective, Bolton noted that Israel has previously launched military strikes against nuclear weapons programs twice in its history. No one prefers a military solution to the Iranian nuclear threat, but “if the choice is between the aftereffect to an Israeli strike to Iran’s nuclear program compared to a world where Iran has deliverable nuclear weapons, I think the choice is pretty clear,” opined the Ambassador.
By the time the interview with Ambassador Bolton had concluded, it was late in the afternoon and getting close to Shabbos. (For some reason, my interviews for the WWW seem to coincide with erev Shabbos.) In any event, I departed the venue and made my way to the hotel across the street, where I spent Shabbos with radio host Michael Medved and hundreds of fellow Jewish conservatives, including one college student from Deluth, Minnesota, who traveled 18 hours in a ten-seater van to attend the conference. (Thank you to the Young Jewish Conservatives for organizing the Shabbos programming at CPAC.)
While the future remains uncertain, at the very least, Israel can expect a much warmer relationship with the Trump administration.
Brad E. Kauffman is a lawyer in Towson, pro-Israel activist, freelance and op-ed writer. He can be reached for comment via Twitter @kauffman126.