If every Jew in America attended the AIPAC Policy Conference there would still be critics claiming it doesn’t represent the community, it has alienated one or more constituencies and it is on the verge of collapse. When the left was in power in Israel (for those old enough to remember), AIPAC was criticized by the Israeli right and, not surprisingly, the left has been angry with AIPAC since Netanyahu took office. Both right and left typically misunderstand the nature of the American Jewish community and the role of AIPAC. The latest example is the work of Chemi Shalev in Haaretz.
According to Shalev the AIPAC conference was meant to show “a strong, united and confident front – but under the veneer, apprehension abounds.” When roughly 18,000 people showed up in Washington, however, the multitude, as in past years, demonstrated that AIPAC continues to grow and get stronger, and that the Jewish community is as united behind strengthening the US-Israel relationship as it has ever been.
Like most critics of Israeli policy, Shalev is frustrated by the unwillingness of Israel’s US supporters to engage in self-flagellation over policies with which they disagree. What purpose would it serve to debate the “occupation,” settlements and the rest of the controversial issues? Americans are not going to resolve them; moreover, the aim of the lobby is to focus on the values and interests Americans and Israelis share. There is no shortage of arenas (such as Shalev’s newspaper) for discussing concerns about various policies and the sophisticated audience that attends AIPAC conferences doesn’t need to be lectured about Israel’s flaws.
Shalev repeats a familiar alt-fact about AIPAC being a right-wing shill for the Likud, forgetting the close relationship between the organization and the Democratic Party, which was especially strong during the Clinton presidency, and would have been equally robust had Hillary been victorious. Left-wing ideologues, being ideologues, like to interpret smart politics as malevolence. The perception of a right-wing tilt at AIPAC simply reflects the wisdom of working closely with the democratically elected leaders of the United States and Israel who shape the bilateral alliance.
As I’ve written before, if Israel elected a prime minister prepared to immediately evacuate the disputed territories with the backing of an American president, AIPAC’s policy would spin around like Linda Blair’s head in the Exorcist, and the lobby would be leading the cheers (as it did when Ariel Sharon decided to evacuate Gaza).
AIPAC did its best to curry favor with Obama, even electing one of his close Chicago friends as president in the hope of influencing his policies toward Israel. Alas, Obama had his own opinions about the region that could not be swayed by politics, history or reason, which resulted in his catastrophic Middle East policies. While many Jews may miss Obama’s domestic agenda, you won’t find many who object to Trump reversing his policies and animus toward Israel.
Shalev’s friends at J Street are in mourning. Of course, Obama didn’t listen to them either, but at least he gave them a place at the table because they shared his criticism of Israel. Shalev’s notion, however, that J Street is a “serious competitor” to AIPAC is laughable. With its paltry staff and budget, it represents only the far-left fringe of the Jewish community and now has less than the zero influence it had under Obama.
Shalev notes that the far-right is also unhappy with AIPAC. In Washington, when the extremists on both poles are angry, it usually means you are doing something right. In AIPAC’s case, it remains bipartisan and it is a mistake to equate taking a position on an issue – such as the calamitous Iran nuclear deal – with partisanship. The aggrieved party, in that case the Democrats, were peeved, but AIPAC was not lobbying against the Democrats; it was challenging an agreement that both Israel’s government and opposition believed was dangerous.
Polls do show Democrats are less supportive of Israel than Republicans, but a majority still is pro-Israel. More important, Democrats in Congress, where AIPAC lives, are overwhelmingly behind Israel. The Iran deal aside (which Obama made a litmus test of support for his presidency), Democrats in Congress continue to sponsor pro-Israel measures and vote for them. Support for Israel remains one of the few truly bipartisan issues in Congress and several new initiatives to impose new sanctions on Iran, to support Israeli missile defense and tunnel detection, and to fight the BDS campaign have been proposed by members who are otherwise engaged in bitter fights over the Trump agenda.
How can you explain this if not for the continuing influence of AIPAC?
When those 18,000 delegates to the convention marched into the offices of their representatives, members heard just how committed the pro-Israel community is to enhancing the U.S.-Israel alliance and the pursuit of peace. The lobbyists can also show members that their constituents benefit directly and indirectly from ties with Israel through jobs created by military contracts, exports to Israel, joint research and development, academic collaboration and high-tech Israeli innovations and medical discoveries.
These messages resonate as opposed to the rhetoric of anti-Israel groups that have no interest in peace and turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses of the Palestinians, Syrians, Saudis and Iranians. These groups can’t mobilize voters because the American public does not support their views.
J Street may have mastered self-promotion, but it still finds little support for its anti-democratic view that Israelis don’t know what’s best for themselves and that the United States should impose the views of the J Street fringe on Israel. The Arabists in government who believe Israel is the root of all problems in the Middle East and must be saved from itself may find the J Street case compelling, but only because it is consistent with their efforts to subvert the U.S.-Israel relationship for the last 70 years. Members of Congress, including Democrats, aren’t buying their counterproductive agenda; consequently, J Street’s conference attracts the handful of congressional critics of Israel, such as Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison, while hundreds of members historically make an appearance at AIPAC’s conference.
Shalev also misunderstands Jewish voters who support Democratic candidates for president primarily because of their domestic policies. The fact that most of AIPAC’s members voted for someone besides Donald Trump does not change their commitment to Israel. Jews did not vote for George W. Bush either, but they vigorously supported his policies toward Israel.
Many AIPAC members are undoubtedly appalled by some of Trump’s statements and policies, but those are their concerns as individuals, not as members of the pro-Israel lobby. The lobby is singularly focused on strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship and will support Trump’s efforts to achieve that goal. If he takes counterproductive positions or backtracks on commitments, such as moving the U.S. Embassy, AIPAC should criticize the president. AIPAC is always cautious about angering the person who is America’s chief foreign policy maker, however, so anti-Trumpers should not expect a hysterical response, but a modulated one aimed at avoiding alienating the president. This was AIPAC’s approach throughout the Obama administration despite the calls by many for a more full-throated condemnation of his policies. As my mentor during my days at AIPAC used to say, AIPAC is not a protest group.
It kills the Shalev, Haaretz, Thomas Friedman, Peter Beinart, J Street crowd that the most powerful foreign policy lobby in Washington represents the views of most Americans and not their coterie of self-appointed messiahs. AIPAC’s job is not to lobby for or against settlements, or for a particular “solution” to the dispute with the Palestinians, it is to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship. Despite tensions and disagreements over the years, the alliance is stronger than ever, in large part due to the effectiveness of AIPAC.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including the 2017 edition of Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Arab Lobby, and the novel, After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.