AIPAC’s positioning problem

Friday, May 8th, 2009

AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, sure is sensitive about claims by some that it is tilted to the political right – a persistent image that could prove political awkward now that there’s a new administration in Washington that wants to move forward quickly on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

This week the group’s press department sent out an article by JTA’s Ron Kampeas with the headline “Sitting between Bibi and Obama, AIPAC criticized by left and right.”

The last thing advocacy groups do is give free advertising to their critics, yet that’s what AIPAC seems to be doing.  That suggests a critical new priority for the pro-Israel group:  portraying itself  as the centrist voice of the American Jewish community, under assault from extremes on both ends of the political spectrum.

It needs to do this to preserve its access and influence with the new administration, to bolster its position with a Democratic congressional majority that may be inclined to go along with the Mideast policies of a popular president and because of growing pressure from J Street, the new pro-Israel, pro-peace process lobby and political action committee, which has been getting a lot of press with its argument that American Jews support the kinds of policies most expect the Obama administration to initiate.

Will the AIPAC pivot play in Peoria, or at least inside the Beltway?

It depends to a great extent on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and how he responds to administration nudging on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

It depends on whether Netanyahu believes he can finesse administration pressure with a few rhetorical concessions and maybe a gesture or two without REALLY changing Israeli policy on things like settlements. It’s worked for prime ministers in the past, but early indications suggest this administration is not going to be so  tolerant.

It depends on whether the Obama administration’s early signals that it is serious about producing some quick breakthroughs on the Israeli-Palestinian front are followed up by determined action.

And it depends on how AIPAC positions itself if a clash does occur.  Will it try to work quietly with the administration to defend Israel’s positions but also to avoid a conflict that undercuts strong U.S.-Israel relations? Or will it quickly try to generate strong congressional opposition to administration plans, thereby adding to an atmosphere of confrontation?

That’s what Bibi has done in the past, and if it does it again it could put AIPAC in a very uncomfortable position.

Or will it try to serve as a mediator between two to prevent the confrontation so many believe is coming by supporting compromise on both sides?

The just-completed AIPAC policy conference suggested to me the group is extremely eager to avoid a clash between Jerusalem and Washington and between the pro-Israel community and the Obama administration – in part because it would undercut the group’s top priorities, including keeping the U.S. government focused on the Iran threat and protecting strong U.S.-Israel relations, in part because its leaders understand the need to adjust quickly to the dramatic change in the U.S. political landscape.

That may be Netanyahu’s goal,  as well, but it’s hard to know if that will trump his desire to keep his fragile, right-of-center coalition together.

What is clear: AIPAC is trying to position itself for what comes next by pitching itself as moderate, reasonable and representative of a centrist American Jewish community. Whether that transformation succeeds, though, will depend to a degree on forces AIPAC can’t control.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.