It’s been a bit more than a month since the 2017 AIPAC Policy Conference, providing time for certain impressions to coalesce. This year, perhaps more than any other, it struck me that despite the general public’s impression that AIPAC skews towards the conservative side of the political spectrum, this is not true. And yet, this year, perhaps more than any other Policy Conference in my experience, the dichotomies between the issues that Israel faces and the overall liberal leanings of AIPAC’s members were brought into sharp relief. These dichotomies are evident in AIPAC’s positions, in the reactions of Policy Conference attendees, and track my own thoughts.
At the risk of burying the lede (spelled correctly – look it up), I start with this: I am an independent. In twelve Presidential elections since 1972, I have voted for five Democrats, five Republicans, and two independents (the last being a write-in in 2016). I voted for neither Jimmy Carter nor Ronald Reagan. I agree with Democrats on some issues and Republicans on others – and my wife and I support candidates of both parties within our means. This background is provided to establish a baseline and context for the reader; while I have my own biases like anyone else, I reject labels such as “conservative,” “liberal,” or “progressive,” as well as the rigid doctrinism displayed too often by those who apply such labels to themselves or to those with whom they disagree.
We are also extremely proud to be AIPAC Club members. Contrary to the view of some, I believe that AIPAC handled the debate over the Iran deal remarkably well, addressing the issues with fact and care, and always avoiding ad hominem rhetoric while always sticking to the issues themselves, creating an arena for debate that would never have occurred without AIPAC’s actions; that the debate was not successful does nothing to diminish my admiration for the determination and methodology displayed by AIPAC’s staff and membership. I agree 100% with AIPAC’s positions on the need for bipartisanship. I am proud that AIPAC does not rate or endorse candidates for office, but instead encourages its members, like us, to become involved ourselves and support candidates of our own choice. And, as ever, I remain incredibly impressed with the quality of AIPAC’s professional staff, from the most senior to the many remarkable, intelligent, and dedicated young people who find a calling in AIPAC’s work.
Various surveys indicate that about 70% of the Jewish vote in the 2016 Presidential election was for Hillary Clinton. That is slightly lower than the Jewish vote in favor of the Democratic Party candidate in the previous four elections (ranging from 74% to 79%), but still an overwhelming majority. It is also consistent with my observations of the 2016 Policy Conference when I saw veritable paroxysms of joy in the Verizon Center when still-candidate Hillary Clinton spoke, even as she felt compelled to add that settlements are an obstacle to peace.
Participating in and listening to conversations in the Verizon Center and at the Convention Center at the 2017 Policy Conference before and between sessions, and to the phrasing of questions asked to speakers and panels at breakout sessions, it appeared that the vast majority of attendees still held the views that drove such overwhelming numbers to vote Democratic. The anti-Trump sentiment was almost palpable.
And yet – the biggest cheers in the entire conference erupted whenever Republican, Trump-appointed, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s name was mentioned, and especially so when the Ambassador herself took the stage. Her forthright statements about and in the U.N., calling for the end to Israel-bashing and strongly criticizing U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, were a breath of fresh air – and a stark contrast to the positions of the Obama Administration that so many of the attendees voted for and supported.
The second biggest cheers that I observed were for then Wall Street Journal (and newly transferred New York Times) columnist, Bret Stephens, when he observed during a breakout session that the U.S. should cut all funding of UNRWA (to which the U.S. contributed over $380 Million in 2015 – nearly three times the amount of the next contributor, the E.U., according to UNRWA’s website), and that the U.S. should unilaterally recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Third biggest: when Alan Dershowitz told the plenary session that he had nearly ended his life-long affiliation with the Democratic Party over its slide towards anti-Israel policy, but of his determination to remain to try to arrest and change this movement from within. Oddly enough, it reminded me of the statement by former Democrat, Ronald Reagan, who is reported to have said: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left me.”
Hence, the schizophrenia. AIPAC leadership rightly harps on the need for Israel to not become a partisan issue. Unfortunately, the mainstream of the Democratic Party is moving away from Israel even as they court Jewish voters and donors. That there are many exceptions (New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez as one of several examples) does not change the fact that the trend within the Democratic Party leadership is not promising.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi even read a letter in the plenary session signed by 191 members of Congress (189 of whom are Democrats) that was reportedly written by very left-leaning J-Street. And, after all, the House vote approving the JCPOA was very much along party lines, with the Democratic leadership in the Senate refusing to even vote for cloture to allow a vote on the merits. The vast majority of those who voted against House Resolution 11, condemning the failure to veto U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, were Democrats – and it is the Democratic leadership in the Senate that has instituted a hold on the similar resolution in the Senate, again avoiding any vote on the merits of this pro-Israel measure.
The pro-Israel community wants and needs to work with Democrats, but the problem is how to do this when they do not or will not get the message? And that is my own dash of schizophrenia. I want to support both parties; I want bipartisan support for Israel in Congress and in the U.S. as a whole. That is beyond merely laudable; it is a necessity. But if a majority of Democrats cannot support our issues on what may well be the single most important vote on the U.S.-Israel relationship during their entire terms in Congress, how can we support them? If, despite AIPAC’s well-done advocacy and AIEF trips to Israel to enable leaders to see the issues for themselves, they cannot appreciate and act on the harm done by U.N. resolutions like Res. 2334 and E.U.-funded anti-Israel NGOs, how can we support them? If they continue to ignore the true root of the perpetuation of the Israel-Palestinian conflict – the refusal of the Palestinians to accept Israel as a Jewish state and the maintaining of hate-filled education so that yet another generation of Palestinian children is lost – and instead recite the tired and false narrative that “settlements are an obstacle to peace,” how can we support them?
I understand, truly, why AIPAC so rigorously controls the lobbying message. The need to stay on point is, indeed, likely one of the several reasons why AIPAC has enjoyed the success it has, notwithstanding the result of the JCPOA. But sometimes I wonder whether introducing a Democrat as “pro-Israel” who consistently votes against AIPAC’s lobbying positions really advances the pro-Israel cause. Too often, it comes across as sucking up, allowing the member who just disappointed AIPAC to believe that there are no consequences for those actions in terms of support from AIPAC members, and preventing the Senator or Representative from hearing about those disappointments from the activists who attend.
I wonder, too, about whether AIPAC’s assiduous refusal to address the single biggest friction point between Israel and the U.S., and indeed between Israel and the E.U., really advances the cause. That issue, of course, is settlements. As a firm believer in the need for a two-state solution, there is much that AIPAC could do, if it would, to change the tone of the dialog and advance the cause for an eventual peace. That is a topic, perhaps, for another blog post on another day – but the point for this blog post is that failure of AIPAC’s leadership to address the largest potential wedge in the U.S.-Israel relationship is a blind spot and another example of schizophrenia.
If this piece seems negative, please remember how it began. AIPAC continues to deliver more bang for the pro-Israel buck than any other organization. The 2017 Policy Conference was, as always, incredibly inspiring with many moving moments, and very well organized and well-run. The message – “Many Voices, One Mission” – was perfect and well-executed. But AIPAC nonetheless needs to address dual and occasionally conflicting nature of its mission and its membership.