“Kings of Capitol Hill” is an interesting, critical and pretty negative documentary about AIPAC, the influential American pro-Israel lobby. It’s being aired during the 2020 Docaviv International Film Festival.
AIPAC is a strong lobby. How strong? It’s measurable – check the success rates of legislation it backs in Congress. And add to that the myth/conspiracy theories – all kinds of interest groups having nothing to do with Israel have approached the organization to enlist assistance with their own agendas (surely, they believe, there’s nothing that AIPAC can’t accomplish in Washington). Full disclosure – I worked in the Jerusalem office for over a decade until several years ago.
In general, people dislike lobbies (unless they’re their own). But lobbies, private individuals or groups that attempt to influence government decisions, are part of the system. One might think that it should be enough to be worthy on one’s own merits without additional lobbying assistance – but even great actors have agents. At least for the time being, that’s the way it works. Successful lobbies are resented most of all. Add to this the element of being a “Jewish” lobby, offering an additional target to both predominantly young American Jews in the process of working out their relationship with the Tribe (see Seth Rogen) and anti-Semites (of course, just being anti-AIPAC doesn’t make one an anti-Semite), who love the “powerful Jewish” hashtag to push their own agendas.
A common criticism is that AIPAC doesn’t represent American Jewry vis a vis Israel. And this is absolutely correct. Though many American Jews back the organization, AIPAC does not contend to be an American Jewish organization, but rather an American pro-Israel lobby, inviting any and all Americans with a pro-Israel predisposition to join their ranks. American Jews who disagree with AIPAC have a number of other relevant organizations they can back.
Most American Jews aren’t engaged when it comes to Israel. According to surveys, a very small percentage of them consider candidates’ opinions regarding Israel when deciding for whom to vote. (Most American Jews don’t even visit Israel during their lives, and the numbers of those that do would seriously decrease were it not for the free trip offered by Birthright.)
The documentary points out that AIPAC has changed over the years. Not surprising. When it was formed in the 50’s, Israel was a young, small vulnerable country. Today it’s a larger (though still pretty small) regional power, occupying a weaker community that is still unwilling to come to terms with it. With the above change in mind, AIPAC has not surprisingly become much more conservative, transitioning from lobbying for a “have-not” country (even if Israel is still not a full-blown “have” country).
AIPAC’s original motivation: The guilt of the American Jewish community not doing nearly enough for the Jewish people during the Holocaust was not to be revisited with the establishment of the Jewish homeland. Soon, Israeli prime ministers began to understand the value of a strong lobby in DC, and they have often encouraged AIPAC to lobby on their behalf. AIPAC almost always complies. After all, it is pro-Israel. PM Netanyahu isn’t the first PM to do so. But Netanyahu has been truly reckless in his approach, pretty successfully turning an organization whose strength rests in the fact that it has had bipartisan support, into a partisan issue (with the avid assistance of President Trump). Sooner or later, the ascendency of the Democrats is likely to weaken the pro-Israel community, and AIPAC with it.
Why would Netanyahu do this? It’s certainly not because he doesn’t understand how the system works. The only conclusion I can come to is that when in battle, it’s legitimate to consider risking assets – even major assets – for a worthy cause. And that’s a leader’s prerogative. In this case, however Netanyahu is simply sacrificing an asset for a lost cause – even if Trump wins the next round, Netanyahu knows that he can (and has in the past) back the wrong horse. In 2012 he backed Romney against Obama and lost. And the prospects of Trump losing to Biden are even greater. So are the stakes. Sooner or later, the Democrats will take over. It all comes down to leading American-Israel relations in the wrong direction.
One can think of AIPAC or Netanyahu as he/she pleases, but Netanyahu’s strategy regarding AIPAC has already caused serious damage, and is likely to cause much more.