The recently screened film, Kings of Capitol Hill, has put a spotlight on AIPAC and its role in the American political scene. I am a former staff member of the organization, and was struck by what a misguided story it portrays.
The film is based on old and tired myths about AIPAC. But it is precisely because there is nothing new in the film that it reveals some basic misunderstandings about AIPAC that even fair-minded people might hold.
AIPAC is widely recognized as one of the most effective lobbying movements in the US. Its impact is often greater than well-known national lobbies that dwarf AIPAC in both funding and membership. Its lay leadership and professional lobbying team are legendary for the breadth and depth of relationships on Capitol Hill, spanning both sides of the aisle.
Many lobbies have multiple issues on their agenda. A major part of AIPAC’s effectiveness stems from its laser focus on one principle: strengthening the US-Israel relationship as a win-win proposition. Every policy position, every legislative initiative, every advocacy campaign, every parlor meeting is driven by that singular mission. As control of Congress and the White House flips to one party or the other, this mission dictates a core principle: AIPAC must painstakingly keep bipartisanship as its highest and most cherished value.
Now layer over the chaotic reality of a Middle East conflict and the increasing polarization of American politics, and no wonder that AIPAC’s long-established principles are tested all the time. Inevitably, organizations and press stories pop up and claim that the lobby has gone astray – to the right or to the left, depending on the current US or Israeli government. Ironically, AIPAC is often simultaneously accused of being a cheerleader for a two-state solution and being that idea’s ardent opponent.
In most cases, the players behind these efforts have an agenda that is prescriptive, and it does not square with another core AIPAC principle: it is the people of Israel who, through democratic means, ultimately determine what their government should do. I believe that AIPAC’s refusal to stake out a political solution for Israel is what drives critics who claim AIPAC is losing its way. For AIPAC cannot allow anyone’s policy agenda for the Middle East supplant the judgement of Israel’s voting citizens (who have had plenty of opportunity to go to the polling booths in recent years). Rather, AIPAC’s position is that the US-Israel relationship must be nurtured and strengthened, no matter who is in power, in Washington or Jerusalem.
During the heady days of the Oslo process, three former senior Israeli diplomats tried to convince AIPAC’s leaders to alert Congress about the dangerous direction in which Prime Minister Rabin was taking Israel. AIPAC did not budge, and supported Oslo, including supporting the aid package for the Palestinians, and then for Jordan, through a very conservative US Congress (at that time).
As a member of AIPAC’s professional team for 23 years, I had ample opportunity to see up close how this organization ticks, and the dilemmas and challenges its leaders faced from all directions. I saw top-tier donors cutting off major annual gifts because of AIPAC’s refusal to oppose a two-state solution. I saw other donors cut off their gift because AIPAC was not pressing the Israeli government to be more forthcoming in the peace talks. I saw Members of Congress aghast that AIPAC was supporting measures to strengthen Israel’s peace partners in the Arab world. This list goes on.
The AIPAC lay leadership and professionals I know listen attentively to each Member of Congress, and conduct a principled and nuanced discussion about the bilateral relationship. The AIPAC I know builds numerous alliances in the US body politic, so that the pro-Israel tent is large, and includes leaders from across the entire political spectrum, regardless of politics, ethnicity, or race. This large-tent culture results in a pro-Israel community that is uniquely positioned to advance a legislative agenda reflecting American interests and the realities of the Middle East, rather than the political agenda of the critics of the day.
None of these complexities were covered in Kings of Capitol Hill. The AIPAC that Mor Loushy portrays is simply unrecognizable. Loushy has stated in interviews that she created the documentary to respond to the Jewish community’s concern that AIPAC had tilted to the right. Judging from her film, it would be more accurate to say that she had a story based on her own world view, and chose to interview only a few former staffers and a single former board member who supported her narrative. These former staff members left AIPAC for all kinds of reasons, most of which did not have to do with their policy disagreements with the organization. There are scores of former AIPAC staffers who served much more recently, who would claim that this organization’s leadership continues to lead with integrity and dedication, resisting the political agendas on both sides of the debate.