AIPAC’s mission to cultivate and maintain bipartisan support for Israel in the United States is an important mission. Unfortunately, the messages AIPAC’s leaders delivered during the organization’s annual policy convention this week in Washington indicate that they are at a loss for how to achieve their mission in the contentious political environment now prevalent in post- Obama America.
Their befuddlement is not surprising. For the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, AIPAC’s leaders showed a consistent inability to understand the challenges they faced. And since they were unable to understand how or why the Obama administration was undermining AIPAC, they couldn’t protect AIPAC or advance its mission during his tenure in office.
At this week’s AIPAC convention, the message emanating from the speeches AIPAC’s senior leadership delivered was that they still don’t get what happened.
And largely as a consequence, they do not understand the challenges they face as an organization moving forward. And again, since they don’t understand what happened, or what is happening, they are incapable of meeting today’s challenges to AIPAC’s mission in a constructive way.
In a 2014 article in Tablet online magazine, Lee Smith set out precisely what Obama was doing to AIPAC and what his motivations were. Smith’s article was published shortly after Obama brutally scuttled AIPAC’s attempt to lobby Democrats to support additional sanctions against Iran for its illicit nuclear program. In the course of the Obama’s White House’s onslaught against AIPAC, administration officials were quoted referring to AIPAC lobbyists as “warmongers” for seeking additional sanctions against Iran – sanctions that enjoyed the support of huge majorities of lawmakers in both parties and houses.
In the end, Obama strong-armed Democrats to oppose the sanctions bill. Republicans were willing to pass the sanctions without Democratic support, but AIPAC – in the name of bipartisanship – told the Republicans to lay off. In other words, AIPAC sacrificed its central goal and its credibility with Republican lawmakers to placate the White House, which had just used a veiled antisemitic slur to delegitimize AIPAC.
Moreover, as Smith noted, AIPAC’s refusal to strike out against the Democrats who abandoned their support for the sanctions bill exposed the lobby as a paper tiger. It was willing to sacrifice its credibility, its policy goals and its reputation as a powerful power broker to maintain the myth that there was no distinction between Republican and Democratic support for its signature initiative.
Smith argued that Obama didn’t attack AIPAC because he hated Israel per se. Rather, he did it because he opposed the foundational assumption of AIPAC’s entire existence.
Obama didn’t support the US alliance with Israel.
Obama supported a rapprochement with Iran, even if it came at Israel’s expense. Obama wasn’t pursuing his nuclear deal with Iran because he wanted to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
He was pursuing his nuclear deal with Iran because he wanted to develop an alliance with the Iranian regime even at the cost of harming Israel and the US’s Sunni allies and even at the cost of Iranian nuclear empowerment.
As Smith put it, Obama opposed the AIPAC-backed sanctions “because he agrees with academics like Stephen Walt and US policy-makers like his former secretary of defense Robert Gates and his current one Chuck Hagel that the pro-Israel lobby often prevents the United States from pursuing its national interests.”
Obama never admitted that his goal was rapprochement with Iran regardless of its implications for Israel, for the Sunni Arab states and for Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. He couldn’t. The vast majority of Americans – including Democrats – opposed Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Indeed, at the time, a Pew survey showed 58% of Americans supported bombing Iran’s nuclear sites.
But the fact that Obama’s goal was rapprochement, not nuclear nonproliferation, was exposed by his opposition to the AIPAC-backed sanctions.
As AIPAC’s leaders argued at the time, if passed, the sanctions would have strengthened the US’s negotiating position. They were only supposed to be imposed if negotiations failed. Knowing that it faced the certain destruction of its economy if it failed to make the requisite concessions on uranium enrichment, nuclear inspections and ballistic missile development would surely concentrate the minds of the Iranian negotiators, AIPAC argued, rationally.
Obama went to war against AIPAC to defeat the sanctions precisely because his goal wasn’t nuclear nonproliferation. Obama didn’t care what the agreement said. The purpose of the negotiations was to develop an alliance with the Iranians, not to keep them away from nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles.
But AIPAC refused to see what was happening and folded rather than confront Obama, betraying its Republican backers – in the interests of bipartisanship.
And then, in the summer of 2015, as the Senate debated his nuclear deal which ensured Iran would acquire nuclear weapons within 15 years while receiving the financial means to implement its hegemonic ambitions throughout the Middle East, Obama declared open war on AIPAC. He used National Security Agency wiretaps to spy on AIPAC lobbyists. Administration officials attacked Democratic lawmakers who opposed the nuclear deal, intimating that they were Israeli agents.
In a thuggish campaign laced with antisemitism, Obama made clear that there were two goals to his campaign: To secure Senate approval of his nuclear deal; and to render AIPAC toxic for his partisan and ideological supporters.
And to a significant degree, he succeeded. The post-Obama Democratic Party is more anti-Israel than it has ever been. Whereas in the past, presidential hopefuls from both parties courted AIPAC’s support while eagerly parading their pro-Israel bonafides, today’s Democratic presidential hopefuls are courting the anti-Israel factions in the party. Sens.
Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-New York) were once outspoken in their support for Israel. Last year, both announced their opposition to key pro-Israel bills.
Which brings us to this week’s AIPAC conference.
In his address, AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr placed AIPAC in opposition to both the Trump administration and the Israeli government on the issue of Palestinian statehood. The White House and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have refused to endorse Palestinians statehood as the preordained outcome of an eventual peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Most Israeli government ministers openly oppose Palestinian statehood.
But Kohr ignored them all.
“We must all work toward that future: two states for two peoples. One Jewish with secure and defensible borders, and one Palestinian with its own flag and its own future,” he said.
Netanyahu has explained repeatedly, and explained this week in Washington to the US media, that Israel cannot secure its territory without permanent security control over Judea and Samaria.
Kohr rejected Israel’s position.
“Israel’s security cannot be fully assured and her promise cannot be fully realized until she is at peace with all her neighbors,” he insisted.
Then Kohr said AIPAC’s position on Palestinian statehood is as central to AIPAC’s identity as its commitment to the enhancement of Israel’s military capabilities.
“Preparing for conflict may require forever vigilance. But working for peace demands forever faith – a faith that there is a future beyond bloodshed and war,” he said.
Why did AIPAC’s CEO use his speech before 18,000 pro-Israel activists to advocate a policy that neither the US government nor the Israeli government supports? The answer is that Kohr’s statement wasn’t addressed to either Israel or the White House. It was directed to an audience that wasn’t in the room.
As a former senior official at AIPAC explained, Kohr undercut both the Israeli government and the Trump administration to court J Street supporters.
Kohr and AIPAC were telling J Street supporters that AIPAC is just as pro-Palestinian state as J Street.
This is a counterproductive policy for two reasons.
First, J Street doesn’t have a lot of followers. J Street wasn’t formed, and it has never operated, as a means to convince pro-Israel lawmakers not to support Israel or pro-Israel activists not to support Israel.
J Street’s mission is to serve as a Jewish fig leaf for anti-Israel politicians and activists. It flourishes because of the radicalization of the Left and of factions of the Democratic Party. That radicalization has nothing to do with anything AIPAC did or anything AIPAC stands for.
AIPAC has no way of reaching forces that have embraced J Street as a fig leaf. They were never in the AIPAC tent to begin with. If J Street hadn’t been created, then another Jewish fig leaf like Jewish Voices for Peace or Peace Now would have sufficed.
True, J Street presents itself as a left-wing alternative to AIPAC. But no one believes it is a pro-Israel organization. Everyone understands what this game is about.
And this brings us to the second reason AIPAC’s outreach to J Street supporters makes no sense. The radical Left is certainly the rising force in the Democratic Party. It may even have captured or be about to capture the majority of party members and party lawmakers.
But it isn’t the only force in the party. There are plenty of Democratic lawmakers who support Israel and don’t want to join the Keith Ellison faction of the party.
New York Sen. Charles Schumer spoke up for that pro-Israel faction of the party at the AIPAC convention this week. Schumer rejected one of the main articles of faith of Obama and the far Left – that Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria are the obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. “It’s sure not the settlements that are the blockage to peace,” he insisted.
AIPAC has a substantive case to make to Democrats.
And a lot of them will listen, because they care about the issues and aren’t interested in becoming servants to the radical agenda being pushed by powerful elements in their party. They are willing to listen to AIPAC and support the US-Israel alliance because Israel’s case is stronger than the Palestinians’ case. And they would be happy if their faction of the party grew.
By aping J Street, AIPAC is making the same mistake it made with Obama. It is trying to win over those who will never join it, by abandoning its mission and its substantive goals. It does so while ignoring, and so weakening, the many Democrats who support its mission and goals, in the hopes of winning over Democrats who are hostile to its mission and its goals. AIPAC does this because it either doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to admit that this hostility from the far Left is not the result of a misunderstanding. Ellison, Sen. Bernie Sanders and their supporters oppose AIPAC because they do understand AIPAC’s mission. And they oppose it.
AIPAC was always strong because most Americans always supported Israel. Most Americans – including many Democrats – still support Israel. For AIPAC to become relevant and respected again, its leaders need to cultivate its ties with those Americans – Republicans and Democrats alike – and not waste its energies and passions and national convention begging the minority of Americans who oppose Israel to love it.