Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has enjoyed a relatively slow year, left out of the headlines absent any major policy disagreements with the Trump administration.
But quietly, the organization has worked to combat a low-lying threat to its mission and its basis of power – a growing divide among Democrats and Republicans on the issue of Israel.
Partisanship over Israel has ebbed and flowed over the past several decades, spiking around the 1991 Gulf War and the leadup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It has done so once again in recent times, according to Pew Research Center polling, in light of a historic clash of personalities between former president Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
There is a fear among Israel watchers in Washington that this time may be different, that the partisan divide may be a sustained phenomenon, not merely a spike, and may be exacerbated by the politicization of Israel policy by President Donald Trump.
There are several Democratic congressmen speaking at AIPAC’s annual conference this year, including Representatives Ted Deutch of Florida, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, Grace Meng of New York, Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff of California, Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Chris Coons of Delaware, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and several veterans of the Obama administration.
But AIPAC’s concerns with retaining Democratic Party support are not focused on its current leadership. Their concerns are over the future leadership of the party, and specifically over whether its progressive wing is poised for a takeover.
AIPAC’s president, Mort Fridman, opened the 18,000-person conference with an appeal to that wing.
“To my friends in the progressive community, I want you to know we are partners in this project,” Fridman said. “The progressive narrative for Israel is just as compelling and critical as the conservative one.”
“There are very real forces trying to pull you out of this hall and out of this movement and we cannot let that happen,” he continued. “We will not let that happen!” An AIPAC official argued to The Jerusalem Post that the lobby has historically been “resolutely bipartisan,” refusing to endorse any legislation that does not have strong support from both Democrats and Republicans.
“And as an aside, I’d say this is probably the largest bipartisan conference that takes place in Washington,” the official added.
That theme was present in an inaugural speech to the conference by Avi Gabbay, one of Israel’s rising political stars and the head of its Labor Party.
“We must keep the support for Israel bipartisan. This is a strategic asset for Israel’s security,” Gabbay stated.
“The core foundation of our security,” he continued, “is our alliance with you.”