The stage at the 2017 AIPAC conference..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The utter failure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s irresponsible and delusional attempt to defeat an American president’s foremost foreign policy initiative, the Iran nuclear deal, on his home turf, is evident in the political carnage left in its wake. Israel has now become a partisan issue in the US, the Jewish community is divided as never before and dangerously alienated. An administration that views Israel’s premier as an adversary, not a strategic partner, still has 17 months in office, an eternity in the Middle East. Israel, which contributed so much to putting the Iranian nuclear issue on the international agenda – and for which Netanyahu deserves considerable credit – has now come to be viewed as a nuisance at best.
The abortive effort to derail the nuclear deal has also caused considerable damage to AIPAC. AIPAC is not just a lobby, an instrument to be used regardless of the consequences. It is a magnificent creation of the American Jewish community and other supporters of Israel, and has become a vital component of the US-Israel relationship in its own right.
To be sure, AIPAC had no choice but to fight the Iran nuclear agreement, doomed to failure though its efforts were. Most of its highly knowledgeable and committed leadership and members sincerely believe that the deal is bad for Israel. Moreover, fighting to prevent a nuclear Iran has been AIPAC’s primary mission for years and it could not but have acted as it did. To have done otherwise would have led many of its members to question its very purpose as an organization and why they had ever joined.
In a situation in which Israel’s premier called the deal an historic error, which threatens Israel’s its very existence, to have acted otherwise would have been unimaginable.
American Jewish life has been greatly enriched by a plethora of different organizations.
In Washington, however, there has always been one voice on Israel. This unity of effort, combined with AIPAC’S extraordinary effectiveness as an organization, explain why Israel has been the beneficiary of more US aid than any other country since WWII, a whopping $120 billion, and of no less vital diplomatic support.
J Street and its like cannot take credit for having generated one single dollar of this aid, or any diplomatic support, and will not be able to do so in the future. They are feel-good organizations, whose support for Israel is contingent upon it adopting policies of which they approve, not what the democratically elected government of Israel chooses.
Seventy years after the Holocaust, 67 years after Israel’s rebirth, it is still entirely appropriate that we demand of Jewish Americans unconditional support for the State of Israel, writ large, even while they may certainly disagree with many of its policies.
Some critics incorrectly conflate AIPAC with the policies of the Israeli government and thus seek to promote their views by supporting alternative lobbies more in tune with their own thinking. This well-meaning but dangerously misguided approach fails to understand that AIPAC’s fundamental role, as the Israel lobby, is to promote US-Israeli relations without regard to who is in office either in Jerusalem or Washington. Many Jewish Americans do not like Netanyahu? OK. Many Israelis are not crazy about Obama either. AIPAC has to promote the relationship regardless of such considerations.
In recent decades Israelis have elected more right-wing governments than centrist or left-wing ones, although there have been a number of the latter. It would behoove American supporters of Israel to respect this democratic outcome, as much as they may disagree with the policies adopted. The place to change Israel’s policies – and there is much to change – is in Israel, not by lobbying the US government to pressure Israel. The administration already opposes Israel’s policies on the Palestinian and other issues.
A center-left or left-wing government will be elected in Israel again at some point.
Many on the American Right may then be disaffected by its policies and by AIPAC’s stance. Will they establish a new right-wing lobbying organization? Will others establish organizations to lobby the US government against domestic Israeli policies with which they disagree? Where does it end? AIPAC is and must remain the umbrella organization for all supporters of Israel in the US. It must do more to convince critics in the American Jewish community that it is not a right-wing organization.
This is not an easy task, and one which AIPAC has struggled to come to grips with, but a more mature understanding of AIPAC’s role among liberal Jewish Americans is also necessary.
The limits to Israel’s and AIPAC’s influence have now been painfully exposed; an issue that Israel deemed existential was blithely ignored both by the administration and much of Congress. There was no moral victory as the premier’s supporters sought to claim, no good fight, just a preordained trouncing. He who misuses AIPAC undermines Israel’s national security.
The author, a former deputy national security advisor in Israel, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and an adjunct professor at IDC Herzliya. He is the author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy.