This Tuesday night, at our New York headquarters, Jason Greenblatt, who serves under Jared Kushner as President Donald Trump’s chief Middle East negotiator, will be joining Bret Stephens of The New York Times in a panel discussion that I will moderate on the prospects for peace in the Middle East.
Many in the pro-Israel community are concerned about what might be in the Trump plan. Will it demand that Israel make territorial concessions? Are the Palestinians really serious about accepting Israel as a Jewish state? And how can there even be talk of peace when Hamas is murdering Jewish babies and Israeli soldiers every week?
But while the hesitations are justified in light of previous pressures placed on Israel by the international community, Greenblatt and the president’s team, as the most pro-Israel administration ever to occupy the White House, deserve to be heard. Trump has emerged as Israel’s stalwart defender in international forums, especially the UN, and gratitude is a Jewish virtue. This is especially true when we witness the growing hostility to Israel on the part of even America’s strongest allies.
I served as rabbi at Oxford University for 11 years, and six of my nine children were born in the UK. I remain deeply attached to the country that issued the Balfour Declaration. That it has now produced an antisemitic miscreant like Jeremy Corbyn who may possibly be the next prime minister is simply shocking.
How do we ensure that it doesn’t happen here in the US, where Democratic and Republican bipartisan support for Israel is something we’ve taken for granted for decades? The question is especially important in light of the rise of serious Israel critics such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as possible Democratic presidential nominees, and the cratering of my close friend Cory Booker’s once stalwart support of Israel.
The most important guarantor of bipartisan support for Israel is the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose annual policy conference I have been attending for a quarter century.
After being officially incorporated in 1963, the organization embarked upon a startlingly aggressive phase of growth, dispatching hundreds of field operatives to develop a vast and diverse network of grassroots support throughout all of America’s 50 states. By the 1970s, the organization had amassed the power to push for the State of Israel even against the policies of the president of the United States.
During an apparent clash between prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, President Gerald Ford notoriously threatened to enact a “reassessment” of the American relationship with Israel, even noting in a letter to the Jewish state that “failure” to accede to specific negotiations would have a “far-reaching impact” on American “relations” in the region. The next day, the president received a letter of his own. This time, it was signed by 76 senators – six more than the supermajority needed to override any decision of the executive branch – and it demanded that the president “make it clear that the United States, acting in its own national interests, stands firm with Israel.” The House of Representatives followed suit. The “reassessment” never happened.
Throughout the sprawling halls of the Capitol, the message was clear: AIPAC was in the building.
Fast-forward to 2016, and AIPAC would be renting Washington’s Verizon Center just to house its policy conference keynote event. AIPAC has 100,000 members and boasts a $72 million annual budget, and some 300 staffers populate 18 AIPAC field offices.
Yet, even as the organization glimpses the very heights of its own success, it’s also beginning to face its most serious challenges.
Like any centrist element of American political life, AIPAC has been besieged by the ever-intensifying political extremes. And amid this bitterly sectarian political climate, bipartisan behemoths like AIPAC have found themselves grasping in the dark for allies.
When Trump was invited to speak at AIPAC’s 2016 Policy Conference, he punctuated a powerful speech on the Middle East with the claim that Barack Obama was “maybe the worst thing to happen to Israel.” Much of the audience, clearly frustrated at Obama’s often turbulent relationship with the Jewish state and especially the Iran nuclear agreement, rose in mass applause.
The very next day, AIPAC’s president took to the stage to say that AIPAC’s leadership took “great offense” at the “ad hominem attacks... levied against the president of the United States of America from our stage.”
Trump would go on to win the presidency that November. And though the president agreed to send Mike Pence and Nikki Haley to address AIPAC’s conference the following year, the love lost over the affair was lost on everyone there.
My own opinion is that it’s time to move on. Trump had every right express his opinion, and the audience had every right to applaud it. But even great organizations make mistakes, and AIPAC remains by far the most vital and effective organization supporting pro-Israel legislation in Congress.
Since then, AIPAC has taken a hit from the Israeli Right, too. During a recent gala held in New York, Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon was reported by the Daily Beast to have “implicitly needled the mainline [AIPAC]” by saying that it was no longer the go-to organization in the US for the Israeli government.
The growing political roadblocks facing AIPAC in Washington are by no means limited to its relationship with the Right. On the contrary, AIPAC’s alienation from American political extremism began years before the rise of Trump, during the rocky years of the Obama administration. Back then, the pro-Israel body found itself being excoriated by elements of the far Left. Bernie Sanders, for one, represented the anti-Israel sentiments of the far Left by refusing to so much as attend the AIPAC conference in 2016.
On the center Left, too, AIPAC would endure increasing isolation. During Obama’s pursuit of a disastrous nuclear agreement with Iran, AIPAC bravely took the administration head-on. In these moments, AIPAC proved its willingness to risk its most precious relationships on Israel’s behalf. Though the effort failed to prevent Obama from signing a shameful agreement with Iran, it still represented AIPAC at its best: totally bipartisan, yet willing to take on a side when Israel’s security concerns demanded that it do so.
Democratic leaders openly condemned AIPAC for abandoning its bipartisan principles in its fierce opposition to Obama’s principal foreign policy initiative. The Obama administration would offer a significant boon to AIPAC’s chief competitor on the Left, Jeremy Ben-Ami’s J Street, which seemed founded on a singular policy of criticizing Israel.
But unlike J Street and organizations on the Right which have in no uncertain terms cast their political allegiances with a single side, AIPAC is a distinctly bipartisan organization. Every single bill supported by the lobby must have both Republican and Democratic cosigners, and at all of AIPAC’s various forums, both arch-rivals and ardent supporters of the current administration will receive equal time to speak their minds from the podium.
Even as some see bipartisanship as a “relic,” the fact is that it has never been more critical.
As an activist who has now spent 30 years working to advance Israel and Jewish values, I can see how tragic it is when one party – the UK’s Conservatives – becomes the pro-Israel party, while Labour is run by an out-and-out antisemite. Such partisan support for Israel by only one side of the aisle would be an American tragedy. AIPAC is helping ensure that never happens, and I salute it.The writer, whom The Washington Post calls ‘the most famous rabbi in America,’ is the international best-selling author of 30 books, including his most recent, The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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