The lobby: AIPAC in a polarized America

AIPAC is working to adapt to the Trump White House, a polarized Capitol Hill and an ever more fragmented Jewish community.

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference (photo credit: SAUL LOEB / AFP)
US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference
(photo credit: SAUL LOEB / AFP)
To get a sense of how smooth-running a machine the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is, ponder this: the drive for reservations for next year’s convention is already on ‒ even though delegates to the 2017 Annual Policy Conference only went home on March 28.
“Conference” is probably a misnomer given that, notwithstanding scores of “breakout sessions,” 18,000 activists can’t really dialogue. Chartered buses took delegates to Capitol Hill to meet with their own House or Senate members chaperoned by an AIPAC official. AIPAC aims to make every annual conference bigger than the previous.
And, despite the significant registration fee ($599 this year) plus accommodation for three days and transportation, it succeeds.
The only subsidies this year were for some 4,000 student participants.
Whatever else such mega-gatherings achieve, they hammer home the point that pro-Israelism remains a broad and deep sentiment across the American political spectrum.
This year’s motto was “Many Voices, One Mission.” But embracing the center isn’t easy. Besides being demonized by Zionism’s long-established outside enemies, some on the Jewish Left and Right are becoming increasingly vociferous in their criticism of AIPAC.
“Elements on each side of the aisle are trying to fracture our movement,” AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus declared at the conference.
“We will not allow ‒ frankly cannot allow ‒ support for Israel to fall victim to the same divisiveness that overwhelms other issues. We will work harder than ever before to hold the ideological center.”
Yet, how can AIPAC operate as a bipartisan and consensus group in a polarized America where ruling Republicans can’t agree among themselves and opposition Democratic lawmakers are being shadowed by a base that is, if not outright antagonistic, less and less supportive of Israel? Moreover, how can AIPAC ‒ a quintessentially inside the Beltway player ‒ adapt to a White House whose credo seems to be deconstruction and disruption? Dennis Ross, co-chair of the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem and a former high-ranking official in both Democratic and Republican administrations, observed an undercurrent of division when he took part in several breakout sessions.
“I felt there were a number of views,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “There was relief that the Obama administration was gone.
President Obama and those around him were seen as unsympathetic toward Israel and too ready to acquiesce to Iran. The Trump administration is seen as setting a much more favorable tone.” Ross continues, “Still, I felt there was a wait-and-see attitude and uncertainty as to what the overall approach to the Middle East was going to be in practice.
Donald Trump at AIPAC conference in March 2016: Will veto anti-Israel moves at UN, move US embassy to Jerusalem
Judgments seemed to be on hold – and most questions seemed to reflect that.”
SAYS ROSS, “Based on the questions I got, I would say there was uncertainty about Trump, not knowing what he would do. For some, there was skepticism and concern, but I would say uncertainty was the dominant impression. I also sensed among those I met that this was an especially important time for AIPAC. Given the polarization, the AIPAC mission of preserving bipartisan support for Israel would be more challenging but, therefore, even more necessary.”
Middle East volatility during the Eisenhower administration, which took office in 1953 and was not known for its sympathy toward Israel, led Isaiah L. Kenen (1905-1988) a Canadian-born journalist, attorney and Zionist campaigner to found the organization that is today AIPAC.
Never intended to be an agent of the Israeli government, AIPAC lobbies Congress, the White House and in state capitals on behalf of the pro-Israel (not just Jewish) community in the US. It strives to coordinate its activities with other friendly groups, and is a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
AIPAC’s roughly 50-member board (which includes all members of the Presidents Conference) is comprised of establishment Democrats and Republicans. The group regularly alternates between Republican and Democratic presidents. Current incumbent Pinkus, who leans Republican, began her term in March 2016 having joined AIPAC’s national board in 2011, after being active with the organization in Dallas for nearly a decade. The only known direct connection between AIPAC and the populist Trump administration is Reed Cordish, assistant to the president for intra-governmental and technology initiatives, who is the son of AIPAC National Real Estate committee member David Cordish. For more than 20 years, AIPAC’s top professional has been executive director Howard Kohr who oversees a staff of nearly 400. Almost as a policy, AIPAC officials are generally reticent in their dealings with the media and declined to participate in this article.
Journalists were also barred from some of the policy conference breakout sessions.
Historically, AIPAC has striven to nimbly adapt to Israeli policy zigzags ‒ not easy given that no Israeli political party has ever enjoyed a Knesset majority and coalition governments seldom speak with one voice.
After Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor-led government signed the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat’s PLO in 1993, AIPAC felt duty-bound to endorse the deal. As Israeli policy evolved under Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon ‒ and now Benjamin Netanyahu ‒ to accept the creation of Palestinian state (Rabin, like Menachem Begin, favored autonomy) AIPAC’s policy has similarly changed.
In reflection of its efforts to identify and embrace prevailing Israeli policy, AIPAC supports the two-state solution as a “desirable outcome.” It has tried to finesse the West Bank settlement issue by providing badly needed context rather than either outright backing or opposition. It has also consistently sought to urge US governments to pressure the Palestinian Authority to stop propagating anti-Jewish and anti-Israel incitement in its schools and controlled media outlets.
Israel and AIPAC are assiduously separate.
AIPAC doesn’t take orders from Jerusalem.
And when Israel needs to make its way through the federal labyrinth, it engages an international law or public relations firm. AIPAC also makes sure that it is never more to the right – or left – of whatever Israeli government happens to be in power.
Mainly, AIPAC sees its job as fostering the US-Israel relationship. It taps into annual revenues of about $80 million. At least $3m. of this is reportedly earmarked for lobbying. This might seem excessive but for the fact that Arab and Muslim countries aren’t skimping on their expenditures to influence US foreign policy (though Israel is not necessarily the main focus of their lobbying).
According to Justice Department data, in 2013, the United Arab Emirates spent $14.2m., Saudi Arabia $11.1m. and Morocco $4m. In 2015, Egypt spent $2.29m., and non-Arab Muslim states such as Turkey spent $1.7m. Pakistan spent in excess of $4.5m. during a recent five-year period.
These countries tend to engage pricey PR or law firms to make their case in the corridors ‒ hence “lobby” ‒ of power. Iran’s interests are championed by the National Iranian American Council, which spends modestly (about $430,000) to make Tehran’s case.
AIPAC is not a political action committee (PAC) so it neither raises money for political campaigns nor endorses candidates.
However, PACS not formally connected to AIPAC do contribute ‒ in quite significant amounts ‒ to political candidates who are friendly toward Israel. That partly explains why practically the entire US congressional leadership ‒ Republicans and Democrats ‒ was present at the policy conference. Actually, it is almost easier to list which political bigwigs, public intellectuals, think-tankers, machers, faith leaders, ethnic notables and media personalities were not at the capital’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center (or the nearby Verizon Center) than to catalog those who did attend.
Among the big name speakers were US Vice President Mike Pence, US UN Ambassador Nikki Haley – who, in a conversation with Start-Up Nation co-author Dan Senor, probably made the most positive and memorable impression on attendees ‒ and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. David Friedman, the new American ambassador to Israel, was there, as was his Israeli counterpart Ron Dermer. Chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky was on hand as was former British premier Tony Blair.
Wannabe Israeli prime ministers roamed the hallways: Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett, Labor Party head Isaac Herzog and Labor MK Erel Margalit. Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid Party, whose political fortunes are rising, did not attend, though he was represented by former Jerusalem police chief MK Mickey Levy.
Some Israeli politicians floating about also used the opportunity to take part in a more modest, separate gathering to mark 50 years of Israeli control over Judea and Samaria. These included Tzachi Hanegbi (communications minister), Yoav Gallant (construction minister) Tzipi Hotovely (deputy foreign minister) and Eli Ben-Dahan (deputy defense minister).
There were notable absences. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the convention by video. US President Donald Trump did not appear at all. That’s not totally surprising given that, in 2016, AIPAC’s leadership found it necessary to apologize to Barack Obama for the way delegates greeted Trump’s ad hominem speech against Obama with raucous approval. Trump was irritated by the leadership’s expression of regret and he is not known to forgive and forget. Also giving AIPAC a miss were Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Under the American system, the president directs foreign policy and Congress allocates monies for its execution. For instance, it was president Harry S. Truman who granted Israel de facto recognition immediately after the state was declared on May 14, 1948, and de jure recognition on January 31, 1949. It was also Truman who demanded an Israeli withdrawal to the 1947 UN Partition Plan boundaries after the War of Independence. Ronald Reagan, for example, used his presidential powers to grant diplomatic recognition to the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1988.
AIPAC has not shied away from tangling with various administrations on Capitol Hill.
Following through on a commitment made by his predecessor Jimmy Carter, in 1981, Reagan went ahead with the sale of cutting-edge AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft to Saudi Arabia over AIPAC’s vehement objections. In 1991, AIPAC lobbied Congress in support of a proposed $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel to help resettle Soviet Jewish refugees against the wishes of President George H.W. Bush. The president darkly grumbled that he was just “one lonely little guy” up against “some powerful political forces” made up of “a thousand lobbyists on the Hill.” Bush later agreed to a loan guarantee package with the proviso that money spent over the Green Line be subtracted. More recently, AIPAC opposed Obama’s 2015 Iran nuclear deal to no avail.
On the whole, there is bipartisan support in Congress for military aid to Israel, which, among other things, helps pay for US-Israel antimissile defense cooperation.
Obama will be remembered by many in the pro-Israel community for his crotchety relationship with Netanyahu. Yet, in its waning days, his administration committed the United States to providing Israel with $38b. in military aid in the coming decade– that’s $3.8b. a year (most of which will be spent in the US). It is still up to the Republican-controlled Congress to allocate the resources. In its lobbying efforts, AIPAC points out that Israel is basically helping to develop and test military technology under real-world conditions that can save American lives on the battlefield.
TRUMP’S STATED opposition to foreign aid ‒ military and non-military ‒ places him in opposition to AIPAC’s line that “a robust foreign aid budget is one essential element of America’s national security strategy.”
Less than 1% of America’s $4 trillion budget goes to foreign aid. The Trump administration is asking for a 28% (or $10.9b.) cut in funding for international humanitarian programs, many of which are run out of the State Department. This is less than the 37% cut it initially floated. Currently, for example, Washington helps Jerusalem by funding Israel’s share of the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program intended to promote teamwork between Arab and Israeli scientists.
US taxpayers also help cover the Binational Agricultural Research and Development Foundation, the Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation and the Binational Science Foundation (BSF), which encourages collaboration between American and Israeli scientists.
AIPAC argues that it is precisely this kind of partnership that paves the way to innovations in water desalination and medical advances that produced the PillCam, Re- Walk and the ViaDerm Drug Delivery System.
USAID funds were made available for disaster relief assistance that helped Israel battle forest fires in 2016.
AIPAC also generally supports (as does the Netanyahu government) humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian Arabs. Some $5.2b. in USAID monies have been channeled to the Palestinian Authority since 1994. In 2015, the US allocated $71m. for water assistance in Hamas-controlled Gaza and $12m. to promote democracy in the Fatah-dominated West Bank. The US is also UNRWA’s biggest bilateral backer.
How AIPAC will adapt to the Trump White House remains to be seen.
No one realistically expects Trump to honor his campaign promise to renegotiate “a totally different” Iran nuclear deal, for example, but AIPAC has applauded the administration’s announcement sanctioning an additional 13 Iranian-connected individuals and 12 entities. The White House officially notified Congress on April 19 that Iran is complying with the deal Obama made. The jury is still out on Trump’s pledge to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, meaning that, like all previous US administrations, the Trump White House does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. AIPAC has not taken a position on the embassy move.
AIPAC does have reason to hope that the Trump administration will take an assertive stance at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which has a repellant history of scapegoating Israel. His campaign promised that a Trump administration would cut off funds for the Council. Trump himself tweeted that, unlike Obama, he would have opposed UN Security Council Resolution 2334 adopted on December 23, 2016, with the US pointedly abstaining. The resolution, which “deeply disturbed” AIPAC, turbocharged international antagonism toward a Jewish presence over the Green Line.
Haley told the AIPAC crowd, “Everyone at the United Nations is [nowadays] scared to talk to me about 2334.”
The Trump campaign ‒ adopting what amounts to the mainstream Israeli view ‒ had argued that the two-state solution is dead so long as the Palestinian Arab leadership remains committed to violence, incitement and rejection of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. AIPAC and the administration are more explicitly on the same page regarding pending Senate legislation, the Portman-Cardin bill, which would tap into the Export Administration Act of 1979 to penalize NGOs that seek to boycott, divest and sanction Israel in an effort to force the country back to the 1949 Armistice Lines.
For now, the tone in the US-Israel relationship is greatly improved.
While some US Jews cringe at Netanyahu cozying up to Trump, few miss the bad karma that permeated relations between Washington and Jerusalem under Obama.
In 2009, the former president’s early and ill-conceived demand for a freeze on all housing over the Green Line as a prerequisite for negotiations obstructed direct talks between Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu for eight years. At the time, AIPAC pointed to Palestinian intransigence but didn’t explicitly criticize Obama.
The bad blood boiled over after Obama opened talks with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani on September 27, 2013, and reached a crescendo when Netanyahu made an untoward ‒ and unsuccessful ‒ address to a joint session of Congress on March 3, 2015, in which he urged lawmakers to block Obama from cutting a deal with Iran. AIPAC had reportedly tried to persuade Netanyahu not to go ahead with the speech.
From this year’s AIPAC conference podium, Dermer touted that “For the first time in many years, perhaps even many decades, there is no daylight between our two governments.”
But history suggests that sooner or later there will be a blowup.
Not many in the pro-Israel community expect White House envoy on the Arab-Israel conflict Jason Greenblatt, in a previous life Trump’s real estate lawyer, to succeed where William Rogers, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz failed before him. Greenblatt tweeted that he was sorry to miss the AIPAC conference but that he was representing the United States as an observer at the Arab League Summit in Jordan.
A harbinger may be the White House’s response following the Israeli cabinet’s March 30 vote to establish a new settlement in the northern West Bank near Shilo and Eli (political compensation for the demolition of the Amona outpost outside the community of Ofra): “President Trump has publicly and privately expressed his concerns regarding settlements. As the administration has made clear, while the existence of settlements is not in itself an impediment to peace, further unrestrained settlement activity does not help advance peace. The Israeli government has made clear going forward its intent is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes the president’s concerns into consideration.”
The tenor is a far cry from the grating Obama pronouncements. For one, the White House took into account that Netanyahu had previously promised to relocate Amona residents “prior to President Trump laying out his expectations” on construction in the West Bank. For another, Netanyahu is signaling that future building will be mostly focused within existing Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and in Jerusalem.
The US Jewish community is even more tribal today than when Kenen founded his organization six decades ago, so it’s no surprise that AIPAC has competition. In 2007, Sheldon Adelson, whose influential physician wife Miriam is Israeli-born, founded the Israeli American Council, which explicitly opposes a Palestinian state. Adelson’s largesse also keeps the Zionist Organization of America afloat, enabling it to snipe at AIPAC from the right. Meanwhile, Christians United for Israel is staking out a more strident line in the Christian Zionist community and is urging Trump to keep his campaign promise to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.
ON THE left, AIPAC’s competition comes from dovish J Street ‒ which also serves as an informal clearinghouse for like-minded groups. Starting in 1973, Breira and the New Jewish Agenda were organized to oppose the retention of the territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War. Their ideological successor is J Street, founded in 2007, to capitalize on the weariness felt by many progressive US Jews pressed to defend unpopular Israeli policies. J Street seeks to delegitimize AIPAC by painting it as “rightwing” and itself as “pro-Israel and pro-peace.”
It backed Obama unconditionally ‒ from his 2009 call for a settlement freeze to his 2016 refusal to veto SC Resolution 2334. In 2016, its J Street PAC affiliate distributed $3.6m. to candidates it endorsed as “pro-Israel and pro-peace” such as Minnesota Democrat Rep. Keith Ellison and Rep.
John Yarmuth of Kentucky.
J Street is explicitly committed to an Israeli pullback (more or less) to the Green Line ‒ regardless of what the Palestinian Arabs do.
It frequently speaks out against Hamas rocket attacks and says it supports Israel’s right to defend itself. In practice, J Street prefers not to champion the actual use of force by the IDF and it opposes passive defense measures such as the West Bank security barrier.
J Street is against BDS though it has occasionally found itself partnered with boycott proponents. When the Egyptian Embassy in Washington organized a closed-door breakfast for Sisi and some 60 foreign-policy influentials at a posh hotel on April 5, Dylan Williams of J Street was there right alongside AIPAC’s Pinkus.
Through its student organizing arm “J Street U,” J Street inspires “anti-occupation” groups such as IfNotNow to target AIPAC, ADL and other mainstream organizations with sit-ins and marches. During the AIPAC conference, as participants met inside, hundreds of combative doves ‒ some flamboyantly wearing yarmulkes ‒ conducted sit-ins or marches outside, waving “Free Palestine” signs and Palestinian flags.
Using the hashtag “Jewish Resistance at AIPAC,” IfNotNow organizers saturated social media using the catchphrase “the biggest ever Jewish-led protest of AIPAC.”
While IfNotNow millennials were getting most of the press, a dozen ultra-Orthodox men of varied ages from the Neturei Karta movement ‒ founded in 1938 ‒ stood holding placards and Palestinian flags denouncing AIPAC in a separate protest outside the White House. The Neturei Karta fundamentalists oppose the existence of a Jewish state pending the arrival of the Messiah.
With fringe elements mobilized and the mainstream fragmented, how can AIPAC hold Right and Left together in its pro-Israel big tent? “Honestly, I don’t know the proper approach in such a blisteringly partisan atmosphere,” says Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, a prominent Los Angeles Conservative congregation. He says the best AIPAC can do is keep lines of communication open to all elements in the community and elected officials across the political spectrum.
Ross agrees that AIPAC has its work cut out for it. “It is not just that AIPAC seeks consensus. Just as importantly, it seeks a non-partisan or bipartisan approach. That is difficult in the current setting.”
In times like these, AIPAC’s bipartisan, centrist, big tent, pro-Israel model seems antiquated ‒ that is, until one considers the alternative.