Above The Fray: AIPAC’s misguided advocacy

The future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is at stake. As its democracy and the prospects for peace unravel, so will the US-Israel relationship.

Netanyahu on the screen at AIPAC_311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Netanyahu on the screen at AIPAC_311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The effusive standing ovations Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu received during his speech to a joint session of Congress, despite his recent public clashes with President Barack Obama, raised anew questions of the power and influence of the so-called “Israel lobby,” led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Suggestions that AIPAC is all-powerful in Washington, or that its aims and actions are nefarious, are baseless.
AIPAC is an effective interest group that has wielded grassroots activism and political contributions to foster a closer relationship between the United States and the State of Israel based largely on common interests, values and cultural affinity. Yet criticism of it is not unwarranted, especially with regard to its muted efforts to support actions toward a lasting peace in the Middle East. It is one thing to be supportive of Israel; it is another to be simply a rubber stamp for its policies, however destructive. On its website, AIPAC touts itself with a quote from The New York Times that describes it as “the most important organization affecting America’s relationship with Israel.” It is time AIPAC wielded this position of influence in support of peacemaking efforts that will keep the US-Israel relationship strong not only in this generation, but also in the next. In many ways, AIPAC has written the playbook on how to be an effective Washington lobby. By mobilizing grassroots constituencies across the country consisting of all religious and cultural backgrounds, it has brought the cause of Israel and the US-Israel relationship to the masses. Today the “Israel lobby” is not a “Jewish lobby” exclusively, but one that incorporates all faiths, most prominently the Christian conservative Evangelical movement through organizations like Christians United for Israel.
AIPAC has successfully advocated for an annual aid package that has helped the Jewish state maintain its qualitative military edge in the volatile Middle East. It has brought countless congressional delegations to Israel, linking American policymakers with their Israeli counterparts. In addition, while it is not a formulated PAC, it has steered millions of dollars of political contributions to candidates and elected officials across the country for decades.
Any lobby should be envious of AIPAC’s success.
YET TOO often, AIPAC’s advocacy has become synonymous with silencing debate when it comes to the US role in promoting an Israeli-Palestinian peace. This question exploded with the publication of The Israel Lobby by professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, which in my view went too far in suggesting that Mideast policy issues are explicitly driven by Israel-centric policy-making. Still, the debate further intensified with the establishment of the aggressive, liberal-minded J Street, as well as publications like Peter Beinart’s “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” in the New York Review of Books.
The book pointedly challenged the American Jewish community’s traditional thinking about Israel advocacy and warned that the status quo was alienating younger Jews in particular – a constituency that AIPAC claims to represent when in fact it does not.
These criticisms cannot be dismissed. Indeed, pro-Israel organizations, led by AIPAC, have too often sought to advance short-term goals over long-term interests, to the detriment of genuine advocacy in support of peacemaking. Historically AIPAC has presented a distinctly conservative approach. At its 2007 “policy conference,” then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi was booed after suggesting that the Iraq war had been a failure, and many were concerned that Obama would be booed this year (he ultimately was not). In the 1990s, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was famously concerned that he would not receive sufficient support from AIPAC in promoting the Oslo peace process. Notably AIPAC has been known to push for unhelpful legislation in Congress. It was in the lead in the ’90s promoting moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem prior to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, a move that would lead to widespread global condemnation and compromise the United States’ ability to serve as a Mideast peace broker. AIPAC has also supported legislation to limit American funding options to parties like Egypt, Lebanon and the Palestinians in an effort to limit funds for Islamists, but which could make funding moderates much more difficult. In reaction to recent legislation along these lines, just this week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, stating that the recently proposed legislation “would be debilitating to my efforts to carry out a considered foreign policy and diplomacy, and to use foreign assistance strategically to that end.”
Furthermore, AIPAC has done little, if anything, to dispel Walt and Mearsheimer’s arguments about its untoward influence and power in Washington. The recent standing ovations for Netanyahu from Congress were only the most recent indirect display of such influence. Each year, at AIPAC’s policy conference – which had over 10,000 attendees this year – its directors list, one by one, the names of the members of Congress in attendance; over 350 attended this year alone. IN THIS sense, AIPAC has always straddled a difficult line: on the one hand dispelling claims of its influence, while making sure policymakers believe it. This has created the perception that Congress is in Israel’s pocket, a perception that undercuts US interests and influence in the Middle East.
It is no wonder that the Palestinian Authority decided to defy the US by going to the UN for recognition of their own state. Principal among AIPAC’s arguments has been that Israel is under siege, surrounded by enemies seeking its complete destruction. This argument has been effective on Capitol Hill, but it has not served to develop US policies that keep Israel from self-destructive policies. Today, despite AIPAC’s best efforts in Washington, Israel is more isolated than ever in the international arena, and faces growing analogies to apartheid South Africa as settlement construction continues unabated in the West Bank. Moreover, Israel’s leadership lacks the courage or desire to make peace with a Palestinian leadership supported by the international community, including the US, yet AIPAC has done little to suggest that Israel should change its posture. Furthermore, Israeli legislation such as the recent boycott ban and effort to downplay its democratic nature in favor of its Jewish one fundamentally threatens the notion of Israel’s democracy, and yet AIPAC is silent. Meanwhile, resentment of Israel and AIPAC by Washington and an increasing number of European capitals is rising. The future stability of the US-Israel relationship demands that AIPAC change its approach. The group has successfully built bipartisan support for that relationship on the foundation of shared democratic values and search for peace. Both are being threatened today. Yet AIPAC can use its influence, however overblown it may actually be, to advance a new narrative: that in order for the relationship to remain as strong in our children’s generation as it is today, the countries must work together to advance peace with the Palestinians and the entire Arab world. This can and must be AIPAC’s primary objective today. The blind support of the Netanyahu government is achieving precisely the opposite result.
The future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is at stake. As its democracy and the prospects for peace unravel, so will the US-Israel relationship. It is only a matter of time. If AIPAC truly cares about the State of Israel, and the state’s relationship with the US, it should be spending every waking hour making sure this does not happen.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.