AIPAC Falls Victim to Polarizing Politics

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1. AIPAC’s horrible week

It’s not easy being a bipartisan lobby during an election year. Things get even worse when your main lobbying issue is America’s ties with another country, and that country also happens to be in an election year.

And yet, AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, should have been able to navigate this minefield a little more gracefully. The lobby, known for its political savviness, has demonstrated its mastery of political nuance in the past, knowing exactly how far it can go in stepping on the toes of one side (usually the Democrats) without alienating it altogether. AIPAC has shown its ability to remain a welcome guest and a trusted adviser regardless of the party occupying the White House or holding the majority in Congress.

This week, however, was different.

It started with one leading Democratic candidate, Elizabeth Warren, nodding in agreement as an IfNotNow activist accused AIPAC of allying with Islamophobes, anti-Semites and white nationalists. Warren then replied with an enthusiastic “yeah” when asked if she’ll boycott AIPAC’s upcoming conference in early March.

Then, news broke of the paid ads AIPAC has been running on Facebook in which the lobby boldly attacked “radical” Democrats. The ads, one depicting a young child wrapped in Israeli and American flags and another starring Democratic Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Betty McCollum, warned against the danger posed by “radicals in the Democratic Party” who are “pushing their anti-Semitic and anti-Israel policies down the throats of the American people.” The ads then led to an online petition urging the continuation of U.S. military aid to Israel. (You can find details of these ads and how they evolved in Ron Kampeas’s excellent account of the case in JTA.)

What came next was an extremely unusual announcement from AIPAC: The lobby offered an “unequivocal apology to the overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress who are rightfully offended by the inaccurate assertion that the poorly-worded, inflammatory advertisements implied.”

 

To sum it up: AIPAC ventured beyond its bipartisan comfort zone and took an ugly jab at Democrats; it got a ton of pushback (from Democrats, board members and the media) and ended up retracting its statements and apologizing. Not the type of conduct you’d expect from one of the most effective lobbying powerhouses in America.

2. How did they mess things up this bad?

AIPAC, as this past week’s incident shows, is not immune to America’s growing polarization over the question of Israel. In fact, in many ways, it is the direct target of those trying to re-define what it means to be pro-Israel.

From the left, AIPAC has taken hits from J Street, which in its slow and steady manner has successfully positioned itself as a dovish (yet smaller in impact) alternative to AIPAC’s pro-any-Israeli-government line. From the far left, AIPAC has faced fire from groups such as IfNotNow, which have a noticeable presence despite their marginal numbers.

On the right, AIPAC has seen increased opposition to its support of a two-state solution. The Zionist Organization of America, once confined to right-wing margins of the organized Jewish community, has been mainstreamed in the Trump era and has seen its influence grow. More importantly, the Sheldon Adelson-funded Israeli-American Council, though it describes itself as apolitical, still has political ties that helped book Trump as their keynote speaker this year.

Stuck in the middle, AIPAC  struggles to keep Israel somewhat above the political fray and to formulate a new consensus over what it means to be pro-Israel in a polarized America. 

3. The real—and perceived—threats to the U.S.-Israel alliance

But where does this new consensus lay?

In the old world, AIPAC—and most of the organized pro-Israel Jewish community—had a clear agenda: support for U.S. military aid to Israel, resolution of the conflict based on a two-state solution (without too much pressure on Israel) and ensuring Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.

All of these have since been muddled.

Unconditional military aid is no longer the mainstay of the Democratic Party’s approach to the region. Sure, most Democrats are still on board with the idea of providing Israel with a $3.8 billion annual aid package, no questions asked. But when leading candidates vying to become the party’s standard-bearers, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (and perhaps Pete Buttigieg, who has waffled on the issue), state they won’t sign a blank check, AIPAC understands that reality has changed. This is the reason for its now-retracted ad campaign, and this is why the Democratic Majority for Israel, a PAC with a similar approach to AIPAC’s, has run attack ads against Sanders in Iowa.

The two-state solution is also no longer a consensus. It has been denounced by powerful pro-Israel groups on the right and has been diminished by Trump’s peace plan (which was endorsed by Benjamin Netanyahu) by drafting a map that strays far from the 1967 borders and mounting requirements for Palestinians to even enter negotiations on a state which will not control its borders or have a military force.

And while Iran still remains a source of concern to all sides (despite deep differences on how to deal with it) much of the pro-Israel resources have been dedicated in recent years to fighting BDS, a boycott movement that has shown little to no impact on Israel’s economy or its global standing.

4. Left out of Trump’s plan

As the pro-Israel field turns more polarized, the role of middle-of-the-road groups becomes less important. AIPAC noticed this during the 2015 debate over the Iran nuclear deal when the Obama administration focused on working with more liberal Jewish groups that showed support for the plan. The trend became even clearer in the past few years, as the Trump administration worked to formulate its peace plan. AIPAC was consulted with, but so was everyone else. Top officials in the Jewish world say that Trump’s peace team, led by Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt at the time, made an effort to reach out to all groups, with very general presentations. The details, the ins and outs of the plan, which used to be a place where AIPAC could show its strength, were kept to the White House team and Israel’s ambassador to Washington. AIPAC heard about the details when announced in the White House East Room just like everyone else.

5. But AIPAC is not down

AIPAC may have taken a hit with its clumsy attempt to fight back liberal criticism of Israeli policies while refusing to jump on the Trump bandwagon. But in three weeks, when tens of thousands of the lobby’s activists descend on the Washington Convention Center and then flock to Capitol Hill, it will be yet another very visual demonstration where the power of the pro-Israel community rests.

For decades, AIPAC has maintained its bipartisan status (critics would argue it is no more than a bipartisan veneer) by appointing board members from both sides, working hard to welcome Democrats and Republicans alike, and avoiding unnecessary partisan battles.

That is no longer sufficient.

The idea that Israel is a bipartisan issue has been laid to rest. Now, the lobby needs to break down the definition of pro-Israelism and find elements in it that can be supported by both sides. If it allows partisanship to take hold, AIPAC will cease to exist. No one needs another partisan pro-Israel group. There are plenty out there already, and they’re doing a pretty good job.

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