Nathan Guttman on AIPAC: A Waning Superpower?
by Rachel E. Gross
Is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobbying group, facing a crisis of power?
That’s the argument of this lengthy analysis by Connie Bruck in this week’s New Yorker, which tracks the evolution of the lobbying superstar. In “Friends of Israel,” she argues that after a spectacular rise to power over the past half-century, AIPAC may have finally reached a crossroads. “For decades, AIPAC has thrived on bipartisanship, exerting its influence on congressional Democrats and Republicans alike,” writes Bruck, who profiled casino magnate Sheldon Adelson for the magazine in 2008. “But Israel’s government, now dominated by a coalition of right-wing parties led by Likud, has made compromise far less likely than it was a generation ago.”
One of the main reasons? AIPAC has fallen out of touch with American Jews, who are sharply divided over Israel, says Bruck. As Israel’s recent actions in Gaza have brought to the fore, more liberal American Jews have stared distancing themselves from the country’s center-right government and its attitudes toward Palestinians. Bruck supports the trend with statistics from a widely-discussed poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in July, which found that 73 percent of Republicans support Israel, while just 44 percent of Democrats are still in favor of the country’s actions.
“This difference represents a schism among American Jews—AIPAC’s vital core,” Bruck writes. “For decades, the Jewish community was generally united in its support for Israel. Today, a growing number of American Jews, though still devoted to Israel, struggle with the lack of progress toward peace with the Palestinians. Many feel that AIPAC does not speak for them. ”
By interweaving keen political analysis with anecdotes about AIPAC’s back-door meetings with politicians, the New Yorker story gives an eye-opening look at the lobbying process, says Nathan Guttman, the current Washington correspondent for the Jewish Daily Forward who has been covering Jewish politics and AIPAC for 15 years. “It really gives a vivid sense of how AIPAC works, and that’s what makes it worth reading,” Guttman tells Moment. “I think many people have this image that it’s all about donors and money and bigwigs, whereas a lot of it is just very successful grassroots organizing. AIPAC can launch an email campaign; it can threaten with holding donations or cancelling fundraisers. It works on all levels.”
Yet Guttman believes that Bruck’s thesis—that AIPAC’s decline may be imminent—may be overstated. “It’s not some sort of a doomsday scenario,” says Guttman. “AIPAC is growing all the time. Its fundraising is increasing from year to year, they have a ton of activists, and they’ve enjoyed an infusion of support from the evangelical right that they didn’t have a few years ago. So, yes, they’re facing problems with the progressive Democrats and younger Democrats in general. But they’re not about to be wiped off in the map.”
Guttman points to AIPAC’s recent clash with the Obama administration over Iranian sanctions. In October, the administration entered into talks with other world powers to convince Iran to scale back on its nuclear capabilities. To ease negotiations, President Obama began pushing Congress to lift some of the tough sanctions that had crippled Iran’s economy—a move AIPAC strongly opposed. In response, the lobbying group pulled out all the stops, seeking to influence its friends in Congress to instead toughen the sanctions. “This was the first time in decades that the lobby had challenged the sitting U.S. President so overtly,” Bruck writes.
To AIPAC’s chagrin, Obama went ahead and lifted the sanctions. Many, including Bruck, took this as a sign that AIPAC’s power was on the wane. “Has AIPAC lost its mojo?” asked an online article in The New Stateman.
But Guttman disagrees. “That’s not a fair interpretation,” he says. “We tend to think sometimes of AIPAC as this omnipotent body that never loses. But the fact of the matter is that whenever AIPAC enters into any kind of really disputed issue, it’s in trouble. We’ve seen that in the past, and we see it again here.” (Similarly, Jonathan Tobin of Commentary Magazine wrote this week that critiques of AIPAC failing to gain bipartisan support are “old hat.” “The pro-Israel lobby has had its ups and downs,” Tobin writes. “No matter how much support AIPAC can amass on Capitol Hill, no lobbying group can beat the occupant of the mansion at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue if they go all in on a specific issue.”)
Furthermore, polls the cite the split among diaspora Jews over Israel aren’t failsafe, Guttman adds. This week, a recent Brandeis University study challenged the Pew numbers, reporting that “while American young adults may hold Israel responsible for the recent conflict in Gaza, American Jewish young adults do not, and in fact, are overwhelmingly supportive of Israel’s military response.” The study found that 79 percent of young Jewish-Americans surveyed still supported Israel in the recent war.
Finally, says Guttman, AIPAC’s rightward slide is nothing new. He should know: In 2006, he penned an opinion column titled “Has AIPAC Grown More Conservative?” in the pages of Moment. In it, he analyzed the three factors that shape AIPAC policy:
“First, it is natural for AIPAC to lean toward Likud since Israel has been led by Likud governments for most of the last three decades,” Guttman wrote. “The second factor is that AIPAC is consensus-based. This means that its leadership much spend much time and effort to convince its members and supporters to change their views, while in Israel, policy shifts require a mere 51 percent majority in the Knesset. Third is AIPAC’s need to remain effective by keeping up with changes in American politics. The lobby must communicate not only with Democrats, who are the Jewish community’s natural partners, but also with Republicans.”
Since 2006, AIPAC has continued to move to the right, Guttman says. While he sees no dire crisis for the lobbying group, he does admit that this trend has alienated some American Jews. “AIPAC is growing consistently a little more conservative, a little more hawkish,” he says. “Not dramatically, but it is an incremental process.”