Five Things To Know This Week: AIPAC and Bibi Clash

By | Feb 26, 2019

1. Are Bibi and AIPAC no longer BFFs?

As promised last week, the Ilhan Omar controversy has died out and made way for a fresh debate. And yes, once again it’s about AIPAC and once again it’s tearing the pro-Israel community apart. For those who spent their weekend watching Oscar-nominated movies instead of following the news, the controversy, in short, has to do with AIPAC tweeting an unequivocal condemnation of Otzma Yehudit, an extremist Israeli political party made up of followers of Meir Kahane’s racist Kach. What’s the big deal about the tweet? Criticizing a marginal Israeli political movement for its anti-Arab racism is nothing new, even for mainstream Jewish organizations. But this time, it’s the context that matters. Otzma Yehudit had just entered a political deal that will likely ensure its members get elected to the Knesset and become partners in the next coalition, if Netanyahu wins the elections. And who was behind this deal? None other than Netanyahu himself, who orchestrated the move in order to ensure that votes to splinter right-wing parties don’t get lost. So when AIPAC lashes out at Otzma Yehudit for being “reprehensible,” they are basically speaking out against Bibi Netanyahu, who used all of his political clout to partner with Otzma Yehudit.

The news of AIPAC, America’s largest pro-Israel lobby considered to be generally supportive of the Likud government, taking a shot at Netanyahu dominated headlines in Israel. Opposition figures argued that Netanyahu had lost the most important bastion of American support. Right wingers warned AIPAC not to meddle in Israeli internal politics. Even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked about it. He declined to take a position in the debate.

So, is the relationship between Bibi and AIPAC on the rocks? Not so fast. Sure, it’s highly unusual for the lobby to publicly criticize the Israeli prime minister, and this is definitely an important message from American Jews to Netanyahu. As such, it highlights how human rights have emerged as the biggest rift dividing the American Jewish community and Israel. But it’s still no more than a dispute within the family. Netanyahu will be greeted warmly when he comes to address the AIPAC policy conference next month and there will be countless standing ovations during the speech. AIPAC and Netanyahu disagree on legitimizing Kahanist racists, but they agree on Iran, foreign aid for Israel and anti-BDS legislation.

Then why did AIPAC break with tradition and speak out on a domestic Israeli political issue? The answers rests in the nature of AIPAC. Demonized by the left as an ideological right-wing bully and criticized from the right for sticking (at least rhetorically) to a two-state solution, AIPAC works hard to please all sides. This is the strategy that separates mega-groups from parochial organizations. AIPAC can’t afford to be biased to one side of the debate. That’s what niche groups like J Street or the ZOA are for. Mega-groups need massive support, and that can come only from the center. And that’s why AIPAC is continuously engaged in a never-ending balancing act. It struggles to balance its hawkish support base with the moderate Jewish community; to carefully build a board of lay leaders that reflects both Republicans and Democrats; to find a middle ground between Israeli government actions and U.S. policies; and to make sure the lobby reflects, in the broadest sense, the American Jewish community within which it operates. This last point is the reason behind AIPAC’s decision to delve into the Western Wall egalitarian prayer area debate in the summer of 2017, and it is the driving force behind speaking out now against Otzma Yehudit.

2. Will Bibi pay a political price?

To believe that there is a political price for Netanyahu to pay because American Jews are angry at his courting of a racist party is to believe that Israeli voters care about what American Jews think. They don’t. The last thing that could sway voters heading to the polls in April is whether the party leader they are about to vote for maintains good relations with Jews overseas. It’s simply not an issue in the Israeli political discourse. Furthermore, Israeli voters have proven in the past that they no longer care about how well their leader gets along with the sitting U.S. president. Netanyahu may be boasting now about his great friendship with the president, but last elections his campaign tried to win votes by showcasing his fights with Obama, who was president at the time.

3. All this attention is really bad for AIPAC

AIPAC, as noted when discussing last week’s controversy, steers clear of public attention. While controversies are good for fundraising (and AIPAC is practiced in raising money off crisis situations), they’re bad for lobbying. AIPAC wanted to play it safe. It chose a single tweet without any direct mention of Netanyahu to express the lobby’s dismay over the welcome mat rolled out to Otzma Yehudit, hoping this would both reflect the sentiment of the Jewish community while not igniting an overt conflict with Netanyahu. That didn’t work. After years of toeing Netanyahu’s line, even the slightest negative comment by AIPAC is interpreted as a major rift, which the lobby will try to mend when it hosts him next month in Washington.

4. Robert Kraft—a Jewish problem?

Here’s something to ponder as news breaks of another disgraced member of the tribe. Is there a communal sense of shonda in place following the news that Robert Kraft was charged with soliciting prostitution? It’s a classic dilemma everyone in the community has faced more than once. Here’s a handy way of knowing: If you elbowed the guy next to you when the Patriots won and said “you know he’s Jewish,” then you probably need to own it now. And if the community, as a collective, chose to bestow on Kraft its highest honor, the Genesis Prize, then he’s yours, for better or worse.

5. Peace plan watch: Jared mentions “borders” and Israelis panic

Jared Kushner talked, which is in itself news, given the first son-in-law’s known reluctance for public speaking. And he talked about the Trump administration’s upcoming peace plan in an interview with Sky News in Arabic. Kushner—and this should surprise no one—didn’t say much. But he did say that the peace plan he’s been working on will focus on “drawing the borders” between Israelis and Palestinians. Where will these borders be drawn? Kushner would not say. But the mere mention of borders sent the Israeli political system into a frenzy. The New Right, a party led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, was quick to warn voters that Trump is going to establish a Palestinian state and the only way to prevent him from doing so is voting for Bennett and Shaked, who will join Netanyahu’s coalition from the right and make sure he doesn’t agree to the plan. Netanyahu responded with a promise that, just as he “protected the land of Israel” from “Obama’s hostile administration,” he will do the same in face of the “Trump’s supportive administration.”

Image: Amos Ben Gershom/Israel GPO

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