I am a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the premier American pro-Israel lobby. AIPAC plays a vital role in bolstering America's alliance with the Jewish state, from galvanizing Congressional backing for U.S. military and economic aid, to marshaling moral and political support for its right to self-defense. But AIPAC has not always defined "support for Israel" the way many American Jews and Israelis do.
AIPAC claims that it champions the policies of the elected Israeli government, whatever they may be. But it does not faithfully live up to this promise: Over the past 20 years, it has supported right-wing governments in Israel wholeheartedly, while being halfhearted, or worse, about the policies of left-wing administrations. And when Israel is ruled from the right, AIPAC's credo makes supporting Israel synonymous with lining up behind policies which many American Jews - and often the other half or more of the Israeli public - think baneful for Israel's quest for peace and security.
Indeed, AIPAC sometimes tries to be more Israeli than the Israeli government, urging American Jews and their elected representatives in Washington to oppose moderate, responsible positions on Israel, while hewing to the hardest line on the Israeli and American Jewish political spectrum.
Earlier this year, following the Hamas electoral earthquake in the Palestinian Authority, AIPAC wrote and championed a bill called the Palestinian Anti- Terrorism Act of 2006, which fortunately failed to become the law of the land. This bill called not only for sanctions against the Hamas-led PA, but for a sweeping and unprecedented boycott of Fatah and PLO officials like Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his allies in the Palestinian Legislative Council. In contrast to Hamas, Abbas advocates peace and negotiations with Israel and opposes terrorism and violence. He merits support, not sanctions.
Furthermore, the bill incorporated a laundry list of pie-in-the-sky conditions for removing the new sanctions that were unrelated to Hamas or to stopping terror. It would have blocked the United States from aiding or dealing with any part of the Palestinian leadership, even were Hamas sent packing. It deprived the president of a national security waiver (common to other sanctions legislation) for special circumstances when such flexibility is deemed essential for safeguarding American security interests. And after U.S. intelligence agencies failed to predict Hamas' electoral victory, the bill virtually barred the CIA from operating covertly in the Palestinian arena to gather intelligence on Islamic extremists - another blow to U.S. and Israeli national security.
The bill was so blunt an instrument it might well have strengthened Hamas, spawning greater anarchy and chaos in the West Bank and Gaza, escalating the security threats facing both Israel and the United States in the region. Indeed, the Bush administration itself strenuously opposed the AIPAC-backed House bill. It would have hamstrung U.S. efforts to ensure that Abbas "can fulfill his duties as president, prevent Hamas from taking over the rest of the PA and the PLO, and prevail in any confrontation with Hamas," according to a memo sent by the administration to Congress. Nor did the bill's follies end there.
The saga of the bill's demise has become the butt of a new controversy sparked by the initiative of three of America's leading center-left Zionist groups - Americans for Peace Now, Israel Policy Forum and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom - and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to explore, with philanthropist George Soros and others, the possibility of forming a moderate, pro-Israel American Jewish lobby in Washington. These groups have worked to change the terms of AIPAC's House bill, for which they now stand accused, by AIPAC partisans, of irresponsibly opposing "legislation penalizing the Palestinians for putting their government in the hands of terrorists." They came together, charge the critics, "in an ad hoc coalition to shield the Hamas-led PA from Congressional sanctions." In fact, all the groups supported sanctions against Hamas, but not the AIPAC bill's more sweeping bid to ostracize all Palestinian leaders.
The Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act was not scuttled by a cabal of left-wing American Jewish Benedict Arnolds, but by AIPAC's own overreaching ultra-hawkish House bill, which was not amended along the lines requested by the Bush administration. To no one's surprise, it proved difficult to reconcile with the Senate legislation favored by the administration. Nor is the battle over: AIPAC is mobilizing still to pass the anti-terrorism act. Will it now encourage the United States and Israel to seize the opening of a new Palestinian technocrat government to help Israel achieve a truce and progress toward a two-state solution? Or will it continue to throw unreasonable obstacles in the way?
Few expect AIPAC to fight for a U.S.-Israeli peace initiative involving Syria or the Palestinians when it is needed most, creating incentives for curbing Hezbollah and Hamas militants. We must, to prevent a new and more ruinous war.
A new pro-Israel umbrella group or resource center would likely work in tandem with AIPAC for the same robust American backing for Israel's military, economic and diplomatic needs, as its constituent groups have long done. But when AIPAC sabotages the mission of dovish Israeli governments, or of a U.S. president collaborating with them; when it flexes its political muscles to push Congress to adopt reckless legislation which jeopardizes the chance for a future Arab-Israeli peace; when it marches in lock step off the cliff with a pro-settlement Israeli coalition opposed even to the most cautious peace probes with Israel's Arab neighbors - a new Israel lobby could actively work to give voice to the many American Jews who see eye-to-eye with the sensible and the sane.
I'm going to continue contributing to AIPAC, an indispensable bulwark for Israel. But that won't stop me from helping other Jewish organizations and a pro- Israel American Jewish citizens' lobby that is in better synch with my pragmatic Zionist outlook, my centrist American politics, my commitment to the progressive values of the Jewish tradition, and to the policies that I am convinced Israel's welfare and America's own national security demand.
Gidon D. Remba, a veteran Chicago-based Israel activist, is coauthor of the forthcoming "The Great Rift: Arab-Israeli War and Peace in the New Middle East."
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