Opinion

AIPAC's Choice: Be Apolitical or Be Honest About Political Affiliation

These days, many on the Israeli center-left view AIPAC as nothing more than the U.S. branch of Likud. Here's what the pro-Israel lobby needs to do to correct that.

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer addressing AIPAC, March 26, 2017.
ANDREW BIRAJ/AFP

Thousands of American Jews are in Washington for the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. This year’s gathering of the pro-Israel lobby convenes against the backdrop of a possible return to bipartisan policy, after being pulled toward the Republicans in recent years while losing its longtime standing with the Democratic Party.

AIPAC’s rightward shift widened, to an even greater extent, the gap between the pro-Israel lobby and the American-Jewish public, which in last November’s presidential election chose to cast two-thirds of its vote for the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.

AIPAC says its official policy is to strengthen the alliance between Israel and the United States, in order to promote the security interests of both countries. But in a reality where political polarization in both the United States and Israel is at a peak, it’s hard to understand how such a goal can be carried out without first engaging in a substantive debate over what these interests are.

In recent years, the organization has been identified with two primary positions when it comes to the geopolitics of the Middle East: support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejectionist diplomatic stance; and blatant opposition to the nuclear agreement that the six world powers reached with Iran in 2015.

Officially, AIPAC states that it supports a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. But as is true with Netanyahu, the lobbying group’s actions in recent years raise doubts about the sincerity of its support. Indeed, the center-left camp in Israel and the progressive camp in the United States have for a long time regarded AIPAC as an opponent of the two-state solution.

If the organization wants to correct this impression, it must accept the fact that support for the two-state solution is not consistent with support for the position of the present Israeli government and its leader, who has transformed the status quo from strategy into a deep-rooted ideology.

AIPAC must recognize that the Israeli right is adopting the one-state idea while denying its implications for Israel’s security, character and international standing. The celebrations on the right over U.S. President Donald Trump’s February statement on the two-state solution (“I am looking at two states or one state, and I like the one that both parties like”) prove this.

On the Iranian issue, AIPAC played an active role in attempts to thwart the nuclear agreement. AIPAC’s stinging failure severely damaged the standing and prestige of the organization, whose involvement showed more than anything else its willingness to gamble over Israel’s vital security needs. The nuclear deal may not have been ideal, but it was good for Israel – as Israel’s security establishment believed – and, mostly, it was preferable to any other realistic possibility.

The question here is not whether the nuclear agreement itself harmed or improved Israel’s national security, but whether the crude intervention of the Israeli government in U.S. politics, with the support and assistance of AIPAC, harmed the relationship between the two countries – a relationship that is seemingly AIPAC’s raison d’tre.

The problem is not that AIPAC tried to promote an agenda its leadership believed in, but that it tried to do so in the name of Israel’s national interest, while at the same time undermining it. It is no surprise that, today, many on the Israeli center-left view AIPAC as nothing more than the U.S. branch of Likud.

We live in an era of growing political polarization. In both Israel and the United States, two political camps exist that are finding it increasingly difficult to find points of agreement and common denominators between themselves. AIPAC pretends to think it is capable of rising above these disagreements and advancing the national interests of both countries. But in order to do so, the Jewish organization will have to choose. Either it does not play a role in the political arena, and then is forbidden to interfere in controversial issues (and focus on preserving military aid to Israel, for example), or it has positions on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Iran, and then must stop claiming it is not identified with either one of the camps.

Otherwise, the claims of its accusers will be proven, according to which its bipartisan mantle (in U.S. political terms) or apolitical stance (in Israeli terms) is nothing but a public relations ploy.

The writer is executive director of Molad – the Center for Renewal of Israeli Democracy.