Obama and His Administration Should Stay Away From This Year’s AIPAC Conference

It’s time to force AIPAC to choose between real bipartisanship and hawkish policies that Obama says could lead to war.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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U.S. President Barack Obama waves after speaking at the AIPAC convention in Washington Sunday, May 22, 2011.
U.S. President Barack Obama waves after speaking at the AIPAC convention in Washington Sunday, May 22, 2011.Credit: AP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

Right about now, the Obama White House is probably trying to decide whom to send to address AIPAC’s annual policy conference, set for early March. In 2010, it sent Hillary Clinton. In 2013, it sent Joe Biden. In 2011 and 2012, it sent Obama itself.

This year, Team Obama should try something different: Send no one at all.

AIPAC, after all, is working hard to pass Iran sanctions legislation. Obama insists such legislation will ruin his chances of reaching a diplomatic deal with Tehran, a deal that would constitute the most important foreign policy achievement of his presidency. As a general rule, presidents don’t reward organizations fighting their top agenda items by dispatching high-ranking officials to speak at their conferences. I doubt the White House is sending anyone to this April’s annual meeting of the NRA.

Historically, these normal political rules haven’t applied to AIPAC. The organization has stayed on good terms with administrations of both parties even while pushing back against White House pressure on Israeli leaders to make concessions to the Palestinians. But by pushing an Iran sanctions bill right now, AIPAC is doing something unprecedented. It’s one thing to quietly gum up the peace process. It’s another to lead the charge for legislation that the White House has warned could lead to war.

If the White House snubs AIPAC, some in the organized Jewish world will declare it an offense against American Jews as a whole. But that’s silly. Top Obama officials endlessly attend, or host, Jewish-themed events. Last year, John Kerry spoke to the American Jewish Committee. Joe Biden addressed J Street. Obama attended an annual Passover Seder. The White House hosted an annual Hanukkah party. In past years, it’s even hosted receptions for Jewish American Jewish Heritage Month, whatever that is.

The White House can withstand the criticism it would receive for not sending a speaker to AIPAC, especially since Obama is not running again. Most American Jews wouldn’t care, and anyway, most American Jews support Obama’s Iran policy.

The real damage would be to AIPAC, an organization currently trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, AIPAC must stay on good terms with Benjamin Netanyahu, who hates Obama’s nuclear diplomacy. It must also satisfy conservative donors who might defect to smaller, more right-wing Jewish organizations—as Sheldon Adelson did when AIPAC backed aid to the Palestinians in 2007 —if they felt AIPAC wasn’t adequately combatting Obama’s policies. On the other, AIPAC includes lots of Democrats who want the organization to remain friendly with a Democratic president. And AIPAC needs an open door to the Obama administration in order to play the behind-the-scenes intermediary role between Israeli and American leaders on which it prides itself.

The appearance of bipartisanship is essential to AIPAC’s business model. And yet that bipartisanship is, in some ways, a ruse. The group’s hawkish foreign policy stances on both Iran and the Palestinians are far more in line with Republican than Democratic public opinion. Demographically, AIPAC is increasingly populated by Orthodox Jews, who - in contrast to American Jewry as whole—generally vote Republican. It’s true that the Iran sanctions bill AIPAC is pushing has garnered 19 Democratic—along with 43 Republican—co-sponsorships. But congressional sources say bluntly that many of those Democratic senators are only supporting the bill because AIPAC, and like-minded groups, want them to.

By refusing to help AIPAC have it both ways, the Obama White House might cause some of the Democrats in the organization to question the group’s current Iran strategy. And it would fuel the public perception—which has been building since the birth of the dovish J Street in 2009—that AIPAC is a Republican-leaning group. As former AIPAC staffer Steve Rosen told Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last week, “AIPAC puts a premium on bipartisan consensus and maintaining communication with the White House.” Not procuring a high-level administration speaker for its annual conference “would be devastating to AIPAC’s image of bipartisanship.”

I doubt the White House will take my advice. For one thing, it may feel it owes AIPAC for supporting its short-lived push for military action against Syria last year. And on Israel, this administration rarely plays hardball. A few months after Benjamin Netanyahu all but endorsed Mitt Romney, Obama flew to Jerusalem and practically serenaded the Israeli leader.

But if Obama doesn’t make AIPAC pay a price for its sanctions push now, the group will likely keep undermining his diplomatic efforts with Iran for the rest of his presidency. A frank expression of disapproval, by contrast, might embolden those congressional Democrats who quietly disagree with AIPAC’s agenda, but fear publicly saying so.

Early in his career, according to legend, Boston Celtics center Bill Russell found himself repeatedly manhandled by rougher players. His coach, Red Auerbach, urged him to throw an elbow, not discreetly, but during a nationally televised game so everyone would see. Russell did, and the rough play subsided.

That’s what Obama should do now. He should treat AIPAC by the same rules he’d apply to another other lobby that threatens his presidential agenda. If he throws that elbow, my guess is AIPAC—and many others in Washington—will remember it for a very long time.

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