Opinion |

Will Trump Cause a Crisis for AIPAC?

Right-wing American Jews have become a bit deranged, expecting messianic outcomes for Israel from an entirely unpredictable Trump administration. And they want AIPAC to play along.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016.
Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. Credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

AIPAC is facing a major crisis. It is losing its clout on Capitol Hill. Politicians no longer fear its disfavor. It is being outflanked on both the right and left by relatively new, upstart lobbies that are far better at playing the Washington game. This, at least, is the contention of Armin Rosen in a very lengthy and much-discussed analysis appearing in the on-line journal Tablet.

According to Rosen, AIPAC has been tripped up by its long-time strategy of insisting on bipartisan consensus for the positions it advocates. Committed to the proposition that Israel is a vital ally of the United States, AIPAC supports military aid and political backing for the Jewish state. But it won’t generally endorse a bill without support from both sides of the political aisle, and it refuses to get tough with members of Congress who decline to back its positions. For example, it does not grade members of Congress on their pro-Israel bona fides and doesn’t publish voting records on Israel issues.

Rosen suggests that AIPAC’s insistence on building consensus might have made sense at one time, but doesn’t any longer. Creating consensus doesn’t work when the parties can’t agree on anything. How can you defend the middle ground when there is no middle ground? He also notes that other lobbying groups, smaller but tougher and more ideologically focused, have moved into AIPAC territory. For example, there is J Street on the left and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and the Emergency Committee for Israel on the right.

The crisis is an immediate one for AIPAC, Rosen argues, because of the election of Donald Trump, “an effusively pro-Israel president.” Trump has little patience for play-by-the-rules politics in general and was offended by AIPAC’s apology for Trump’s attack on President Obama at the AIPAC annual policy conference last year. It is entirely possible, in Rosen’s view, that Trump will cast aside AIPAC and its cautious bipartisanship, preferring to embrace the more assertive, right-wing groups that better reflect Trump’s political style and outlook.

Rosen’s recommendation is that AIPAC dump its outdated, middle-of-the-road approach. Instead, he urges, AIPAC should realize that if it wishes to win political battles in Washington, it must stop trying to be all things to all people and embrace the hardline views of our new president.

Rosen’s article is important, less for its flawed conclusions than for what it tells us about right-wing thinking on Israel in the American Jewish community. American politics are in disarray, to be sure, and a certain element of confusion is inevitable. But right-wing Jews, it seems, have become a bit deranged, expecting messianic outcomes for Israel when the future is impossible to predict.

Let’s take a quick look at some of Rosen’s assertions.

First: “No one is afraid of AIPAC.” Really? AIPAC has a hundred thousand members and a grassroots presence in every state and congressional district. It has the largest budget of any lobby on foreign affairs in Washington. Its constituency groups can flood the office of any member of Congress with calls, letters, and emails within 24 hours. It now has some vigorous competition in Washington, and that’s mostly a blessing. But Rosen has it wrong. AIPAC can still strike fear into the heart of virtually any elected official on Capitol Hill.

Second: The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) will become the pro-Israel “validator” for segments of the Republican Party. Hardly. It is a tiny organization with a handful of members that lost its charitable status in 2012 for failure to file income tax returns. (It was restored a year later.) Its communications department does an impressive job for a group with no significant grassroots presence. But its clout is minimal, and not even a tiny fraction of what AIPAC possesses. Every member of Congress knows this.

Third: Donald Trump is, in Rosen’s words, an “effusively pro-Israel” president. His case for AIPAC’s right turn flows from his view that Trump is Israel’s greatest champion and that therefore AIPAC should embrace him and forget about Democrats, bipartisanship, etc.

But, in fact, there is still no way of telling what the Trump administration will do on Israel. Trump has surrounded himself with Russophiles (Rex Tillerson), Islamophobes (Michael Flynn), pro-settlement fanatics (David Friedman), foreign policy neophytes (Jared Kushner), and voices of the traditional foreign policy establishment (James Mattis). When we add to this mix a thin-skinned, erratic, totally inexperienced, and ideology-free commander in chief, what we have is not a “pro-Israel president” but an unholy and unpredictable mess.

But Rosen is right on one critical point. The pro-Israel consensus that once existed and that AIPAC worked hard to shape has evaporated. Since the early 1990s, Republicans and Democrats have supported a two-state solution as the goal of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. And the governments of Israel, including those led by Benjamin Netanyahu, have endorsed two states as well. But now the Republicans have removed two states from their party platform, and Netanyahu, while continuing his support in principle, is making two states impossible in practice by non-stop expansion of settlements. The Palestinians meanwhile have put up countless obstacles of their own to a two-state outcome. The Democrats have remained two state advocates, although some in their camp insist on blaming the Israelis more than the Palestinians for the failure of progress toward peace.

The point is that if AIPAC has not been more successful, it is not due to its bumbling, its weakness, or its failure to adopt a “take-no-prisoners” approach to Washington lobbying. It is, by any accounting, an extraordinary success story. But as support for a two-state solution has collapsed, with ample input from all sides, the result has been a political stalemate and a measure of despair that even the most energetic pro-Israel lobby could not overcome.

So what is the answer now? It is surely not, as Rosen implies, for AIPAC to move right and to embrace the settlement obsession of the most right-wing Israelis. The Trump administration may or may not move in that direction. But if it does, most Americans, Jews included, will be disappointed if not disgusted. In a Brookings Institute study, released in November of 2016, almost half of Americans favored economic sanctions against Israel if it continued to expand settlements.

AIPAC can best stay vibrant, relevant, and strong by not turning either right or left but by hugging the center. With national politics in disarray, both parties struggling, and President Trump’s future wildly uncertain, bipartisanship and support for two states are more important than ever.

Yes, AIPAC should be saying that the U.S. was wrong not to veto the Security Council resolution on settlements because the Jewish state cannot get a fair hearing at the United Nations. And it should be saying that Secretary of State John Kerry was wrong to place almost all the blame for the political stalemate on Israel and almost none on the Palestinians.

But AIPAC should also be endorsing long-standing American policy that unrestrained Israeli settlement undermines the prospect of peace. And it should be giving primary emphasis to a two-state solution—a subject that is virtually absent from its annual conferences, educational materials, and website.

The Trump era is the time for AIPAC to focus on principle rather than politics. It is the time for America’s premier pro-Israel lobby not to fawn over Trump, but to bring in more Republicans and Democrats, more conservatives and liberals, and many more young people. And this can be done only in one way: By advocating, vigorously and emphatically, for the two-state solution that AIPAC affirms it already supports.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie

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