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AIPAC Is More Demonized and Divisive Than Ever. Here’s How to Fix It

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC conference. March 6, 2018
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC conference. March 6, 2018.Credit: Chaim Tzach / GPO

For those who have followed the troubled headlines swirling around the U.S.-Israel relationship in recent months, the theme of this year’s 2019 AIPAC Policy Conference — “Connected For Good” — smacks of a massive exercise in denial.

But it probably won’t feel like that for the 18,000 supporters of Israel populating the Washington Convention Center over the next three days, watching videos and attending programs about business, cultural and humanitarian initiatives in which Israel and the United States work together, as well as seeing House and Senate leaders and Vice President Mike Pence get behind an unshakable U.S.-Israel relationship.

Before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled his plans to speak at the conference due to the Gazan missile attack on a home in central Israel, his dueling speech with Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz was being billed as a display of Israel’s healthy democracy.

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And things culminate this year with a participatory singing experience led by Koolulam, in what is billed as a “cross-continental duet” in which vocals of a Motown mashup pre-recorded in Israel will be intertwined with vocals of AIPAC attendees. The final Koolulam video will include both the Israeli and American voices in perfect harmony — just the way AIPAC wants it.

The public face of the pro-Israel lobby’s annual conference will be as upbeat as ever. Just as a team needs its pep rally more than ever during a tough season, Israel’s supporters will draw strength from this annual energy boost and celebration of “connection” when Israelis and American Jews are feeling more disconnected than ever.

It will only be in the (closed to the press) breakout panel sessions, private meetings and informal private conversations over falafel and bagels where truths will be told and hands will be wrung.

What will be hashed out is the ongoing damage being done to the mission of the organization itself: Maintaining bipartisan U.S. support for Israel over the course of the Obama and Trump presidencies and Netanyahu’s decade-long reign.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wave after Trump's address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017. Credit: \ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Steering the boat of pro-Israel support through stormy political seas has never been simple. Despite the all-powerful image cultivated by both the organization itself and its detractors, AIPAC has hit snags before — most memorably the loan guarantee crisis when it clashed with President George H.W. Bush’s administration in the 1990s.

But the loan guarantee crisis was nothing compared to the massive rupture in AIPAC’s relationship with the Democratic Party following the head-on collision in 2014-15 over the Iran nuclear deal — the signature foreign policy effort of the Obama White House — and the failure of former Secretary of State John Kerry to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process

It was these experiences that weaponized MoveOn’s call for Democratic presidential candidates not to show up at this year’s conference, on the grounds that AIPAC “has worked to hinder diplomatic efforts like the Iran deal, is undermining Palestinian self-determination, and [is] inviting figures actively involved in human rights violations to its stage.”

As has been pointed out, the response of a laundry list of 2020 presidential hopefuls when asked whether they would heed the call and refrain from participating in the AIPAC confab “in any capacity” was largely symbolic. None of the candidates actually refused invitations to speak this year (unlike presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016). AIPAC does not invite presidential candidates to speak until their number has been whittled down in the actual election year. However, many have shown up in the past for closed-door, off-the record meetings.

If the Netanyahu-Obama era clashes opened a crack in AIPAC’s mission of maintaining support for Israel in both political parties, the past two years of President Donald Trump have taken that crack and driven a jackhammer into it.

But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. There was fair warning in 2016 when Trump declared from the AIPAC stage that Obama “may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel” to an audience that responded with applause — much to the chagrin of AIPAC’s leadership, which was forced to do damage control.

“We do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense to those that are levied against the president of the United States of America from our stage,” AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus said the day after Trump spoke. Words like Trump’s, she said, have “the potential to drive us apart, to divide us.”

Today, that sounds like the understatement of the year, following Trump’s comments earlier this month that the Democrats are “totally anti-Israel” and “Frankly, I think they’re anti-Jewish.”

Screengrab of the AIPAC Policy Conference slogan for 2019: Connected for Good. Credit: Screengrab

Three years after the 2016 Trump debacle, AIPAC has yet to figure out how to deal with a Republican president whose evangelical-fueled bear hug of the Jewish state curries favor in Jerusalem — so much so that he is the star of Netanyahu’s campaign billboards, and enthusiastically uses the issue as an aggressive cudgel against the Democratic Party.

On the one hand, the U.S. president is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to the lobby’s political agenda: Netanyahu’s expected warm reception at the White House Monday and the Golan Heights announcement emphasize that. On the other, Trump continually undermines what AIPAC says is a central part of its mission: bipartisanship.

As tempting as it has been to give in to the hyperpartisan era, and the accusations coming from places like MoveOn, AIPAC has not given up what it feels is its nonpartisan, centrist ground. There is also tension on the right flank. Last year, pro-settler Israeli politicians and far-right groups set up an alternative conference just blocks away from AIPAC, after they were refused access to the AIPAC stage.

This year, a mini-crisis involved major pro-Israel funder Adam Milstein, who withdrew from chairing a panel this year following a series of tweets in which he accused two Muslim lawmakers of clashing with “American values.” AIPAC issued a statement saying curtly that “Mr. Milstein is not a representative of AIPAC and his views are not ours.” Milstein still bills himself as being an AIPAC leader, noting in his official biography that he belongs to the board of the group’s National Council.

But he is also chairman of the Israeli American Council — an alternative organization backed by Republican megadonor and Trump supporter Sheldon Adelson, who broke with AIPAC a decade ago over its refusal to back away from a commitment to a two-state solution. Despite this, Adelson and AIPAC are continually linked in attacks by the left as being part of the same pro-Netanyahu “Jewish establishment” that enables oppression of Palestinians.

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, March 13, 2019. The freshman congresswoman has made AIPAC headline news in recent weeks.Credit: \ LEAH MILLIS/ REUTERS

As it is pushed and pulled relentlessly by both the left and right (and its lobbying power questioned by the likes of Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar), one wonders whether AIPAC will truly survive the hyperpartisan Trump-Netanyahu era.

If it hopes to do so, it should walk away from some long-entrenched habits.

The first is abandoning the concept of supporting Israel by endorsing the policies of the state’s democratically elected government.

This was a formula that worked in decades past but has not held up well in the Netanyahu years.

If the Israeli government continues to lurch rightward and its leader remains tightly bound to a U.S. president who blatantly uses Israel to sow division, AIPAC may have to stray from that line in order to maintain its bipartisan profile.

It has already moved in that direction: Sticking to a two-state aspiration even in the face of a right-wing Israeli governing coalition that has all but abandoned it.

More recently, it surprised many when it left its nonpartisan perch and condemned the Otzma Yehudit party as being “racist and reprehensible,” after Netanyahu pushed it to join a religious bloc he plans to enlist as part of a future coalition if he wins the election.

But even more importantly, it needs to stop being so secretive.

Celebrations of U.S.-Israel harmony like the policy conference party underway at the convention center may be fun, but to fulfill its mission of Israel and the United States being “connected for good” — or even for the foreseeable future — it needs to lift the curtain on its activity on Capitol Hill.

Many of its current image problems are exacerbated by the fact it confines most of what it does to backrooms, refusing to talk to journalists extensively on the record or maintain a robust and interactive media presence.

As it stays quiet, its detractors are busy spreading their messages effectively across social media platforms, feeding conspiracy theories and demonization that borders on — and sometimes crosses the line into — anti-Semitism.

Steven J. Rosen, AIPAC’s legendary and controversial former director of foreign policy, was famous for saying: “A lobby is like a night flower: it thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.”

But without more sunlight, AIPAC’s flower is in danger of wilting completely. Gone are the days when the public conversation can be swayed by whispering in the ear of the right journalist and holding a massive pep rally for 18,000 fans once a year.

A case for AIPAC can be made, as journalist Mark Horowitz did in the New York Times recently. He pointed out that, far from being a nefarious bully that makes politicians dance like puppets by dangling money — and AIPAC is far from one of the best-funded lobbies on Capitol Hill — its strength “flows from the fact that a majority of Americans, not just Jews, are predisposed to support Israel,” and that it is natural for a lobby to channel this into political and legislative action.

Horowitz does a good job of making the case for an organization that liberal Jews like himself now “find themselves forced to defend” against the anti-Semitic dog-whistles and demonization that have been heard louder than ever lately.

AIPAC can’t depend on such favors, though. It needs to start making that case itself, before even more damage is done.

The article was revised on Tuesday March 25 to reflect Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to return early to Israel following developments on the home front.

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