WASHINGTON - You almost have to feel sorry for AIPAC.
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Almost, but not quite. The pro-Israel lobby is trying to grope its way out of a relatively dark era in its annals, but it has to contend with the wild uncertainty created by the presidency of Donald Trump, as well as the raw emotions that he generates in the Jewish community. As AIPAC’s annual conference convenes in Washington on Sunday, its leaders will try to project a strong, united and confident front – but under the veneer, apprehension abounds.
AIPAC was under siege even before Trump came along. It’s been losing ground on the Democratic left for many years, for the simple reason that Israel itself has been losing ground on the Democratic left. AIPAC was traditionally viewed by the left as a center-right – if not completely right-wing – shill for Likud governments whose job is to maintain the status quo, which, if the Likud is in power, means the occupation. For the past eight years, AIPAC has had to fend off its first serious competitor, J Street, which was often treated by the Obama administration as its pampered child.
AIPAC lost even more ground with Democrats when, contrary to its better judgment, it had no choice but to publicly back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial March 2015 speech in U.S. Congress against the Iran nuclear deal, which was seen as a direct challenge and insult to Obama.
More recently, however – and possibly more ominously, from its own point of view – AIPAC had also been under attack by the Republican right, for ostensibly opposite reasons. According to the ultra-right’s Israel-or-bust worldview, AIPAC simply isn’t “pro-Israel” enough. Sheldon Adelson had a famous falling out with the lobby over its support for a two-state solution; some Republicans were enraged that AIPAC failed to join the 2013 fight against the appointment of Chuck Hagel as Obama’s secretary of defense; and others accused AIPAC of lobbying only halfheartedly against the Iran deal. Deep conservatives faulted AIPAC for maintaining its “bipartisan” nature, because in the feverish world of the Breitbart-inspired right, Democrats can no longer be considered “pro-Israel” at all.
Enter Donald Trump, who makes AIPAC’s life even more complicated.
Even though it shies away from the term "Jewish lobby," AIPAC is comprised, for the most part, of Jews, and most Jews didn’t vote for Donald Trump. Not only did they not vote for him, it’s doubtful whether many of them – or any of them – regret their choice. No matter how pro-Israel Trump’s policies may be – and the jury is still out on that – the president makes most American Jews squirm just as much today as he did before his November 8 election victory.
Despite it’s right-wing image, it’s doubtful whether AIPAC delegates gave Trump much more than the 25 percent of American Jewish votes that he received overall. Yes, they cheered for him way too wildly when he famously appeared at last year’s convention, but that was before anyone imagined that he could actually be elected. Delegates were enthralled with Trump’s in-your-face take-down of Obama – whom he described as “the worst thing that ever happened to Israel” – which, you will recall, elicited an unprecedented public apology from AIPAC leadership the very next day. Trump, one assumes, hasn’t forgotten or forgiven, because he never does.
AIPAC may sport a larger proportion of Republicans than the community overall, there is still a large contingent – probably a majority – of mainstream Democrats among its members. And the kind of Republicans that go to AIPAC aren’t all Trumpkins, by any measure; many are appalled by Trump’s personal behavior, his stance on domestic issues and, perhaps most of all, by the nature of his still unresolved ties with Russia. Many of the heroes of AIPAC-type Jewish Republicans – hawks and neo-conservatives such as Bill Kristol, Bret Stephens, Elliott Abrams and the Commentary crowd – stood at the forefront of the “never Trump” effort, and some of them still do.
The lobby’s leaders must have heaved a huge sigh of relief this year when Trump declined to address the conference, sending U.S. Vice President Mike Pence instead. From AIPAC’s point of view, it was a lose-lose situation; if Trump were received too enthusiastically, Jews across the country would be offended. If he were given a cold welcome, Trump himself would be offended.
At the same time, AIPAC seems to be trying to reach out to its detractors on the right: the revelation that it had contributed $60,000 to Islamophobe Frank Gaffney was a shameful sign of the group’s efforts not to burn its bridges with the rabid right. AIPAC is well aware of the talk on the right of setting up an alternative lobby, either through the structure of Mort Klein’s Zionist Organization of America – which has achieved peak prominence since Trump’s election – or through one of the other groups associated with Sheldon Adelson, including the Israeli American Council of Israeli expatriates.
Mostly, however, the growing disaffection with AIPAC on both ends of an increasingly polarized political arena has forced the group to try and strengthen its hold in the dwindling center. This seems to be the main theme of this year’s conference and its respectable roster of less than exciting moderates from both sides of the political divide. The group is also sporting its success in organizing widespread bipartisan support for a new sanctions bill targeting Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for terrorism. But the center, too, has minefields: While AIPAC clings to its support for a two-state solution, it also tries to keep the issue out of the spotlight, given the uncertainty emanating from both Jerusalem and Washington on the subject. Caught between a rock and hard place, AIPAC is trying to posture itself along the lines of a once-famous Israeli commercial for bras: Walk with, but feel without.
The Palestinian Authority is another case in point. AIPAC maintains a constant dialogue with Israeli security authorities; it knows full well that the PA is still fighting terror in the West Bank and is still considered vital to Israeli security, especially if one considers the alternative. But in the black-or-white world of right-wing ideologues on both sides of the ocean, the PA is both a remnant of the detested Oslo Accords and a front for terrorists, because in the end, many of them believe, all Palestinians are terrorists. So when Republican lawmakers call for cutting off funds for the PA because of ongoing incitement – which is overblown in the first place – AIPAC has no choice but to publicly nod in agreement with anti-PA lawmakers while beseeching them in private not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
A centrist organization by design, AIPAC has to operate in an environment that is drifting towards extremes. The lobby has to find its place in a real world with all of its grey areas and ambiguities, but at the same time to cater to increasingly ideological fantasies of its detractors. And it wants to get its act together at a time when the White House is broadcasting ambiguity, uncertainty and division. AIPAC’s annual conference may get off without a hitch, but it can provide only temporary cover for the dread that lurks just beneath the surface.