Controversy swirled around last week's AIPAC conference in Washington. Critics charged that the lobby group wields inordinate influence, tilting the U.S. policy process unfairly in Israel's favor. Fans reversed the sequence, countering that AIPAC's success derives precisely from Israel's broad popularity among the American public.
But a more ominous battle for the future of the U.S. - Israel bilateral partnership is being waged inside the pro-Israel tent, not outside of it.
The Talmud records 316 disputes that took place approximately 2,000 years ago between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, named both for their illustrious progenitors.
Each of the two schools had a distinctive pedigree: Shammai's followers were generally stringent fundamentalists regarding the practice of Jewish law, while the disciples of Hillel – remembered for his pith quote, "What is hateful to you, don't do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah and the rest is commentary" – adopted a more inclusive, user-friendly attitude. Think Moses, the stern lawgiver of the Bible, alongside his brother Aaron, the high priest renowned for pursuing peace.
Two distinct philosophies are also taking root among the community of advocates for a strong partnership between Israel and the U.S. Both perspectives share a belief that the alliance enriches both countries, but like Shammai and Hillel, each cohort interacts differently, by virtue of ideology, with its environment.
Today's House of Shammai is an inflexible, right-wing partisan camp that increasingly disparages working with the Democratic Party and is committed to doubling down on the Trump presidency.
Soured on the Obama administration's embrace of the Iran deal, which Netanyahu opposed so stridently, and taking note of emerging Democratic leaders, who have vociferously censured Israel, this group sees few shades of gray.
Its members latch onto the exploits of the Trump White House, such as withdrawing from the JCPOA, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, as undeniable legitimation for equating Israel's welfare exclusively with the GOP.
Their convictions are certain to be reinforced when President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both appear before the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas this weekend.
AIPAC represents the House of Hillel in this paradigm. According to its mission statement, AIPAC aims to "strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel." The tool of AIPAC's trade is bipartisanship, seeking common cause with the full spectrum of Republicans and Democrats in the service of its objectives.
Although the left assails AIPAC regularly as a right-wing outfit, the organization takes no independent stance on Israel's political prerogatives, engaging with whatever policies have been formulated by its elected governments.
To wit, AIPAC's formal approach to Israel's conflict with the Palestinians is based on an understanding that "Israel and the United States are committed to a two-state solution" – leaving aside the question of whether this is currently true for either or both of these governments.
The two factions are at loggerheads. Shammai absolutists have questioned AIPAC's potency, pointing to events such as its failure to block the Iran agreement in Congress, and even its lukewarm celebration of the president's Golan announcement.
They wonder whether the time hasn't come to replace AIPAC with a less conciliatory and more aggressive alternative that won't shirk from promoting what they consider to be Israel's interests, bipartisanship be damned; some have even taken measures which may herald a changing of the guard, setting up potential competitors to AIPAC. They believe that the days of a consensus on Israel are over anyway.
The House of Shammai is not fond of nuance. An episode from the 1990s, when I was an Israeli government liaison to foreign media back in the days of Benjamin Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, epitomized this structural flaw for me.
An incident involving the IDF had occurred, and I proposed that Israel put its tail between its legs and admit that mistakes had been made. Candor and penance would allow us to preserve vital credibility. A colleague, one of Netanyahu's political appointees at the Prime Minister's Office, objected, expressing disbelief that I would willingly admit guilt and make Israel "look bad."
This same short-sightedness is now on display among these detractors of AIPAC who demonstrate little appreciation for the organization's circumspect demeanor, and are doctrinaire supporters of both the Israeli government and Trump administration, "right or wrong."
Netanyahu has lost his reticence about slamming AIPAC when it doesn't back him to the hilt. That's what he did recently when AIPAC took the unusual step of condemning as "racist and reprehensible" the views of the far right party, Otzma Yehudit, that will run in Israel's election on April 9th and on whose behalf Netanyahu pro-actively intervened. He panned AIPAC's opprobrium as interference in Israel's democratic process.
But in speaking out, AIPAC was, counter-intuitively, doing Israel a favor. While their disdain for the Kahanist party was undoubtedly genuine, AIPAC and U.S. Jewish groups spoke out primarily to preserve their effectiveness as credible promoters of close ties - based on shared democratic values - between Washington and Jerusalem.
Their unequivocal denunciation mitigated the fallout for Israel, creating distance between leaders of the pro-Israel cause and a party that would be anathema to most Americans. They sought to preserve the distinction between Israel's long-term interests, and Netanyahu's short-term political expediencies.
Power ebbs and flows in America. Since today's minority is tomorrow's majority, the U.S.-Israel relationship will wane certainly if allowed to become a political football. The dilution by either flank, right or left, of communal consensus on the core proposition of robust cooperation between the two countries, threatens to "kill Israel softly," with Republicans and Democrats hammering each other over the head with a divisive Israel wedge.
Alas, this may be inevitable. But AIPAC's Hillel-style approach, even if it doesn't fully satisfy those who shun compromise, is the most capable of producing results without interruption. And it's the reason why the backbone of both parties remains solidly behind America's friendship for Israel – and why a Democratic president could still approve a record-breaking $38 billion military assistance package not long ago at all.
In the end, the Talmud teaches that the opinions of both the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai are "the words of a living God." But it's Hillel's students who prevailed in almost every single argument with Shammai's. There's surely a lesson there for those who wish to keep America and Israel together.
Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Twitter: @ShalomLipner
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