The Day AIPAC Lost Its Legitimacy

AIPAC backs a two state solution. But its refusal to comment when the Trump administration 'legalized' Israeli settlements, a key obstacle to any future Palestinian state, demonstrated its lack of purpose - and spine

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Speaking via satellite feed from Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses AIPAC  in Washington, U.S., March 26, 2019
Speaking via satellite feed from Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses AIPAC in Washington, U.S., March 26, 2019Credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS
Matt Matilsky
Matt Matilsky

It is tempting, easy, and sometimes even true to argue that Israel gets a bad press through no fault of its own. But in the immediate response to Trump announcing the United States’ intention to recognize Israeli West Bank settlements as legal - a declaration that the U.S. no longer recognizes the legitimacy of international law - no such excuse is available.

What was more surprising, if not baffling, was the response from one key mainstream U.S. Jewish organization that has always hallowed the two-state solution: AIPAC

It was entirely predictable that the Orthodox Union's advocacy arm - despite being an ostensibly non-partisan group – would offer giddy support for the announcement.

This is not a new strategy for the Orthodox Union, which has consistently "applauded" Trump for this and other perceived heroics including moving the embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. But the "non-partisan" OU isn't supposed to be a doppelganger for the Republican Jewish Coalition, which ran the same playbook on Pompeo's announcement  ran the same playbook.

Even less honest and equally problematic was the response from AIPAC. 

More aware of its "non-partisan" pose, which looks more and more like a pretense, its message was no less mortifying: "AIPAC does not take a position on settlements. We believe settlements should be an issue for direct negotiations between the parties, not something determined by international bodies. The Palestinians must stop their boycott of US & Israeli officials and return to direct talks."

Straight afterwards,  AIPAC retweeted a Netanyahu spokesman declaring the "Trump administration clearly rejected the false claim that Israeli #settlements in Judea and Samaria are inherently illegal under international law" and then retweeted opposition leader Benny Gantz who "applaud[ed] the US government for its important statement, once again demonstrating its firm stance with Israel and its commitment to the security of the Middle East."

AIPAC's mixed messaging highlights its platform's critical lack of focus - and backbone.

According to its mission statement, AIPAC exists to "strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel." On the peace process, its bottom line is: "Israel and the United States are committed to a two-state solution."

AIPAC’s non-position on West Bank settlements, a crucial issue for the two state solution and any future peace negotiations, is a stunning failure, and it's exacerbated by AIPAC's track record of involving itself in all kinds of issues when it shouldn’t - and, if last week was any indication, withdrawing from entirely germane issues when convenient.

Almost as non-committal as AIPAC was the American Jewish Coalition, which celebrated a "long overdue correction in international perceptions" while somehow hoping it wouldn’t "serve as predicate for the increased settlement activity."

The Union for Reform Judaism, meanwhile, offered one of the few condemnations from formally "non-partisan" groups, issuing a statement using language which should be familiar to those perusing AIPAC's own mission statement: "Any unilateral move to this effect would place serious and critical obstacles to a viable two-state solution, damaging the prospect of renewing the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and causing a long-term threat to Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state. We urge the Trump Administration to reverse its position."

AIPAC has leveraged its positioning well beyond the parameters set forth in its mission, and its branding - to be the quintessential symbol of America's solidarity with Israel. A friend of mine who works in government policy described this tactic as "Mission Creep": instead of focusing on its mission regarding U.S.-Israel policy and legislation, AIPAC creeps into other spaces and addresses, such as anti-Semitism, referenced by AIPAC chai Howard Kohr at this year's conference.

But as AIPAC branches out, it has become less and less forthright about the core issues of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

According to historian and AIPAC critic Doug Rossinow, AIPAC was created in the aftermath of an Israeli army massacre in the Palestinian village of Qibya in 1953, to show "there was nothing Israel might do that would jeopardize American Jewish support. Indeed, to some in the Jewish community, the more disturbing Israeli behavior was, the more Israel needed their ardent advocacy."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers a statement on the Trump administration's position on Israeli settlements at the State Department in Washington, U.S., November 18, 2019Credit: Andrew Harnik,AP

That is a harsh take. But what about now, when the U.S. government greenlights Israeli government actions which should be "disturbing" because they fundamentally oppose AIPAC's mission? Why is AIPAC removing itself from the conversation when it matters most?

That abandonment of responsibility means that critics like Rossinow, who wrote that AIPAC "has always existed to make Israeli realities and priorities palatable to Americans," will have the last word.

AIPAC's fluctating use of a big megaphone in Congress and then strategic silence on big but uncomfortable issues is not working for Israel advocacy on the left in America. As Pew research reported this year, only 26 percent of Democrats view Israel favorably. Those figures won't be helped by the reflexive position of the American Jewish right to brand Israel critics as anti-Semites.

How should Democrats who hold even a moderate critique of Israel's policies regard "bipartisan" AIPAC's silence on the legitimization of settlements, a necessary preparatory step before annexation? Won't they be more likely to turn to more explicitly critical activists on Israel-Palestine?

Merriam Webster defines public relations as "the business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm, or institution." AIPAC, the Orthodox Union, and other leading advocates for Israel are failing to take this concept seriously.

Hopefully for Israel-U.S. relations, a viable bipartisan alternative will emerge that takes its own red lines more seriously – and won't be so timid, or feckless, when it comes to "taking a position" on an issue like settlements that is so crucial to the prospects of Middle East peace, and to how Americans, in Congress and on the streets, relate to Israel.

Matt Matilsky is a New York City-based columnist focused on Israeli and local political commentary. He also has a day job in a Wall Street headhunting firm. Twitter: @mattmat89

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