Even AIPAC: Mainstream U.S. Jewish Groups Struggling to Defend Israeli Annexation

Having argued for decades in favor of a two-state solution and no unilateral moves, AIPAC, ADL and AJC are facing a potential Israeli move that could scupper both of those claims

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Protesters gathering in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square to denounce Israel's plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, June 23, 2020.
Protesters gathering in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square to denounce Israel's plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, June 23, 2020.Credit: AFP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – Leading Jewish American organizations that usually support the Israeli government and defend it against criticism – including AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League – are struggling to find ways to defend the Netanyahu government’s plan to unilaterally annex settlements in the occupied West Bank.

For two decades, ever since the collapse of the Middle East peace process and the outbreak of the second intifada, pro-Israel organizations in the United States have emphasized several messages in their efforts to help Israel in the fight for American public opinion. One argument they have repeated is opposition to any unilateral moves, such as Palestinian attempts to gain recognition for a Palestinian state from the United Nations. Another argument was that Israel wants a two-state solution and it’s the Palestinians’ fault that no progress is being made toward that goal.

Annexation will likely harm both of those arguments, especially if it’s carried out according to the Trump administration’s Middle East plan. This allows for unilateral Israeli annexation of some 30 percent of the West Bank, including even the most remote and isolated settlements. Annexation is a unilateral step – the kind these organizations consistently denounced – and if carried out in the maximalist version, would leave no chance for a Palestinian state to be established.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, ADL and AJC all say they support a two-state solution. AIPAC in particular has increasingly emphasized this policy position in recent years, in an attempt to retain support within the Democratic Party. Even after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in 2015 that there will never be a Palestinian state as long as he is premier, these organizations didn’t drop their claim that Israel supports a two-state solution – despite the clear contradiction between that claim and Netanyahu’s own words.

Annexation, however, presents a more concrete dilemma for them. It’s not a theoretical question, but a drastic change in decades-long Israeli policy. It’s also a policy that is strongly opposed by a large majority of elected officials in the Democratic Party. More than 190 Democratic members of the House of Representatives, and over 30 Democratic senators, have spoken out against annexation in recent weeks. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, has also expressed opposition to it.

Mainstream, pro-Israel Jewish groups in the United States represent a community that overwhelmingly prefers the Democratic Party over the Republican Party, and which, according to surveys conducted in recent years, supports a two-state solution over any other alternative. The reality that could be created by massive annexation – a single state in which millions of Palestinians won’t have citizenship or equal rights – will be completely unacceptable to most American Jews.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appearing at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, March 2019.Credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

AJC published an article on its website last week titled “We‘ll Defend Annexation if Needed – but Here’s the Thing.” The title was later softened to “Confronting the Challenge of Annexation,” but the message remained the same. In the article, the organization stated that if Israel’s current government goes ahead with annexation, AJC will defend the decision and fight against criticism directed at it.

At the same time, though, it also included several warnings about the price annexation could extract from Israel: from harming relations with its Arab neighbors to damaging its image in the United States, especially among supporters of the Democratic Party.

“The price will be borne in the erosion of Israel’s longstanding claims against Palestinian unilateralism, in breach of Oslo Accords promises, and in increasing cynicism in multiple constituencies – including within our own community – about Israel’s commitment to peace,” the article warned.

AIPAC, which is not officially a Jewish American organization but most of its membership and donors are American Jews, released its own statement on the subject last month. The organization claimed that it does not endorse or oppose annexation, and simply has no position on the matter.

However, the statement added that if Israel does go ahead with annexation, that should not have any impact on the future of the U.S-Israel relationship.

AIPAC explained to its supporters that “some have proposed reducing our ties with Israel because they object to the potential decision by Israel’s leaders to extend Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank. Doing anything to weaken this vital relationship would be a mistake.”

This paragraph refers to warnings by Sen. Bernie Sanders and other elected Democratic officials that annexation should be answered by limiting or withholding U.S. military aid to Israel. The United States provides Israel with $3.8 billion of such aid annually, according to a memorandum of understanding between the two countries signed by the Obama administration in 2016. At the time the MoU was signed, there was no talk of annexation by Israel.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a Democratic primary debate, Washington, March 15, 2020Credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS

In addition, AIPAC stated that “despite the increasingly close ties between the two allies, it is inevitable that there will be areas of political or policy disagreement between leaders on both sides – as there are between America and all our allies.” In other words, AIPAC’s focus after any possible annexation will be on performing “damage control” among Democrats.

AIPAC owes its existence to its ability to retain bipartisan support for Israel. If Israel were to become a purely partisan issue in American politics, there would be no need for an organization like AIPAC, since there are other organizations – such as Christians United for Israel and the Republican Jewish Coalition – that impact how Republican-elected officials discuss Israel.

Not prepared

A major concern for AIPAC’s leadership is that the left-wing elements within the Democratic Party that support applying more pressure on Israel over settlements and the occupation will gain more ground over time. AIPAC is fighting to keep Sanders’ idea of using military aid as leverage from gaining more support within the party. Last week, though, AIPAC lost a powerful ally when Eliot Engel, one of the most hawkish Democratic lawmakers on issues related to Israel, likely lost his New York primary race to Jamaal Bowman, a progressive challenger who was endorsed by Sanders and shares some of the Vermont senator’s views on Israel.

In recent weeks, AIPAC lobbied legislators against signing a letter opposing annexation that was circulating among Democratic members of Congress. Despite the organization’s reservations, the letter eventually received the support not just of a large majority of Democrats, but also of specific Democratic politicians who are considered close to AIPAC – such as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.

The ADL is yet to release a statement similar to those of AJC and AIPAC. However, the magazine Jewish Currents reported on an internal memo circulating within the organization’s ranks that warns of how annexation could harm the organization’s ties and standing among progressives.

As an organization that is devoted to fighting racism and prejudice, and at the same time supports Israel, the ADL will be in a particularly tough spot if annexation indeed happens.

Prof. Brent Sasley of the University of Texas, author of “Politics in Israel: Governing a Complex Society,” tweeted Saturday that the AJC and ADL documents show that the American Jewish community isn’t truly prepared for the impact annexation will have on Israel and its standing in the United States.

“Between the AJC and the ADL public and private comments about how to respond to possible Israeli annexation of the [West Bank], it’s clear that the mainstream centrist national Jewish organizations are not prepared to substantively changed [sic] their actions and approaches to Israel,” he wrote.

Sasley added: “This will help energize those groups and individuals on the left already opposed to their influence and policies.” He explained that “this is part of a long-term process of change within the community. AJC’s and ADL’s refusal to take a firm stand against annexation is a signal of their slow decline in the community, as representatives of the community.”

Looking for help

One source of hope for these mainstream Jewish organizations is the possibility that Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, the two former Israeli army generals leading the Kahol Lavan Party, will oppose the annexation plan that Netanyahu and David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador to Israel, have been pushing for.

Israeli Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz speaking to Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, May 31, 2020. Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

If Gantz and Ashkenazi manage to push for no annexation, or a more limited form of annexation, that could help preserve some of the mainstream Jewish American organizations’ arguments about a two-state solution. While limited annexation will still be a unilateral step, Gantz has said in the past he would only support annexation if it were done in coordination with Jordan, Egypt and Israel’s European allies. This is only possible if a more limited form of annexation is chosen.

Jordanian King Abdullah II, center attending the Jordanian Armed Forces-Arab Army ceremony at the Martyr's Memorial in the capital, Amman, June 10. 2020.Credit: AFP

The largest test for the mainstream Jewish American organizations will be how they respond in case of widespread annexation, as proposed by Netanyahu and Friedman. Right now, they still hope that perhaps another force – maybe Gantz, maybe King Abdullah of Jordan, maybe even President Donald Trump – will help them avoid that unwanted challenge.

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