Is AIPAC Still the Chosen One?
For decades, AIPAC has dominated DC's Israel lobby. But a popular president and dissent within the advocacy ranks could lead to a showdown on Middle East policy.
— By Robert Dreyfuss
September/October 2009 Issue
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Jeremy Ben-Ami, the slight and soft-spoken executive director of J Street, says the change on Capitol Hill is palpable. More and more members of Congress see AIPAC as an obstacle to America's crucial national interest—a durable Middle East peace deal. "Our role is to demonstrate that there is significant and meaningful political support for leadership to achieve peace," Ben-Ami says.
In January, when Obama named former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as his special Middle East envoy, J Street got 104 legislators to sign a statement supporting Mitchell. (The traditional Israel lobby views Mitchell, in the words of the Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman, as a little too "even-handed.") In May, when AIPAC's warning letter to Obama began amassing signatures in the House—it ultimately got 328—J Street and its allies put out a competing House letter calling for strong American leadership that accumulated 86 names. "There are a number of members of Congress who are seeking out new voices on the issue," says Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), one of those 86, who visited Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza in May. "There is still a resistance to having open, honest dialogue out of fear about being on the wrong side of AIPAC, but I'm not going to be driven by what one lobby says. What I learned on my trip is that I don't think AIPAC represents even the majority view in Israel."
Netanyahu, who made a pilgrimage to Capitol Hill last spring after meeting with Obama, discovered the emerging new reality firsthand. The Forward, a Jewish newspaper based in Manhattan, quoted the prime minister's aides as saying their boss was "stunned" by "what seemed like a well-coordinated attack against his stand on settlements," even from traditional Israel supporters like John Kerry (D-Mass.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee—as well as representatives Berman and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). While all have impeccable credentials with the Israel lobby, it's clear that they're increasingly unhappy with Jerusalem's hard-right tilt. And when legislators can point to different views within the Israel policy community, it's harder for groups like AIPAC to accuse them of being anti-Israel.
All the while, Obama has been cementing his Jewish support—as a senior public relations specialist with close ties to the Israeli Embassy groused to me. "I mean, look at the agenda!" the official said. "He went to the Holocaust Museum on Holocaust Memorial Day, and then he declared Jewish Cultural Awareness Month, which is, you know, Bagels Month, and then he had Passover at the White House, which makes all the cultural Jews, the reform Jews, go, 'Oh my God, he's our guy! Seder in the White House, Bagel Month, Passover at the White House!'"
Says Levy, the former Israel negotiator, "I think they're nervous that if there's a showdown, where do the Jews go? And I think it's clear where the majority of the Jews would go. They'd go with Obama."
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT with America's Middle East policy will depend on whether Obama can advance an Israel-Palestine compromise as a critical US interest. This would be a sharp break from the past, when US negotiators often ended up in the role of "Israel's lawyer," in the words of Aaron David Miller, who helped oversee the peace process under President Clinton.
This is a key moment in the debate, says Walt, coauthor of The Israel Lobby. "It will be important whether he gets enough cover from J Street and the Israel Policy Forum so Obama can say, 'AIPAC is not representative of the American Jewish community.' But I must say, I'm not wildly optimistic about this. I don't know if Obama is really ready to buck them."
The power struggle comes down to "who will do a better job of interfering in the other's politics," says David Mack, a deputy assistant secretary of state under George H.W. Bush who spent decades as a diplomat in the region. "Bibi [Netanyahu] is very good at this. He really knows how to play the American game. He knows how to line up various groups, right-wing hawks, right-wing evangelicals, the military industrial complex, and the right wing of the American Jewish community."
But Mack suggests that Obama might have a few tricks up his own sleeve—including an array of allies with solid Israel contacts who can be deployed to muster support in Israeli politics and media. Among them, Mack says, are former ambassadors to Israel Samuel Lewis, Daniel Kurtzer, and Martin Indyk, as well as Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, who volunteered on an Israeli supply base during the Gulf War, and Dennis Ross, a White House adviser who spent years at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In the six decades of Israel's existence, there have been few full-fledged confrontations between an American president and the Israel lobby. In the early 1980s, after Ronald Reagan decided to sell an advanced airborne radar system to Saudi Arabia, he won a showdown with AIPAC. A decade later, George H.W. Bush and James Baker, his secretary of state, threatened to withhold loan guarantees for Israel to pressure the Jewish state over the peace process; they stared down AIPAC, contributing to the collapse of a right-wing government in Israel.
But those were only skirmishes. What's at stake today is what many observers believe is the last best hope for a peace accord, one that will require Israel to remove hundreds of thousands of settlers, withdraw from the West Bank, and accept at least some Palestinian authority in now occupied East Jerusalem. The nation's most formidable lobby can huff and it can puff, but if it resists, it may be its own house that gets blown down.
Correction: Robert Satloff's comment on US-Israel relations was made to AIPAC, not Haaretz, as previously reported. He was referring specifically to a rift over Iran policy. The story has been updated to reflect this.