The effusive standing ovations Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received during his speech to a joint session of Congress despite his recent public clashes with President Obama, raised anew questions of the power and influence of the so-called "Israel lobby," led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Suggestions that AIPAC is all-powerful in Washington, or that its aims and actions are nefarious, are baseless. AIPAC is an effective interest group that has wielded grassroots activism and political contributions to foster a closer relationship between the United States and the State of Israel based largely on common interests, values, and cultural affinity. Yet criticism of AIPAC is not unwarranted, especially with regard to its muted efforts to support actions to achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East.
It is one thing to be supportive of Israel, but it is another to simply be a rubber stamp for its policies, however self-destructive they are. On its website, AIPAC touts itself with a quote from The New York Times describing the organization as "the most important organization affecting America's relationship with Israel." It is time that AIPAC wield this position of influence in support of peacemaking efforts that will keep the U.S.-Israel relationship strong not only in this generation, but also in the next.
In many ways, AIPAC has written the playbook on how to be an effective Washington lobby. By mobilizing grassroots constituencies across the country consisting of many religious and cultural backgrounds, AIPAC has brought the cause of Israel and the U.S.-Israeli relationship to the attention of the masses. Today, the "Israel lobby" is not a "Jewish lobby" exclusively, but one that incorporates all faiths, most prominently the Christian Evangelical and Methodists movements, through organizations like Christians United for Israel (CUFI). AIPAC has successfully advocated for an annual aid package that has helped Israel maintain its qualified military edge in the volatile Middle East. It has brought countless Congressional delegations to Israel, linking American policymakers with their Israeli counterparts. The American Israel Education Foundation, which is affiliated with AIPAC this month sponsored 81 House members on a visit to Israel and the West bank, the largest member of Congress to ever make the trip during a single recess. In addition, while it is not a formulated PAC, it has steered millions of dollars of political contributions to candidates and elected officials across the country for decades. Any lobby should be envious of AIPAC's success.
Yet too often AIPAC's advocacy has become synonymous with silencing debate when it comes to the U.S. role in promoting an Israeli-Palestinian peace. This issue exploded with the publication of The Israel Lobby by Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, which in my view went too far to suggest that Mideast policy issues are explicitly driven by Israel-centric policymaking. Still, the debate further intensified with the establishment of the aggressive, liberal-minded J Street, as well as publications like Peter Beinart's "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment" in the New York Review of Books. The book pointedly challenged the American Jewish community's traditional thinking about Israel advocacy and warned that the status quo is alienating younger Jews in particular -- a constituency that AIPAC claims to represent when in fact it does not.
These criticisms cannot be dismissed. Indeed, pro-Israel organizations, led by AIPAC have too often sought to advance short-term goals over long-term interests, to the detriment of genuine advocacy in support of peacemaking. Historically, AIPAC has presented a distinctly conservative approach. At AIPAC's 2007 "policy conference," then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was booed, albeit by a few dozen attendees, after suggesting that the Iraq war had been a failure. Many were also concerned that President Obama would be booed this year (although he ultimately was not, the question is why should there have been any concern that the U.S. President could be booed in a conference that promotes closest ties between Israel and the U.S.).
In the 1990s, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was famously concerned that he would not receive sufficient support from AIPAC in promoting the Oslo peace process. Notably, AIPAC has been known to promote counterproductive legislation in Congress. It did so in the 1990s promoting the United States embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem prior to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, a move that would surely lead to widespread global condemnation and compromise the United States' ability to serve as a Mideast peace broker. There are those who argue that in spite of these legislative agendas, the U.S. successfully mediated the 1997 Hebron Agreement and the 1998 Wye River Memorandum followed by Sharm al-Sheikh Accord. However, this does not alter the reality that the U.S.'s regional influence is declining.
AIPAC has also promoted legislation to limit U.S. funding options to nations like Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinians in effort geared to limit funds for Islamists, but which could make funding moderates much more difficult. In reaction to recent legislation along these lines, just this week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent a letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, stating that the recently proposed legislation "would be debilitating to [her] efforts to carry out a considered foreign policy and diplomacy, and to use foreign assistance strategically to that end."
The recent standing ovations from Congress for Prime Minister Netanyahu were only the most recent indirect display of such influence. Each year, at AIPAC's policy conference, which had over 10,000 attendees this year, AIPAC directors list one-by-one the names of the Members of Congress that are in attendance, with over 350 attending this year alone. In this sense, AIPAC has always straddled a difficult line: on the one hand dispelling claims of its influence, while making sure policymakers believe it. This has created the perception that the U.S. Congress is in Israel's pocket, a perception that undercuts U.S. interests and influence in the Middle East. It is no wonder that the Palestinian Authority has concluded that President Obama cannot persuade or pressure Netanyahu to change direction and decided to defy the U.S. by going to the UN to seek recognition of a Palestinian state against American advice.
Principle to AIPAC's arguments has been that Israel is under siege, surrounded by enemies seeking its complete destruction. It is an argument that has been effective on Capitol Hill, but it has not served to develop effective U.S. peace proposals that keep Israel from self-destructive policies. Today, despite AIPAC's best efforts in Washington, Israel is more isolated than ever in the international arena, and is increasingly equated to apartheid South Africa as settlement construction continues unabated in the West Bank.
Moreover, Israel's leadership lacks the courage or desire to make peace with a Palestinian leadership supported by the international community, including the United States, yet AIPAC has done little to suggest that Israel should change its posture. Although the Palestinian Authority does not fare much better, it is Israel and not the Palestinians that holds the key to breaking the impasse. This is exactly why Israel today is on the defensive and is being widely blamed for the lack of any progress in the peace process.
Furthermore, Israeli legislation, such as the recent boycott ban and effort to downplay its democratic nature in favor of its Jewish one fundamentally threatens the notion of Israel's democracy, and yet AIPAC is silent. Meanwhile, resentment of Israel and AIPAC by Washington and an increasing number of European capitals is rising.
The future stability of the United States-Israel relationship demands that AIPAC change its approach. AIPAC has successfully built bi-partisan support for a U.S.-Israel relationship on the foundation of shared democratic values and search for peace based on a two-state solution. Both are being threatened today. Yet AIPAC can use its influence, however over-blown it may actually be, to advance a new narrative: that in order for the U.S.-Israel relationship to remain as strong in our children's generation as it is today, the countries must work together to advance peace with the Palestinians and the entire Arab world. It is not enough to have this kind of narrative plastered on AIPAC's website it must be actively, publicly and relentlessly promoted. This can and must be AIPAC's primary objective today. The blind support of the Netanyahu government is achieving the precise opposite results.
The future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is at stake. As Israel's democracy and the prospect for peace unravel, so too will the U.S.-Israel relationship. It is only a matter of time. If AIPAC truly cares about the State of Israel, and the U.S.-Israel relationship, it should be spending every waking hour making sure this does not happen.
A shorter version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post on August 19th, 2011 and is available online here.