As its participants like to say: there is nothing like an AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) conference. They mean that in a good way. I don’t.
AIPAC, of course, is the main component of the Israel lobby. Other “pro-Israel” organizations are niche affairs, representing particular constituencies. But it’s AIPAC that is the registered lobby on Capitol Hill and it is AIPAC whose clout on matters relating to Israel is equal to, or even exceeds, the clout of the National Rifle Association on matters related to guns.
This year’s conference which ended on March 28 saw 18,000 AIPAC members filling the Washington Convention Center where, surrounded by Israeli and American flags, they were treated to speeches filled with love and devotion to Israel from the most powerful policy makers in Washington.
Is there any place but AIPAC that not only gets Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in the same room but gets to hear them in near total agreement. Vice President Pence summed up the message delivered by them all, plus by the hundreds of other senators and representatives who were there mainly to stand and cheer. As Pence put it, “every freedom-loving American stands with Israel — because her cause is our cause, her values are our values and her fight is our fight.”
The whole spectacle is abnormal. How can America’s representatives declare that any other country’s fight is our fight, its cause our cause, its values our values. After all, George Washington could have been speaking about AIPAC and Israel when, in his 1796 Farewell Address, he warned:
...a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliance of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.
And he said that without even imagining that a foreign lobby would be heavily involved in our political system, funding (and de-funding) candidates and incumbents who did not subscribe to the favored foreign state’s agenda.
How does AIPAC get away with it?
It gets away with it because AIPAC’s founder, I.L. Kenen, came up with a legal trick by which AIPAC is defined not as a lobby for a foreign state but for Americans who support that state. It’s a critical distinction, the distinction (actually a legal fiction) that makes AIPAC’s dominance over U.S. Middle East policy possible.
Every foreign country except Israel is represented in Washington by foreign agents who must register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Under its terms, the country in question is absolutely banned from participating in American elections. Every contact the agents have with Congress must be reported to the Department of Justice, along with how and where they spend their resources. This law applies to Canada as much as it does to Russia (which is now in hot water for not abiding with it). It does not apply to Israel.
I worked at AIPAC, directly for Mr. Kenen, back in the 1970s. He told me that he came up with the AIPAC formula (AIPAC as an American organization lobbying for Americans) so that AIPAC would be legally permitted to engage in politics and not have to reveal its activities. A devoted American and liberal Democrat, he believed American and Israeli interests and values weren’t likely to diverge anyway. So what’s the problem?
After he retired, after the right took over both Israel and AIPAC, he saw the mistake he made. Toward the end of his life he was outraged by an AIPAC leadership that unquestionably supported the occupation and other right-wing Israeli policies and used its political power to keep the United States government and other influential Americans (most importantly, the media) from straying from the Israeli line. Not only was AIPAC making it impossible for the United States to restrain the Israeli government, it was weakening forces inside Israel that were trying to do so. The Israeli peace camp needed the United States on its side but, thanks to AIPAC, the United States could not help our natural Israeli allies. By the time of his death, Kenen was thoroughly alienated from the organization.
Now is the time to undo Mr. Kenen’s mistake. It is time to force AIPAC to register as what it is. It will still be able to advocate for Israel but as an Israeli lobby, which gets its marching orders from the Israeli government. (It is, however, worth noting that AIPAC strayed from obedience to Jerusalem when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was actively seeking peace and an end to the occupation, resulting in Rabin “blisteringly” telling the organization to get the hell out of his way). What it will not be able to do is direct campaign money to politicians. Let’s see how many Vice Presidents, senators, and representatives show up at its conferences then? Let’s see how many of its Israel-right-or-wrong resolutions pass the House 435-0. Let’s see if presidents are still afraid to say what they think about the occupation and the denial of democratic rights to Palestinians.
After all, if registration is good enough for Canada and France, it should be good enough for Israel. AIPAC represents the right-wing Israeli government not Americans. It’s time to end the charade once and for all, for our sake and Israel’s too.