The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, at its most perilous point in years, begins its annual policy conference on Sunday. At issue is the organization’s effectiveness during a presidency that is hostile toward the Jewish state and naive regarding Israel’s enemies. AIPAC is openly derided in some quarters and denounced by the anti-Israel right and left as war-mongers and guilty of the old anti-Semitic trope: dual loyalty.
Republicans in the Senate have at least forced their way into a floor debate on an Iran sanctions amendment to a veterans bill, while AIPAC is sidelined, refusing to enunciate its position. (As best I can tell, it is: We really, really want the bill, but we’re afraid to say so because we will lose and reveal we have insufficient sway on the most important issue affecting Israel in decades.) AIPAC is so doggedly devoted to the notion of bipartisanship that it is flummoxed when confronted with an administration, enabled by one party, that is at odds to such a significant degree on an issue of such importance.
AIPAC has invited to speak at its conference two cabinet secretaries: Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Secretary of State John F. Kerry, but neither the president nor vice president will appear. Nor will the delegates cast their eyes upon hapless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, during whose nomination fight AIPAC remained mute, while others in the pro-Israel community and in the Senate fought diligently.
As is its custom, AIPAC has invited top lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. From the Democratic side — House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) — are lawmakers who have worked, at times vigorously, for anti-Iran sanctions. Give AIPAC credit, at least, for suggesting that “pro-Israel” still has some meaning.
Nevertheless, AIPAC delegates are entitled to get an explanation as to why, for example, Schumer and Menendez supported the obviously unqualified, inept and decidedly not pro-Israel Hagel for Defense secretary. More important, all three might explain why, if they know the administration’s interim deal to be folly and are canny enough to see Iran trumping the sanctions-diplomacy game, they won’t defy the administration and agree on a sanctions, which all three have shown they favor. (Where are the opponents of gridlock who decry efforts to prevent votes on important matters? Apparently only GOP gridlock offends them.)
In short, why do the three speakers put loyalty to the president above our own national security, above the desires of their own constituents (who overwhelmingly favor sanctions, believe the administration has been too weak and would, if need be, support war to disarm Iran) and above the defense of Israel?
The problem for AIPAC, like the problem for Israel and its friends in the United States, is a president whose lack of enthusiasm for (if not antipathy toward)the U.S.-Israel relationship and whose avoid-acting-at-all-costs approach gives foes of the United States and Israel the upper hand. When coupled with the partisan divide in support for the state of Israel — Republicans overwhelmingly support Israel, but Democratic support is decidedly mixed according to multiple polls over many years — AIPAC’s devotion to bipartisanship works against its interests.
AIPAC is not alone in its frustration with the administration, but as the most prominent pro-Israel organization, its ineffectiveness is bracing for friends of Israel. In gallows humor, more than one person has said, “This sure dispels the notion of the all-powerful Israel Lobby.”
AIPAC, unlike at any time in its history, is being pushed toward confrontation, public advocacy and candor in place of its favored quiet, behind-the-scenes efforts. That’s not the ideal development from the perspective of some long-time AIPAC members, but it is either that or irrelevance. We’ll get a sense from AIPAC officials’ remarks which choice they’ve made.