AIPAC Comfort Zone
By Jonathan S. Tobin
March 2, 2018
Pro-Israel activists gather this week in Washington, D.C.,
for the annual AIPAC policy conference. As usual, there is speculation about the
future of U.S. policy, along with complaints about the pro-Israel lobby.
If the Trump administration proposes a new Middle East
peace plan that resembles those put forward by previous administrations—in
terms of concessions demanded of Israel and fantasies about the Palestinians
wanting peace—that might change the temperature of the relationship between
AIPAC and the White House from warm to cool. But until anything like that
happens, the love fest between most AIPAC activists and the administration will
continue. That’s what’s behind most of the complaints about AIPAC.
For a generation, the lobby has been accused of tilting to
the right, and serving the interests of Israel’s Likud Party and its allies,
as well as the agenda of the Republicans. Those complaints have grown louder in
the last year as eight years of conflict between the Netanyahu government and
the Obama administration were ended by Trump’s election victory in 2016.
President Donald Trump is a stern critic of Barack
Obama’s attempt to create a rapprochement with Iran via a nuclear deal that
AIPAC did everything it could to oppose. He also discarded Obama’s policy of
trying to create more “daylight” between the United States and Israel as
part of a vain effort to entice the Palestinians to make peace, which ran
counter to the lobby’s efforts to keep the two allies as close as possible.
Equally important, Trump kept his promise about recognizing Jerusalem as
Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
If you think that Trump was cheered when he spoke to AIPAC
in 2016—roars that forced the group’s leader to apologize, lest anyone in
the Obama administration be offended—it might be nothing compared to the
applause that administration representatives like U.S. Ambassador to the United
Nations Nikki Haley get when they address the group.
And it’s reason for many liberals and Democrats to be
The vast majority of American Jews vote Democrat. They
aren’t fond of Netanyahu because, in contrast to the broad consensus of voters
in Israel that support his policies, they think he isn’t doing enough to make
peace possible and dislike his indifference to religious pluralism.
An even larger number of Jews despise Trump. The minority
of Jews who are politically conservative and most of the Orthodox community
generally support the president. But his pro-Israel policies do nothing to
lessen the antagonism of the majority that is rooted in antipathy to his
temperament and conservative policies.
That creates a dilemma for AIPAC. Unlike most other
national Jewish groups that take stands on both domestic and foreign policy,
their brief is simple. The point of its existence is twofold: It supports the
policies of Israel’s government, no matter which party is in power in
Jerusalem; and it seeks to influence the U.S. government to be more pro-Israel,
no matter which party is in charge in Washington.
This bipartisanship is on display at AIPAC functions, where
the group has always bent over backwards to show that it welcomes both Democrats
and Republicans. But it’s getting harder to pretend that the pro-Israel
community is fully bipartisan.
If Democrats are no longer as comfortable with the group as
they used to be, it’s not because AIPAC has put itself in the pocket of the
Republicans. Rather, it’s due to the fact that the two parties have changed.
More than a half-century ago, it was the GOP that was divided on Israel, with
the Democrats generally united behind it. Now, it’s the reverse—with
Republicans acting like a lockstep pro-Israel party, and the Democrats being the
ones who remain deeply divided.
There are still plenty of pro-Israel Democrats involved,
and the party’s congressional caucus is still largely supportive. But there
are more congressional Democrats who are critics of the Jewish state these days,
with former Louis Farrakhan supporter and current Democratic National Committee
vice chair Keith Ellison being just the most well-known. The decline of support
for Israel among party activists remains even more drastic.
This trend has been in the works for decades, but it became
more pronounced under President Obama, when distancing oneself from Israel on
peace and on Iran became a matter of party loyalty for many Democrats.
There are also Democrats, especially in “resistance”
groups like the Women’s March movement, who are hardcore anti-Israel
activists. Others are so angry at Trump that they see any policy he embraces,
even the tilt towards Israel, as inherently illegitimate.
So while liberals want Jewish groups to distance themselves
from Trump, AIPAC’s job is to do just the opposite. Just as it was their
obligation to oppose Obama’s efforts to pressure Israel and appease Iran, they
have to support pro-Israel policies when they are put in place.
Despite the grousing from the left, AIPAC has always been
true to these principles. It faithfully backed the Rabin government’s stand
after Oslo (though never enthusiastically enough for Israeli Prime Minister
Yitzhak Rabin’s taste, even as U.S. right-wingers were furious about it), and
it cheered when President Bill Clinton embraced the Jewish state.
That’s why it is neither reasonable nor right to expect
AIPAC to jeer Trump when he keeps his promises.
There are many Americans Jews who regard opposing Trump as
more important than backing Israel. Others think they help Israel best when they
cheer U.S. presidents who try to force concessions that Israeli voters have
rejected. For such people, AIPAC isn’t a comfortable fit. But for those who,
regardless of their party and ideology, believe that supporting the
democratically elected government of Israel and helping foster better relations
with Washington are sacred obligations, sustaining AIPAC remains the only