The AIPAC Comfort Zone

By Jonathan S. Tobin

JNS

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 upset.

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 possible option.