The Case for AIPAC

By Mark Horowitz

New York Times

March 22, 2019


Until recently, if you had asked most Jews, it seemed like playing the Aipac card had gone out of fashion around 2007. That was the year two political scientists published a book called “The Israel Lobby,” with its sensational claim that Aipac, short for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and other Jewish organizations controlled American policy in the Middle East.

Their timing was lousy. By then, Aipac’s influence, whatever it had been, was already in decline. After Barack Obama was elected, the group didn’t even have enough juice to stop his Iran nuclear deal, despite a full-court press.

But this Sunday, when 18,000 members and supporters are expected to descend on Washington for the annual Aipac Policy Conference, a new wave of anti-Israel critics, including several new members of Congress, have resurrected the anti-Semitic canard that American Jews have too much power. And they’re blaming Aipac again.

Progressive groups are demanding that Democratic presidential candidates, who in past cycles might have rushed at the chance to address such a large and engaged crowd, stay away. At least six, including Senator Kamala Harris, who addressed the conference in 2017, have said they would comply.

These groups and their supporters in Congress — above all Representative Ilhan Omar — may not get points for originality, but demonizing Aipac still turns out to be an effective dog whistle. As accusations are amplified across social media and the press, Jews find themselves forced to defend — again! — an organization that many of them never much loved in the first place. But Jews know who the real target is. Aipac, c’est moi.

The bill of particulars never changes: Aipac has too much money and power. Aipac bribes Congress into twisting American foreign policy against the national interest. American Jews are more loyal to Israel than they are to the United States. And, most laughably, the Israel lobby silences all criticism of Israel.

Where to start? Maybe with this: Aipac’s success isn’t “about the Benjamins.” It flows from the fact that a majority of Americans, not just Jews, are predisposed to support Israel. Polls and surveysconsistently confirm this.

Why is it so surprising, then, that a lobbying organization exists to channel this support into political and legislative action? Labor unions do it, chambers of commerce do it, abortion rights groups do it and Arab-Americans do it. It would be weird if there wasn’t a pro-Israel lobby. “There’s nothing new about lobbying on behalf of causes in foreign places,” Hubert Humphrey said in 1976. “It’s as American as a hot dog or apple pie.”

And Aipac was never the big spender its antagonists claim. Its total lobbying expenditures in 2018 came to $3.5 million, which doesn’t even put it in the top 50. (Realtors spent $72.8 million.) Instead, Aipac depends on grassroots organizing in every state. It is built on people power.

Not that Aipac supporters are afraid to write checks — a nationwide network of affiliated political action committees and donors is a key component of its strategy. Still, the total amount of pro-Israel donations to members of Congress came to $10.6 million in 2018, only the 34th highest among Washington interest groups, behind the entertainment industry ($15.6 million), lawyers ($80.6 million) and retirees ($110 million).

The idea that Aipac is tied at the hip to the Republican Party and Israel’s far right is also an exaggeration. Aipac is more comfortable, and was always more effective, as a bipartisan operation, positioned near the center of Jewish-American politics. Today, it supports the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, a view that is widely held by American Jews, but opposed by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current coalition.

In 2007, Sheldon Adelson, a major donor, broke with Aipac over its conciliatory positions and established a rival group to its right called the Israeli American Council. And to its left is the liberal-Zionist group J Street.

Mr. Netanyahu will address this year’s conference, but so will Benny Gantz, a former general and Mr. Netanyahu’s opponent in next month’s elections. It’s rare to have an Israeli opposition leader speak at Aipac on the eve of an election. Simply by scheduling Mr. Gantz, Aipac is signaling its own Netanyahu fatigue.

Does Aipac have failings? Sure. They are the same as those that beset any older, established organization: bureaucratic rigidity and an inability to adapt quickly to new challenges. In Aipac’s case, it was spoiled for years by the absence of any serious opposition.

But today Aipac is struggling to adjust. Political and generational divisions are jeopardizing the organization’s old-school, bipartisan approach. Aipac used to be able to sidestep issues like settlements and the occupation, but now, with the Israeli right threatening annexation of the West Bank, the occupation has become the moral rallying point of the Jewish left, and Aipac appears paralyzed.

The left and the right are again using anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism as wedge issues to break up traditional alliances. Anti-Zionist groups are working hard to delegitimize the Jewish state, not only on Capitol Hill, but also on college campuses and on the nation’s editorial pages.

The hard-core pro-Israel response is to circle the wagons. Pro-Israel Zionists who have criticized the occupation are excommunicated. This is crazy. Anyone who believes in the legitimacy of the Zionist mission, whatever their political stripe, should be embraced as an ally in this latest battle against anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

If Aipac wants to make itself useful in the hearts-and-minds campaign that lies ahead, it should consider rewriting the rules, and make common cause with the loyal opposition. By co-opting the Zionist left and welcoming the kind of boisterous debate that Israelis themselves engage in every day, it might end up with an even stronger case for Israel than ever before.