On Eve Of Conference, AIPAC Thrives Despite Challenges


With the rise of J Street, continuing attacks by Walt-Mearsheimer acolytes and Israel’s growing isolation, critics of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which holds its annual policy conference in Washington next week, have ratcheted up their claims that the pro-Israel lobbying giant is on the ropes.

Most evidence belies those claims — on Capitol Hill and across the political world, AIPAC’s clout appears undiminished, and in many ways has grown in recent years.

Next week’s policy conference will spotlight that reality, with an advertised 10,000 activists filling the cavernous Washington Convention Center, keynote addresses by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the expected heavy turnout of House and Senate members at Monday’s banquet.

The conference caps an unusually intensive week of diplomatic action, with Jordan’s King Abdullah and Israel’s Netanyahu in Washington for talks, Obama’s long-anticipated second speech to the Arab world on Thursday and his appearance at AIPAC on Sunday. The AIPAC gathering also comes a week after the resignation of U.S. special Middle East envoy George Mitchell amid reports the veteran mediator was frustrated with administration inaction on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and only days after widespread violence along Israel’s borders.

Even strong critics agree that AIPAC hasn’t lost its punch.

“As someone who worked on Capitol Hill for 20 years, I know that the primary concern of virtually every member of Congress is raising money for their campaigns, and virtually all of the money on the Israel issue is still on AIPAC’s side,” said M.J. Rosenberg, a onetime AIPAC employee who has become one of AIPAC’s most vocal and persistent critics. (As a registered lobby, AIPAC does not give or control campaign donations, but it is widely accepted that the network of pro-Israel contributors take their cues from the group).

That undiminished clout doesn’t mean AIPAC doesn’t face daunting new challenges. Long term, the biggest could be what many Jewish leaders, commentators and some polls describe as a drift away from Israel involvement by younger Jews and the erosion of the Jewish political center. That would leave pro-Israel activism increasingly in the hands of Orthodox and right-of-center factions that reject the compromises — territorial and political — that were once expected to be the pillars of a negotiated settlement.

“Its base is narrowing,” said Jacques Berlinerblau, director of Georgetown University’s Program for Jewish Civilization. “It’s not just AIPAC; we see it in terms of organizational life and synagogue affiliation, as well as Israel involvement. The prescriptive measure is to get out there and meet the broader base and understand its concerns. Long term, it’s a challenge for AIPAC — but also an opportunity.”

AIPAC, which has had no major battle on its hands for almost two decades, could face one in the next few years over what has traditionally been its top priority: maintaining U.S. aid to Israel. With the convergence of the Tea Party movement and the accelerating GOP push to cut government spending, pressure is mounting for drastic cuts in the foreign assistance program.

But that, too, may not be an acid test of the lobby’s power, since any cuts are likely to be the result of across-the-board spending reductions, not targeted cuts in Israel’s aid.

AIPAC’s other major focus in recent years — pressing for a tougher U.S. response to Iran’s accelerating nuclear weapons program — has clearly slipped as a priority for national policymakers and as a public concern. Netanyahu will try to reverse that when he speaks to a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday, shifting the focus from the Arab-Israel peace process to what he argues is the most dangerous threat to Israel.

When scholars Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer wrote an article and book attacking “The Israel Lobby” in 2006, AIPAC’s critics rejoiced. They believed that what they considered AIPAC’s brute-force tactics, secret money connections and the apparent gap between the Mideast views of most American Jews and the policies advocated by the group would be exposed — and that exposure would erode its power. They liked to cite former AIPAC research director Steve Rosen’s description of AIPAC’s lobbying as a “night flower” that thrives in the dark and wilts in the light.

Instead, all that exposure may have strengthened the group by reinforcing its reputation for raw political power.

“Any interest group should pray to be attacked as ‘the most powerful lobby in Washington,’” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “Those who hurl the attack mean it as an insult, but it has the opposite effect, sending a signal to all congressmen that they’d better pay attention when the group speaks. This certainly applies to AIPAC.”

The plain fact is, lawmakers who support AIPAC initiatives and positions stand to be rewarded by the sprawling network of pro-Israel funders. And those who don’t support those initiatives and positions know they can find themselves opposed in the next election by candidates whose coffers are overflowing with pro-Israel money.

The idea that exposing how AIPAC operates would cut into its congressional clout reveals a lack of understanding of how lobbying works, several political activists said this week.

“Most members don’t have a clue who Walt and Mearsheimer are, but they know how lobbies operate,” said this staffer who asked not to be identified. “As long as there is no public outcry, they don’t care, because it’s important to them politically.”

J Street’s backers had hoped the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization that includes both campaign finance and lobbying components would be a voice for countless American Jews who, they said, were not being represented by a right-leaning AIPAC.

That may indeed be the case, as J Street’s dramatic growth and high media profile suggests, but it has not yet translated into Capitol Hill clout or dollars-based power in the partisan wars.

And it hasn’t put a dent in AIPAC’s political muscle or bank accounts.

“Capitol Hill welcomed J Street’s presence because many hoped there would be a constituency that would support them financially and politically,” said M.J. Rosenberg. “But that constituency is not there yet. It’s been only three years, and J Street hasn’t failed, but it hasn’t changed the terrain yet.”

J Street, even some strong supporters say, has made a modest start in its effort to counter AIPAC’s influence in pro-Israel fundraising, but in the best-case scenario will take years and consistently smart leadership to catch up.

Plus, J Street’s arrival — and the fierce public campaign against it by the pro-Israel establishment and the Israeli government — may have galvanized AIPAC’s membership and donors at a time when other Jewish organizations were fighting a tide of apathy and detachment.

So far, there’s little evidence that epidemic has touched AIPAC. The group draws from a minority of Jews who are deeply committed to Israel activism and who are inclined to put Israel first in their list of political priorities. It has thrived in an environment in which Israel is increasingly isolated in the world arena, increasingly ostracized, with new threats like the Iran nuclear program keeping the term “existential threat” alive and well.

Its student programming is a model for other Jewish organizations, and its young leadership efforts are effectively cultivating new cohorts of givers.

But long term, AIPAC may face a shrinking and increasingly polarized pro-Israel base.

“The Jewish community today is less connected; that manifests itself in synagogue membership, in intermarriage, in religious observance,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. “And another component of that shift is how they want to identify with Israel.”

Jews still support the Jewish state, he said, but activism on its behalf “isn’t as compelling.”

Kahn said there’s no evidence that shift has cut into AIPAC’s current power. “To date, AIPAC has successfully insulated itself from the shifting behavior of American Jews,” he said. “Can they sustain that? At this point, yes, but in the long term it remains to be seen.”

While remaining strong, AIPAC’s base is changing as the Jewish political center is evaporating vis a vis Middle East politics and diplomacy.

“AIPAC has always been dominated by a small group of big givers who are more conservative than most of the Jewish community on these issues,” said a former AIPAC staffer who asked not to be identified. “Now, with the community increasingly polarized, AIPAC’s natural base is further to the right.”

That may work to keep the organization vibrant at a time of communal constriction — but it could also mean AIPAC will become even more out of touch with a broader Jewish community that remains relatively liberal, if not particularly involved, on Middle East matters.

That also makes AIPAC a good fit for right-of-center governments like Netanyahu’s but it could prove problematic if Israeli voters shift to the left — as it was a problem when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres occupied the prime minister’s office.

But for now, there’s little question AIPAC remains undamaged by the critics and the high-profile rise of J Street.

“There’s a tangible benefit lawmakers and candidates see in working with AIPAC,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis. “AIPAC has walked the walk, politically; until that changes AIPAC will continue to win.”