The New York Times recently reported that the “Potent Pro-Israel Group Finds Its Momentum Blunted.” It was referring to AIPAC’s initially strong effort to push for tougher sanctions against Iran that would kick in if the current talks over Tehran’s nuclear program faltered. Getting 59 senators to agree on anything these days is an accomplishment, but when the administration pushed back hard, with President Obama asserting he would veto such a bill, the attempt stalled short of the required 67 votes.
It was the second setback for AIPAC in the last year. The lobby has been described by critics on the left — in an open letter to Mayor de Blasio after he spoke warmly of it — as speaking “for Israel’s hardline government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone.”
Ironically, though, the setback resulted after AIPAC was asked by the Democratic administration for help. This was last fall when the president was planning to use military force to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons. The White House was looking for votes in Congress and turned to AIPAC.
When Obama changed his mind and embraced the Russian-proposed plan of destroying Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, AIPAC may have looked unwise. But at least it underscored its position as bipartisan, both in terms of who is in power in Washington or Jerusalem.
That’s the trouble, according to Lee Smith, who wrote in Tablet this week that it’s AIPAC’s bipartisanship that weakens it. In a piece entitled “The Bell Tolls for AIPAC, the Late, Great Pro-Israel Lobbying Group,” he notes that in the Iran agenda, which has topped AIPAC’s priority list for a decade, the group bit the bullet on the proposed sanctions legislation in favor of maintaining its bipartisan status. Smith argues that in Washington you can’t be bipartisan and still be powerful, as in seeking revenge on those who cross you.
It should be noted that some Israeli leaders have had their own differences with AIPAC, either believing it leaned too far to the right or that it was simply getting in the way of Israel’s own efforts. Yitzchak Rabin, when he was ambassador to the U.S. in the 1960s, viewed AIPAC as meddling. In the 1990s, as prime minister, he felt its support for Oslo was insufficient and he helped create the dovish Israel Policy Forum to counter AIPAC.
As for AIPAC losing its clout, tell that to the 14,000 faithful of all backgrounds who turned out for its three-day annual conference in Washington this week. No other secular Jewish organization can match it. At the end of the day AIPAC’s primary goal is to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the U.S. And as journalist Shmuel Rosner points out in a New York Times essay this week, that means promoting “American global leadership and engagement with the world.”
At a time when President Obama seems committed to limiting U.S. involvement in world affairs, that’s become an increasingly controversial position to take. But it’s a fair and reasonable one and deserves discussion and debate rather than dismissal and demonization.