WASHINGTON (JTA) — The leading pro-Israel lobby in the United States is telling lawmakers that they are free to criticize Israel’s looming annexation plans — just as long as the criticism stops there.
Two sources — a congressional aide and a donor — say the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, is delivering that guidance in Zoom meetings and phone calls with lawmakers. The message is unusual because the group assiduously discourages public criticism of Israel.
But these are unusual times: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has set a July 1 deadline to annex parts of the West Bank, over the criticism of people at home and abroad who say the move would set back any efforts to bring peace to the region.
With anxiety pervading the U.S. Jewish community ahead of that deadline, AIPAC faces a thorny question: Does it support Israel’s leadership at all costs, or does it draw a line on actions it believes endangers the Jewish state’s future?
In a statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency sent after this story was published an AIPAC spokesman said that AIPAC does not encourage criticism of Israel.
“AIPAC does not encourage members of Congress to criticize the government of Israel,” Adam Harris said. “Our role is to strengthen the relationship between the two allies.”
Telling lawmakers that they were free to criticize Israel, while short of encouraging them to do so, was nonetheless a departure from past practice.
So far, the group has remained publicly silent about annexation. But in private, AIPAC is telling lawmakers that as long as they don’t push to limit the United States’ aid to Israel, they can criticize the annexation plan without risking tensions or a clash with the lobby group.
How far AIPAC is urging lawmakers to go is unclear. A spokesman would not comment except to point to a May 11 statement warning against proposals to reduce ties with Israel should annexation take place. “Doing anything to weaken this vital relationship would be a mistake,” AIPAC said then.
Buried in the same statement, however, is explicit support for a two-state solution, which annexation would inhibit, and a suggestion that criticizing Israel is valid. “It is inevitable that there will be areas of political or policy disagreement between leaders on both sides — as there are between America and all our allies,” the statement said.
But AIPAC’s lobbyists are famously fastidious: No conversations would be taking place without express approval from the group, which recently called off its 2021 conference because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The donor, who is deeply involved in lobbying Congress, said AIPAC was making it clear that it would not object should lawmakers choose to criticize annexation. “We are telling the senators ‘feel free to criticize annexation, but don’t cut off aid to Israel,’” said the donor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The congressional staffer, a Democrat who is the target of AIPAC’s lobbying, described the same message from AIPAC. “They want to make sure members of Congress understand this is the time to warn Israel but not to threaten the Memorandum of Understanding,” the deal signed in 2016 between the Netanyahu and Barack Obama governments guaranteeing Israel $3.8 billion annually in defense aid for a decade, the staffer said, “not to threaten assistance.”
What was clear, the donor said, was that AIPAC had shifted its tactics in part because the Netanyahu government had long ceased to take seriously behind-closed-doors warnings from AIPAC and other American Jewish groups, once the preferred means of conveying differences.
“They listen,” the donor said. “But they do what they want.”
The revelation of AIPAC’s greenlight comes after weeks of public pleas to Israel by U.S. Jewish leaders, some on the left but others with deep roots in AIPAC and the centrist pro-Israel community, and warnings by senators of both parties that annexation would endanger Israel’s international standing.
Groups on the pro-Israel right, preeminently the Zionist Organization of America, have embraced the annexation proposal, and have the backing of some Republican senators. (That group is currently under fire for its leader’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement.) The Trump administration, which created the space for annexation by releasing in January a peace plan that allows for it, has been sending mixed messages.
The White House and the State Department have said that annexation should, at least within the next four years, come only as part of a deal with the Palestinians. But the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem has signaled that annexation could precede a deal.
Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, is invested in regional stability in the Middle East, especially as the United States intensifies its pressure on Iran and appears to be concerned about the broader destabilizing effects of annexation. Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son in law who authored the peace vision is preoccupied with Trump’s reelection and does not need a foreign policy distraction.
On the other hand, David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador who has a long relationship with the settler movement’s right wing, appears to be invested in annexation; he has scheduled a meeting next week with Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White Party and deputy prime minister who has indicated he wants to go slow on annexation. According to Israeli media reports, Friedman wants the men to resolve their differences on annexation.
Gantz, a former army chief of staff and a former military attache in Washington, is attuned to the sensitivities of the American political establishment, said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who worked on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking for the Obama administration.
“Anyone who has been chief of staff of the Israeli army understands Israeli dependence on American weaponry, even with Israel with all of its indigenous capability,” Makovsky said, “if you ever want to identify what part of Israeli system is most sensitive to the U.S.-Israel relationship, it’s security people — it’s not just $3.8 billion, it’s the technology, it’s the personal relationships, they feel it.”
Annexation could in the long term threaten those very fundaments of the U.S.-Israel relationship, including the military assistance, said the Democratic congressional aid. Lawmakers have read with interest a report by the Commanders for Israel’s Security, a grouping of retired security leaders, and distributed here by the pro-two states Israel Policy Forum, and were taken aback by the estimated cost of annexation. Separating Palestinians from the newly annexed areas will require moving the security barrier, the report says, at a cost of $7.6 billion.
“The current leadership is not interested in discussing changes to the Memorandum of Understanding, but that is not an enduring prospect,” said the congressional aide. “But if annexation goes ahead and there’s differences in the leadership in Congress then we’re looking at possible changes in in the Memorandum of Understanding package, not in cutting assistance, but members of Congress want to make sure the money does not go to the massive budget to pay for annexation.”
The aide was referring to the leftward drift among Democrats, which could manifest in more leadership roles for left-wingers should Democrats keep the U.S. House of Representatives and win back the Senate in November.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, the liberal Middle East lobbying group that is sometimes seen as AIPAC’s rival, said that if Democrats sweep the November elections, his group would not advocate for cuts in aid, but for tougher oversight to make sure that the assistance not go to upholding the annexation. He would also expect a Democratic administration to join others in the international community pressuring Israel to roll back annexation.
Ben-Ami said that annexing the West Bank would be inherently destabilizing and threaten Israel. “The aid that the United States provides Israel is intended to help Israel deal with meaningful security threats, weapons systems, missile defense systems, to deal with the serious threats they face,” he said. “Why would you provide money to enhance threats?”