November 20, 2018

Notes from AIPAC: The lobby’s greatest battle of all time

AIPAC, whose annual policy conference opened yesterday in Washington, does not always win its battles. I wish it could, but that is not the case. More than thirty years ago, it surrendered to President Ronald Reagan – and an AWACS deal between the US and Saudi Arabia that AIPAC opposed and the president wanted was passed. More recently, it similarly surrendered to President Barack Obama – and the Iran nuclear deal that AIPAC opposed and the president wanted also passed.

In between these two there were other, smaller battles, some won, some lost. There were times of crisis, there were times of triumph. The lobby never rests, its opponents never rest, the Middle East never calms down. If it isn’t Iran, it is Syria; and if it isn’t Syria, it is Hamas, or Egypt, or the Palestinian Authority. But the battle lines are usually clear: on the one hand there’s what AIPAC pushes for – often similar, but not always identical, to what the Israeli government pushes for. On the other hand there is an administration that does not always accept AIPAC’s recipe, supported by organizations and governments for whom the US-Israel alliance is not as important, for whom Israel’s well being is not as important, or for whom what Israel believes to be in its best interest matters little – because they know better.

This year, and this is evident in almost every session I attended at the first day of the AIPAC conference (I’m attending as a speaker, cost covered by the organization), there is a different battle to be waged. It is a battle no less consequential, against a force much more profound than any American administration.

Administrations come and go. Political circumstances change quickly. Coalitions can overcome foes. You twist an arm here, you make a deal there. That’s politics.

But today AIPAC is trying to fight against social trends much stronger than a passing administration, much stronger than itself. It is battling the forces that make America a much more polarized society, a place in which a consensus, or a bipartisan cause, are a rarity. It is battling the forces (these are not always the same forces) that make the American Jewish community much less cohesive and much less likely to come together in support of one cause.

AIPAC is sailing against the wind by insisting on being an organization of “many voices, one mission.” Listen to AIPAC President Lillian Pincus’ address:

“Americans across the country are retreating to ideological corners. Too often we’re divided into us versus them, Democrat versus Republican. Goals are served by creating division, highlighting differences to score political points and advance partisan agendas. My friends, support for Israel is not immune to these divisive efforts. Elements on each side of the aisle are trying to fracture our movement to advance their own agenda, yet we’ve come together to take a declarative and defining stance, we will not allow—frankly, we cannot allow– support for Israel to fall victim to the same divisiveness that overwhelms nearly every other political issue.”

As I was listening to her, and to other statements of this nature later during the first day of deliberations, a nagging thought kept creeping back at me: Is it really in AIPAC’s power to prevent Israel from falling “victim to the same divisiveness that overwhelms nearly every other political issue״?

The hundreds of Jewish protesters outside the convention center made such a goal seem even less within reach. They were loud. They were angry. They did not come to engage or negotiate. They came to disrupt. They claim that AIPAC can’t speak for the community. Is this true? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but what is certain is that the protesters can’t speak for the community either – 18000 delegates attending the policy conference prove that. They can’t represent the protesters – but the protesters surely can’t represent them.

So, in fact, what the protesters are saying is that no one can speak for the community. They are not just challenging AIPAC – they are challenging the idea that someone, anyone, can speak for the American Jewish community on a matter that surely ranks high on the list of Jewish matters. The protesters sail with the wind. They preach for a fractured, polarized, Jewish community. They preach for rage, disruption, resistance. And they are joined by other rebellious voices.

Such is the voice of Molad, an Israeli radical leftist think-tank, whose executive director warned AIPAC yesterday to stop the masquerade: “Either it does not play a role in the political arena, and then is forbidden to interfere in controversial issues… or it has positions on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Iran, and then must stop claiming it is not identified with either one of the camps.” In other words, AIPAC must choose. Either AIPAC says nothing of significance, or it becomes a partisan organization. That is, because today no significant position can be agreeable to people who do not belong to the same political camp.

But clearly, AIPAC and the many delegates who came here to support it have no desire to choose. They have no desire to declare themselves inconsequential, or to marginalize the organization by declaring it a representative of a certain political camp – they have no desire to sail with the wind. Counter to what you might expect or think about this institutional conservative behemoth – AIPAC is now the rebel warrior. While everybody is going in one direction – polarization– AIPAC is trying to go in the other direction. While everybody accepts a new reality – fragmentation– AIPAC is attempting to take a different path.

The question is not whether this battle for bipartisanship and unity will be easy. It cannot be easy. The question is whether this battle is winnable. The question is whether under the current circumstances this battle is worth fighting.

Two years ago, when AIPAC was fighting against the Iran deal, many sober observers of the Washington political scene were arguing that the deal is a done deal and that AIPAC should not climb the tree of resistance. There were even those within the circle of AIPAC supporters and funders who realized that the battle against president Obama was unlikely to succeed. But an argument was made at the time that there is no point in even having AIPAC if it doesn’t wage a battle against the deal. An argument was made at the time that some battles are worth waging no matter the odds of success.

It is not unreasonable to wonder if the battle to have “many voices” and “one mission” falls into the same category. It is not unreasonable to ask how many voices can truly share one mission without having to water down that mission.

Yesterday, I counted eighteen thousand.