Last week, journalists Josh Rogin and Eli Lake published a piece at Bloomberg Businessweek explaining how the influential pro-Israel lobby AIPAC came to be defeated in the biggest fight in a generation. The story holds important truths. It’s essentially about the tough spot AIPAC was put in by the Obama administration’s hardball tactics to protect the achievement of the nuclear deal with Iran, hardly a surprise given the stakes at hand. “The unprecedented level of personal engagement by the president, his senior staff, and several top cabinet officials and the amount of pressure from the administration plus its allies dwarfed whatever effort AIPAC could mount,” Rogin and Lake wrote. In contrast to the Obama administration’s aggressive outreach, they wrote, AIPAC tried to perform a delicate dance of encouraging Democrats to peel off from their party without declaring a scorched-earth war against those who held firm—which ended up being huge majorities of Democrats in both houses of Congress. As Lake succinctly put it with regard to AIPAC in a tweet, “They weren’t nasty enough.”
That’s all well and good, but there’s more to the picture than simply personal appeals by the administration to its party and AIPAC’s failure to counter them with the sort of fundraising to unseat unfriendly members it made its name on. This larger story reflects not only AIPAC’s tactical failures—make of them what you will—but also the dim future for the pro-Israel movement amid the disquiet of liberals over the Jewish state’s trajectory, and the utter failure of not only the mainstream pro-Israel groups but also Israel itself to assuage these fears. Sure, partisanship played a role in the Iran deal fight, but AIPAC can’t blame the administration for that. It was the doing mostly of Republicans in Congress and, in an ironic twist for the flagship pro-Israel group, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The shifts happening in America’s pro-Israel politics are not new. The Iran deal fight in Congress stands, so far, as a culminating example, but it was by no stretch the start of liberal and Democratic disillusionment with AIPAC—and, more importantly, with the country whose interests the group fights for. Netanyahu has moved right in the Israeli political context as his needs dictated—recall his disclaiming the two-state solution and bigoted warnings about Arab Israelis “voting in droves” during the last Israeli election cycle. But he also brought the rightward shift to America, a political terrain he knows well. Over the past several years, evidence of it is plainly available for anyone willing to look: the Prime Minister’s all-but-endorsement of Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race; his appointment of a close aide and former Republican operative, Ron Dermer, to Israel’s most important diplomatic post, its ambassador to Washington; and Dermer’s role in orchestrating the partisan effort to give his boss the most prestigious platform—the podium before a joint session of Congress—from which to try to sabotage the top foreign-policy priority of a sitting U.S. president.
These moves were part and parcel of efforts against diplomacy with Iran—both for Netanyahu and the Republicans in Washington. Iran policy played a significant role in Romney’s campaign trip to Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s controversial congressional speech denounced the then-emerging deal and urged opposition to it. The message was clear, and it’s one neoconservatives especially—in partisan journals like Commentary magazine and, more recently, Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard—have been espousing for decades: liberal Democrats are too queasy to support those things Israel really needs. Now, the same chutzpah-embodying neoconservatives are deploring the enduring partisanship of the Iran deal fight, despite their years of effort to make the “pro-Israel” label the GOP’s exclusive domain.
As politics in Israel have moved to the right, pro-Israel groups in Washington have followed. On the back of this Israeli shift, a few liberal American groups—the relatively new J Street and the veteran peaceniks of Americans for Peace Now (who both backed the deal)—have pulled in some Israel supporters who would’ve in the past made common cause with AIPAC. They gave liberals an opportunity AIPAC and its ilk never did, to be supportive of a Jewish state’s future but open to criticisms of the direction Israel was going. It turned out, however, that AIPAC’s Israel-right-or-wrong line wasn’t good enough: the group has also lost some support to the right. Old groups like the far-right Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and new groups like the neoconservative Emergency Committee for Israel criticize AIPAC when it fails to put forward sufficiently right-wing positions. Consider the fight over the Jerusalem language in the 2012 Democratic Party platform. Although AIPAC’s role as the platform was drafted came to be disputed, this much is clear: AIPAC did not make its objections known until after Republican partisans, such as the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), the neoconservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin and the Weekly Standard, raised theirs. AIPAC was “screwed by the Republicans,” one congressional source told Peter Beinart.
AIPAC’s resulting demand to insert new language in the platform, according to Beinart, was a result of something all advocacy groups must worry about: their bottom lines. These days, AIPAC lives in fear of losing financial support to its right flank. The problem is perhaps best embodied by the man at the nexus of Likudnik and Republican financial giving: Sheldon Adelson. Adelson, of course, demands fealty to his right-wing visions for Israel and, relatedly (a point I can’t emphasize enough), Iran diplomacy. A few years back, Adelson publicly denounced AIPAC and threatened to withhold donations from the group because of its support of the Palestinian Authority and the two-state solution. On the other hand, groups to the right like ZOA and the RJC benefit from Adelson’s largesse and parrot his extremist positions on Israel-related issues. If AIPAC wants to maintain any ties to Democrats, however, it can’t do that: Adelson is an avowed Republican, perhaps the party’s biggest mega-donor. AIPAC is in a tough spot. It can satisfy its right-wing donor base or maintain the bipartisan clout that has garnered it extraordinary influence, but it can’t do both.
More important than pleasing its donors, however, AIPAC has found itself in this tough spot because of the maximalist positions taken by Netanyahu, and reflexively adopted by his supporters in Congress. Netanyahu’s position on the Iran deal was that it could only be satisfactory if Iran dismantled its entire nuclear program—something the Islamic Republic would never agree to in negotiations. AIPAC adopted a slightly softer version of the position and was bound to be disappointed by the deal. But how could they take any other course? AIPAC and the groups to its right have always maintained that the Israeli government knows what is best for its own security—the justification for, for example, the objection to pressure on Israel towards making a two-state deal. How could AIPAC lobby for an Iran deal in a more moderate way than Netanyahu, who remained adamant about his positions until the bitter end?
None of this is to say AIPAC should be counted out—even among Democrats, even when pushing noxious policy measures. The Democrats in the Senate, for example, who opposed the Iran accord are few, but they are powerful. And AIPAC—showing the benefits of not being so “nasty” during the Iran fight—is marshaling Democratic support for a bill that follows up on the deal (the latest publicly available version of which includes poison pills designed to scuttle the nuclear agreement). And AIPAC still has enough clout with these powerful Democrats to bring them over to some right-wing positions that will indeed satisfy the group’s donors: the follow-up bill is being crafted by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), who recently introduced another measure that sought to protect Israeli settlement products from European boycotts. That’s right: AIPAC and leading Democrats are pushing an explicitly pro-settlement bill through Congress.
Rogin and Lake concluded their piece, “AIPAC must now choose whether it should battle the friends who defied it or repair the friendships that frayed this summer. It cannot do both.” But the choice isn’t actually so stark. For the moment, AIPAC—again, precisely because it did not wage a scorched-earth campaign—will be able to bring many of the Democrats who voted for the deal back into the fold. It will ask them to support other measures such as Cardin’s follow-up bill and his pro-settlement effort.
Not all the Democrats will come back. Although AIPAC’s fight perhaps wasn’t “nasty enough,” it was still nasty. “The ads they’re running now—they’re not true,” Vice President Joe Biden reportedly told supporters. Biden, a man who has referred to himself as a Zionist, said that AIPAC’s tactics in the Iran fight soured him on the group. There will be others like him. The rift between liberals and the increasingly right-wing center of gravity of mainstream American pro-Israel groups will continue to widen—and rightly so. The Democratic Party will follow its ideological base, the dead-enders notwithstanding. In Charlotte, at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, party bosses put forward a motion to placate AIPAC and revise the platform’s language on Jerusalem. The grassroots delegates at the convention seemed to reject the measure—booing loudly—but the language was revised anyway. AIPAC seems to have never heard those boos, or any other liberal discontent with the Israel lobby and Israel. The group’s problems—and Israel’s—are clearly bigger than Obama and his political muscle.