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AIPAC’s Problems

As AIPAC and other U.S. “pro-Israel” groups have drifted to the hawkish right, they’ve lost support from many reliably “pro-Israel” Democrats and liberal Zionists, widening the gap between the U.S. Jewish community and Israel’s right-wing government.

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LobeLog

The latest issue of the New Yorker features a lengthy article by Connie Bruck on the recent travails of AIPAC, especially its unsuccessful efforts since last November to increase sanctions on Iran, and its steady Likudnik drift, which has increasingly alienated its more liberal and Democratic supporters in Congress.

The article, “Friends of Israel,” makes clear (in case any additional evidence were required) that the  group’s intention all along was to sabotage the ongoing negotiations between Iran and world powers, which we at LobeLog chronicled pretty intensively during the key five-month period, and casts more insider light on the pressure exerted by AIPAC, related groups, and key donors on Democratic lawmakers. Consider this passage, for example:

[Majority Leader Eric] Cantor and [Minority Leader Steny] Hoyer have been steadfast supporters of AIPAC, and its members have held at least a dozen fund-raisers for them each year. But last December AIPAC’s efforts to implement sanctions against Iran were so intense that even this well-tempered partnership fractured. When Congress returned from its Thanksgiving recess, legislators in the House began discussing a sanctions bill. According to the former Congressional aide, Cantor told Hoyer that he wanted a bill that would kill the interim agreement with Iran. Hoyer refused, saying that he would collaborate only on a non-binding resolution.

Cantor sent Hoyer resolution that called for additional sanctions and sought to define in advance the contours of an agreement with Iran. “The pressure was tremendous—not just AIPAC leadership and legislative officials but various board members and other contributors, from all over the country,” the former congressional aide recalled. “What was striking was how strident the message was,” another aide said. “‘How could you not pass a resolution that tells the President what the outcome of the negotiations has to be?’” Advocates for the sanctions portrayed Obama as feckless. “They said, ‘Iranians have been doing this for millennia. They can smell weakness. Why is the President showing weakness?’” a Senate aide recalled.

AIPAC was betting that the Democrats, facing midterms with an unpopular President, would break ranks, and that Obama would be unable to stop them. Its confidence was not unfounded; every time Netanyahu and AIPAC had opposed Obama he had retreated. But Obama took up the fight with unusual vigor. …As the Cantor-Hoyer resolution gathered momentum, House Democrats began holding meetings at the White House to strategize about how to oppose it.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the Democratic National Committee, attended the meetings, at some political risk. Wasserman Schultz represents a heavily Jewish district in South Florida, and has been a reliable signature on AIPAC’s letters and resolution; she has boasted of concurring with a hundred per cent of its positions. Now the lobby e-mailed out an “AIPAC Action Alert,” including the text of a story about the meetings in the conservative Washington Free Beacon, in which she was described as “siding with the Mullahs over the American people.” The alert asked AIPAC’s executive-council members to contact her office, ask if the story was true, and challenge her opposition to Cantor-Hoyer. Stephen Fiske, the chair of the pro-Israel Florida Congressional Committee PAC, sent a similar alert to Wasserman Schultz’s constituents, setting off a cascade of calls to her office. (Fiske told the Free Beacon that the callers included a team of young students: his son’s classmate at a Jewish day school in North Miami Beach.) Wasserman Schultz was furious. Soon afterward, she flew to Israel for the funeral of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. On the trip, she remarked to a colleague, “They’re doing this to me?” [Emphasis added.]

Eventually, of course Hoyer disassociated himself from the initiative, and, as the months unfolded, AIPAC’s campaign to undermine the negotiations by enacting new sanctions legislation in both the House and Senate became increasingly partisan, jeopardizing the group’s carefully cultivated image of bipartisanship, until it finally essentially gave up the effort in March. The article offers many such anecdotes, but the above passage helps to confirm the theory that AIPAC’s aim wasn’t to strengthen President Obama’s hand in the P5+1′s (US, UK, France China, Russia plus Germany) talks with Iran; on the contrary, the objective—entirely consistent with Netanyahu’s wishes, was to blow up the talks.

I particularly appreciated Bruck’s pretty extensive quotation of remarks by former Washington State Democratic Rep. Brian Baird, whose on-the-record frankness about AIPAC was undoubtedly made possible by the fact that he left Congress in 2010 and apparently has no intention of running again. Baird, one of the very congressmen who traveled to Gaza after the 2009 war, explains the relationship between fund-raising and AIPAC:

“‘The difficult reality is this: in order to get elected to Congress, if you’re not independently wealthy, you have to raise a lot of money. And you learn pretty quickly that, if AIPAC is on your side, you can do that. They come to you and say, ‘We’d be happy to host ten-thousand-dollar fund-raisers for you, and let us help write your annual letter, and please come to this multi-thousand-person dinner.’” Baird continued. “Any member of Congress knows that AIPAC is associated indirectly with significant amounts of campaign spending if you’re with them, and significant amounts against you if you’re not with them.”

“…When key votes are cast, the question on the House floor, troublingly, is often not ‘What is the right thing to do for the United States of America?’ but ‘How is AIPAC going to score this?’” He added, “There’s such a conundrum here, of believing that you’re supporting Israel, when you’re actually backing policies that are antithetical to its highest values and, ultimately, destructive for the country.” In talks with Israeli officials, he found that his inquiries were not treated with much respect. In 2003, one of his constituents, Rachel Corrie, was killed by a bulldozer driven by an Israeli soldier, as she protested the demolition of Palestinians’ homes in Gaza. At first, he said, the officials told him, ‘There’s a simple explanation—here are the facts.” Or, “We will look into it.” But, when he continued to press, something else would emerge. “There is a disdain for the U.S., and a dismissal of any legitimacy of our right to question—because who are we to talk about moral values?” Baird told me. “Whether it’s that we didn’t help early enough in the Holocaust, or look at what we did to our African-Americans, or our Native Americans—whatever! And they see us, members of Congress, as basically for sale. So they want us to shut up and play the game.”

While it may seem somewhat unrelated, this last point recalled for me a couple of op-eds published in the New York Times during the most recent war in Gaza on the subject of liberal Zionists (who, not coincidentally, reside almost exclusively in the Democratic Party) and their reaction to the evermore-rightward and aggressive drift of Israeli politics and policy. Both were written by Israelis; the first by Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli writer and fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, which is supposed to study and make recommendations about relations between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora; the second, by Antony Lerman, the former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and author of “The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist.” In his column, “Israel’s Fair-Weather Fans,” Rosner essentially tells liberal Zionists who have warned Israel’s leadership that their right-wing policies are putting at risk the support of liberal US Jews to, in Baird’s words, “shut up and play the game.”

If all Jews are a family, it would be natural for Israelis to expect the unconditional love of their non-Israeli Jewish kin. If Jews aren’t a family, and their support can be withdrawn, then Israelis have no reason to pay special attention to the complaints of non-Israeli Jews.

…If they still want to root for a Jewish state, there’s no substitute for Israel. If they believe there is a need for Jewish sovereignty, Israel is the only option available to them. As the song says, there’s no other country even it it’s on fire.

For his part, Lerman more or less agrees that liberal Zionists in the US have become largely irrelevant, at least in terms of influencing Israeli policies and actions, and thus his title, “The End of Liberal Zionism.

“Today, the dominant organizations, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as a raft of self-appointed community leaders, have swung to the right. They have made unquestioning solidarity with Israel the touchstone of Jewish identity—even though majority Jewish opinion is by no means hawkish.

…In reality, the only Zionism of any consequence today is xenophobic and exclusionary, a Jewish ethno-nationalism inspired by religious messianism. It is carrying out an open-ended project of national self-realization to be achieved through colonization and purification of the tribe.

Noting that the collapse of the latest US efforts for peace talks, as well as Netanyahu’s de facto rejection last month of the possibility of an independent Palestinian state (despite his previous grudging commitments to a two-state solution), Lerman argues that liberal Zionists have reached a dead end.

Liberal Zionists must now face the reality that the dissenters have recognized for years: A de facto single state already exists, where rights for Jews are guaranteed while rights for Palestinians are curtailed. Since liberal Zionists can’t countenance anything but two states, this situation leaves them high and dry.

Of course, this reality also means that liberal Zionists—who undoubtedly constitute a majority of American Jews (who in turn constitute a major source of political campaign funding for Democrats)—face a choice between their Zionism, as defined by Netanyahu and AIPAC, on the one hand and their liberal values on the other. The two appear to have become mutually exclusive.

Jim Lobe blogs about foreign policy at www.lobelog.com

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