Friday, September 24, 2010

Understanding AIPAC

Against a background of sharp disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem, the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee winds down today.

On Monday, the 7,500 delegates—Jews, Christians, African Americans, as well as European and Canadian activists—heard Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declare that the United States would tell Israel the "truth" when "difficult but necessary choices" had to be made. Today, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet President Barack Obama. Delegates from all 50 states planned to spend Tuesday on Capitol Hill speaking with their respective Senators and Members of Congress.
But what is AIPAC, and what does it mean to be pro-Israel at a time when many American Jews are said to be discomfited by actions of the Israeli government and tensions with Washington?

Its name notwithstanding, AIPAC is not a political-action committee created to give money to friendly politicians. Nor is it a foreign lobby. Founded in the 1950's, AIPAC aimed at becoming America's premier, bipartisan, homegrown pro-Israel pressure group. The group's incumbent president is usually a communal leader, Republican or Democrat, with strong ties to the administration then in power. Its current head, Lee Rosenberg from Illinois, was among Obama's staunchest Jewish supporters during the 2008 campaign.

But AIPAC has also become a lightning rod for the animus of those who essentially oppose all Israeli security policies while insisting they favor the country's "right to exist." In The Lobby: Jewish Political Power and American Foreign Policy (1987), the journalist Edward Tivnan charged AIPAC with unprecedented influence over Congress. In The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007), the "realist" academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt updated and amplified Tivnan's critique, positing that an all-powerful lobby was "silencing any debate at all" on the Middle East, rendering impossible the proper pursuit of American interests, and, through its blind support of Israel's West Bank policies, helping to foment anti-American terrorism.

In reality, AIPAC's leadership includes both supporters and opponents of Israel's West Bank policies. What the organization embraces is a pro-Israel model that leaves to Israelis themselves decisions of existential consequence, reached through the consensus of the country's body politic. AIPAC thus emphatically favors a two-state solution; insists on direct talks between Arabs and Israelis; holds the Palestinians to be the recalcitrant party; and robustly rejects any outside imposition of a "solution."

Is this any different from the model embraced by the overwhelming majority of the American people, and confirmed in survey after survey of national opinion?

-- March 2010

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