Why AIPAC Matters and Its Critics Don’t

Jonathan S. Tobin | @tobincommentar

Critiques of AIPAC that predict the end of the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in Congress and the nation are old hat. After the Walt-Mearsheimer Israel Lobby smear campaign and the subsequent media offensive seeking to prop up the left-wing J Street alternative, one would have thought the well had run dry in this genre. But the editors at The New Yorker thought otherwise and commissioned Connie Bruck to rehash some of the same tired material about an out-of-touch Jewish establishment in service to an extremist Israeli government in a lengthy new article. But the bad timing of the publication of the piece illustrates exactly why Bruck’s thesis about AIPAC’s loss of influence is wrong.

The pro-Israel lobby has had its ups and downs and as Bruck’s article, which devotes a great deal of space to the history of the organization, demonstrates. The problems generally occur when Israel’s friends run into confrontations with sitting presidents and those stories always end the same way. Whether it was Ronald Reagan and his decision to sell AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia or Barack Obama’s attempts to head off plans for tough sanctions on Iran, no matter how much support AIPAC can amass on Capitol Hill, no lobbying group can beat the occupant of the mansion at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue if they go all in on a specific issue.

But even an attempt to write a critical history of AIPAC must acknowledge that it has helped forge a U.S.-Israel alliance whose enduring strength transcends party loyalties as well as the changing names of presidents and cabinet secretaries. As Bruck is forced to acknowledge in the lede of her piece, this summer’s congressional action to give Israel more funding for its Iron Dome missile defense system in the midst of the ongoing war in Gaza was a triumph for the lobby. It as also a timely rebuke from the leadership of both congressional caucuses to an Obama administration that had gone out of its way to try and delay the delivery of ammunition supplies to the Israel Defense Forces as part of its strategy to pressure the Jewish state into halting its counterattack on Hamas in Gaza and agreeing to unsatisfactory cease-fire terms. That two bitter foes like Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell who normally couldn’t agree to back a resolution saying the sky was blue would unite on behalf of Israel in this manner, with the Senate agreeing to delay its summer recess in order to get the measure passed, shows that AIPAC’s clout is undiminished. The fact that this is so despite the fact that, for all of its reputation as the most powerful lobby in Washington, AIPAC hasn’t nearly the money or the influence of other lobbies such as that of the oil or pharmaceutical industries only makes their achievement even more amazing.

But Bruck’s main point in a piece where she tries hard to work in quotes from the organization’s critics is not so much as to try and make a weak case about it losing ground on Capitol Hill. Rather it is to claim that AIPAC is out of touch with liberal American Jews who are increasingly distancing themselves from the Jewish state and who view Israel’s center-right government with distaste.

This is the same argument put forward over and over again by people like author Peter Beinart, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, and was rehashed in the same newspaper on Sunday in another lengthy rant by British analyst Antony Lerman. They believe Israel’s refusal to make peace and insistence on occupation and rough treatment of the Palestinians disgusts most liberal Jews in the Diaspora, especially the youth that has grown up in an era in which the Jewish state is seen as a regional superpower rather than as the one small, besieged nation in the midst of Arab enemies determined to destroy it.

But the problem with this argument is that no matter how many times liberal critics of Israel tell us how disillusioned they are with the reality of a Jewish state at war, they invariably neglect, as did Lerman and Bruck, to discuss why it is that the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews see things differently. The point is, no matter how unsatisfactory the status quo may seem to most Israelis, unlike their Diaspora critics, they have been paying attention to events in the Middle East during the last 20 years since the Oslo Accords ushered in an era of peace negotiations. They know that Israel has repeatedly offered the Palestinian Authority peace deals that would have given them an independent Palestinian state in virtually all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem and that it has been turned down flat every time.

Rather than Israel needing to finally take risks for peace, as liberal critics keep insisting, the Jewish state has done so repeatedly. It brought Yasir Arafat and the PLO back into the territories and empowered them and rather than trading land for peace, it got the terrorism and horror of the second intifada. It withdrew every last soldier, settler, and settlement from Gaza in 2005 and instead of creating space for a productive and peaceful Palestinian state, it got a Hamas-run Islamist state that has rained down thousands of rockets on Israeli cities and used international aid funds and materials to build tunnels to facilitate terrorism.

This cruel reality has destroyed the once dominant left-wing Israeli political parties, but American liberals haven’t paid much attention to it or anything the Palestinians do or say. This is especially instructive this summer as Hamas launched a terror war that illustrated even for those not paying close attention that when it says it wants to end the “occupation,” it is not discussing the future of the West Bank but reasserting its goal to eradicate Israel and slaughter and/or evict its Jewish population.

It is true that American Jewry is changing in ways that may eventually cripple its ability to be a coherent force on behalf of Israel as well as its other vital interests. But, contrary to the liberal critics, that has little to do with the policies of Israeli governments and everything to do with statistics about assimilation and intermarriage that speak to a demographic collapse of non-Orthodox Jewry.

That’s a serious problem as is the ongoing tension with an Obama administration whose barely concealed hostility to the Netanyahu government is making mischief on several fronts, including negotiations for a nuclear deal with Iran that seems headed toward appeasement of the ayatollahs rather than a fulfillment of the president’s campaign pledges to prevent Tehran from acquiring a weapon.

But it doesn’t point toward the irrelevance of AIPAC, let alone the ascendance of J Street, its left-wing rival that has gained virtually no ground on Capitol Hill or anywhere else during an administration that should have been their ally.

AIPAC counts because it is connected to the reality of a Middle East where Israel remains the sole democracy and a vital American ally while the Palestinians continue to embrace terror and reject peace. So long as that is the case, Congress and the overwhelming majority of the American people will remain firmly on Israel’s side and, by extension, AIPAC. Though we should expect that its critics will continue to carp away on the sidelines and predict its doom, so long as they ignore what the Palestinians do or say, they will remain irrelevant or sink into the same kind of conspiratorial anti-Semitism that sank Walt and Mearsheimer.

Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com. He can be reached via e-mail at: jtobin@commentarymagazine.com. Follow him on Twitter at TobinCommentar