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AIPAC confronts its worst fear: daylight

Philip Weiss

In that radical handbook on the workings of American society, the Wizard of Oz never recovered once Dorothy pulled back the curtain of her own innocence. One would like to believe that AIPAC will never recover from a brutal spring that has exposed its real interests to the American public. Even supporters of the Jewish state have criticized the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for fully taking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s side in his battle with Barack Obama over settlements, and during its recent annual conference, the lobby looked wobbly and defensive.

Yes, there was the usual procession of weak-kneed politicians professing love for Israel, not to mention AIPAC board members explaining how they cultivate “relationships” with the powerful. Yes, Sen. Chuck Schumer gave a bloodcurdling yowl, Am Yisroel Chai—the Jewish people live!—as he pledged to be Israel’s guardian. But a large shift in American policy and opinion has left the lead institution of the lobby exposed, and worse, mocked.

AIPAC was taking on water before its VIP-studded conference began in late March. Important supporters of Israel in the media, including Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and David Remnick of The New Yorker, questioned whether reflexive support for Israel’s right-wing policies served the American interest, echoing the view of Gen. David Petraeus that the Palestinian problem is our problem in the battle for hearts and minds in the Middle East.

AIPAC designed its conference to defeat this understanding in Washington. Still it crept in and panicked the faithful. Alan Dershowitz and executive director Howard Kohr gave fiery speeches that sought to puncture the new conventional wisdom. It is “bigoted” to suggest that Israel is hurting the U.S. in the Middle East, Dershowitz said; the Arabs hate us because they hate freedom. With his usual precision, he bragged, “Israel’s high technology accomplishments exceed those of all of Europe and most of Asia.” Kohr, too, retailed Israel’s techno achievements, before saying that it is “specious, insidious,” and “dangerous” for anyone to make the “reductivist” argument that the “relationship between the United States and Israel rests on resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”

But a few minutes later, Hillary Clinton said that everywhere she goes in the world, leaders of foreign countries bring up the Israel/Palestine issue as one of the top three problems affecting them. So much for anti-reductivism. She said firmly that Israel must stop building settlements and honor Palestinian “aspirations” for Jerusalem. Christian ones, too, for that matter.

The scholar who put the lobby on the map with a famous paper four years ago says that everyone is now seeing the divergence between American and Israeli interests. John Mearsheimer wrote in an e-mail, “Listening to the speeches at the AIPAC conference—especiall y Alan Dershowitz’s—I had the sense that the hardliners in the lobby are getting desperate because they recognize that more and more Americans are coming to understand that Israel is a strategic liability for the United States. Plus there is the not so small matter that Israel is turning itself into an apartheid state, and more and more people are seeing that, too.”

AIPAC’s doctrinaire inability to say boo in favor of Obama’s efforts to bring about Palestinian self-determination was mocked to wide laughter on the second day of the conference, when the antiwar group Code Pink released a hoax press release saying that AIPAC had called for an immediate freeze on settlements. Several news organizations, including C-SPAN and Al Jazeera, promptly put the “news” up on the screen, surely because it seemed a shrewd political step for an organization seeking influence in Obama’s Washington. Minutes later, the hoax was admitted, exposing AIPAC’s willing puppetry for a foreign government, an act climaxed that night when Netanyahu himself repeated the talking point that two AIPAC executives had uttered from the podium before him: “Jerusalem is not a settlement.”

The other talking point AIPAC pushed was the criticism that Obama should never have publicly quarreled with Israel because open disagreement gives ammunition to our enemies, who are trying to undermine the Jewish state. “Allies should work out their differences privately,” explained Lee Rosenberg, the incoming president of AIPAC who is, what a coincidence, a former member of Obama’s finance committee.

This is not something you will find in the Federalist Papers, which say that policy must be formed by open and robust debate. Indeed, the repeated suggestion that a foreign government ought to wield its influence behind closed doors—not to mention the repeated appearance of Israeli soldiers in uniform at the podium, when there was nary an American uniform in sight—only added to the methane in the atmosphere.

“This could be a moment of waking up and wisdom,” says Stephen P. Cohen, author of the recently published Beyond America’s Grasp: a Century of Failed American Diplomacy in the Middle East.

The long silence toward Israeli settlements that has been the policy of American Jewish leadership is no longer fully sustainable. It’s a failure of courage of our leadership that we have not recognized our responsibility to be a primary supporter of an American foreign policy that has been advocated now by both Republican and Democratic presidencies going back to George H.W. Bush. … Israel is putting itself at risk, and the United States.

This is not to say that the Israel lobby will not win on the issue it most cares about: the happy work of applying “crippling” sanctions to Iran, followed no doubt by U.S. military action. Scores of congressmen were on hand to affirm that position in public letters to the president, as were Senators Schumer, Lindsey Graham, and Evan Bayh and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Speakers routinely invoked the murder of Jews in the Holocaust before describing Iran’s nuclear plans as an “existential” threat to Israel and the Jewish people—notwithstandi ng the fact that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, sitting at a front table, has said specifically that an Iranian bomb is not an existential threat to Israel.

But the political capital the lobby will need for the Iran battle has clearly been damaged by a public spectacle that it has worked to prevent for 50 years: daylight between the U.S. government and the Israeli government. The growing awareness that the two countries’ interests diverge, and that AIPAC will stick with Israel, has surely hurt the lobby’s claim to be an American organization. The special bond between the countries is unbreakable and forever, its leaders insisted. But the conference-goers weren’t heartened.

“The mood is one of fear over the rift with the administration. People here feel they are less and less appreciated by the U.S. government. This is a frightening time for them,” says Medea Benjamin, leader of Code Pink. “They feel that Israel’s allies are shrinking, the press is pro-Palestinian. Nobody understands Israel, and this administration is pro-Palestinian. And we’ve got to protect ourselves, and building settlements is part of what keeps Israel alive.”

Despair was evident. The theme of the conference, “Israel, Tell the Story,” was an effort to stop the bleeding. Even Howard Kohr warned that the lobbyists are internalizing this message. “The pro-Israel community [must] go on the offense in demanding fair treatment for Israel,” he said. “The first thing we must do is break free of our own doubts.”

But who can maintain such blinders? An Arab American Institute poll released the day Netanyahu spoke says that only 42 percent of American Democrats have a favorable view of Israel. Former Israeli aide Tal Becker warned the conference that without some offerings to Obama, the lobby is likely to lose influence over policy. Hillary Clinton implored the conference to understand that the “status quo is unsustainable.” The special relationship is suddenly embarrassing. As Cohen says, blind American allegiance to Israeli policy toward the Palestinians is making us look like a “paper tiger” in China’s eyes.

Mearsheimer says that the spell has been broken among well-informed Americans: “AIPAC will surely remain a powerful lobbying organization in the short term, but it is hard to see how it can maintain its present level of influence over the long term. Not only is it trying to sell flawed merchandise—the special relationship— but it now operates out in the open in ways that can only reduce its effectiveness.”

Ironically, he now believes less in the lobby’s power than the lobby itself. When Netanyahu dares to defy U.S. policy on the settlements and his American hosts give him standing ovations, they are all betting that Israel’s friends in Congress and the media will be able to defy presidential policy as in days past. It’s a reasonable bet. The lockstep of Schumer and Howard Berman and Henry Waxman and other so-called liberals on AIPAC’s Iran agenda reminds us that the Jewish establishment is committed to the Jewish claim to an undivided Jerusalem and is mixed on giving up land in the West Bank. Even J Street, the alternative Israel lobby, which boldly supported Obama against Netanyahu, has been lukewarm in its criticism of Israel’s colonization project.

What about the bet on Obama? “Everyone in this city is wondering that,” says Matt Duss of the Center for American Progress. “He played a successful long game with healthcare. Is he going to make clear what American interests are?”

The bad news from AIPAC is that the Jewish community is so wedded to Jim Crow in Palestine that it won’t offer Obama much support. That is quite a comedown for an American group long associated with freethinking and minority rights. But the good news is that this Jewish tragedy doesn’t have to be an American one.
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Philip Weiss blogs at

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