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Speaking truth to AIPAC's power

AIPAC is only hesitatingly supporting Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, all the while scuttling a diplomatic resolution with Iran. American Jews should remember the differences between AIPAC’s and their own views next time they have qualms about confronting it.

By Roi Bachmutsky

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC, March 2012 (Photo: Amos Ben Gershom / Government Press Office)

There are several organizations that American Jewry widely believes to be too cute, cuddly and unequivocally well intentioned to be held accountable for their actions. The iconic blue donation boxes in synagogues across the United States suggest the Jewish National Fund (JNF) is one of them. Two years ago, a JNF board member publicly severed all ties with the organization in protest of its role in the eviction of an East Jerusalem Palestinian family. That served as a wakeup call for some American Jews, but most have yet to receive one. I am writing to you as your alarm clock, because another beloved organization has recently betrayed your trust.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) claims to “strongly support a two-state solution and work tirelessly to bring peace to the region,” yet it officially blames the intractability of the conflict on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for “refusing to meet with his counterpart.”

So where is AIPAC when Abbas finally came to the table to join Prime Minister Netanyahu in direct negotiations? Why have they not publicly applauded the Palestinian president and come out in uninhibited support of the new round of peace talks?

I contacted AIPAC’s press office for a statement; it is a proponent of the right to self-defense, after all. Spokesman Marshall Whittman relayed to me that AIPAC, in fact, did put out a statement the day of Kerry’s announcement “welcom[ing] the resumption of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians.” Curiously, the statement didn’t make it into the mainstream media, which AIPAC – had it been interested – could have easily corrected. Evidently, AIPAC is keeping its support for peace talks under wraps – but why?

The short answer involves two enduring forces: time and money. Although AIPAC was technically brought to life in 1951, its expansion from a blip on the radar to one of the country’s most powerful lobbies began with Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. It is no coincidence that – with the capture of the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula – the Six-Day War also simultaneously indulged the Jewish fantasy of a Greater Israel in the entirety of British Mandate Palestine. With the coming of the settlement movement, one could say AIPAC originally woke up on the ‘Right’ side of the bed.

As J.J. Goldberg chronicles in his timeless book, Jewish Power, the same war also enabled certain “New Jews” to take the reigns of the most powerful American Jewish institutions, including AIPAC. A small band of wealthy neoconservative actors, entranced by the possibility of a Greater Israel, pushed consensus aside in determining the path forward for the American Jewish community. It should come as no surprise, then, that membership on AIPAC’s board of directors depends highly on one’s previous financial contributions rather than on a representation of its member base or of American Jewry at large. These donors’ influence is at the root of AIPAC’s reluctance to whole-heartedly advertise its support of Israeli moderation.

One donor who perhaps carries the most weight with AIPAC is the all-too-familiar casino mogul and 15th richest man in the world, Sheldon Adelson — the same Sheldon Adelson who defened Newt Gingrich’s depiction of the Palestinians as an “invented people.” In 2007, while then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was attempting to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Adelson threatened to withdraw his financial support for AIPAC over its involvement with a letter requesting increased U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority. “If someone is going to jump off a bridge,” he was quoted as saying, “it is incumbent upon their friends to dissuade them.” It is unclear how AIPAC and Adelson’s relationship has progressed since.

Today’s round of peace talks is not the first time AIPAC has hesitated to support an Israeli leadership that edged – even slightly – to the left. Douglas M. Bloomfield, who spent nearly a decade as AIPAC’s chief lobbyist, published an article some years ago in the New Jersey Jewish News. In it, he cites several well-informed former colleagues who reveal that while AIPAC was reticently supportive of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, it also “coordinated with Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s… to impede the Oslo peace process.” Lending credence to these allegations is former AIPAC executive director Neal Sher, who has been quoted explaining that, “getting AIPAC to support Oslo… was like pulling teeth.” Whether AIPAC is playing the same game today remains to be seen.

Certainly one can be skeptical, even pessimistic, with regard to prospects for change in the next nine months of peace talks. There is also a legitimate leftist critique of the peace process, which argues that the process actually entrenches Israel’s occupation by relieving pressure on the Israeli Right. But if AIPAC is to be judged by its own principles, the question is: how can a lobby that claims to be pro-peace make due with mere whispers of support for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation while actively scuttling a diplomatic solution with Iran?

The message should have become clear with the rise of J Street. The success of an alternative lobby branded as the “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” suggests that part of that equation was previously missing in the times of AIPAC’s monopoly on American Jewish pro-Israel lobbying. Despite AIPAC’s broad bipartisan support in Washington, the organization indubitably represents the interests of the Israeli right wing. As Haaretz foreign correspondent Chemi Shalev put it after visiting this year’s AIPAC conference: “It is the Israeli Right that defines the world in the same stark with us or against us terms, the Right that focuses exclusively on the sinister nature and designs of Israel’s rivals and enemies, the Right that downplays the consequences and often the very existence of the occupation.”

I should be clear. I am not against a robust American-Israeli relationship. I just happen to be against AIPAC’s rush to war with Iran, its tacit approval of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and its mild, surreptitious support for a secure, just and equitable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While they might not say it in so many words, American Jews generally feel the same way. We would be wise to remember those differences next time we have qualms about confronting AIPAC.

It is difficult to speak truth to power. But it is the only way forward.

Roi Bachmutsky is a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. You can follow him on his blog and on Twitter (@roibachmutsky).

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    1. Kolumn9

      Seriously.. You base your entire article on this flimsy nonsense?
      “Curiously, the statement didn’t make it into the mainstream media, which AIPAC – had it been interested – could have easily corrected.”

      In other words, AIPAC, which according to you controls the mainstream media and didn’t deign to inform its underlings to give wide publicity to its statement.

      Here is the statement:
      “AIPAC welcomes the resumption of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians. AIPAC has been supportive of Secretary Kerry’s efforts to achieve direct bilateral talks, and we commend his determined hard work and commitment. We hope that these discussions will lead to successful negotiations.”

      The rest of the article is not much better.

      AIPAC is also against Iran getting nuclear weapons. There is apprehension in some quarters that the Obama administration is interested in having talks in order to give Iran more time to develop nuclear weapons and is not interested in doing anything to actively prevent such an outcome. This is somewhat supported by the numerous rounds of previous talks which have changed the American position not at all. What round of talks is this? 7th? 8th? If I was an Iranian ayatollah I would certainly seek to continue to discuss a ‘diplomatic solution’ with the United States which would allow me to continue to pursue nuclear weapons given that it has been a successful strategy so far. What would change my mind? Perhaps the US actually setting some red lines and making it clear that it would actually use force to prevent Iran from crossing them. But yes. I know. That is too aggressive. Let’s have another round of talks after which Iran continues to increase its stockpile of nuclear material. That will do the trick.

      AIPAC is pro-Israel as the name might suggest. It will be pro-Israel whether the peace talks succeed or if they fail. It will be pro-Israel whether Israel bombs Iran to prevent it from getting nukes or not. It will be pro-Israel as long as Israel needs the support. Your support appears to be conditional on Israel conforming to your own expectations.

      Reply to Comment
      • “Your support appears to be conditional on Israel conforming to your own expectations.” : This nicely sums up at least one national right view. There is a not so implicit silencing here. One might also argue for an Israel one could support, but we are rather to accept the entity as such, without qualification.

        America: love it or leave it, heard in the 60’s-70’s. Israel: always right, heard now. Both phrases come from an embattled war stance. Those holding this stance are often not completely wrong; but they do make others completely wrong.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          The primary motivation behind this article is to bash AIPAC. So, he isn’t arguing for an Israel he can support. He is arguing against an organization that supports Israel unconditionally because he wants to attach his own litany of conditions on that support.

          Reply to Comment
          • Of course he’s arguing for an Israel he can support–just as you do. Bashing AIPAC is hardly a test of treason. Or maybe it is.

            Frankly, supporting any State unconditionally is a bit silly. Unless one is Yahweh.

            Reply to Comment
        • rsgengland

          The header talks of the power of AIPAC.
          AIPAC has no power.
          It has influence.
          There is a big difference between the two.
          AIPAC can attempt to influence policy, but it has no power to make policy.
          And AIPAC does not claim to speak for all American Jews, just for its own constituency.
          It is neither a political party, nor a popularly elected group; and it does not claim that accolade either.
          It is what it claims to be, and is.
          A lobby group for Israel.

          Reply to Comment
    2. It seems unfair not to mention the great defector, M J Rosenberg. At the cost of his career, and even, almost, his respectability, M J managed to crawl out from inside the carcass of the monster and establish a modus vivendi in the open air. IIRC, HuffPost gave him a job as regular columnist, which caused the ADL or some similar entity to complain that HuffPost was giving aid and comfort to anti-Semites (it being now possible to call a Jew an anti-Semite if he fails to support zionist goals). My favourite M J achievement was the exposure of WINEP as a direct construct of AIPAC, a wholly-owned subsidiary, which must have done some damage to WINEP’s public pose as a ‘think-tank’. Apologies if I have remembered any of this incorrectly; I could google around for innumerable proofs and edifying links, but I don’t think link-infested comments are very common here.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Shmuel

      “So where is AIPAC when Abbas finally came to the table to join Prime Minister Netanyahu in direct negotiations? Why have they not publicly applauded the Palestinian president and come out in uninhibited support of the new round of peace talks?”

      This is why there isn’t peace yet. The mentality that Israel and supporters of Israel should kiss the feet of the Palestinian Arabs purely because they are willing to talk to Israel.

      I would have thought that since the occupation is so terrible, the Palestinian Arabs should be at least as thankful to Israel for it’s willingness to talk about ending the occupation.

      Ok I am ready for the outpouring of outrage from the usual suspects around here.

      Reply to Comment