Some thoughts on the destructive role AIPAC and other “pro-Israeli” organizations play in Israeli politics
(the post was updated)
New York, NY – Recently, I met a friend who works with the US office of an Israeli NGO. He told me of a conversation he once had with a top AIPAC official (since it was a private conversation, I won’t disclose the name of the official here).
“We appreciate the work that you are doing in Israel,” the AIPAC guy told my friend. “We often give it as an example of the fact that Israel is indeed a thriving democracy. But you shouldn’t have opened a US office, and you shouldn’t be lobbying on the Hill.”
I am not sure what words exactly the AIPAC man used but, according to my friend, his message was clear enough: even Israelis shouldn’t criticize Israeli government abroad.
Attacks by AIPAC on Jewish and Palestinians activists are very common, but what I found interesting in this anecdote is the way AIPAC views Israeli NGO and opposition groups: not as a party that raises legitimate concerns that should be addressed, but as a tool in their PR effort.
This approach was demonstrated again when the head of The Israel Project (TIP), Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, was asked by an Israeli reporter about her organization’s view on the Loyalty Oath issue, which caused a political storm in Israel last week. “We didn’t put out a press release,” was all Mizrahi would say, according to JTA’s report.
AIPAC and TIP would probably argue that those are internal Israeli affairs, and that they would support any decision by the Israeli government. AIPAC often claims that it has no position regarding the political debates in Israel, and that all it does is supporting the policy decided by Israeli elected officials.
However, a closer look at the political dynamic shows that AIPAC and groups like The Israel Project and Stand With Us do play a growing role in those so-called “internal” issues, as the anecdote cited above might suggest.
A battle is now raging in Israel, between those wishing to change the political status quo – especially, but not only, on the Palestinian issue – and those wishing to keep things as they are. Netanyahu is clearly a status quo man. He didn’t express one original thought on the Palestinian issue before the elections, and it was only under tremendous US pressure that he was ready to declare limited support in the idea of a de-militarized Palestinian state.
In the last year and a half, and due to political developments in Israel and outside it, Netanyahu feels cornered – and it is AIPAC that has come to his aid (much to the disappointment of many Israelis). By supporting Netanyahu abroad, AIPAC actually does take sides in the internal Israeli debate. It helps maintain the status quo.
It’s important to understand that AIPAC’s influence is really felt only when it comes to supporting the Israeli Right. Let’s assume Israel elects a Left-wing Prime Minister that signs a peace deal. This imaginary Prime Minister won’t need the help of AIPAC on the Hill (because even a Republican Congress won’t object to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement), but he will face intense opposition – both at home and from the elements in the Jewish community in the US. I do not think, though, that pro-Israeli groups such as AIPAC, TIP or Stand with US will engage in an intense effort to promote the peace deal and to fight the opposition in the American community.
In other words, in the current political context, only the Israeli hawks, the settlers and the extreme-right benefit form the work of AIPAC and the rest of the so-called pro-Israeli organizations. Left wing and centrists leaders don’t need their help.
This dynamic is well understood with the Israeli peace camp, which often feels frustration and anger over the actions of AIPAC. Only in the US can AIPAC pretend to represent “all Israelis” (and let’s not forget that twenty percent of Israelis are Arabs). In recent months, AIPAC fought against the American demand to extend the partial moratorium on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In other words, in the most controversial issue in Israeli politics in the past few decades, AIPAC has taken the side of the “greater Israel”. No elaborate rationalization can change this simple fact.
Last summer, when the effort by various peace organizations and political parties to stop the colonization of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem – a key issue for the success of the peace process – was met with an even greater mobilization by the representatives of the organized community in Washington to fight back American pressure around Jerusalem. During this confrontation, a hundred peace activists and public figures, residents of Jerusalem, even sent a public letter to Eli Wiesel, begging him to stop “supporting” Israel on this issue.
The politics of AIPAC – which are viewed as the voice of the entire Jewish community – make many peace activists wonder why American Jews don’t support the Israelis who share their liberal values, and instead choose to be – as a friend of mine bluntly put it – “cheerleaders for the occupation”.
I don’t think US Jews are “cheerleaders for the occupation.” On the contrary, in my conversations with them I sense great concern and anxiety over the path Israel has taken, especially in recent years. But I also feel that many of them are confused, ill-informed and misguided by the people who claim to carry their political message to Washington.
If I had one piece of advice for my Jewish friends in America who truly wish the best for both Israelis and Palestinians, it would be to prevent AIPAC – and similar organizations – form claiming to speak in their name. The truth is they are speaking for the political interests of Lieberman and Netanyahu.
UPDATE: after publishing this post, a colleague sent me this link to an article published last year by Douglas M. Bloomfield, who spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC. Mr. Bloomfield is quoting sources in AIPAC that remember how the organization coordinated its policy in the nineties with (then) opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, in an effort to stop the peace process:
One of the topics AIPAC won’t want discussed, say these sources, is how closely it coordinated with Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s, when he led the Israeli Likud opposition and later when he was prime minister, to impede the Oslo peace process being pressed by President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
That could not only validate AIPAC’s critics, who accuse it of being a branch of the Likud, but also lead to an investigation of violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
“What they don’t want out is that even though they publicly sounded like they were supporting the Oslo process, they were working all the time to undermine it,” said a well-informed source.
“After Rabin came in in 1992 and said he wanted to make peace and signed the Oslo accords, and the U.S. was supposed to pay the tab, every restriction on all political and financial dealings [by the Palestinians] came out of our office,” said the insider. “We took full advantage of every lapse by [Yasser] Arafat and the Palestinians to put on more restrictions and limit relations,” the source added.