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

Speaking truth to AIPAC's power
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).