Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You
I think it is fair to say that Bibi’s decision to come speak before Congress is the single most disastrous event for the state of pro-Israel sentiment in my lifetime. There’s blame to go around, and one can make the case for (or rather, against) all sorts. Personally, I’m extremely skeptical of Ambassador Ron Dermer’s influence given his background as a GOP political operative, but this ultimately falls on Bibi’s head. Boehner, well, his job is to protect the interests of his caucus and he only cares about Israel insofar as it furthers that end, so I can’t really “blame” him for playing politics.
But that’s neither here nor there. I don’t care who you blame, I don’t care how you sequence the events — the fact of the matter is that this seems to be the straw that broke the camels back for a lot of people, and there is no way that Bibi’s speech could ever be sufficiently useful or influential regarding the Iran threat to justify that break. We should not be in a situation where a majority of Americans don’t want to hear the Prime Minister speak. This is a full-blown catastrophe, and an avoidable one at that.
On that note, this Nathan Guttman article on anxieties at AIPAC is very well-taken. AIPAC, of course, was famously blind-sided by Bibi’s speech decision. It announced its opposition to the address — to no avail — and has been on its heels ever since. It’s easy to see why: AIPAC’s MO from day one has been to cultivate bipartisan support for Israel without favor to either left or right. It takes positions on substantive issues, to be sure, but by far its most important priority is that Israel must not become a partisan issue.
And now? It is facing the teeth of that possibility. Because there is a significant cadre of conservative organizations that want to make it just that. And they are far more threatening to AIPAC’s mission — and the long-term security of Israel — that left-ward critics like J Street ever could be.
A new reality of overt partisanship has now tinged the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The brawl set off by Netanyahu’s speech has also emboldened other Jewish groups to challenge AIPAC’s own longtime status as the strategic center for pro-Israel activism in Washington. As the lobby kicks off its three-day extravaganza in Washington’s Convention Center, it faces the need to now prove to members of Congress and to supporters that AIPAC is still the main voice of pro-Israel activism, despite increasing challenges coming mainly from a growing right-wing flank.
“Enough with this bipartisan nonsense,” Jeff Ballabon, an Orthodox GOP activist told members of Conservative Political Action Committee convened in Washington just days before the pro-Israel lobby’s conference. “The real base of support for Israel,” he argued, will not be found among Democrats and liberals, but rather “here, at CPAC.”
A full-page New York Times ad sponsored by Rabbi Shmuely Boteach demonstrated how fractured the pro-Israel community has become when discussing Netanyahu’s visit.
Boteach, whose 2012 congressional run was heavily supported by right-wing donor Sheldon Adelson, ran an ad accusing national security adviser Susan Rice of having a “blind spot” when it comes to genocide.
Threats to AIPAC’s hegemony in past years came mainly from the dovish end of the spectrum, particularly with the appearance of the lobby J Street. But now much stronger competition is emerging from hawkish groups, like The World, that are less interested in bipartisanship. An important funder for several of these groups is the Republican mega-donor Adelson — a former AIPAC backer, who angrily stopped giving to the lobby several years ago, when it decided to announce it supported a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
I don’t want to say I told you so, but … I did. Repeatedly. These groups were never invested in the mainstream pro-Israel consensus, and our broad communal organizations should have moved to isolate them from the “pro-Israel” community with just as much vigor as they give to isolating groups like the JVP. It’s not entirely their fault — left groups that are still pro-Israel made a major strategic error of their own in not affirmatively aligning with the center, being too committed to wrongfully portraying AIPAC as a pure tool of conservative interests.
But what’s past is past. And the good news is that AIPAC, and the mainstream Jewish community generally, seems to be waking up as to where the real threat is. The objection to Bibi’s speech is a good first step. The across-the-board condemnation of Boteach’s ad is another good sign. Ditto the ADL speaking out against those who seek to cloak blatant Islamophobia in the guise of supporting Israel. Simply put, a world in which Americans associate “support for Israel” with “being a right-winger” is not a good world for Israel (even putting aside the fact that the manner in which right-wingers “support Israel” is ludicrously counterproductive). And, given the political proclivities of most Jews, it isn’t a good world for Jews who want to retain influence over the state of pro-Israel discourse in America.
Now, I am more closely affiliated with the liberal Zionist groups than I am with AIPAC itself. And my advice to them is the same as my advice three years ago. Seize the center. Work with the more established Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, and leverage their dismay over how partisan right-wing hacks are damaging our crucial relationship. It was never the case that they were in the bag for the most irredentist wing of the Likud Party, and it’s certainly and obviously not the case now. The great advantage the liberal Zionists have in America is that they really do represent the consensus Jewish position (not to mention the morally correct one). What divides them from the established organizations — primarily matters of tone and focus — are far less important than what they share in common. And what Ameinu and J Street share in common with AIPAC and the ADL and the AJC, and with the American people writ large, is that Israel must be preserved as a Jewish, democratic state in the context of two safe, secure, democratic states for two peoples. The right-wing critics do not share that vision, and so they do not belong in the tent.
AIPAC has been rattled by a threat that caught them unawares. Whether they should have seen it coming is now besides the point. It’s time to stop cowering and to start fighting back. And the place to begin are those groups who care more about scoring a transient partisan advantage than they do about making sure that there is an Israel — a Jewish, democratic Israel — 30 years from now.