This week, as thousands of American Jews come to Washington for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference, the group finds itself suddenly embroiled in an unusual dispute.
In keeping with its established practice, AIPAC has extended speaking invitations to all five candidates still vying for their parties’ presidential nominations: Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and Republicans Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich.
An organized movement of AIPAC supporters has arisen to push AIPAC to rescind its invitation to Trump. A growing collection of conservative and reform rabbis, almost all of whom identify overtly with the Democratic Party and its progressive philosophy, are leading the effort. This incident says fairly little about Trump, but it speaks volumes about AIPAC, its supporters, the Jewish community, and the differences between the political left and right in this country.
Alienating Politician and Their Voters Isn’t Bipartisan
AIPAC’s stated mission is advancing the alliance between the United States and Israel. Its longstanding and well-known approach to that mission is nurturing what they hail as a “bipartisan consensus” on Israel, and maintaining relationships with influential politicians on both sides of the aisle. AIPAC’s touchstone is its widespread access and purported influence, which it says it seeks to maintain regardless of who controls Washington’s levers of power.
There is ample reason to question the efficacy of that strategy. AIPAC is anomalous among all issue lobbies that otherwise focus on maximizing results even at the cost of relationships, and have well-known preferences about party control of Congress and the White House. There are clear partisan differences between Democrats and Republicans on supporting Israel. AIPAC’s pursuit of bipartisan consensus thus represents a lowest-common-denominator strategy that comes at the expense of policy.
Issues-oriented organizations should begin with clear, principled goals, know which side of the aisle is more receptive to those positions, work to keep control on that side of the aisle, reward friends, punish enemies—and reach across the aisle encouragingly to nurture and empower whatever true bipartisan support is available.
Regardless of approach—that of other lobbyists or AIPAC’s—the movement to disinvite Trump gets matters exactly backwards. Its leaders laud AIPAC’s strategic bipartisanship while encouraging it to alienate the Republican frontrunner. Their asserted reasoning is troubling. They seek to disinvite Trump because of statements he has made and positions he has taken on issues that have nothing to do with Israel.
Sacrificing Israel’s Interests to American Jews’ Politics
The anti-Trump protest is self-contradictory as a matter of logic and suicidal as a matter of policy: in short, it is anti-Israel. An organization seeking to promote good Israel policy should focus on good Israel policy. An organization seeking to maximize access to politicians on both sides of the aisle should invite leading candidates from both parties.
The anti-Trump rabbis seem to keep neither thought in mind. Instead, they seek to elevate their own judgments about broad-based social justice movements and their own political predilections above the interests of the U.S.-Israel relationship—then to impose those priorities upon a forum explicitly committed to the U.S.-Israel relationship.
In many ways, AIPAC has invited this sort of self-defeating critique. For years, AIPAC has elevated numerous priorities of the American Jewish community above Israel’s interests. Examples of the resultant conflicts abound. Explaining why AIPAC was less than entirely supportive of Israel’s desire to encourage American energy independence, AIPAC’s point person explained to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “We never got into domestic drilling. We knew as American Jews we couldn’t touch environmental issues and have any credibility with our community.”
The most obvious gap between AIPAC and Israel has been AIPAC’s official policy to “strongly” support the creation of an Arab state in territory Israel controls—the so-called “Two-State Solution”—even when that position places unwelcome American pressure on Israel.
This disconnect reflects a fundamental divide, as reported this month in a major new study by the Pew Research Center:
Jews from the United States and Israel have differing perspectives on a range of political issues concerning the State of Israel and the peace process. While Israeli Jews are skeptical that Israel and an independent Palestinian state can peacefully coexist, most American Jews are optimistic that a two-state solution is possible. On the controversial issue of the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the prevailing view among Israeli Jews is that settlements help the security of Israel. By contrast, American Jews are more likely to say the settlements hurt Israel’s own security. (“Israel’s Religiously Divided Society,” emphasis added)
AIPAC’s position thus represents the preferences of American Jews, not Israeli priorities.
AIPAC Lobbies For and Against Itself
Last year, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated a very unpopular deal with Iran that the Israeli government (and Israeli opposition) described as an existential threat. Hillary Clinton hailed the deal and took credit for being its initiator. AIPAC’s official posture, based on which it raised tens of millions of dollars from pro-Israel Jews, was to side with the Israeli government (and two-thirds of all Americans) and attempt organized opposition to that deal.
AIPAC claimed defeating the Iran deal was critical—more important, in fact, than any other issue—yet it incongruously insisted that support for the deal would bear no costs. AIPAC’s failure to deliver results was both inevitable and dramatic. This was a direct outcome of AIPAC’s approach, which, despite its posturing, creates no disincentive for Democrats to ever hurt Israel. This is why AIPAC’s speaker and guest list this week overflows with Democrats who spurned Israel and supported that deal—a position with which many of the anti-Trump rabbis themselves agreed.
The cause and effect are obvious. AIPAC’s commitment to protecting the illusion of bipartisan consensus panders to its Democratic-leaning American Jewish base but emasculates it as a lobby trying to help Israel when the chips are down.
This Is Supposed to Be about Israel, Not Mexico
Meanwhile, we find ourselves facing the spectacle of a pro-Israel organization unchallenged for filling its agenda with politicians whose actions helped impose an existential threat to the continued existence of the Jewish state, but in an uproar because one of its speakers may have offended Mexican immigrants. Can anyone serious find this approach sensible?
If AIPAC were to apply any standards to its speaker list, it would preclude people whose views on Israel are offensive. Were a group of AIPAC supporters to note that one or more of the candidates has stated offensive positions on Israel, or surrounded themselves with notoriously anti-Israel advisors, or cast deeply troubling votes against Israel—like supporting the Iran deal— AIPAC might indeed face a conflict between its asserted mission and its preferred strategy. Such a movement would oppose offering a podium to President Obama, Kerry, Clinton, Sanders, and many, many other Democrats long before reaching Trump.
When it comes to Israel, Trump’s past statements have shown little deep thought and included few details. Trump’s responses to Israel questions have been milquetoast when contrasted with those of Republicans like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, but his assertion of support for Israel is obviously more sincere than the cynical lip service of Obama, Kerry, or Clinton, whose anti-Israel actions speak far louder than their words. Trump’s harsh condemnation of their Iran deal is music to Israel-lovers’ ears.
We are not Trump supporters. Like most Americans, however, we do care about the U.S.-Israel relationship and are deeply concerned by Democrats’ treatment of Israel in recent years. Given the demonstrated priorities of those opposing Trump’s appearance at AIPAC, it is important to see this engineered brouhaha for what it is: a bald political ploy on the part of leftist Jews far more interested in attacking a major Republican candidate than they are about the welfare of Israel.