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AIPAC Is in Decline—But So Are Hopes for a Two-State Solution

Nicholas Kamm/AFP

Connie Bruck has written an excellent portrait of the Israel lobby, AIPAC, in The New Yorker. I say that as someone who knows something about the organization and has written about it myself. She brings a wealth of detail to aspects of AIPAC’s activity that prior accounts of the organization had cited, but could not quite nail down. I am thinking of the two things in particular.

First, she shows that while AIPAC has given lip-service to a “two-state solution” to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, it has worked against American and Israeli attempts to promote it. AIPAC formally endorsed the Oslo agreement in 1993, but then sought to undermine it. She quotes former AIPAC analyst Keith Weissman, “AIPAC couldn’t act like they were rejecting what the government of Israel did, but the outcry in the organization about Oslo was so great that they found ways to sabotage it.” Similarly, AIPAC helped thwart President Obama’s attempt during his first term to promote an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Recently—and I am citing myself here too—AIPAC has appeared at best indifferent toward Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to revive the peace process.

Second, Bruck shows in some detail how the organization wields influence on Capitol Hill by funding House and Senate members who toe its line and seeking to defeat those who don’t. As far back as 1948, Americans who wanted Washington to back Israel recognized that they couldn’t rely on Jewish votes to make their case: There weren’t enough. What counted was the ability to raise money for politicians. AIPAC, as Bruck shows, has perfected that approach in the last 35 years. It doesn’t give money itself, but it gets its high-rolling members and friendly political action committees to do so. The politicians know where the money is coming from. And the strategy has worked. Bruck quotes former congressman Bruce Baird: “When key votes are cast, the question on the House floor, troublingly, is often not ‘What is the right thing to do for the United States of America?’ but ‘How is AIPAC going to score this?’ ”

AIPAC, of course, is acting within the law. Bruck doesn’t suggest that the organization is secretly funded and run by the Israelis. In fact, Bruck shows that at certain critical times—for instance, when Yitzhak Rabin was Prime Minister from 1992 to 1995—AIPAC acted contrary to the wishes of Israel’s government. What she does suggest, without explicitly saying so, is that in subverting a two-state solution and in attempting last winter to undermine American nuclear negotiations with Iran by getting Congress to dictate the terms, and using its fundraising prowess to get members of Congress to go along with it, AIPAC has not been acting in America’s best interest, or perhaps, too, in the interests of the world’s people.

Bruck also raises the question of whether AIPAC is losing its influence in American politics. She cites AIPAC’s inability to get Congress to pass last winter an anti-Iran resolution. That did show some lack of clout, but the Israel lobby has had trouble before getting the United States government to align its policies toward other countries with those of Israel. In 1981, AIPAC failed to get Congress to block the Reagan administration’s sale of AWACs reconnaissance aircraft to the Saudis. As Bruck acknowledges, where AIPAC has succeeded is in getting Congress to approve the “multi-billion packages of military aid that go to Israel each year.” This summer, Bruck recounts, AIPAC got Congress to approve $225 million for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system even though Israel didn’t actually need the money then and was going to get $351 million for the system in October automatically. It was, in effect, a gesture for support for Israel in its war with Hamas in Gaza. In this respect, AIPAC’s clout has not diminished.

On Capitol Hill, AIPAC has lost some Democratic support. That was evident in the debate over the Iran resolution, which leading Democrats, including California Senator Dianne Feinstein, opposed. Overall, only 16 of 55 members of the Democratic Caucus backed it. But Republican support has made up for Democratic defections. Forty-three of 45 Republican Senators backed the Iran resolution. That change may reflect Republican willingness to defy a Democratic president, but it also reflects a real increase Republican support for Israel—both among politicians and the Republican base. Since September 11, 2001, many Republicans see Israel as a bulwark against global Islamist ambitions. And that perception is likely to persist for at least another administration or two.

While there appears to be no dropoff in support for AIPAC from wealthy Jewish Americans (some of whom are Republicans or very conservative Democrats), there is growing disaffection from Israel among liberal Jews and Jewish Democrats. This is largely a result of Israel’s turn rightward, which began with Menachim Begin’s victory in 1977, and with the continuation and expansion of the occupation. Unless Israel’s government drastically changes course, this disaffection is likely to grow and will over a decade or two pose a threat to AIPAC’s membership and funding base. As Bruck notes, some wealthy rightwing Jews like Sheldon Adelson have even taken their money elsewhere because they don’t think AIPAC is rightwing enough.

The final question, which Bruck does not address, is whether this falloff in support for AIPAC (or its counterparts like the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations) will make it more likely that the United States will adopt the policy that liberal American Jews favor: the active promotion of a two-state solution. In other words, will a falloff in support for AIPAC lead to a dramatic increase in support for groups like J Street? And will that lead the United States to forcefully intervene in the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians? I have my doubts. Let’s take the question step by step.

If an Israeli government were to come to power that favored serious negotiations—and that would include, for instance, acknowledging the Palestinian right to a capital in East Jerusalem—then an American administration, backed by J Street or its equivalent, would take its side and promote the peace process. But I doubt whether such an Israeli administration is in the offing. Certainly, the polls after the Gaza war do not suggest that. If anything, Israeli appears to be moving in the opposite direction toward increasing Israel’s presence in the West Bank and toward seriously entertaining proposals for annexing the occupied territories.

If an Israeli government proved reluctant, the only way the United States could convince it to undertake serious negotiations would be with a combination of carrots and sticks. John Kerry’s experience demonstrates that simple persuasion is insufficient. But in the absence of a general crisis in the Middle East, where American and European access to oil were at stake, or where a nuclear war was in the offing, and where the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was seen as integral to defusing the crisis, I doubt whether an American administration would be inclined to undertake an energetic, high-risk intervention in the conflict. George H.W. Bush threatened loan guarantees to get the Israelis to negotiate with the Palestinians, but that was because he had promised to do so in order to win Arab support for the first Gulf War. By itself, the resolution of the conflict has not been and is not likely to be a vital interest.

Of course, an American administration might reconsider if a powerful lobby threatened to run its party out of office if it didn’t actively promote negotiations. That’s the J Street over AIPAC scenario. But it’s unlikely such a lobby will ever come to be. AIPAC’s strength has depended on wealthy American Jews who were willing to make Israel their single abiding issue—to the extent that they were willing to support or oppose a politician regardless of party on the basis of his or her position on Israel. But the liberal American Jews who have become critical of Israel’s government, and who back a two-state solution, do not have this mentality, and the principal organization that backs a two-state solution, J Street, doesn’t have it either. J Street is willing to raise money for politicians like Jeanne Shaheen who are being attacked for supporting J Street’s own stands, but they are not willing, or able, to threaten to bankroll an opponent to Democrats, like Robert Menendez, who have followed Israel’s lead. So, yes, AIPAC’s influence may decline, as Bruck’s comprehensive portrayal suggests, but that may not affect prospects in Israel for a two-state solution.