John Judis has a very good piece up at Foreign Policy called “Zionist Movement: How AIPAC is severing its historical roots — and weakening its influence,” on the decline of AIPAC’s power. He says AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is losing influence because it chose to side with the Israeli rightwing government over its roots in the American Jewish community. So when the American Jewish community divided over Israel, as it has in recent years, AIPAC was left on a rightwing ice floe.
Judis’s argument involves the historical concerns about dual loyalty, raised lately by AIPAC sticking with a rightwing Israeli government as it pushed for war on Iran.
Here’s some of the historical bit, about the lobby in the 1930s, and the determination by Zionist Jews to exercise their power as representatives of a Jewish voting bloc to affect the electoral process:
American Jews now had an opportunity to affect events in Palestine, but they feared that pressuring political candidates and lobbying Congress and the White House for a Jewish state might arouse long-standing American suspicions about foreign influence and “dual loyalty.” Asking voters to vote for Jewish interests was considered taboo. Rabbi Stephen Wise, one of the Zionist movement’s leaders, declared flatly in 1937 during the New York mayoral election, “Jews will not vote as Jews.”
But in 1943, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver and Emanuel Neumann joined Wise in leading the American Zionist Emergency Council (AZEC), a coalition of groups favoring a Jewish state. Silver and Neumann wanted to turn the organization into a traditional lobby that would support or oppose candidates based entirely on their stand on a Jewish state, even if that meant defeating a liberal Democrat whom Jews would ordinarily favor. Jews, who were generally liberal on social and economic issues, had begun voting Democratic en masse in 1928, and in the 1940 and 1944 elections, they had voted overwhelmingly (90 percent or above) for Franklin Roosevelt. But Zionists, Silver wrote, needed to “pin our hopes” on the “pressure of five million Jews in a critical election year.”
When Neumann explained this approach to Hadassah, the main Zionist women’s organization, one of its officials said that the strategy “puts us in the same class as the communists, whom we all despise,” a reference to American communists who advised voters to pick candidates based solely on what mattered to the Soviet Union.
Judis is referring again there to the dual loyalty problem. More on the issue of whose side you’re on follows:
But Silver and Neumann prevailed; the organization ran ads and billboards threatening Democratic as well as Republican candidates. The strategy incurred President Harry Truman’s wrath, and also influenced his support for a Jewish state, but it failed to drive a wedge between AZEC and Jewish voters because almost all the Democrats up for election backed the creation of a Jewish state.
The American Zionist movement shrunk after Israel won its independence in May 1948. It also suffered a brief identity crisis. [Emanuel] Neumann, who had led the charge for Israel’s recognition, now worried about allegations of dual loyalty. He proposed that American Jews delegate lobbying for the new state to “its ministers and ambassadors.” “[I]t should be obvious,” he declared, “that the Jews of the United States … should not be responsible for the acts and policies of a state which … will necessarily be regarded and referred to as a ‘foreign power.'” But his fellow Zionists didn’t share his reservations. They wanted a hand in the new state’s future. The American Zionist Emergency Council dropped the “Emergency” from its name — a nod to having accomplished its primary objective — and AZC turned from lobbying for Israel’s creation to lobbying on its behalf.
The lobby then got around the foreign agent registration act, even though it was serving a foreign power, by reconstituting itself as AIPAC:
[Founded] in January 1963, as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee… AIPAC claimed to receive no funds from the Israeli government — and there is no evidence to the contrary. But though it was free of direct control from Israel, it continued the practice, begun with AZEC, of lobbying for what it believed to be in Israel’s interests. As a rule, though not always, this coincided with Israeli government policy.
A few Senate and House members continued to question whether AIPAC was an agent of a foreign government, but the charge didn’t stick. There were several reasons why. First, the United States saw Israel as an important ally in the Cold War. In 1970, Israel helped the United States by threatening to intervene in Jordan to quash a Palestinian revolt against King Hussein. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, Israel became America’s major military ally in the Middle East against the Soviet Union. In 1981, Ronald Reagan’s administration signed a “strategic cooperation agreement” with Israel. Thus, when AIPAC and other lobbying groups promoted policies that favored Israel, they could convincingly argue that those policies also benefited the United States.
Judis comes to AIPAC’s classic period, the 70s to the 2000s. Notice his emphasis on Jewish donors, a breath of fresh air in Foreign Policy. And his point that the famous AWACs sale to Saudi Arabia, so often cited as an AIPAC defeat, resulted in Senator Charles Percy’s defeat in Illinois, a scalp AIPAC brandished with great effect in years to come.
It went from having 8,000 to 55,000 members,which gave it a base of wealthy Jewish donors who could be called upon to back or oppose candidates, and it created an impressive communications, research, and lobbying operation. The best indication of AIPAC’s power was its success in winning money and arms for Israel. From 1974 until the Iraq war, Israel was the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. (The 1978 Camp David Accords, often cited as the reason for Washington’s substantial aid to Israel, actually produced only a one-year bump in the amount provided.) If House or Senate members defied AIPAC by criticizing aid budgets or supporting weapons programs for Israel’s adversaries, AIPAC summoned its supporters to fund opposing candidates.
Even its defeats managed to showcase the organization’s growing power. In 1981, it fought Reagan’s proposed sale of AWACS reconnaissance planes to Saudi Arabia, an important ally of the United States. AIPAC got 36 of 46 Senate Democrats to oppose the sale, but its lobbying effort could not sway enough Republicans. Saudi Arabia got its planes, but AIPAC exacted retribution. In 1984, it helped Democrat Paul Simon oust Republican Sen. Charles Percy, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, whose support had helped bring the sale to the Senate floor. Dine boasted, “All the Jews in America, from coast to coast, gathered to oust Percy.… And American politicians … got the message.”
Sometime during Bush’s second term, however, as AIPAC was continuing its movement rightward, it began almost imperceptibly, and then very visibly, to lose influence. One key factor was a change in the global security environment, which became less conducive to a simple identification of America’s interests with Israel’s.
This is Judis’s big point. That as American interests and Israeli ones have diverged in recent years, Jewish Democrats have stepped away from AIPAC. And “AIPAC has confirmed the qualms that Wise and officials from Hadassah expressed some 70 years ago” — i.e., you’ve got a dual loyalty problem.
[T]o bolster AIPAC’s standing among progressives…. AIPAC would have to be willing to adopt positions that clash sharply with those of Israel’s conservative government — whether on the peace process or negotiations with Iran. It would also have to be willing to forgo supporting Republican politicians like Cantor and McConnell, who, while favoring aid to Israel, are anathema to liberal voters. By backing these conservatives, AIPAC has confirmed the qualms that Wise and officials from Hadassah expressed some 70 years ago. It’s doubtful, however, that AIPAC is ready to break with its current strategy.
The coming year will be telling. Although midway through his first term Obama had backed off his initial push for peace with the Palestinians, he and his new secretary of state, John Kerry, have picked it up once again. AIPAC may soon be forced to decide whether to back a proposal for peace that Netanyahu resists. Similarly, the Iran negotiations may also result in a long-term agreement that could promise broad sanctions relief. That step could require congressional approval, at which point AIPAC could exploit Republican opposition to Obama in an effort to block the deal’s implementation. AIPAC might well succeed — and the Israeli government would likely be pleased. But severing AIPAC’s remaining ties to liberals and Democrats could ultimately prove fatal, even to an 800-pound gorilla.
The flaw in this piece is Judis’s suggestion that J Street, whom he hallows as more representative of the Democratic Party, is not also the Israel lobby. As if an organization that pushes for unending military aid to Israel isn’t the lobby, even if it does represent liberal Jews. Norman Finkelstein made a similar argument about AIPAC’s decline long before Judis did, but containing the same flaw: just because the lobby has been damaged by battles with Obama doesn’t mean we don’t still have an Israel lobby! The issue both of them avoid taking on frontally is, How important are older conservative American Jews in the Democratic Party? They both know the answer, Very important. I will certainly address this question in my own presentation at a National Summit to Re-Assess the US Israel Special Relationship, next Friday in D.C.