The pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC used to pride itself on doing its business in the dark. We work most effectively as a “night flower,” AIPAC operative Steve Rosen once explained to Jeffrey Goldberg.
Those days are now over, maybe forever. The rightwing group is controversial in ways that it never wanted to be.
Just in the last few days, AIPAC has made a lot of headlines. AIPAC apologized for smear ads it ran against “radical” congressional Democrats who dare to criticize Israel. “The radicals in the Democratic Party are pushing their anti-Semitic and anti-Israel policies down the throats of the American people,” AIPAC said. “Surprisingly partisan,” says Eli Clifton of Quincy Institute, who exposed the ads. One Congresswoman it targeted, Betty McCollum of MN, labeled AIPAC a “hate group” because in one of the ads it said she was worse than ISIS. J Street, the Israel lobby group in the Democratic Party, has slammed AIPAC for the ads and its ties to a partner organization, Democratic Majority for Israel or DMFI, that has run a deceptive ad campaign against Bernie Sanders in Nevada over his relatively pro-Palestinian stance. The Intercept reports that AIPAC is handing donors over to that right-wing Democratic pro-Israel group– — to try to bring down Sanders in Nevada. Elizabeth Warren has said that she will not attend the AIPAC conference next month…
The rightwing-pro-Israel position is being politicized as never before. Democrats now have political cover to attack AIPAC, and maybe even reap political rewards for doing so, something that was unimaginable even a few years ago.
The fracture between the Republican and Democratic branches of the Israel lobby worries all Israel lobbyists. Even as it attacks AIPAC, J Street fears that Israel will cease to be a bipartisan issue: that anti-Sanders campaign “deepens divides over Israel in the US and exacerbates the troubling trend of making Israel a political football.”
J Street’s fear is echoed in Haaretz by a former AIPAC staffer who says the organization is endangering Israel’s support by choosing sides in U.S. politics, thereby engendering a debate that could threaten the lobby’s hammerlock on Congress.
We have long pushed for just that: For Israel to become a political football, and for politicians who don’t like military occupation and Jim Crow/apartheid discrimination to be able to say so in mainstream politics, a very reasonable position that Jimmy Carter and others have been railroaded for expressing.
So far, all the headline battles are happening on the right. Between those who love Israel a lot (J Street) and those who love Israel a little too much (AIPAC). The two organizations are politely at one another’s throats, vying for influence. And Chuck Schumer shuttles from one group to the other and smiles.
Donald Trump’s slavish support for Israel has created that disruption. You are now allowed to oppose his bogus peace plan, his support for annexation of occupied West Bank territories, his destruction of the Iran deal and his move of the embassy to Jerusalem without being tarred as anti-Israel. You are even allowed to suggest that Sheldon Adelson’s hundreds of millions might be behind Trump’s move. Though yes, the British press is more honest about that influence than the American press.
What about the left, though? A small space has opened up on the mainstream left for criticisms of Israel, from the so-called “radicals” in AIPAC’s venomous Facebook ads — Betty McCollum and Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. And if Bernie Sanders goes to AIPAC next month, it will be one of the classic theatrical moments of his outsider campaign.
But there is still precious narrow political space for criticizing Israel. A year ago Ilhan Omar was all but destroyed for saying that AIPAC uses money to maintain orthodoxy in Congress. She got that treatment because she supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) against the perpetual occupier/colonizer, Israel. Myself I consider BDS the most sane position in the entire mess. Do what Rosa Parks did in Montgomery! But it is all-but-impossible to take that position in mainstream American politics right now.
Overwhelmingly, Democrats paint BDS as worse than ISIS. Consider all the Democrats who attacked the UN Human Rights office for its blacklist of companies doing business in the illegal occupation. “[N]ot a single member of Congress (so far) was willing to defend a DATABASE that does nothing more than offer a modicum of transparency that can allow American citizens to make informed choices about who they give their hard-earned money to,” Foundation for Middle East Peace observes. Many of those Dems attacked the UN by slamming BDS as a hateful campaign. Opposition to BDS was a plank of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy four years ago, not least in communication with donors.
J Street and other Israel lobby groups have effectively marginalized BDS. J Street pushed legislation in Congress last year that all but declared BDS anti-semitic. J Street has backed giving Israel nearly a $4 billion a year in aid and opposed the idea of conditioning that money because of the unending occupation (and its detention of children). J Street has largely excommunicated Jews who support BDS and promoted speakers who say that “There is no Judaism without Zionism.”
I don’t think liberal Zionists can hold this line forever. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and (formerly) Pete Buttigieg have all expressed a willingness to condition aid to Israel. They do so because they know the Democratic base overwhelmingly supports such a tool– by numbers approaching 67 percent in favor, 10 percent opposed. J Street knows that it is holding back the tide here: several speakers from the non-Zionist group IfNotNow, which supports active measures to end the occupation, spoke at the liberal Zionist conference last fall, and J Street’s leader was careful to praise IfNotNow. He sees the writing on the wall.
The left wing debate is bound to open up soon. Though the Democratic establishment wants to put off that disruption as long as it can.