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Monday, July 11, 2016

Why AIPAC's Israel monopoly deserves to come to an end

Bruce Abramson is a politically conservative former lawyer colleague of mine. Jeff Ballabon is currently best-known as the man behind the Iron Dome Alliance, which is seeking to undo AIPAC's 'accomplishment' in making sure that the 2012 Republican platform was no more pro-Israel than the same year's Democratic platform. Jeff is a long-time pro-Israel activist with whom I am occasionally in touch (and who follows me on Twitter).

Bruce and Jeff have written a lengthy piece in which they demonstrate that AIPAC, the big 'pro-Israel' lobby, has lost its monopoly on pro-Israel lobbying. In the course of their article, you will understand why that's probably the best thing that has happened to US-Israel relations in a long time.
By eschewing policy innovation while occupying the entire field, AIPAC has imposed upon pro-Israel activism the same sclerosis that monopolists commonly impose upon the markets they dominate. In Israel’s case, that sclerosis is both misplaced and dangerous. Israel is a small state surrounded by enemies seeking her destruction and the genocide of her citizens. As a foreign government dependent on the United States, Israeli diplomacy compels conciliatory statements about American policy and leadership. American activists are under no compulsion to believe such statements. To the contrary, American supporters add maximum value when championing the tough truths that diplomacy puts beyond Israel’s reach.
Yet rather than pushing to expand Israel’s political playing field, AIPAC has instead filtered Israel’s necessary diplomatic risk-aversion through the partisan and policy preferences of its own membership. To pick but one example, numerous American Jewish leaders, including prominent members of the Conference of Presidents, have recognized that American energy independence would weaken OPEC’s hold over American policy and thus serve Israel’s interests. Rather than taking a leadership role on the issue, however, AIPAC demurred, explaining: “We knew as American Jews we couldn’t touch environmental issues and have any credibility with our community. American Jews don’t want to destroy Alaska to import a few barrels less from Angola.”
A political monopolist who avoids alliances for reasons unrelated to its mission necessarily weakens that mission—in AIPAC’s case, lobbying in Israel’s best interests.
In classic monopolist form, AIPAC protects its market by playing to avoid losing rather than to win. A pro-Israel lobby that played to win would articulate basic, immutable principles for which it would fight—and it would count among its “friends” only those elected officials who supported these positions even when politically inconvenient. Such a lobby would pressure Israel’s neighbors to work with Israel while removing pressure on Israel to take risks that compromise its security, and it would stop pushing to reward Arab incitement and terror with a PLO-led state. Above all, a pro-Israel lobby playing to win would innovate on policy, promoting truths and ideas that run counter to conventional wisdom—even if such innovations remain minority positions for the years that lobbyists often need to assemble winning coalitions.
Anti-Israel forces understand the strategic imperative of policy innovation, and they are rarely bashful about pushing ideas whose absurdity is apparent to all people of good faith. Yasser Arafat first fabricated Temple Denial from whole cloth in 2000, but within the past year the New York Times has detailed the “controversy” surrounding Jewish “claims” to the Temple Mount, and UNESCO has declared the Kotel a Muslim holy site. BDS, which grew out of the United Nations’ rabidly anti-Semitic Durbin Conference in 2001, began in earnest with a coalition of radical fringe NGOs in 2005. By 2015, allegations of Israeli apartheid and genocide had come to dominate discourse among American academics and European parliamentarians.
Or consider the course of the so-called “Two-State Solution,” once a policy innovation of the far left but now conventional wisdom. In 1980, Jimmy Carter—hardly an Israel advocate—opposed as destabilizing the emergence of an Arab state wedged into disputed territories that Israel had liberated in 1967. Yitzchak Rabin, martyred in 1995 for his dovish politics, never wavered from his opposition to a Palestinian state. In 1998, five years into the Oslo process, Hillary Clinton publicly implied support for an independent Palestine; her husband’s White House issued an official repudiation. Yet AIPAC now doggedly promotes “a negotiated two-state solution—a Jewish state of Israel living alongside a demilitarized Palestinian state.”
The erosion of Israel’s reputation and diplomatic standing among Western governments—and in particular, among Western parties to the left of center—should provide fertile ground for policy innovation. Who objects to the canard that Israel is an occupier? Who lobbies the White House to recognize an undivided Jerusalem—within its full current municipal boundaries—as Israel’s capital? Who takes to task every politician who differentiates the anti-Israel terror of Hamas, Fatah, and Hezbollah from the world’s other instances of Islamist terror? Who challenges the calls for “balance” in confronting the terrorist mini-state of Gaza that are oddly absent from any discussion of other terrorist safe havens? Who emphasizes the connection between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism? Who pushes American politicians to revisit the Oslo agreement—particularly following Mahmoud Abbas’s unilateral withdrawal from its terms during his 2015 speech to the U.N. General Assembly?
To each of these questions, the answer is “not AIPAC.” In typical monopolist fashion, AIPAC does more than underinvest in policy innovation: It objects to policy innovations that might imperil its monopoly. That objection traps pro-Israel activism behind a lowest-common-denominator bipartisan strategy in an increasingly partisan world.
Unsurprisingly, those taking these divergent worldviews also see Israel very differently. To a progressive, even one with no inherent animus toward Jews, Israel mirrors the worst of America—an oppressor state occupying the territory of an indigenous people, practicing apartheid policies, demonstrating contempt for the international community, and seeking to play by a unique set of rules. To a conservative, the situation is just as clear. Israel possesses all of the right cultural norms and values, stands allied against America’s enemies, and places itself on the front lines of a civilizational battle. Israel holds itself to exceptional standards of humanity and decency despite the constant threats to its existence and widespread opprobrium. Support for Israel is thus a logical and consistent part of the conservative worldview, while an outlier among progressives.
The elections of 2006 through 2010 solidified the resorting of the parties by worldview, and furthered their divergent views of Israel. Hillary Clinton’s hawkish Senate record cost her the 2008 Democratic nomination. Foreign-policy realists boasting impeccable Republican pedigrees—from James Baker and Brent Scowcroft to Colin Powell and Chuck Hagel—suddenly found warmer receptions on the left than on the right. Tony Blair, leader of the maturing European left in the 1990s, discovered that Republicans were his most receptive American audience. In 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders galvanized young Democrats behind positions overtly hostile to Israel. Sanders was also the only presidential candidate who skipped AIPAC’s 2016 Policy Conference; his submitted comments parroted much of the standard progressive anti-Israel rhetoric—and earned widespread praise from the left, including J Street.
AIPAC’s strategic bipartisanship inevitably dismays both those who view Israel through the progressive lens and those who view it through the conservative lens. In the face of the post-9/11 transformation of the American foreign policy debate, AIPAC remains rigidly dedicated to blind bipartisanship, doing little to educate or inform its members that most of them are trapped in an increasingly progressive Democratic Party boasting an increasingly powerful anti-Israel caucus. Polls show a partisan split on the issue of Israel v. Palestinians of 83R-48D, with pro-Israel Democrats now representing a minority of their party. That 35 percent gap makes Israel one of the most extreme partisan issues in the current political climate, not remotely a matter of bipartisan consensus.
J Street studied its market well before launching. Its founders understood that AIPAC could not help but alienate the large numbers of Jewish Americans who consider themselves Progressives but harbor some affinity for Israel. The rival organization built upon AIPAC’s unyielding dogma that there is no difference between the parties to insist that the anti-Israel policies gaining salience among Democrats represent the true pro-Israel positions. By redefining Zionism as something close to its opposite, J Street gives American Jews a license to remain proudly progressive and frees Democrats to be increasingly adverse while still maintaining they are pro-Israel. To J Street’s supporters, Israel’s true interests at any given point in time are precisely those that the left says they are—thereby eliminating any potential dilemmas arising from a divergence of Israel’s interests from those of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. Furthermore, by providing consistent visible Jewish support for President Obama’s foreign-policy agenda, J Street has already conferred value upon both its members and the Democratic politicians who need their support.
The Obama policy agenda that enabled J Street’s rise caught AIPAC sleeping. For the first six-plus Obama years, nearly every policy or pronouncement touching upon Israel produced a predictable sequence: J Street emerged as an early, enthusiastic supporter, lauding the president’s boldness and urging him to move in an even more progressive direction. AIPAC noted both positives and negatives in the president’s moves, studied their implications from all angles, and eventually announced cautious, grudging support. As late as December 2013, amid widespread alarm triggered at the Obama Administration’s dealings with Iran, AIPAC called a special meeting of the Conference of Presidents to demand that Jewish groups stop criticizing the president. AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr declared at that meeting that AIPAC and Obama share the “same goals” and have only “a difference of strategy”—an assertion that AIPAC ought now regret.
Finally, in year seven, Israel’s government took an unprecedented step to preempt AIPAC. In 2014, AIPAC had been willing to support the president’s call to end sanctions on Iran as a step toward easing negotiations. When it came to assessing the package that the Obama team negotiated in 2015, however, Israel’s prime minister delivered a bold and controversial speech to Congress that forced AIPAC’s hand. AIPAC had little choice but to agree publicly with the Israeli consensus that the deal represented an existential threat. For the first time in many years, AIPAC appeared to launch a full-throated campaign to defeat a Democratic administration priority—though it simultaneously offered counter-productive (if not overtly cynical) reassurances that it would exact no price from “friends” who supported the deal.
In 2016, AIPAC continues to monopolize the field of activists eager to provide policy support for Israel, while J Street provides a useful outlet for those unwilling to abandon progressive policy priorities while maintaining or manipulating a pro-Israel self-image. Another clearly visible market niche, however, remains unfilled: activists adopting the conservative worldview unsatisfied with the compromises inherent in bipartisan policy formulations.
The arrival of a partisan pro-Israel group to AIPAC’s right will dethrone the Israel monopolist but not destroy it. AIPAC has invested decades in developing a powerful brand, exceptional connections, a demonstrated ability to work across the aisle, and unrivaled lists of donors and grassroots supporters. Furthermore, AIPAC’s flagship product—the foreign aid bill—is likely to become increasingly important as fallout from the Iran deal triggers a regional arms race. Whether broadly appropriate or not, to the degree that AIPAC can retain its bipartisan relationships, it can help ensure continued military aid to Israel regardless of the configuration of power in Washington.
In addition, though few cast it in such terms, AIPAC plays two other critical roles: It serves as a Jewish pride organization and as a safe space for Truman Democrats. Its annual Policy Conference provides Jewish pro-Israel activists with a brief respite from pervasive anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. And AIPAC’s membership may represent the largest remaining group of hawkish Democrats—voters who reject progressive foreign policy even as they support other parts of the progressive agenda. By providing a forum for such voters, AIPAC fills a niche critical to American national security—as well as to the State of Israel. Voters who place primacy on the ascendance of progressive cultural mores and/or economic distribution, while still favoring a strong national defense, deserve a forum in which they can speak comfortably. AIPAC appears to be the only prominent organization filling that need. Without such a forum, Democratic approaches to this traditionally bipartisan belief will range from cavalier to disdainful—much to the detriment of national security.
The pro-Israel community should push AIPAC to reposition itself with a clear eye on contemporary reality. AIPAC can best serve the pro-Israel cause by redeploying its formidable assets to help pro-Israel, national-security-conscious Democrats defeat the anti-Israel progressives ascendant in their party—certainly the most effective way to ensure continued bipartisan support for Israel. New organizations promoting policy innovation and adaptive political strategies must also enter the pro-Israel market, however, to address challenges, push policies, and forge alliances on behalf of Israel that run counter to AIPAC’s strategic approach and the preferences of its members. AIPAC’s directors and customers—i.e., the Jewish community’s leading philanthropists and the grassroots activists who genuinely want to protect Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship—should accept nothing less.

Read it all.

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At 10:48 PM, Blogger NancyB said...

Your incisive comments are powerful and undeniably true! I don't hold out much hope that AIPAC can reconstitute itself into a powerful organization that is reality based and undeniably PRO-Israel. I fervently hope that I am wrong. I want the content of their advocacy to encompass the content of ZOA and to go even further in strongly supporting what Israeli's on the ground support.


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