Like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, the Israel Lobby is a myth. AIPAC, like jolly bearded men sitting in shopping malls, exists. And like the men with fake beards and pillows under their red coats, it goes through the motions. Its activists lobby, its events attract politicians and the one thing that it and its enemies agree on is its vast sphere of political influence that, like Santa, is absolutely everywhere.
If you believe AIPAC, it’s an incredibly effective organization. If you believe its enemies, AIPAC runs America and parts of Canada. It’s not an accusation that AIPAC denies too hard. Mall Santas don’t deny that they have flying reindeer waiting for them on the roof. AIPAC is a fat man in a rented red suit and fake beard trying to pretend that it can do anything. But AIPAC would have better luck making reindeer fly than countering the dominant power of the anti-Israel left and the Saudi lobby in Washington D.C.
And that’s because it doesn’t even try.
When the Democratic Party’s platform deleted the usual mention of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, removed a call to boycott Hamas and opposition to the “Right of Return” vocal protests came from Jewish organizations.
AIPAC was not one of them.
DNC aides claimed that AIPAC had reviewed and approved the new party platform, a claim that it denied. AIPAC’s submission contained a reference to Jerusalem, but the organization, often wrongly described as “hard-line” or “right-wing” by the media, made no objection to its omission.
Obama had already rejected two of these points, one overtly and one covertly, with the third yet to come up, making them little more than the fake beard they had been all along. AIPAC, which was being the DNC’s bipartisan fake beard for pro-Israel voters, did not waste time talking about them.
Once the outrage bubbled over, AIPAC, true to form, took credit for restoring Jerusalem. It did not do it to protect Israel. It did it to protect itself.
AIPAC isn’t a pro-Israel lobby. It’s a pro-AIPAC lobby.
If AIPAC didn’t exist, Israel’s enemies would have had to invent it. Its existence gives them a powerful “Israel Lobby” to tilt against. Photos and videos of prominent politicians at AIPAC conferences feed the myth of an organization whose influence reaches into the highest levels of government.
But AIPAC’s influence comes from its lack of influence. When influential politicians are naturally pro-Israel, AIPAC takes credit for it in its donation envelopes. And when they aren’t, AIPAC shuts up.
Under Obama, AIPAC has shut up. It sat out the nomination fight over Chuck Hagel. The former Nebraska senator with ties to the Iran lobby had said, “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.” If anything, Obama had intimidated AIPAC. Not that AIPAC has ever been hard to intimidate.
AIPAC not only backed down from Obama and Hagel, it even backed down from criticizing J Street’s Congresswoman, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, over her opposition to sanctions on Iran. It supported Congressman Bill Pascrell over a pro-Israel GOP candidate.
If AIPAC can’t take on Schultz and Pascrell, is there any influential Democratic politician it can take on?
AIPAC backed away from a showdown with Obama over Iran sanctions. Instead after pressure from the White House it pulled out all the stops to lobby in favor of Obama’s strikes against Syria. Some asked whether it had now become the pro-Syrian lobby. AIPAC had avoided the Iraq War, but at a phone call allowed itself to be used to push for Syrian military strikes that would have benefited Israel’s enemies.
It was not the first time AIPAC had lobbied for Israel’s enemies. AIPAC had brought the Palestinian Authority’s people to Capitol Hill and still lobbies against any cuts in foreign aid to the front group for the PLO.
AIPAC’s opposition to Rand Paul’s bill cutting off aid to the PA/PLO after its unity agreement with Hamas wasn’t anything new. AIPAC had also opposed Eric Cantor’s proposal in 2010 to separate Israel aid from the rest of the foreign aid budget which would have made it easier to achieve reductions in foreign aid.
AIPAC endorsed the 2007 Ackerman-Boustany letter which called Abbas a “peace partner” and urged more aid to the Palestinian Authority. By signing on, AIPAC was joining the ranks of left-wing Anti-Israel groups such as Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum and the Arab American Institute.
Around the same time AIPAC neutered a series of divestment initiatives in companies that do business with Iran and Sudan. It was one of many instances in which AIPAC interfered with a pro-Israel initiative.
Why does AIPAC do these things? Its primary mission is to protect its influence. It’s not, as its critics accuse, an arm of Israel in the United States. Instead it’s a Beltway institution whose agenda is driven by insider contacts and favor trading. Like many other Washington lobbies, its commitment to its political networks is far more important than the agenda that it claims to represent.
AIPAC engages in outreach, not to convince politicians to support Israel, but to convince them to support it. It works to solicit any statement of support for Israel as a validation of its existence.
AIPAC is bipartisan. It is bi-everything. It’s for Israel and for the Palestinian Authority. It’s for supporters of Israel and critics of Israel. If you’re a politician who isn’t openly calling for Israel’s destruction, you can stop by AIPAC’s rubber chicken dinners and deliver a speech written by one of your Jewish staffers.
Everyone comes to AIPAC’s conferences for some cheap applause and a line on their election flyer. Attendees leave believing in the illusion of their own influence, but the influence is a photo op and a few hours of a politician’s time. AIPAC doesn’t ask anything too difficult of the politicians who show up and avoids taking any positions that might embarrass them.
Meanwhile the actual support for Israel, more among Republicans than Democrats, has to do with the Jewish State’s popularity in the United States and its ties to the defense industry. That support rarely moves beyond the tangled defense industry relationships which account for the large foreign aid figures.
AIPAC’s contribution is the production of meaningless letters and resolutions. These policy statements, like the support for Jerusalem, never actually become policy. Instead they provide political cover for politicians like John Kerry who talk pro-Israel and act anti-Israel.
These are the fake beards of the politicians who play Santa to AIPAC while AIPAC plays Santa to American Jews. None of it is real, but it is deeply comforting. AIPAC keeps many American Jews from having to grow up and when reality intrudes, as it did when the Democratic Party tossed Jerusalem, it convinces the Democratic Party or the Republican Party to help it lull them back to sleep.
AIPAC’s influence comes from its relationships, but it avoids fights so as not to endanger those relationships. It would rather have a meaningless letter signed by most of the Senate than back a controversial bill that might make a genuine difference.
Like so much of Washington, AIPAC is an establishment. It’s another of the many institutions in the bubble of the nation’s capital that stopped representing the people and began representing themselves.