The annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is the Super Bowl of Israel lobbying. This year, some 14,000 delegates braved a snowstorm to watch speeches in a stadium-sized auditorium at the Washington Convention Center. For those far away from the dais, the speakers’ image was projected on huge screens that rung the walls of the auditorium. Attendees who wanted to mark their schedules for next year’s conference were offered a $200 discount if they signed up by March 8.
But not all was hunky dory at the convention center. The conference came in the wake of two major setbacks for the lobbying group. Last September, AIPAC backed President Obama’s attempt to win authorization for an attack against Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. If Russia hadn’t interceded and arranged a deal with Assad to remove the weapons, the President and the AIPAC would have lost the vote in Congress. Then this winter, in the face of opposition from the President, AIPAC couldn’t get the Senate to pass an Iran sanctions bill.
As the conference opened, the question was whether the organization would alter its strategy. Would it stick with the sanctions bill? How would it respond to the prospect of an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, which in the past it had nominally supported, but given short shrift? Would it attempt to win back Jewish Democrats, some of whom had cast their lot with the rival J Street (which is ardently backing a two-state solution), and Democratic politicians, some of whom failed to follow AIPAC’s lead on either Syria or Iran? The convention provided tentative answers to these questions: AIPAC is sticking with its approach on Iran; it is beginning to warm, but only a little, to the negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians; and it is going to try to change its political makeup, though that may be difficult without changing its policies more dramatically.
Last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran had begun complying with the interim agreement it had signed last November with the P5+1 nations (the five Security Council permanent members plus Germany.) And Iran and the P5+1 also agreed to a framework for talks leading up to a comprehensive nuclear accord. But at the convention, AIPAC continued to insist that the framework was entirely inadequate and that the final agreement must include provisions on nuclear enrichment, missiles, and Iran’s foreign policy that the negotiators have all but ruled out.
In the opening plenary on Sunday, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr devoted his entire 27-minute presentation to the threat from Iran. Echoing the demands of AIPAC’s sanctions bill, Kohr insisted that an agreement specify that Iran’s nuclear facilities be entirely dismantled. “On that there can be no compromise,” he said. AIPAC recruited Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to lead two workshops for attendees on the Iranian threat. Ros-Lehtinen dismissed the negotiations. Charging that “the administration continues to bury its head in the sand,” she warned that Iran “could develop a bomb in a matter of weeks.” (The usual estimates are that building a bomb would take several months to more than a year.) AIPAC might be quietly changing its tune on Iran, but there was no audible sign of it during the policy conference.
If the negotiations with Iran fail, then AIPAC will be in a strong position to insist that sanctions be amped up. But if Iran and the P5+1 work on a final accord that reflects the outlines of the interim agreement, and which includes the removal of sanctions, then AIPAC could be faced with a daunting political choice. Should it defy the administration by using its clout to get Congress to refuse to remove sanctions? The earlier battle over the sanctions bill already prompted ugly charges that Israel was trying to dictate America’s foreign policy. That could happen again—and with far greater ferocity.
By April 29, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, spurred by Secretary of State John Kerry, are supposed to reach a “framework” agreement for further negotiations. It’s a staged retreat from Kerry’s original plan that the two sides reach a “final status” agreement by that date, but grave obstacles still stand in the way—the status of Jerusalem, and of Palestinian refugees, security forces in the Jordan Valley, and the Palestinian declaration that Israel is a “Jewish state.” Unlike J Street, AIPAC has not made the achievement of a two-state solution a major priority; and that was evident in the conference itself. At the conference, there were 149 workshops for the attendees. Seven were specifically on the peace process.
AIPAC doesn’t poll its attendees, so there was no way to measure directly support for Kerry’s efforts. But I heard some grumbling in the workshops that the West Bank, if allowed to become a state, would turn into Gaza. When Kerry, who spoke at the conference, and two Israeli business leaders attempted to justify the negotiations, they got at best tepid applause. The discussion of the peace process by Netanyahu and by AIPAC leaders was also extremely one-sided. They did not utter a word about settlers, outposts and the occupation, or about Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party, which is opposed to a Palestinian state.
Instead, Netanyahu and the AIPAC leaders dwelled entirely on the concessions that the Palestinians would have to make. “The Palestinians must prepare their population to make the necessary compromises with Israel,” Robert A. Cohen, AIPAC’s new president, declared. Netanyahu hinted at some of those compromises. Israeli troops would have to be able to patrol the Jordan Valley for decades. And Jerusalem would remain “the eternal undivided capital of Israel and the Jewish people.” If Netanyahu and AIPAC stick to those demands, they would probably doom the negotiations.
Of course, Netanyahu is a skillful negotiator and could still be putting forth his maximal demands in the expectation that he would eventually compromise with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. If Netanyahu and Abbas do finally reach an agreement, AIPAC can be expected to support it; but if negotiations flag over the next months, AIPAC will not play a significant role in reviving them. AIPAC is clearly focused on Iran rather than on the peace process.
AIPAC and the Zionist, and later pro-Israel, movements were based primarily among liberal Jews who usually voted Democratic except when the Republican was a liberal like New York Senator Jacob Javits. Beginning in the 1980s, and proceeding by stops and starts, liberal Democrats, disillusioned with the continuing occupation of Palestinian lands, began to become critical of Israel, while AIPAC began to move from being tied to the Democrats to being somewhat closer to the Republicans. In 1982, AIPAC’s directors chose a Republican to be president of the group. In 1996, Kohr, a former Republican operative, became the group’s director.
There are no official tabulations, but Gilbert Kahn, a political scientist who writes a column in the New Jersey Jewish News, estimated that 65 percent of the attendees at this year’s policy conference were Republicans. That was certainly evident in the reception given Arizona Senator John McCain. McCain received standing ovations when he denounced Obama’s foreign policy. The crisis in the Ukraine, McCain declared, was “the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.” Later, he said, “The whole situation cries out for American leadership, and I’m sorry to tell you, it’s MIA.” A Democratic audience might be critical of a Democratic president’s foreign policy, but it'd not rise to its feet and applaud when he was harshly criticized by a Republican. McCain also got a standing ovation when he cited Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy as an alternative to Obama’s.
AIPAC leaders recognize, however, that they have a political problem. As AIPAC has become more Republican and conservative, Jewish liberal Democrats who care about Israel have gravitated toward J Street. And in Congressional votes, AIPAC increasingly depends on Republicans to carry the day. In the Senate, 43 Republicans and only 16 Democrats backed AIPAC’s Iran sanctions bill. And AIPAC leaders have to consider how many of those Republicans backed the bill because they oppose virtually anything the Obama administration is associated with. As the prospect of a vote over an attack on Syria loomed, AIPAC had as much trouble recruiting Republicans as Democrats, because this time the Republicans would have had to back an administration initiative.
AIPAC, of course, could win back some liberal Democrats by supporting the administration’s efforts with Iran and by enthusiastically getting behind Kerry’s effort to achieve a two-state solution, but the organization does not appear to ready to change its policies dramatically. Instead, it appears bent on merely adjusting its public face and demonstrating good will toward Democrats. Its new president is a Democrat. And Cohen and the departing president, a Republican, proclaimed the virtues of bipartisanship in their speeches to the conference. Workshops were also given on “The Progressive Case for Israel,” but not on the conservative case for Israel. Perhaps these gestures and the language developed in this workshop will do the trick, but I doubt it. The real test for whether AIPAC can win back Democrats will come if Obama gets a treaty with Iran, and AIPAC is faced with the choice of using Republican votes to undermine it.