by Marsha B. Cohen
The once-mighty American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has had the illusion of its formidable political influence shattered by none other than the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Long regarded as the second most powerful lobby in the U.S, AIPAC may have gone from being Netanyahu’s voice to being his victim.
Instead of elevating the stature of AIPAC’s 2015 Policy Conference currently (March 1-3) taking place in Washington DC, Netanyahu has completely upstaged it. Rather than drawing attention to AIPAC’s clout, Netanyahu much preferred to demonstrate his own.
Netanyahu’s speech to Congress has overshadowed AIPAC’s annual paean to its own power and influence. Last year AIPAC boasted that its 2014 Policy Conference drew a record-breaking crowd of 14,000 “pro-Israel activists.” This year, 16,000 are reportedly in attendance, but mainstream media sources don’t seem to care. Attention has focused almost exclusively on who will and who will not attend Bibi’s speech to Congress, while the media has largely ignored the question of who is and isn’t coming to AIPAC this year.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who scheduled a fundraiser to piggyback on Netanyahu’s congressional speech today, dared to address what he apparently considered AIPAC activists’ justifiable feelings of neglect and displacement from the spotlight by Netanyahu. Referring to Netanyahu as a “politician’ and a foreign leader during a panel discussion with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) on Monday morning, Graham said he was more interested in hearing from AIPAC activists than from Netanyahu. One of the sponsors of a bill requiring congressional review of any Iran deal, Graham said he’d listen to Netanyahu but would prefer to base his decisions on what he heard from AIPAC activists.
“To my AIPAC friends, you’re going to make more difference than any speech that any politician can make,” Graham said, although, as the Jewish Telegraph Agency’s Ron Kampeas observed wryly, no one was telling him he had to choose. The distinction Graham drew between the views of Netanyahu and the AIPAC conferees, however flattering, was apparently not appreciated by the AIPAC audience, as measured in decibels of applause.
The scheduling of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on the last day of the AIPAC conference usurps prime time on AIPAC’s Lobby Day, normally hyped as both the raison d’etre and grand finale of any AIPAC conference. Netanyahu effectively undercut the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of AIPAC “activists” from various states and congressional districts climbing into a fleet of chartered buses, heading to the offices of their elected representatives, and waving their lists of talking points drafted and crafted by AIPAC’s leadership.
Lobby Day appointments are normally scheduled between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. But Netanyahu begins speaking to Congress at 11:00, immediately followed by Graham’s fundraiser lunch where he’ll be soliciting support from Republican mega-donors for a possible presidential run in 2016. Even extending Lobby Day to 4 pm, as AIPAC has reportedly done, can’t guarantee that the hallmark Policy Conference event will attract much attention this year.
Netanyahu’s in-person speech to AIPAC on Monday morning, which otherwise would have been a highlight of the Policy Conference, was merely a warm-up rehearsal for his address to the members of Congress today. Its objective was to tantalize, not to satisfy.
AIPAC’s Other Challenges
The image of AIPAC’s preeminence in the pro-Israel community has been challenged and battered in the past several years. Many of the founders and funders of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which became increasingly ambitious and aggressive during the Bush 43 years, have little patience with AIPAC’s upbeat “big tent” bi-partisanship. Many of AIPAC’s top lay leaders have usually leaned Democrat in their personal politics, although officers and board members are expected to be generous to pro-Israel incumbents who meet AIPAC’s benchmarks of support for the Jewish state, such as votes, signing letters, and speaking out in favor of more crippling Iran sanctions.
At the same time, Congress has become increasingly polarized along party lines, a challenge to AIPAC’s cheerful bipartisanship. The expressed views of some House members on social and environmental issues have become more extreme—and repugnant to the overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans. Is AIPAC’s uncritical support of American politicians just because they wrap themselves in the Israeli flag sustainable in the long run?
As for Israel, AIPAC supports the government there, regardless of who heads it. It does not interfere on issues of Israeli domestic politics, a claim that annoys deep-pocketed mega-donors who believe they know better than Israelis do about what is best for the Jewish state. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, for example, broke with AIPAC in 2007, saying, “I don’t continue to support organizations that help friends committing suicide just because they say they want to jump.” AIPAC’s seeming acquiescence to ongoing talks between Israel and “moderate” Palestinians that might ultimately lead to a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict disgusts territorial maximalists opposed to Palestinian statehood in any shape or form. Even the stiff-to-crippling sanctions against Iran advocated by AIPAC are considered necessary but insufficient. Avoiding war between Israel and Iran is counterproductive in the eyes of pro-Israel hawks pushing for military action by the U.S. and/or Israel.
Adelson, along with other Republikud stalwarts and disillusioned Democrats, have established and/or funded far more red-meat ideological organizations—the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), Freedom’s Watch, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), to name just a few—with whom AIPAC must compete for hearts, minds, and prestige. This time last year, Lee Smith, senior editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard, used the Jewish cultural online magazine Tablet to berate AIPAC as a weak and ineffectual has-been:
[B]ecause AIPAC cannot, or will not, punish its enemies, there’s no risk in defying the lobbying group, either. The days of the pro-Israel lobbying group striking fear into the hearts of members of Congress are over—even if a few wonky academics and overheated opinion columnists and bloggers will continue to insist that a Jewish cabal secretly controls American foreign policy. AIPAC never held such power—but the suggestion that it did was itself a form of power. Now that no one on Capitol Hill or in the White House believes that AIPAC controls anything, the lobbying group has to do some hard thinking about its own survival.
AIPAC’s outreach to Christian evangelicals who uncritically support Israel has succeeded—perhaps too well. Christians United for Israel (CUFI), headed by Rev. John Hagee, now bills itself as “America’s largest pro-Israel organization.” When the controversy over Netanyahu’s speech to Congress first erupted, CUFI issued an action alert to its members to email their elected representatives asking them to attend the session. It received more than 10,000 responses within five hours.
With all the attention focused on what Netanyahu will tell Congress, the lone ripple of excitement in the hours leading up to AIPAC’s Policy Conference was the speculation over how hostile the reception would be for National Security Adviser Susan Rice, despite pleas for civility from AIPAC’s leadership. Vicious ads defaming Rice began appearing after her AIPAC appearance representing the Obama administration was announced on Thursday. They appear to have backfired, as did an appeal to AIPAC delegates to boycott her speech. Rice received a largely positive reception from AIPAC attendees, although her more hardline statements concerning Iran drew the most vigorous applause.
Today AIPAC’s 2015 conference—in its third and final day—wraps up and is already old news. Lobby Day can’t compare with the drama taking place on Capitol Hill, as Netanyahu gives his address to Congress. Chemi Shalev of Haaretz described it as “a potential ratings blockbuster, the best show in town, a one-on-one, High Noon style showdown between Netanyahu and President Obama, tense political drama of the kind that House of Cards writers can only dream about.”
Once AIPAC once would have been the site where such high drama was staged. Not this year.