Is AIPAC’s Tent Big Enough for Settlers?
I recently returned to Israel after attending the annual AIPAC policy conference, where I had a blast. There was magic in the air when we, almost 20,000 delegates — all Israel-lovers — filled the Verizon Center to near capacity. The unity of purpose of the gathering, to strengthen Israel and the US-Israel relationship, gave the event an air of a pilgrimage holiday, albeit not in Jerusalem, but at another great capital, Washington.
But as an Israeli, American and settler at the event, I had mixed feelings and many thoughts.
First, I could not help being impressed with Washington, which is so grand, so aesthetic, so powerful. Coming from a much smaller and younger Israel, one appreciates the level of civilization achieved in America’s capital, and the whole Northeast corridor for that matter, which I traversed on the way down to DC. Moreover, not only is America big, but the AIPAC experience itself is big and well-produced — inspiring one to think bigger and classier about an Israel that sometimes suffers from Middle Eastern repressed, divisive and small thinking.
On the other hand, as an Israeli in DC, you realize why American Jews love AIPAC — it gives them the perception of a perfect life balance: You get to live in America, but you also get to feel as though you are indispensable to Israel because of your lobbying efforts and political strength, which help keep the world’s superpower on Israel’s side. Perfect! You can be Zionist but live in America — the best of both worlds. And it makes sense: if American Jews continue to choose life in America, why not help Israel and be true to both your loves? But one sometimes wonders whether AIPAC is as much about American Jews feeling good about themselves as it is about helping the Jewish state move forward.
As I pondered these issues, I heard a speech by Rabbi Steven Weil, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, in which he blessed “our homeland, America” and “our motherland, the state of Israel.” At first, I winced at that formulation. I personally chose to unite the concept of homeland and motherland by choosing Israel over America to live out my life’s passion. But after short reflection, I understood that his sentiment was honest, and frankly, understandable.
American Jews have helped make America great. They feel ownership over New York and Los Angeles, cities they had a hand in building. But while they may choose to live in America, AIPAC Jews also love Israel, come to Israel, send their children to Israel and support Israel with their hearts, money and political clout. So for me, flying to America and taking the train down to Washington for the conference was an exercise in loving the brother and sister who are not making aliyah, but still want to be connected to the project of building and defending the Jewish state. And I made that trip gladly.
As a representative of the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria, eastern Jerusalem (where I live) and Hebron (where I work), I was quite attuned to two-state-solution and land-for-peace messaging at the conference — a set of ideas that people like myself have been trying to defeat for decades. AIPAC is still pushing the two-state solution and the official mission statement says: “As America’s bipartisan pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC urges all members of Congress to support Israel through foreign aid, government partnerships, joint anti-terrorism efforts and the promotion of a negotiated two-state solution – a Jewish state of Israel and a demilitarized Palestinian state.”
The so-called two-state solution is one of the most empirically tested political arrangements of all time, and every test has proved that the formula is a disastrous failure. Indeed, the three Gaza wars since disengagement proved to the average Israeli that land-for-peace is a dud. But American Jews see the future of the two-state solution quite differently, as was reported by a recent Pew Research Center poll:
Jews from the United States and Israel have differing perspectives on a range of political issues concerning the State of Israel and the peace process. While Israeli Jews are skeptical that Israel and an independent Palestinian state can peacefully coexist, most American Jews are optimistic that a two-state solution is possible. On the controversial issue of the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the prevailing view among Israeli Jews is that settlements help the security of Israel. By contrast, American Jews are more likely to say the settlements hurt Israel’s own security.” (Pew Research Center, March 8, 2016, “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society”)
So how do we resolve this apparent policy clash?
At the Conference I conducted my own non-scientific poll about the future of the two-state solution among American Jews, and everyone, including an important AIPAC staffer, seemed to suggest that AIPAC will never change its policy on the issue. I thought that was a strange position to take, given that things on the ground are changing, as was shown by the Pew study, and even articulated by Left-leaning intellectuals and politicians from Thomas Friedman to Bougie Herzog, who say that the two-state solution is dead. Quite visibly, most serious players understand that “two-state” won’t work, because there are too many “settlers” to evacuate, and the Palestinian Authority is an incitement machine that is no longer looking to negotiate, and even if negotiation were possible, ISIS-Hamas would immediately take over any land concessions. In other words, it’s over.
Moreover, not only is Israeli public opinion moving away from “two-state,” but AIPAC’s constituency, as well. With the advent of J Street, the hard-Left has been pulled out of the AIPAC ranks. At the same time, AIPAC is courting American Orthodoxy and the pro-Israel evangelical Christians. The latter are two forces that will naturally shift AIPAC’s policy rightward. In other words, both in Israel and in the pro-Israel community in the United States, there is a nationalistic political shift, and AIPAC will not always be at leisure to toe an old line. AIPAC’s goal will always be, above all, to remain relevant. Holding fast to “two-state” will soon begin to undermine its relevancy. Therefore, I fully expect that next year’s policy conference, which will mark 50 years since the Six Day War and the return to Judea and Samaria, will include panels discussing serious alternatives to land-for-peace and the two-state solution.
Even with AIPAC’s pro-two-state stance, I felt that Washington was amazingly receptive to our message of a strong Israel that holds on to its ancestral homeland. On the Thursday before the conference, I gave a Congressional briefing on the Hill about Hebron. The event, which was organized by the Endowment for Middle East Truth and sponsored by Congressman Doug Lamborn, brought in a large, curious crowd interested in understanding the reality on the ground. On Sunday evening of the conference, I and the director general of the Hebron Jewish Community, Uri Karzen, took part in an event organized by the One Israel Fund and co-sponsored by the Council of Judea and Samaria. Here, too, a lot of people asked questions about our life and the political future of the Jews of the Israeli heartland.
At the actual conference, we spoke to what seemed to be thousands of people, many Jews and gentiles, who want to know more, want to understand, are open-minded and are happy to speak with someone who is American like them, on the one hand, and on the other hand, lives in Israel and deals with the challenges of settling the land, facing jihad and building the Jewish state on the ground.
The AIPAC organization produced a magnificent event in which the leading candidates for president of the United States attacked the antisemitism at the UN, laid into Palestinian incitement, castigated the US for the Iran deal and emphasized the need to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem (when is that going to happen already?) These messages were carried live on C-SPAN and rebroadcast on most news outlets. In fact, I jumped into a cab at some point and the driver from Somalia was intensely listening to the conference live. This, to me, is AIPAC’s amazing accomplishment: the world is full of lies and hostility towards Israel, yet AIPAC managed to bring American leaders out in front of a massive audience in an incredible venue — and there they declared messages of truth and clarity about Israel and its enemies, and those words and messages were heard around the world.
One last point: At the pre-conference Shabbaton, we were served inexpensive Australian wine with our kosher food. Come on… If we get together to celebrate the birth and the flourishing of the Jewish state, can we not imbibe its blessings as embodied in award-winning and delicious wines that bring us closer to the heartland on a bodily and savory level? Let’s not BDS our own wines! Next year at AIPAC — and I am planning on coming back next year — can we please get some Israeli wines at our tables? I’m looking forward.
Yishai Fleisher is the International Spokesman for the Jewish Community of Hebron. Follow him @YishaiFleisher.