Israel Will Lose if Only Republicans or Democrats Can Claim to Be ‘Pro-Israel’
Many in the pro-Israel community are concerned about what might be in the Trump administration’s upcoming peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians. Will it demand that Israel make territorial concessions? Are the Palestinians really serious about accepting Israel as a Jewish state? And how can there even be talk of peace when Hamas is murdering Jewish babies and Israeli soldiers every week?
But while the hesitations are justified in light of previous pressures placed on Israel by the international community, the plan deserves to be hear — because Trump has emerged as Israel’s stalwart defender in international forums, especially the UN, and been a stalwart friend.
Meanwhile, as someone connected to the UK, I find it appalling that the country has produced an antisemitic miscreant like Jeremy Corbyn, who may possibly be the next prime minister.
How do we ensure that this doesn’t happen here in the US, where Democratic and Republican bipartisan support for Israel is something we’ve taken for granted for decades? The question is especially important in light of the rise of serious Israel critics like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as possible Democratic presidential nominees.
The most important guarantor of bipartisan support for Israel is AIPAC — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. After being officially incorporated in 1963, the organization embarked upon a startlingly aggressive phase of growth, dispatching hundreds of field-operatives to develop a vast and diverse network of grassroots support throughout all of America’s 50 states. By the 1970s, the organization had become extremely effective.
During an apparent clash between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President Gerald Ford notoriously threatened to enact a “reassessment” of the American relationship with Israel, even noting in a letter to the Jewish state that “failure” to accede to specific negotiations would have a “far-reaching impact” on American “relations” in the region. The next day, the president received a letter of his own. This time, it was signed by 76 senators, demanding that the president “make it clear that the United States, acting in its own national interests, stands firm with Israel.” The House of Representatives followed suit. The “reassessment” never happened.
Fast forward to 2016, and AIPAC had to rent Washington’s Verizon Center just to house its policy conference keynote event. AIPAC has 100,000 members and boasts a $72 million annual budget; some 300 staffers populate 18 AIPAC field offices.
Yet, even as the organization glimpses the very heights of its own success, it’s also beginning to face its most serious challenges.
Like any centrist element of American political life, AIPAC has been besieged by the ever-intensifying political extremes. And amid this bitterly sectarian political climate, bipartisan behemoths like AIPAC have found themselves grasping in the dark for allies.
When Donald Trump was invited to speak at AIPAC’s 2016 Policy Conference, he punctuated a powerful speech on the Middle East with the claim that Barack Obama was “maybe the worst thing to happen to Israel.” Much of the audience, clearly frustrated at Obama’s often turbulent relationship with the Jewish state and the Iran nuclear agreement, rose in mass applause.
The very next day, AIPAC’s president took to the stage to say that AIPAC’s leadership took “great offense” at the “ad hominem attacks … levied against the president of the United States of America from our stage.”
Trump would go on to win the presidency that November. And though the president agreed to send Mike Pence and Nikki Haley to address AIPAC’s conference the following year, their were still hard feelings. My own opinion is that it’s time to move on. Trump had every right express his opinion and the audience had every right to applaud it. But even great organizations make mistakes and AIPAC remains by far the most vital and effective organization supporting pro-Israel legislation in Congress.
Since then, AIPAC has taken a hit from the Israeli right, too. During a recent gala held in New York, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, was reported by The Daily Beast to have “implicitly needled the mainline [AIPAC]” by saying that it was no longer the go-to organization in the US for the Israeli government.
The growing political roadblocks facing AIPAC in Washington are by no means limited to its relationship with the right. On the contrary, AIPAC’s alienation from American political extremism began years before the rise of Trump, during the rocky years of Obama administration.
When AIPAC opposed Obama’s nuclear deal, Democratic leaders openly condemned AIPAC for abandoning its bipartisan principles. The Obama administration also offered a significant boon to AIPAC’s chief competitor on the left, Jeremy Ben-Ami’s J Street, which seemed founded on a singular policy of criticizing Israel.
But unlike J Street and organizations on the right which have in no uncertain terms cast their political allegiances with a single side, AIPAC is a distinctly bipartisan organization. Every single bill supported by the lobby must have both Republican and Democratic co-signers, and at all of AIPAC’s various forums, both arch-rivals and ardent supporters of the current administration will receive equal time to speak their minds from the podium.
Even as some see bipartisanship as a “relic,” the fact is that Democrats and Republicans working together has never been more critical. Partisan support for Israel by only one side of the aisle would be an American tragedy. AIPAC is helping ensure that never happens, and I salute it.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international best-selling author of 24 books. Newsweek calls him “the most famous rabbi in America.”