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March 24, 2020 7:15 am

Tying Israel to One Political Party Is a Dangerous Game

avatar by Peter Fishkind

Opinion

Crews prepare the stage at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, March 6, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Brian Snyder.

Bipartisanship is not in vogue at the moment. Over the past few years and now heading into the 2020 election, American politics have become increasingly polarized. President Trump seemingly stands at the center of all of our national debates, with near-unified Republican support and Democratic opposition. The nature of the divide is, often with good reason, an emotive one. This feature has entered every national political question, including the alliance between the United States and Israel.

Operating within this increasingly partisan landscape is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, commonly known as AIPAC.

Facing these headwinds, AIPAC has sought to remain above the fray and build upon the fundamental value that the US-Israel alliance offers America and the support it enjoys among voters of both parties. The strategy recognizes that political majorities will shift in the US, and that relationships with both sides of the aisle need to be maintained in order to best ensure the long-term viability of the relationship.

However, this strategy faces challenges both from the emotive divides in our politics and the concerted acts that some have taken to use the alliance as a political cudgel.

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On the question of emotion, the challenge faced is that emotion breeds simplicity and often makes division the starting point of approaching an issue for members of different political parties. Today, because so many of our political questions have clean left/right divides, to the casual observer the US-Israel alliance must have a similar split.

One could easily conclude that as our political parties have neatly bifurcated their positions on issues like those concerning the Second Amendment and a woman’s right to choose, the US-Israel alliance should be treated similarly. Therefore, since President Donald Trump has declared himself supportive of the alliance, those who oppose him and his positions on other issues must instinctively reject policies aimed at boosting the alliance. While simplistic, this serves as the baseline for many positions on subjects that people don’t hold particularly strong views on.

The second challenge is that political leaders from both parties have taken actions that have made building a bipartisan consensus more challenging. In the lead-up to this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference, presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders proclaimed that he was refusing to attend the conference, and described the event as one that serves as a platform for “leaders who express bigotry.” While the comments were largely unexplained by Sanders, his critique seemingly was launched as a means of targeting the forum for serving as a bipartisan event that would feature speeches from leading Republicans and Democrats.

This specific attack contained no substantive critiques of US policy on Israel, and was instead simply intended to inflame and, at least in my view, serve as an attempt to galvanize support from voters with a special distaste for certain types of organized Jewish political activity.

Distinct, but similarly offered for inflammatory purposes, were then-candidate Donald Trump’s comments at AIPAC’s 2016 Policy Conference, where he stated during his speech that President Obama was the “worst thing to ever happen to Israel.”

The remarks were met with rebuke from AIPAC’s leadership, who took to the event’s main stage the next day to note that, despite holding disparate views on certain policy issues from the Obama administration, “we do not countenance ad hominem attacks.”

These sorts of remarks are par for the course in modern political discourse, despite offering no value to advocates for the issue at hand. As this discourse permeates into debates over Israel policy it will only stir emotions and increase the difficulty in building support for the US-Israel alliance across the entire American electorate.

Facing these challenges, AIPAC uses its greatest asset to promote the US-Israel relationship, namely by featuring Israel itself and educating elected officials on the value it can offer to the United States.

This is perhaps best on display through the delegations AIPAC’s sister foundation, the American Israel Education Foundation, organizes to bring influential persons to Israel. The most important of these delegations is their congressional trip, which focuses on newly elected Members of the House of Representatives. This election cycle’s primary delegation included 41 Democrats and 31 Republicans.

Speaking as someone who has organized educational trips to Israel for those who have never attended, the experience completely alters perspective. The first-hand experience of being on the ground in a delegation makes the value of the relationship between US and Israel apparent and serves as a means to break through the simplistic and emotive views of alliance to combat ill-conceived partisan predispositions. Hearing the remarks of many of the Congress members who took part on the delegation at this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference confirmed the impact of the organization’s efforts.

The question now turns to the reader of this piece who presumably has strongly formed views on the US-Israel alliance and how they should approach an organization like AIPAC that will feature and — hearkening back to the organization’s response to President Trump’s 2016 comments — affirmatively defend those with whom they may disagree on substantive policy matters.

For me, as a Democrat and proud member of AIPAC, the answer is simple: I believe the organization represents the best of our politics. Namely, the ability to come together with fellow activists with whom you disagree on a whole host of issues and leverage joint advocacy efforts on behalf of a cause you both support.

Moreover, the organization’s bipartisan focus is in line with the fundamental truth that political winds will shift and that the most effective long term strategy to support the alliance is to build support for your preferred position on both sides of the aisle and with the entire American electorate rather than simply trying to suppress those with whom you disagree.

Peter Fishkind is a publishing Adjunct at the MirYam Institute and currently an associate in the Litigation Department at Proskauer Rose LLP and member of the Nassau County Democratic Party Committee. He received his J.D. at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.

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