AIPAC, a voice for the Israeli Right (updated)

Posted: October 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , | 21 Comments »

Some thoughts on the destructive role AIPAC and other “pro-Israeli” organizations play in Israeli politics

Mon_Evening_Gala_Banquet_Netanyahu

New York, NY – Recently, I met a friend who works with the US office of an Israeli NGO. He told me of a conversation he once had with a top AIPAC official (since it was a private conversation, I won’t disclose the name of the official here).

“We appreciate the work that you are doing in Israel,” the AIPAC guy told my friend. “We often give it as an example to the fact that Israel is indeed a thriving democracy. But you shouldn’t have opened a US office, and you shouldn’t be lobbying on the Hill.”

I am not sure what words exactly did the AIPAC man used, but according to my friend, his message was clear enough: even Israelis shouldn’t criticize Israeli government abroad.

Attacks by AIPAC on Jewish and Palestinians activists are very common, but what I found interesting in this anecdote is the way AIPAC views Israeli NGO and opposition groups: not as a party that raises legitimate concerns that should be addressed, but as a tool in their PR effort.

This approach was demonstrated again when the head of The Israel Project (TIP), Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, was asked by an Israeli reporter what’s her organization’s view on the Loyalty Oath issue, which caused a political storm in Israel last week. “We didn’t put out a press release,” was all Mizrahi would say, according to JTA’s report.

AIPAC and TIP would probably argue that those are internal Israeli affairs, and that they would support any decision by the Israeli government. AIPAC often claims that it has no position regarding the political debates in Israel, and that all it does is supporting the policy decided by Israeli elected officials.

However, a closer look at the political dynamic shows that AIPAC and groups like The Israel Project and Stand With Us do play a growing role in those so-called “internal” issues, as the anecdote cited above might suggest.

A battle is now raging in Israel, between those wishing to change the political status quo – especially, but not only, on the Palestinian issue – and those wishing to keep things as they are. Netanyahu is clearly a status quo man. He didn’t express one original thought on the Palestinian issue before the elections, and it was only under tremendous US pressure that he was ready to declare limited support in the idea of a de-militarized Palestinian state.

In the last year and a half, and due to political developments in Israel and outside it, Netanyahu feels cornered – and it is AIPAC that comes to his aid (much to the disappointment of many Israelis). By supporting Netanyahu abroad, AIPAC actually does take sides in the internal Israeli debate. It helps maintain the status quo.

It’s important to understand that AIPAC’s influence is really felt only when it comes to supporting the Israeli Right. Let’s assume Israel elects a Left-wing Prime Minister that signs a peace deal. This imaginary Prime Minister won’t need the help of AIPAC on the Hill (because even a Republican Congress won’t object to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement), but he will face intense opposition – both at home and from the elements in the Jewish community in the US. I do not think, though, that pro-Israeli groups such as AIPAC, TIP or Stand with US will engage in an intense effort to promote the peace deal and to fight the opposition in the American community.

In other words, in the current political context, only the Israeli hawks, the settlers and the extreme-right benefit form the work of AIPAC and the rest of the so-called pro-Israeli organizations. Left wing and centrists leaders don’t need their help.

This dynamic is well understood with the Israeli peace camp, which often feels frustration and anger over the actions of AIPAC. Only in the US can AIPAC pretend to represent “all Israelis” (and let’s not forget that twenty percent of Israelis are Arabs). In recent months, AIPAC fought against the American demand to extend the partial moratorium on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In other words, in the most controversial issue in Israeli politics in the past few decades, AIPAC has taken the side of the “greater Israel”. No elaborate rationalization can change this simple fact.

Last summer, when the effort by various peace organizations and political parties to stop the colonization of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem – a key issue for the success of the peace process – was met with an even greater mobilization by the representatives of the organized community in Washington to fight back American pressure around Jerusalem. During this confrontation, a hundred peace activists and public figures, residents of Jerusalem, even sent a public letter to Eli Wiesel, begging him to stop “supporting” Israel on this issue.

The politics of AIPAC – which are viewed as the voice of the entire Jewish community – make many peace activists wonder why American Jews don’t support the Israelis who share their liberal values, and instead choose to be – as a friend of mine bluntly put it – “cheerleaders for the occupation”.

I don’t think US Jews are “cheerleaders for the occupation”. On the contrary, in my conversations with them I sense great concern and anxiety over the path Israel has taken, especially in recent years. But I also feel that many of them are confused, ill-informed and misguided by the people who claim to carry their political message to Washington.

If I had one piece of advice I could give my Jewish friends in America who truly wish the best for both Israelis and Palestinians, it would be to prevent AIPAC – and similar organizations – form claiming to speak in their name. The truth is they are speaking for the political interests of Lieberman and Netanyahu.

UPDATE: after publishing this post, a colleague sent me this link to an article published last year by Douglas M. Bloomfield, who spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC. Mr. Bloomfield is quoting sources in AIPAC that remember how the organization coordinated its policy in the nineties with (then) opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, in an effort to stop the peace process:

One of the topics AIPAC won’t want discussed, say these sources, is how closely it coordinated with Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s, when he led the Israeli Likud opposition and later when he was prime minister, to impede the Oslo peace process being pressed by President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

That could not only validate AIPAC’s critics, who accuse it of being a branch of the Likud, but also lead to an investigation of violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

“What they don’t want out is that even though they publicly sounded like they were supporting the Oslo process, they were working all the time to undermine it,” said a well-informed source.

“After Rabin came in in 1992 and said he wanted to make peace and signed the Oslo accords, and the U.S. was supposed to pay the tab, every restriction on all political and financial dealings [by the Palestinians] came out of our office,” said the insider. “We took full advantage of every lapse by [Yasser] Arafat and the Palestinians to put on more restrictions and limit relations,” the source added.

One of the topics AIPAC won’t want discussed, say these sources, is how closely it coordinated with Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s, when he led the Israeli Likud opposition and later when he was prime minister, to impede the Oslo peace process being pressed by President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

That could not only validate AIPAC’s critics, who accuse it of being a branch of the Likud, but also lead to an investigation of violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

“What they don’t want out is that even though they publicly sounded like they were supporting the Oslo process, they were working all the time to undermine it,” said a well-informed source.

“After Rabin came in in 1992 and said he wanted to make peace and signed the Oslo accords, and the U.S. was supposed to pay the tab, every restriction on all political and financial dealings [by the Palestinians] came out of our office,” said the insider. “We took full advantage of every lapse by [Yasser] Arafat and the Palestinians to put on more restrictions and limit relations,” the source added.


21 Comments on “AIPAC, a voice for the Israeli Right (updated)”

  1. 1 maayan said at 1:46 pm on October 16th, 2010:

    I disagree with one key point. It’s not the centrists and leftists who are left out of AIPAC’s equation, it’s just the leftists.

    The problem, as you well know, is that the leftists have come to attack Israel in a way that assists Israel’s enemies. The BDS movement and the support of leftist Israelis and Jews in driving that movement is a key example. I’m sure you would agree with me that Kadima, Likud and the left-of-center Labor are opposed to the BDS movement. Yet, once you wander to the left of Labor, you start encountering the likes of Neve Gordon or Anat Biletzki, former chairperson of one the Israeli leftist groups you’re talking about, B’Tzelem. Neve strongly supports BDS and Biletzki strongly supports a one-state solution.

    So is this really a liberal values issue? Is this really a peace issue? No. AIPAC continues to speak not only for most Jews, but also along the lines of what the majority of the Israeli population believes.

    One of the reasons, ironically, that AIPAC’s goals are in line with so many Jews and Israelis is that a small coterie of Jewish and Israeli leftists whose views about the conflict help Israel’s enemies achieve their goals, have helped to clarify for many of us the difficult situation facing Israel. AIPAC is a voice in the US protecting Israel from these “friends.”

  2. 2 noam said at 1:59 pm on October 17th, 2010:

    Maayan: both Kadima, and even Labor, hoped that the effort to limit settlement construction would work. it wasn’t only the Anarchists who opposed Netanayhu policies then and backed the administration (even if Kadima didn’t always say it publicly).

    But the main point in the article was that an organization like AIPAC would always work mainly in favor or rightwing leaders – because center-left ones don’t need it…

    (see also the update to the post)

  3. 3 maayan said at 2:41 am on October 18th, 2010:

    Wait a minute, I wasn’t talking about “limiting” settlements. I was talking about vilifying Israel, settlers and the state of Israel on a regular basis. I wasn’t talking about disagreements, but specifically about groups that challenge Israel’s existence as a state for the Jewish people or that seek to undermine it with things like boycotts.

    As for the center-left not needing a voice of support, I would think J Street would have a fit if they heard you. Of course the Israeli center-left needs an American voice. Take a look at the days of Mapai in the 70s or read the protocols that just came out about the ’73 war and you can see how critical it has always been for Israel – right or left wing – to have voices of support in the US. Do you think Israel’s leaders weren’t conferring and receiving advice from supporters in the US – Jews and non-Jews – when the Left dominated Israel?

    As for supporting the Administration, are you saying Kadima supported stopping construction in eastern Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods? I don’t think you are right. Maybe they didn’t want to fight with Obama, but neither did Netanyahu. It was Yishai’s office that announced the construction during Biden’s visit and greatly embarrassed Netanyahu. However, ideologically, both Labor and Kadima would never oppose construction and in fact strongly support construction in these Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. I’m not talking about Sheikh Jarrah, I’m talking about Ramat Shlomo and Pisgat Ze’ev.

    Regarding the update to your post, it sounds to be like Bloomfield is trying to get back at AIPAC either for something they did to him or because of the terrible way they treated Rosen and Weissman. By the way, since you can see that Bloomfield and Weissman both lean to the center-Left in their politics after AIPAC, why do you assume they believed differently before? Doesn’t it seem to you that if two very important members of a relatively small organization lean in a certain direction politically, that it is highly likely that your conjecture about the organization having the opposite political bias is wrong?

  4. 4 maayan said at 4:13 am on October 18th, 2010:

    Unrelated to your post. Did you see today’s editorial in Ha’aretz saying that Israel shouldn’t have announced the 240 new housing units in eastern Jerusalem? How many Israelis agree with that point of view? My guess is a very small fraction.

  5. 5 noam said at 5:49 am on October 18th, 2010:

    Maayan:

    AIPAC’s efforts on the hill do not concern the BDS movement, but have to do with the peace process and the confrontation between the administration and Netanyahu’s government. check out all their recent press releases and all the letters they circulated and you will see that. This was also the case with the positions taken by TIP in my previous post on the issue -it was not a response to a grassroots anti-Israeli activity but something that had to to with the diplomatic game.

    Yes, AIPAC might have been helpful in the 70′s to any political leadership, but the political dynamic has changed, and in the current context they only serve the Right, not even Kadima.

    Your theories regarding Bloomfield’s motives might be true – and they might not be (we have no idea of telling), but this is not the first time we hear of an organized effort by Israeli lobby to hurt the Oslo process in the 90′s.

    Again, even if I accept everything you say – and I’m not sure I do – the dynamic regarding the peace process remains the same: only right wing leaders need AIPAC’s support.

  6. 6 Tom Mitchell said at 6:31 am on October 18th, 2010:

    The second biggest miracle, after the revival of Hebrew as a modern language, in Israel’s modern history has been its emergence as a democracy despite the origins of its population. Some 90-95% of Israel’s population emigrated from countries that were not democratic at the time–only Germany and Czechoslovakia provided Israel with large groups of immigrants who had experienced democracy first hand. In the case of Germany that democracy (Weimar) had clearly failed and the Czechoslovakian democracy was in the process of falling victim to Soviet imperialism and Communist subversion.

    In the 1990s Israel had another, probably its last, major aliyah from a non-democratic authoritarian state, the Soviet Union. Israel is now in a struggle to see if it can retain its democracy or will it tumble down the same slope that so many European states fell in the 1920s–states like Poland, Italy, etc. AIPAC seems to be supporting those forces that would help Israel to give up its democratic status. In this it is similar to the German Bund organization in the U.S. in the 1930s.

  7. 7 maayan said at 11:09 am on October 18th, 2010:

    I love it when people compare Israel to Nazis.

  8. 8 Tom Mitchell said at 8:02 pm on October 19th, 2010:

    Ma’ayan,
    I compared Israel to Weimar Germany not to Nazi Germany–but that distinction is probably beyond the analytical capabilities of someone like you.

  9. 9 maayan said at 2:45 pm on October 20th, 2010:

    Oh Tom, there is no doubt at all that your analytical capabilities are vastly, and I mean VASTLY, superior to mine. By all means, keep flattering yourself!

    However, I am one of those simple, dumb folk who have been, as they say, around the block once or twice. What I’ve learned over time is that those people who don’t want to come right out and say that Israel is like Nazi Germany often qualify their terms by claiming that Israel is not quite there yet, but aw shucks it sure is close ‘cuz it is soooooo similar to 1933 Germany just prior to the Nazis coming to power that you can practically taste the food remnants left on the Hitler mustache growing on Bibi’s face.

    Yesirree, I’ve learned that the people who do this do it to construct plausible denial into their comment about Israel – “What? I never said they were Nazis!”

    Your meaning is perfectly clear: Just like Germany in 1933, Israel is now primed and ready to evolve into the other Germany of 1933. It just so happens that this was Nazi Germany, but godalmighty, you didn’t mean that at all, didja?

  10. 10 Tom Mitchell said at 2:38 pm on October 23rd, 2010:

    Ma’ayan,
    I’ll have to defer to your superior mind reading capabilities. I can’t read other people’s minds–especially those that I’ve never met before.

  11. 11 maayan said at 3:34 pm on October 23rd, 2010:

    Tom, just acknowledge what you wrote and you won’t have to write any more silly comments about my lacking analytical capabilities or my superior mind reading [sic] capabilities.

  12. 12 jack said at 11:28 am on October 24th, 2010:

    maayan,
    i live in jerusalem 6 mths a year and am an ardent american secular zionist– sad to sat tom mitchell has a valid observation

  13. 13 maayan said at 1:01 pm on October 24th, 2010:

    About Israel being on the eve of becoming Nazi Germany, about my being a superior mind reader or about my inferior analytical capabilities?

  14. 14 Tom Mitchell said at 7:28 pm on October 25th, 2010:

    Ma’ayan,
    I actually mentioned Italy and Poland in my comment. I mentioned Germany only because I knew that the totalitarian forces in Germany had an American ally that might be compared to AIPAC.

    I don’t expect there to be a sudden “March on Rome” or Reichstag Fire moment in which Israel would cease to be democratic. It would be part of a long process. The most likely model for this would not be something from Europe but rather than from the Middle East–for instance Turkey from 1945 until just recently. In Turkey there was an ideology of secularism that allowed the military to pose as the protector of the country’s character. All in the name of protecting Turkey against Islamism.

    In Israel the right-wing parties would gradually make Israel less democratic in the name of protecting it against a subversive disloyal minority. More power would shift to the IDF and Shabak, while the ultra-Orthodox is coopted with further power. If Iran goes nuclear, this would be used as an external threat to further justify this process. Israel could end up like Turkey was, as a pseudo-democratic country that its allies would continue to refer to as a democracy.

  15. 15 maayan said at 1:02 am on October 26th, 2010:

    Okay, good. What you’ve just described is a very different scenario than what I believe you implied in your first comment, and this scenario is certainly a possibility.

    However, today Israel remains distant from what you describe. First of all, the right wing parties might seem ascendant today but in the post above this one, Noam and I both agree (a rarity) that Livni has a chance to be elected if elections are called today. Livni is center-right and very distant from an Erdogan. In fact, I think you’ll agree with me that the only possible Erdogan in Israel’s political realm today is Lieberman. Lieberman is a demagogue and a very shrewd political strategist, but he is not on the verge of being elected PM, or even close to it.

    Second, I think your assessment can be applied to numerous countries. For example, apply your assessment to the USA. As the Tea Party flexes its Libertarian muscles and the Republican extreme right wing, with its strong Christian fundamentalist base that have taken over that party, waltz to multiple victories in the mid-terms and strong contention for the Presidency in 2012, one can only wonder whether the demagoguery and America-firstism that have taken over political discourse in the USA will combine with the high unemployment, weakening middle class and growing poverty to bring to power elements in that society that are anti-democratic.

    Sure, this isn’t happening right now, but it could go down that road. The question is whether America’s or Israel’s democratic institutions are strong enough to weather these challenges. I believe they are. I also believe self-interest will motivate many of the groups you believe could pose a challenge to Israel’s democracy to maintain the parliamentary system because they actually end up with political influence far beyond their numbers.

  16. 16 Tom Mitchell said at 12:31 pm on October 27th, 2010:

    Ma’ayan,
    Apology accepted.
    You say that Israel is far from the scenario that I laid out. There is discussion in the press of a law to be proposed that would outlaw any commemoration of an-Nakba. This sounds to be suspiciously similar to Turkey’s legal treatment of the Armenian genocide, which makes it a crime to label the massacre a genocide or even to discuss it except in the ahistorical terms that the Turkish government allows.

    Turkey until recently had three main deficits that prevented it from being considered a true democracy. These are: 1) the military’s legal position as a guardian of secularism by coup d’etat; 2) legal restrictions on free speech and free press; and 3) the treatment of the Kurds and other minorities. Turkey recently removed the first restriction. If it gets rid of the second it will be a true democracy as discriminatory treatment against a minority does not prevent a country from being considered a democracy.

    By comparison Israel has never had any coups d’etat. It discriminates against the Arab minority and it is discussing a number of further discriminatory measures and detractions from basic freedoms.

    The real threat to democracy in America is not from the tea party or the conservatives–and I write this as a moderate independent who has voted for more Democratic presidential candidates than Republicans in my life–but, rather, from an over-reaching Supreme Court who increases its power at the expensive of elected legislatures and the written Constitution. This produces a situation where the U.S. remains a democracy in areas permitted by a majority of a nine-member oligarchy.

    The U.S. like Israel is a nation of immigrants. The American founders and their successors developed democracy as an extension of their belief in English freedoms and the enlightenment. Israel’s founders created Israel as a democracy both to accommodate Jews from many lands and to consciously align Israel with the West. America’s rate of immigrant absorption was much slower than that of Israel. The U.S. had major periods of immigration from 1845-55, 1880-1920, and again starting in the 1980s. Israel has had major immigration periods since independence from 1948-1958, 1978-1980s, 1991-2000. Thus, it had at most two decades between waves compared to 25 years and 60 years in the American case. And the first post-independence Israeli wave was immediately after a pre-state wave of Aliya B. Thus, America has had much more time to absorb its immigrants and teach them American culture including political culture. Thus, Europeans from the European empires of Central and Eastern Europe and the autocracies of Western Europe became democrats.

    Because the democratic foundation of Israel under Ben-Gurion and Mapai was already weak–Mapai and Herut were run like communist parties internally–future generations of immigrates being absorbed had a weak foundation to adhere to. Israeli democracy was basically maintained largely due to outside threats. The U.S. resolved its most difficult political issue with a bloody four-year civil war; Israel’s situation does not permit this.

  17. 17 maayan said at 3:49 pm on October 28th, 2010:

    Come now, Tom, who’s trying to read minds now? I didn’t apologize because there is no need to apologize.

    Your analysis of democracy and threats to it is interesting, but remains unconvincing to me. I, for example, agree that the US SC wields too much power at times, and it certainly hijacked democracy in the 2000 elections, but I believe that election and the fact the American public was willing to accept an SC decision such as that indicated a resilient understanding of how American democracy is supposed to work.

    I am talking about social trends regarding something much more basic like the inability of millions to feed their family and how that can be used by demagogues – as we see daily – to drive society to places where it shouldn’t go.

    As for Israel, I think its democratic roots come from a deeper place than “accommodat[ing] Jews from many lands and to consciously align[ing] Israel with the West.” I think Israeli democracy is rooted in a history of suffering as a minority without a voice in societies that at times turned on their Jewish inhabitants. This is what Israel’s founders were seeking to rectify and envisioned Israel as a place where minorities should be able to live with a voice and security that is equal to the majority. You can go back even to Jabotinsky, the ostensible spirit guiding Israel’s Right for many decades now, and you will see a thirst for democracy. He can only accept the Jewish State if it achieves its Jewish status via a Jewish majority on par with its Arab minority.

    In other words, it’s not political maneuvering that brought about Israeli democracy, but it is a philosophy that is part and parcel of Zionism. Zionism is not only intended to establish a state for the Jewish people in their historic homeland, but it is also meant to enable that state to rectify the ills displayed by many societies that had Jewish populations. Democracy offers that possibility while other models may offer Jewish sovereignty over Israel, but without the raison d’etre of establishing a state for Jews in the first place – the ability to live in dignity, respect, safety and as Jews. Why would Zionists establish a political environment that could lead to the removal of these basic rights from their state’s inhabitants?

  18. 18 Tom Mitchell said at 4:34 pm on October 28th, 2010:

    “What I’ve learned over time is that those people who don’t want to come right out and say that Israel is like Nazi Germany often qualify their terms by claiming that Israel is not quite there yet, but aw shucks it sure is close ‘cuz it is soooooo similar to 1933 Germany just prior to the Nazis coming to power that you can practically taste the food remnants left on the Hitler mustache growing on Bibi’s face.

    Yesirree, I’ve learned that the people who do this do it to construct plausible denial into their comment about Israel – “What? I never said they were Nazis!”

    Your meaning is perfectly clear: Just like Germany in 1933, Israel is now primed and ready to evolve into the other Germany of 1933. It just so happens that this was Nazi Germany, but godalmighty, you didn’t mean that at all, didja?”

    No, need to apologize?

    I’ve learned over the years that those who don’t want to call you an anti-semite, often qualify their terms….

    Sound familiar?

  19. 19 maayan said at 10:25 pm on October 28th, 2010:

    Had I wanted to call you an anti-Semite, I would have. Have you found me to be shy about expressing my thoughts?

  20. 20 Tom Mitchell said at 7:29 pm on October 30th, 2010:

    Ma’ayan,
    No, you have certainly not been shy. Maybe its because I’ve recently had experience with the “proud Jews” of the Likud who see everyone who is not a Likud supporter or supporter of the right as either an anti-semite or a self-hating Jew. Maybe this tendency runs deeper among diaspora Jews who feel they have to compensate for not making aliya.

    There are many reasons why the Zionist leadership became democratically oriented. What you mention may have some validity. But after World War I the WZO was headed by Haim Weizmann, who consciously wanted to identify the Zionist movement with Britain and America. Jabotinsky was also an anglophile. But Jabotinsky, Begin and Ben-Gurion among other Israeli leaders believed in democracy in interparty relations, but in autocracy in intraparty relations. In this latter sense Israel didn’t really become democratic until the 1970s and 1980s. As to the answer to the question in your previous post you would have to interrogate the leaders of Brit haBiryonim and the others who dominated rightist politics within the yishuv from 1933 to 1943.

    As far as Liebermann’s future, I won’t wager a prediction. Many political figures seem to emerge from nowhere. Who would have predicted in 1859 that Lincoln would be elected president a year later? Who would have predicted in 2006 or 2007 that Obama would be elected president in 2008? Unless Netanyahu is discredited worse than he was in 1999, Livni has no real chance of being elected prime minister. Labor isn’t strong enough to support a Kadima-Labor-Meretz coalition.

  21. 21 Ashley said at 4:12 pm on November 5th, 2010:

    my point of view on this sitution is completly diff. Isreali soliders are killing palestinean pleople because of land that is for the jews. Is that correct? you can not kill innocent lives just like that. inorder to find peace the isrealies and palisteanens should come about an agreement that satifies the two groups. Although hatred seems to never end, Isreali soliders need to learn how to stop killing inoccent lives and stop being pigs and scared of rocks that are being thrown at them. That’s all I’m saying.