AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is not the ideal representative of Israeli interests in the USA. Considering the modest results it achieves, it makes itself extremely conspicuous. It strives for unrealistic goals such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. It focuses on congress, which has a minimal say in foreign relations, and specializes in showy resolutions of support for Israel, that have no real impact. It often pursues "hard line" policy goals that are not policies of the state of Israel. All this is done with maximum publicity and high profile grandstanding, making AIPAC an easy target for anti-Zionists, and lending credibility to those who insist, along with professors Mearsheimer and Walt, Holocaust denier Jeff Rense, and Jimmy Carter that the "Israel lobby" controls Middle East policy.
AIPAC has done nothing to prevent the coopting of US Middle East academia by extreme anti-Zionists. It did little to change U.S. government policies at critical moments, when it really mattered, such as the military spare parts embargo imposed on Israel at the start of the "Intifada II" violence. AIPAC doesn't seem to have been able to budge the Arab League boycott of Israel either. AIPAC got congress to pass laws about moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, but the embassy didn't budge. AIPAC has done little to challenge the growing public campaign to delegitimize Israel, and in fact, its visibility and postions have made it a prime target of that campaign. The Arab and Muslim countries get much more bang for their lobbying buck, working relatively quietly to buy off politicians and bribe academic institutions.
This year's AIPAC convention alarmed many, as it seemed that AIPAC might be going from not so good to much worse, veering far to the right
. The appearance of fundamentalist preacher John Hagee alarmed many, but it is understandable. One would hope that AIPAC would also hear from people like Yossi Beilin, head the Meretz party, and Mr. Ken Bob, President of Ameinu, so that the spectrum of Zionist views are represented. Unfortunately, that is not the case. AIPAC is focusing on legions of orthodox Jews and Christian Zionists to put out its message, and thereby marginalizing itself. Instead of representing Israeli interests, it may soon come to represent the interests of the Israeli and American far right. It will lose the attention of the American polity.
However, approaches to reforming AIPAC miss the mark as well. Ameinu President Ken Bob said
"AIPAC, which presents itself as 'THE pro-Israel lobby' representing the entire American Jewish community, has now adopted highly partisan new policies on the pursuit of Palestinian-Israeli peace..."
. But Mr. Bob is in error. AIPAC does not represent the entire Jewish community, or only the Jewish community, and it is not supposed to do that. AIPAC represents Americans who support Israel. That excludes Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, the Satmar Chassidim, Bundists and many other Jews who are anti-Israel or indifferent to Israeli issues. They are entitled to their opinions as American citizens, but they can't demand influence in pro-Israel lobby group, because they are not pro-Israel. AIPAC's constituency also includes many non-Jews. The AIPAC event was well attended by Christian Zionists and black people who support Israel because of the common history of oppression of Jewish and black people. This is certainly a positive development.
One of the main points that riled Ameinu was a typical AIPAC initiative: a letter to Secretary of State Rice, initiated by Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and John Ensign (R-NV), which AIPAC is now urging U.S. senators to sign, urging the administration to cut off contacts with PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The letter would have no effect even if it was signed by every member of both houses. Congress doesn't make foreign policy. It is just another flashy, pushy irritating gesture that makes it look like supporters of Israel are on the wrong side regarding peace in the Middle East. Ameinu's ire is understandable. However, it is wrong for the US or Israel to ignore the fact that Abbas signed the Mecca agreement, which calls for a Palestinian unity government without really accepting the Quartet principles of nonviolence and recognition of Israel, and after he signed it, he said in effect, "take it or leave it." This was not good for Israel, not good for US policy in the Middle East and not good for peace. If Mr. Abbas wants US and Israeli support as a peace partner, he has to earn it. It is unrealistic and wrong to expect that AIPAC will become a representative of the interests of the HAMAS, the ISM or even the Israeli and Jewish peace groups. It is also wrong to ignore Palestinian policy changes that are bad for Israel and bad for peace.
AIPAC has to fashion a constructive, low profile and effective program that focuses on furthering realistic policy goals that are genuine and legitimate Israeli interests rather than showy extremist gestures that garner support among right wing partisans. Much of the criticism of AIPAC is justified, but the critics don't provide any constructive and realistic alternatives. AIPAC isn't going to disband and it isn't going to represent the Israeli peace movement. Progressive Zionists have to focus on providing a realistic, constructive and positive program as an alternative to right wing initiatives. Here are three tentative suggestions:
Foreign Aid- Congress doesn't make foreign policy, but it funds it. At present US aid to Israel is focused on military assistance that enriches the US military industrial complex, guts the Israeli Defense industry, and makes Israeli security decisions dependent on the US State Department. Surely AIPAC could do something to improve that! AIPAC could also encourage a US peace corps in the Palestinian areas that would provide education and social services to displace the Hamas network. That would help Palestinians, help peace and help Israel. Congress should also be urged to fund people-to-people initiatives in the Middle East that are vital to laying the groundwork for peace.
US higher education - AIPAC should be funding Israel study centers and Middle East departments in universities, to compete with generous funding provided by Arab countries. These departments would provide basic courses about the Middle East in many universities where they are lacking. They could help turn out the Middle East linguists and policy experts who are presently in such woefully short supply.
Israeli-Arab Peace Think Tank - AIPAC should be funding a non-partisan academic policy institution that generates policy alternatives for achieving peace. These would then become the policies advocated by AIPAC.
AIPAC is the political voice of Israel in the USA. We can't allow it to be ineffective, and we can't allow it to be subverted for narrow political goals of this or that Zionist or anti-Zionist group. A constructive program that is pro-active for peace will do more to further Israeli interests and the viewpoint of progressive Zionists than partisan bickering.
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Replies: 4 Comments
"Considering the modest results it achieves,...." Where have you been? The US foreign aid contribution to Israel -- some $2 billion -- is hardly a modest result. As well, AIPAC helps ensure that members of congress are educated about legislation pertaining to Israel and encouraged to support that legislation. AIPAC does important work.
Mark Finkelstein, Tuesday, April 10th
Excellent observations, Ami. So far, there is no article from your pen that doesnīt deserve such kudos.For Israelīsake I hope they are read by those who have the possibility to profit from the advise.
Ellen Popper, Saturday, March 17th
I liked this article, as it refelcted many of my thoughts and feelings towards AIPAC. Is there any kind of initiative that wants to make these changes right now?
Asak, Friday, March 16th
This an excellent article, perceptive and balanced, very knowledgable.
I have lived in Israel for 37 years--but for the 1/2 year before aliyah, I work for AIPAC apon graduation from AU.
At that time, AIPAC was still run by its founder, Si Kenan. He was liberal and modest, smart and wise. AIPAC worked mostly behind the scenes...
Keeping up with its activities, I am dismayed--both in remberance of S. Kenan, and because of all the reasons you mention.
If this aspect interests you, talk to Charles Fenivesi, who still writes, I think, for the Washington Post. He was the main reporter in those days for FarEast Review (which was highly respected then). I worked then on research about the Arab lobby and Arab propaganda, which turned up interesting facts--such subsidies for many Arab U. students to promote Arab interests...while most Israeli students were also working, often with families, and could not do any similar activities. Glad to discuss anything further, Elinore Koenigsfeld--
Elinore Liebersohn Koenigsfeld, Friday, March 16th
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