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The Conservative Curmudgeon
October 30, 2008

AIPAC Does Not Speak for American Jews
by Allan C. Brownfeld

The role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) which presents itself as reflecting the views of American Jews in the 2008 presidential election campaign is coming under increasingly critical scrutiny.

A host of political leaders of both parties, including Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, addressed attendees at its annual meeting in June. One of Governor Sarah Palin’s first meetings as the Republican vice presidential candidate was with representatives of AIPAC. In fact it was so important to her handlers that they cancelled a scheduled appearance by Governor Palin at Phyllis Schlafly's annual convention.

“Once a year, the Israel lobby in Washington known as AIPAC holds its annual convention where anyone who is anyone in the political world comes to render fealty, rather than homage,” writes Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor-at-large of The Washington Times. “Anyone who doesn’t pass the litmus test can forget about becoming president of the United States, or senator or even congressman... The lobby, reputedly Washington's most powerful… ensures that anything Israel wants or needs gets quick action on the Hill. That covers anything from $3 billion a year for the next l0 years for modern weaponry to soft loans for building the $2.5 billion physical barrier between Israelis and Palestinians, and under the radar the steady expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.”

Both Senators McCain and Obama told AIPAC exactly what it wanted to hear. The latter went so far as to declare that, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” The reaction to Obama’s statement was negative throughout the Middle East. Moreover, it is in opposition to long-standing U.S. policy, which holds that the status of Jerusalem is to be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas responded: “This statement is totally rejected. We will not accept a Palestinian state without having Jerusalem as the capital.” Even some Israeli analysts suggested that Obama had staked out a position beyond that of the current leadership. Within 24 hours, Obama backtracked, saying that the final status of Jerusalem “is going to be up to the partners to negotiate.”

The AIPAC meeting also featured bellicose anti-Iran statements. Leading neoconservative Richard Perle urged that Iran be placed on the terrorist hit list. Senator McCain told the AIPAC audience that, if elected president, he would drastically ramp up financial pressure on Iran’s rulers by targeting the country's gasoline imports and imposing sanctions against its central bank. Senator Obama presented an equally firm position.

Journalist and blogger Philip Weiss, who is writing a book about Jewish issues, attended the AIPAC meeting and reported on it for The American Conservative. In his article, “Looking Into the Lobby,” he writes that Senator Obama's speech “became the annual example the conference provides of a powerful man truckling. Two years ago, it was Vice President Cheney’s red-meat speech attacking Palestinians. Last year, it was Pastor John Hagee’s scary speech saying that giving the Arabs any part of Jerusalem was the same as giving it to the Taliban. Obama took a similar line. He suggested that he would use force to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, made no mention of Palestinian human rights, and said that Jerusalem ‘must remain undivided,’ a statement so disastrous to the peace process that his staff rescinded it the next day.... It would be hard to imagine a more naked exhibition of political power: a convention of 7,000... people, with more than half the Congress in attendance, as well as all the major presidential candidates, the prime minister of Israel, the minority leader, the majority leader and the speaker of the House. Yet there is precious little journalism about the spectacle in full.”

For more than 30 years, Weiss declares, AIPAC has supported Israel’s policy of expanding into the West Bank and has had a dramatic impact upon U.S. policy: “In l975, when President Ford wanted to reassess Mideast policy over Israeli intransigence, he was cut off at the knees by an AIPAC letter signed by 76 senators. Then in l989, when James Baker went before AIPAC and told them to give up their idea of a Greater Israel including the West Bank, George H.W. Bush received a letter of anger signed by 94 senators. In both instances, AIPAC was hewing to the Israeli government line and nullifying American policymaking....”

In Weiss’ view, “The great sadness here is that American Jewry is the most educated, most affluent segment of the public. Yet on this issue there is little independent thinking. The obvious question is whether they don’t have dual loyalty. As a Jew, I feel uncomfortable using the phrase, given its long history, but the facts are inarguable. Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic speaks of everything ‘we’ should do to make peace with the Palestinians, then corrects himself to say what Israel should do. Speaker after speaker says that Israel is in our hearts. People who emigrate to Israel are applauded, and when the national anthems are played, one cantor sings ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ but the ‘Hatikvah’ has two cantors belting it out, with the audience roaring along.”

Often when political candidates address Jewish forums, they assume that the way to appeal to Jewish voters is to take the most extreme possible position on behalf of Israel. This, of course, is the idea promoted so effectively by AIPAC. However, most American Jews do not share this perspective. In a survey of American Jewish opinion conducted by the American Jewish Committee, respondents were asked about the issues that will determine their presidential vote this year. A strong plurality of 42 percent picked either “economy and jobs” or “health care,” the two domestic choices offered. By contrast, only 36 percent picked one of the three Middle East-related options: the war in Iraq (l6 percent), terrorism and national security (l4 percent), or support for Israel (6 percent).

The notion that Jewish voters are waiting for a stamp of approval from self-proclaimed “leaders” of a “pro-Israel” seal of approval on particular candidates bears no relationship to reality.

Even those Jews who focus on U.S. Middle East policy share a variety of views, hardly those represented by AIPAC. Recently, a new political action and lobbying group known as JStreet has been established to counter the influence of organizations such as AIPAC. In a full-page ad in The New York Times (June 23, 2008), JStreet declared: “When Israel goes to war, supporters rally. When Israel negotiates, why the deafening silence? A new cease-fire has been brokered between Israel and Hamas. Israel and Syria are quietly resuming diplomatic contacts. Israel is offering talks with Lebanon, and Israeli and Palestinian leaders are negotiating to establish two states living side by side in peace and security. These efforts may or may not succeed. But they are designed to enhance Israel’s security, the region’s stability, and to bring peace closer. And they deserve our support. If Israel had gone to war this week, established pro-Israel organizations would have rallied to its side.... Let’s have the courage to support Israel loudly and clearly when it pursues security through diplomacy.”

David Kimche, a former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and a supporter of JStreet, outlined the need for an alternative in The Jerusalem Post: “AIPAC has become more militant than the Israeli government.”

Many Israelis view AIPAC as a negative and counterproductive influence and have joined JStreet's advisory council. One of these is Daniel Levy, who was part of the Israeli delegation to the January 200l Taba Summit. “The mainstream pro-Israel camp,” he states, “has decided so brazenly to throw its lot in with neoconservative ideologues within this administration and with the far right Christian Zionists, and this unholy triangle has pulled things so much to the right-wing direction that we are desperately in need of a corrective.”

The fact is that AIPAC does not in any way speak for the vast majority of Jewish Americans. As the 2008 campaign proceeds, AIPAC’s role should be carefully examined. To the extent that AIPAC’s influence is diminished, the chance to develop a constructive U.S. policy that leads both Israelis and Palestinians to a meaningful peace is enhanced.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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