The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which holds its annual policy conference in Washington next week, could face its toughest battle with an administration in more than a decade, depending on the proposals Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brings to Washington later in May.
Press attention has focused on mounting criticism of the Israel lobby in left-wing and foreign policy circles and the continuing shadow cast by the Espionage Act trial of two former employees. But the real challenge facing AIPAC may be diverging policy in Washington and Jerusalem — with AIPAC and its supporters in the American Jewish community caught in the middle.
“AIPAC hasn’t had a major fight on its hands since the loan guarantee battle of 1991 — which it lost, said Dan Fleshler, a New York publicist who has worked with a number of dovish pro-Israel groups and is the author of a new book on AIPAC, “Transforming America’s Israel Lobby.”
“AIPAC could be facing the first real test of its power in a long time,” Fleshler continued. “They are going to do everything possible to avoid a confrontation. The real question is whether Bibi has the same goal.”
In past fights with an American administration, Netanyahu looked to AIPAC as a key ally.
So far the omens are mixed. A series of statements from Jerusalem, including last week’s assertion that Israel will not engage with the Palestinians until Washington deals with Iran, prompted stern responses from the administration and a reiteration of U.S. support for a two-state solution and an Annapolis peace process Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman publicly rejected.
“There’s a game of verbal ping-pong going on now,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank. “It’s being driven by statements coming out of Jerusalem. That’s not ideal, because I think it’s everybody’s goal to avoid a fight.”
Even more challenging could be the question of U.S. Iran policy, AIPAC’s top policy priority in recent years.
While the immediate trigger for U.S-Israel tension will likely involve issues such as settlements, illegal outposts and Washington’s desire for confidence-building gestures by both Israel and the Palestinians, any move by Netanyahu to make progress on Iran a precondition for new negotiations with the Palestinians will likely produce a strongly negative response from an administration that regards both as critical priorities, analysts say — and put AIPAC on the firing line.
With new legislation in the works to toughen sanctions against the Tehran regime, Iran will once again be a dominant theme at the policy conference.
If new tensions do emerge along the Jerusalem-Washington axis, the big lobby group will face a different political climate from the last time it went head-to-head with an administration, said former AIPAC Executive Director Neal Sher.
Changes include pro-peace process groups that have the ear of important Obama administration policymakers, a Congress with a strong Democratic majority and a new Democratic president with unusually high approval ratings.
“Right now everything hinges on Bibi,” Sher said. “If there is a confrontation, it remains to be seen if AIPAC is up to that kind of test in the current climate.”
In recent weeks AIPAC, accused by some detractors of tilting to the political right here and in Israel, has been reinforcing relationships with key Capitol Hill Democrats, although the group lacks the tight leadership ties it had when the Republicans were running both Houses of Congress.
The group’s next president will be one of Obama’s staunchest and earliest supporters in the Jewish community: Lee Rosenberg, a Chicago businessman and Democratic activist, who will be introduced as president-elect at next week’s policy conference and take the reins in 2010.
AIPAC officials won’t say who will represent the Obama administration at the conference, but word on the pro-Israel street is that it will be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden or both.
AIPAC officials undoubtedly hope to avoid strong outbursts by delegates against a new administration it must get along with for the next four years, but that could be harder because of another scheduled keynoter — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), one of the administration’s most scathing foreign policy critics and a longtime ally of both AIPAC and Netanyahu.
Early speculation had Netanyahu coming to Washington both to address the conference and hold his inaugural meetings with Obama. That won’t happen, according to reports in the Israeli press, because Netanyahu needs time to flesh out his new government’s policies.
“It’s a good sign that he delayed the trip by three weeks,” said the Washington Institute’s Makovsky. “A week ago, the betting money would have said he couldn’t resist the temptation of speaking to 6,000 American Jews who are ardent supporters of Israel. But it’s better to take his time and make sure he gets off on the right foot.”
Instead, AIPAC insiders say President Shimon Peres will represent Israel at the conference.
Shadowing the conference will be the unfolding controversy enveloping Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who was reportedly taped in a federal wiretap offering to intervene on behalf of two former AIPAC officials awaiting trial for passing along government secrets. At press time Harman was still scheduled as a policy conference speaker.
Few observers doubt AIPAC will adjust to the dramatic shift to Democratic dominance in Washington.
While the press has made much of a new challenger on the scene — J Street, the pro-peace process lobby and political action committee — AIPAC retains an unmatched activist network in congressional districts across the country and connections to countless donors to political campaigns, a critical element in its reputation for Capitol Hill clout.
But the fact is, that clout has not been put to the test for many years.
“For more than a decade, they’ve been pushing against open doors,” said former AIPAC director Sher. “You can get resolutions passed, letters of support and overwhelming support for foreign aid, but those are issues members of Congress are not spending any political capital on; they’re no-brainers.”
If the Netanyahu government chooses to push back against an administration that demands quick progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, “the test is this: can AIPAC get enough Democrats to take on a popular Democratic administration?” Sher asked.
The answer is not simple. Even ardently pro-Israel Democrats may be reluctant to pick a fight with the high-flying Obama. At the same time, some Democrats will be anxious about 2010 midterm elections — and reluctant to risk pro-Israel campaign donations by picking a fight with AIPAC, Sher said.
What’s far from clear on the eve of the policy conference is this: how much of the tough talk from Jerusalem is just that — talk meant for domestic political consumption. Many observers believe the new Netanyahu government will go to great lengths to avoid the conflict recent newspaper reports seem to regard as inevitable.
Gilbert Kahn, a Kean University political scientist, said that while Netanyahu probably wants to avoid a disruptive fight with the Obama administration, “We don’t know what the internal politics of this coalition are. Bibi is extremely pragmatic; the question is whether he can hold his coalition together if he demonstrates that pragmatism.”
Netanyahu may also be willing to make compromises on the Israeli-Palestinian front to win stronger U.S. action on Iran — but whether he can pull that off without fracturing his coalition and angering the White House remains to be seen.
“The last eight years were essentially a cakewalk for AIPAC,” he said. “That could change, but it’s in Bibi’s hands.”
“AIPAC could be facing the first real test of its power in a long time,” said author Dan Fleshler. “AIPAC, I believe, will do everything possible to avoid a confrontation.”
Netanyahu, he said, may not be on the same page — but a confrontation is by no means a certainty.
“Right now what we’re seeing is a game of diplomatic chicken before the real hard decisions are made,” he said.