Washington — Iran will once again be the top issue and presidential politics the buzz in the hallways as thousands of pro-Israel activists converge on Washington on Sunday for the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Defying its legion of critics, the giant pro-Israel lobby group appears more powerful than ever.
That reality is reflected in a list of keynoters that includes President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, at least one GOP presidential contender and top congressional leaders.
But AIPAC also faces huge new risks, including a toxic political climate that makes the bipartisanship that was once its hallmark harder to maintain and the complex issue of Iran, which is already undermining U.S.-Israel trust and which could produce a strong backlash against Israel and pro-Israel forces if it explodes into war.
And AIPAC faces another huge challenge: seismic changes in the American Jewish community.
A diverse Jewish community united around the issue of Israel’s survival was a key ingredient in the group’s growth. But a deeply and increasingly divided, polarized community in which Israel is, for many, just one of a long list of issues could ultimately undermine its strength and force the group to turn more to a hard-line base that is even less representative of the broader Jewish community.
Next week protesters on the left, who oppose Israeli policy in the West Bank, will hold an “Occupy AIPAC” session in Washington and demonstrate outside the Washington Convention Center.
But the real threat to AIPAC could be a Jewish community that no longer sees Israel through a single lens and a political climate that is undercutting the bipartisanship that added enormously to its power.
For decades, critics have predicted AIPAC’s imminent decline. Arab-American groups have alleged improper direct connections to campaign fundraising. Activists on the Jewish left have predicted a loss of influence as AIPAC defends the actions of hard-line Likud governments in Jerusalem. Liberal critics have eagerly awaited a moment of reckoning as Americans tire of the impact of K Street lobbying and runaway campaign spending.
And all the while AIPAC has grown bigger and more powerful.
Like all lobbies, it often angers those who disagree with the positions it advocates. It’s not hard to find members of Congress who privately grumble about AIPAC’s aggressive tactics but publicly go along meekly and even energetically when the group circulates a pro-Israel “Dear colleague” letter or demands support for new Iran sanctions.
Politicians still fear crossing AIPAC. Pro-Israel campaign givers take important cues from it, multiplying its lobbying clout. Opponents are vocal but relatively ineffectual, and alternative lobbies focused on the Middle East remain small and lack AIPAC’s intense focus.
But a Jewish community that put aside many differences to support Israel during the early, precarious days of the Jewish state is changing.
For the Jewish majority, support for Israel is still a given. But the issue ranks somewhere in the middle of their list of political priorities, behind an assortment of domestic issues, according to the yearly American Jewish Committee survey.
Younger Jews did not grow up in a world in which a newborn Israel was clinging to a precarious existence; today’s Israel is militarily and economically strong.
And an occupier.
I see little sympathy in the Jewish community for the cause of a Palestinian people, whose leaders have consistently fled from opportunities for peace. But I do see a general distaste for the policies of hard-line governments like the current one, which may translate into diminished involvement and support for the lobby whose mission of supporting close U.S.-Israel relations translates into supporting the government in power in Jerusalem.
American Jews remain heavily progressive; an Israel that has moved steadily to the right just isn’t a top priority for many.
In this environment, AIPAC has become even more dependent on single-issue, Israel-focused Jews and on an Orthodox community that is much more united on the issue, with deeper connections to the Jewish state and — often — to West Bank settlers.
That makes up a passionate, relatively united and incredibly focused activist base for AIPAC that is not matched by anything on the left.
At the same time, AIPAC has exploited and nurtured the growing alliance between pro-Israel forces and both Evangelical Christian activists and hawkish neoconservative thinkers.
But the growing identification of the pro-Israel movement with forces at home that are anathema to progressive Jews is yet another source of deepening division. When Pastor John Hagee gave a passionately pro-Israel keynote speech at AIPAC in 2007, the pro-Israel delegates enthusiastically applauded — but you could almost hear the collective cringe in other parts of the Jewish community.
AIPAC is both a victim of and contributor to the growing polarization of the Jewish community, with widening gaps between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox, the communally affiliated and the non-affiliated, the Israel-focused and those whose politics are shaped largely by domestic concerns.
Multiplying the risk is the fact that what’s happening to the Jewish community mirrors a broader political environment of division and polarization. Americans are deeply and bitterly divided on just about every issue: gay marriage and abortion, federal spending and government regulation, civil liberties and civil rights, to name just a few.
The gaps are widening into unbridgeable chasms; cooperation across party and ideological lines is becoming a rarity.
Given the gaps within the Jewish community and the broader environment of toxic politics, it will be harder than ever for AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups to maintain the bipartisanship that has traditionally been one pillar of its strength, especially as Republican politicians seek to use Israel as a wedge issue with Jewish voters by portraying the Democrats as a mortal danger to the Jewish state, and as the Democrats answer to a core constituency that either opposes current Israeli policies or — more commonly — is indifferent to the entire issue.
The danger is that support for Israel may be getting caught up in both the growing gap between factions in the Jewish community and the hyper-partisanship that has made “compromise” a dirty word in Washington.
In an age of identity politics, AIPAC’s growing identification with Likud governments in Israel and political conservatives in this country may reinforce and galvanize its base. But it may narrow that base, as well, and put the issue of Israel squarely in the turbulent political crosswinds sweeping across the nation.
Then there’s the issue of Iran.
Once again dire warnings about its alleged nuclear weapons program will be the overwhelming focus of the annual policy conference.
There’s little doubt that AIPAC has effectively managed the Iran issue, making the case for stronger sanctions and a tougher U.S. stance but avoiding overt advocacy of military conflict.
But that distinction may be lost on many Americans if Israel does decide to take military action that produces repercussions in this country — repercussions that could include a new oil crisis, a big economic hit and terrorist retaliation against U.S. targets.
The danger is that the lobby’s relentless focus on an Iranian threat described in almost apocalyptic terms will be interpreted by many as a call for yet another U.S. war in the Middle East. Critics have long insisted that AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups bore some responsibility for a needless and costly war in Iraq. That charge was largely groundless, but the perception remains in many quarters.
And it will be harder to refute if Israel somehow draws America into a new and even more costly conflict in the Middle East.
The self-congratulatory tone of every AIPAC policy conference is well deserved. The group remains the pre-eminent foreign policy lobby in Washington and a feared and respected force on Capitol Hill. It has brushed off challengers like J Street, the self-proclaimed “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby, with relative ease.
But beneath the celebrations are dangers that could ultimately unravel much of that success and add to the divisions in the American Jewish community.