Don’t Be So Quick To Count AIPAC Out

Given AIPAC’s prominent role in the fight against the Iran deal, questions have already been raised about the impact of its defeat—it won’t convince enough Democratic members of Congress to vote against the agreement—on its influence in DC. It’s a perhaps inevitable question to ask, but the answer should be obvious: the effect will be minimal. The influence of interest groups like AIPAC can’t be measured by a single political fight.

It was never likely that AIPAC could derail the deal in Congress. Presidents are the dominant players in the making of foreign policy. When they are committed to a specific policy, there is little that can push them back. Since the mid-twentieth century Congress and the Supreme Court have generally accepted that preeminent role.

So AIPAC was starting at a disadvantage. Add to that the fact that this Democratic President sees the Iran accord as his signature piece of foreign policy, and the chance of lining up Democratic Senators and Representatives became even slimmer.

The incline was made steeper by the fact that a lot of security and nuclear proliferation experts—both in the United States and in Israel—contended that the deal wasn’t so bad, or was good enough to build on. This made the case for opposing it weaker.

Nobody with any experience in DC who drops their ideological blinders thinks that under these conditions, a failure to gather enough opposition votes means AIPAC is losing influence.

More important is the fact that AIPAC is embedded in the policymaking system. That’s what gives it influence, not its wins or losses in specific cases. It’s the fundamentals of participation that matter.

AIPAC’s ability to influence Congress stems from Israel’s place in the political game, and the conflation (as inaccurate as it is) between Israel and American Jewry. Jewish voters are concentrated in key electoral districts; public sympathy and support for Israel is consistently high, and politicians don’t pick unnecessary fights; Republicans have for the last few presidential cycles worked under the assumption that US Jews are about to migrate en masse to their party; and both Democrats and Republicans think taking a position on Israeli security wins Jewish votes.

Elected officials are open to hearing the ideas of an organization claiming to represent the Jewish community on Israel-related issues. AIPAC officials regularly participate in the writing of bills that touch on the American-Israeli relationship, even if indirectly (such as aid to third parties in the region).

AIPAC officials and board members have regular access to politicians and their staff. AIPAC-approved donors are courted during election campaigns.

So to judge the influence of AIPAC, or any lobby group, look to its daily operations and to policy outcomes over time. On the most important issues that define its mandate, such as military aid to Israel and a close American-Israeli relationship, AIPAC “wins” all the time. Partly that’s because the issues are easy for politicians to endorse, and partly because AIPAC has successfully built its capacity over time.

AIPAC picked a losing issue to spend its money on this time. But nobody in Congress is going to ignore AIPAC when it comes to thinking about the next foreign aid bill or funding for an Israeli anti-missile system. Nobody is going to refuse an invitation to its annual policy conference. Nobody did any of these things after previous defeats to American presidents on specific issues.

Where AIPAC might be constrained is the growth of other Jewish advocacy organizations making claims on the community’s resources and representation and intensifying divisions within the community at large. The fight over the Iran deal might represent an example of how this process play out, but it’s not a cause of it.

These divisions are related not just to expanding fractures in the community across religious, denominational, political, and generational lines, but also due to changes in Israel itself. The community’s once-famous ability to mobilize in support of Israel during moments of crisis is declining as individuals and specialized organizations now donate to and work on behalf of specific social, religious, or political issues in Israel that fit with their narrow mandates.

This is a long term process. We need more time, and more political fights, before the outcome becomes clear.

On Liberal Zionism

At Haaretz I recently argued that public laments over liberal Zionism—that it’s “dead,” at a “crossroads,” or simply untenable—were oriented around prominent male commentators writing in prominent American publications. I noted this has the effect of dismissing or neglecting others, particularly but not only women, who write on the topic elsewhere. This is a follow-up post, in which I point out some of these other writers. I don’t agree with all of them (in fact I often disagree), but many of them are much more well-versed in Israeli and Jewish history than some of the commentators driving the conversation. And if the conversation is to be genuine, then it needs to account for other serious writers.

Certainly there are others out there. But just because one writes on Israel and on Jewish politics doesn’t mean one understands Israel and Jewish politics.

I don’t think all of those listed below would call themselves liberal Zionists, or advocate all of the positions we typically associate with liberal Zionism; but they all have things to say about the issue that are worth reading.

In no particular order:

Mira Sucharov. A Canadian professor, Mira has a blog at Haaretz. She often explores the difficult choices and trade-offs liberal Zionists in the diaspora have to face.

Dahlia Scheindlin. Dahlia is an Israeli political analyst and consultant. In addition to her other important work, read her to track changing attitudes among the Israeli left toward the two-state solution.

Noam Sheizaf. Noam is an Israeli journalist and analyst. He explores similar issues as Dahlia, but has moved further away from the main tenets of liberal Zionism as necessarily structuring solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and illiberalism in Israel.

Rebecca Steinfeld. Rebecca has been challenging liberal Zionists on the dual nature of their commitments long before the people I mentioned in my Haaretz piece.

Joel Braunold. A longtime participant in Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution efforts, Joel raises important questions about the diaspora-Israel relationship.

Dov Waxman. Among other topics, Dov writes on the U.S. Jewish community’s politics, particularly the place of Israel there.

The folks at Molad. Molad is a recently-established think tank in Israel, with a focus on rejuvenating both the Israeli left and Israeli democracy. Because it’s comprised mostly of the religious left, it disproves the notion that religion and secular democracy are not compatible in Israel.

Sarah Posner. Sarah writes on developments in the American Jewish community, which are useful for tracking changes in its religious and political trajectories.

Shmuel Rosner. An Israeli political commentator, Shmuel writes about both Israeli politics and the diaspora-Israel relationship. He’s a frequent critic of others who write on these topics.

Putting Kerry’s Comments into Context

John Kerry’s use of the a-word (“apartheid”) to warn what Israel might become if a peace agreement establishing two states is not implemented soon has, unsurprisingly, ignited a firestorm from Israeli politicians (though, interestingly, Benjamin Netanyahu has remained quiet) and several American Jewish organizations.

It’s true that this kind of rhetoric really only serves to stoke the flames of intransigence and anger at a delicate moment in the effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. (I actually think the under-reported story here is the diminished ability of leaders to talk openly amongst themselves.) But while I share Kerry’s concerns for the future of Israel, I’m not sure that the argument that Israeli leaders have used the same term to issue similar warnings of what will happen without peace is as strong as it first appears.

It’s to be expected that citizens of one country can say things about their state that is more problematic coming from the leaders of a close ally. It’s considered bad form, particularly when it’s such a sensitive issue and a loaded term—and even more when it’s said to third parties.

This isn’t unique to Israel: Canadians are sometimes very belligerent about Quebec separatism, but Washington doesn’t say much at all about the issue except to support the national government’s position. Similarly, the White House has largely remained silent regarding the Turkish government’s suppression of Turks’ individual and political freedoms. While the West Bank isn’t part of sovereign Israel, and therefore falls into the category of foreign affairs, it’s still closely tied to Jerusalem’s domestic politics.

Having said that, some of the criticism of Kerry—for example, that he should resign, that he’s not “pro-Israel” (whatever that means)—is over the top. The big takeaway here, I think, is that the taboo in the United States of using apartheid to describe a future Israel that maintains legal, political, and military control over the West Bank has been broken. Israelis long ago got over that taboo (which isn’t to say they like the term), but it’s natural that it took time to break down here. Kerry’s comment might just be—for good or bad—the beginning of a new conversation on Israel in Washington.

Bring J Street In

Theodore Sasson is right that while the Conference of Presidents has, in recent years, ceased being the consensus institution it was created to be, admitting J Street as a member-organization is the appropriate thing to do.

J Street’s inclusion will contribute to the Conference’s claim to represent American Jewry—all of the big national organizations are already members (the ADL, AJC, AIPAC, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish Federations of North America). In addition, leaving J Street out of the communal tent because some consider it too partisan and left-wing ignores the fact that there are already several highly partisan member-groups from both ends of the spectrum (American Friends of Likud, the ZOA, JINSA, Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now).

But there’s another, more instrumental, reason to bring J Street in: it will bring its lobbying machine with it. J Street has close ties to the Democratic Party, including President Obama. Although far-right partisans have tried to tie being pro-Israel with being Republican, it’s a highly problematic and misleading equation. Nor is it an effective way to maintain the ability to advocate in a political system comprised of parties on both the right and the left. J Street also has a large, committed, and active grassroots organization that can be mobilized for advocacy efforts.

As a side note, that grassroots base would provide more legitimacy to the Conference since it incorporates a much larger portion of the Jewish community than some of the other organizations that are already members.

Communal consensus has broken down within the US Jewish community along political, religious, and ideological lines. Excluding J Street with only help harden those divisions, but including it will go some way to helping overcome them.

Some Implications of the Geneva Deal

An interim deal between the P5+1 powers and Iran has just been signed. There is certainly a lot to talk about, but here are some implications for Israel and the American Jewish community.

1. From Israel’s perspective, there are some pretty big holes in the agreement. But that was to be expected: it’s an interim deal only, and could not have addressed all the big issues. The question that Jerusalem will be thinking about for the next six to 12 months is whether it’s a genuinely strong foundation for a final deal, or whether it’s just a façade for Iran to build a nuclear bomb.

2. Given these holes, what does this say about Washington’s commitment to Israeli security? I don’t expect the American-Israeli relationship to stumble or collapse. It’s simply too strong, rooted in too many areas (public opinion, shared interests, strategic cooperation, and more) to fall apart over this single issue.

Nor is there anywhere else Israel can turn for military aid or diplomatic cover. The notion that France could ever have replaced the United States was simply silly; not only are those ties not as intense, but you cannot replace the genuinely special relationship between the U.S. and Israel overnight with a country that is as interested in building ties with Iran as it might be in building them with Israel. And Israeli politics and society is oriented toward the United States, and has been for a long time; shifting such attitudes isn’t easy.

3. It’s unclear how Israel will react in concrete terms to the deal. The choice is between sitting back and letting the deal take its course, with some independent monitoring of the Iranian nuclear program; or continuing to take action against it, through covert means. It’s not an easy choice—doing the latter could prompt Iran to end up pulling out of the agreement, leaving Israel to blame and further isolating it in the international community on this issue.

4. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu handled the process leading up the Iran deal badly. In Raphael Ahren’s terms, he gambled and lost. He was belligerent and condescending; he threatened; and he directly called on both Congress and the U.S. Jewish community to fight against their president’s policy because he, Bibi, told them it was wrong.

It’s not clear he would have gotten much better terms, but he would have been more intimately involved in the process, demonstrated Israel is a responsible actor on an issue of critical importance, and been in a stronger position to make demands in the aftermath of the deal. He also would likely have garnered more sympathy for Israel’s position. It’s not that he cried wolf too often, but rather that he did it so belligerently and derisively, even hysterically. He doesn’t care that others started to roll their eyes by the end, but it is a problem if they start to think Israel isn’t being constructive but just obstructive; then it gets shut out of the process. This is important as Iran is now seen as a full partner in this process, rather than just the enemy against which sanctions and threats had to be applied.

Still, Bibi should be content that at least one part of his strategy paid off. It seems clear that without the severe economic sanctions and believable threat of military action, Iran wouldn’t have come to the table. Bibi can build on these in the time leading up to negotiations over a final deal.

5. Don’t expect this to change Israel’s domestic political conditions. Israelis might not be happy with a deal, but plenty of analysts and security officials have said it’s a good deal to begin with; it’s not at all clear that Israelis would vote Bibi out on this issue alone; and there’s still no serious challenger to him and to Likud. And there’s still some time to go before the consequences of the deal will be known and before the outcome of bargaining over a final deal; lots can happen in Israel between now and then to change Israelis’ minds one way or the other. That said, Bibi would be coming up on his fourth term—which would be unprecedented. It’s just as likely that he decision to step down before then or to lose an election would be the result of too much time at the top, rather than Iran.

6. Expect Israel to take a harder line in talks with the Palestinians. Bibi is angry and frustrated with Obama, and already thinks he’s been ignoring Israel’s concerns. It’s not that Bibi will stop the talks, but that he’s likely to become more intransigent.

7. Israel’s and AIPAC’s failure to change President Barack Obama’s mind on the negotiations underlines what serious observers of Jewish lobbying have long know: that the ability to “win” is conditioned by several factors, including external conditions and the determination of the president. Congress has always been more open to AIPAC’s (and other groups’) advocacy; but because Congress’s role in foreign policy is limited, so, too, is the ability to change the president’s mind when he is set on something. The Iran deal and the failure to get Congress to vote yes on Syria strikes are some good recent case studies to use in discussions of how American policy toward the Middle East gets made.

8. On the dynamics in Jewish advocacy more generally: The political polarization of the last several years hasn’t diminished, and that has made it easier for groups on the left and on the right to fight against each other, putting the big centrist groups in the difficult position of trying to maintain a balance between them. But I think the far-right groups (like the Zionist Organization of America and the Emergency Committee for Israel) will be weaker for it. Their loud and ultimately futile opposition to much of the Obama Administration’s agenda has demonstrated that while they get notice (see how often their claims are cited in news accounts), they don’t get results. The big question is whether groups like AIPAC and the ADL will recognize this and adjust their tactics accordingly. The evidence isn’t clear at this point. But like Bibi, they will have much to reflect on in the coming months.

Samantha Power and Israel On The Hill

Over at Open Zion I made a few comments about Samantha Power’s performance during her Senate confirmation hearing. I thought that overall she gave intelligent, honest answers, with some avoidance of certain issues–but hey, it’s an opportunity for Senators to grandstand more than anything else! Still, there was some serious discussion, and that’s a good thing:

I don’t know Samantha Power personally, but I’ve followed much of her work; I’ve used her seminal book A Problem from Hell in my university courses. Based on what I’ve read, her performance in the hearing, and everything that’s been written about her passion, sense of moral responsibility, and awareness of the constrains of actual policymaking, I’m not worried she’ll “throw Israel under the bus” (to use Mitt Romney’s favorite term), nor do I think she’ll give up American sovereignty in order to be ruled by the United Nations.

Follow the link for more.

Some Thoughts on the EU Decision to Separate Israel from the West Bank

Barak Ravid has a blockbuster story in Haaretz: The European Union will now require all its member states to forbid “any funding, cooperation, awarding of scholarships, research funds or prizes to anyone residing in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” Even more importantly, the guidelines declare that “any agreement or contract signed by an EU country with Israel include a clause stating that the settlements are not part of the State of Israel and therefore are not part of the agreement.” (Some reports suggest the guidelines will also apply to the Golan Heights.)

In other words, the EU will now explicitly distinguish between Israel and the occupied West Bank; and if Israel wants to continue doing any business with the supra-national organization, it will have to admit to this division and lay the groundwork for a genuine separation of sovereignty.

The details of the guidelines have yet to be published, and Israel’s response could change things a little, too. But it’s hard to imagine the EU throwing out its new directives now. It seems to be something Israel will have to accept and adapt to. Here are some quick thoughts, then, on the implications of the EU decision.

1. It’s another signal that the international community is fed up with simply noting the Israeli occupation, and is taking concrete political, economic, and legal action to try and end it. (See also: Palestinian statehood efforts at the United Nations.) Unless Israel wants to be like North Korea, it will have to start recognizing and abiding by these changes.

2. Given that the European Union is Israel’s largest trading partner, Israel will have no choice but to comply with the guidelines—that is, it will have to admit, in legally binding contracts, that the West Bank don’t belong to Israel and will be excluded from the economic transactions. This builds the foundation for continued international efforts to separate Israel from the West Bank.

3. It’s hard to know exact figures when it comes to the place of settlement products in Israeli trade—one estimate put exports from the settlements to the EU at only about 2% of the overall trading relationship. That still adds up to $300 million; the loss isn’t something to sneeze at. The shortfall will have to be made up, either by increasing trade with other actors or by Israeli government subsidies. This, in turn, will have a negative effect on the government budget, which is already in dire straits, forcing Jerusalem to confront some serious financial and budgetary discrepancies.

4. I don’t think this was part of the EU’s intention, but an EU boycott of the settlements will probably energize the BDS movement—which seeks to isolate Israel (not just the settlements) in all of the areas covered by the new guidelines.

5. Paradoxically, at the same time the EU boycott of settlements might energize domestic forces in Israel and American Jewish or other external groups fighting against the occupation. Ravid quotes EU officials as noting that part of the motivation behind the exclusion of settlements is “to be sure that Israel’s participation is not put in question”—in other words, to make sure that Israel is not boycotted or excluded. The EU’s separation of the West Bank from Israel could be used as proof that the settlements are an albatross around Jerusalem’s neck, but that the country itself isn’t in danger just because others oppose the settlements.

6. Also on the Israeli domestic front, the EU decision might galvanize politicians and parties already predisposed to view the settlements as a major political problem. Yesh Atid’s leader Yair Lapid has already said that the decision “will enhance Israel’s isolation” and that time isn’t on Israel’s side. They may be more willing to take a more active position against the settlement enterprise, and in doing so add further pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a serious effort to restart peace talks with the Palestinians. Similarly, it might breathe new life into the recent efforts by the Labor Party and Meretz to use the occupation as a stick with which to beat the government.

Update: Damien Cristofari, an EU official dealing with the Middle East, tweeted that the directives apply only to EU-funded programs, and won’t affect bilateral agreements between member states and Israel.

Update 2: The EU guidelines are now publicly available. See here.