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 Iran, Don’t Just Blame Bibi

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to stop the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He just doesn’t know it yet. That’s dangerous for Israel, because it undermines Israel’s ability to react proactively to the agreement, putting the ball in Iran’s court to carry or drop.

But while observers love to blame Netanyahu for Israel’s foreign policy problems, they should also hold Israel’s Jewish opposition parties accountable for their role in Israel’s unwillingness to address the aftermath of the deal. Not only have they consistently failed to challenge Netanyahu on his foreign policies and to propose new ideas for dealing with a resurgent Iran, but they have actively supported his claims.

It’s understandable why Netanyahu holds to his position. He believes in the biblical maxim that Israel is a “nation that dwells alone,” and that the world is a hostile place for Jews and for Israel—and always will be. So the deal is only one event in a long line of iniquities the Jews have suffered their entire existence. Most members of his government share this worldview.

But we should expect Israel’s Jewish opposition parties to hold a different view; at a minimum they should at least challenge Netanyahu for political gain. While crass, this would still mean a public debate on a security issue of critical importance. Instead they have failed to put forward any alternate proposals for reacting to the agreement, compounding the government’s failures with their own.

Their silence is all the more striking given that several former and serving security officials have publicly stated that the deal, while not perfect, does contribute to Israel’s security and can serve as the core element of a broader regional strategy. Israeli public opinion is also skeptical but there are hints of tolerance for the deal. The foundation for a challenge to the prevailing mindset is there; but no-one is opening their eyes to it.

Instead they’ve hewed to Netanyahu’s line. Yair Lapid, leader of the center-right Yesh Atid party, has criticized the prime minister’s handling of the crisis, but he committed to “fighting to the last minute so that the whole world and the US Congress understand that lifting sanctions without changing the issue of inspections would be wrong.”

Avigdor Liberman, of Yisrael Beiteinu, repeated the Netanyahu line and called the deal “a total surrender to terrorism.”

Labor leader Isaac Herzog even decided to travel to Washington to convince the Obama Administration that the deal is a terrible one and should be re-negotiated. It’s hard to avoid the impression that the leader of the main opposition party is acting as Netanyahu’s personal envoy. This might be appropriate during wartime, but it’s hardly suitable as a reaction against an international treaty.

The reason for their submission is that most of them, with the exception of the leftwing Meretz, are competing for the same electorate. They think there is no room in the public’s mind for a different position on Iran.

Surveys seem to bear their concerns out. On political and security issues, 29.1 percent of the Israeli public identifies as “right,” while 20.7 percent identity as “moderate right,” 23.9 percent as “center” and only 8.3 percent as “moderate left.” Also, 45 percent of the Jewish public identifies to varying degrees with the national religious camp in Israel—the sector of the population that is more nationalist, more rightist, and more suspicious of the outside world.

The proliferation of smaller, centrist parties in 2000s and the Labor Party’s shift toward the center has intensified the competition for these voters. Given these voters’ skepticism toward the Palestinians, Obama, and most of all Iran, the parties believe they need to avoid saying anything that might be construed as positive about these issues.

Only Meretz head Zahava Gal-On has unconditionally taken Netanyahu to task. But her party is marginalized within Israeli Jewish politics. Only 7.8 percent of Israeli Jews identify as “left” and therefore would be likely supporters. In the 2015 election Meretz received only 3.93 percent of the vote, barely above the 3.25 percent threshold for entry into the Knesset. She is considered naïve on foreign policy, too.

But looking at surveys tells only one part of the story. A broader view suggests that there is space to present different ideas. Historically, on major issues of security and peace, the Israeli public has followed its leaders. Even when polls indicate Israelis oppose a particular policy, once the government decides to pursue it, support increases—particularly when the prime ministers works to sell it.

This was true of the Yitzhak Rabin’s Oslo Accords and the major concessions it entailed to the Palestine Liberation Organization, and it was true of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza.

This “follow the leader” position stems from the country’s history. Its precarious security situation for the first two decades of its existence facilitated a trust in and tolerance for secretive government decisions, without public debate. While that has diminished over time, Israelis have retained their sense that government decisions necessarily should be supported in major security decisions outside of war. Israel’s wars have, since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, increasingly been challenged by its citizens.

With Israel’s Jewish opposition parties accepting Netanyahu’s limits on the terms of the public debate over the JCPOA, Iran is free to react as it pleases. Its ability to expand its regional activities and its influence is its own to lose. It seems most of Israel’s leaders have forgotten the ultimate purpose of Zionism: for the Jews to exert their own agency, rather than be subject to history.

Predicting the Israeli Election

Israel’s election is almost upon us. There’s been no shortage of analysis of its trends, but most of these have rightly come with the caveat that polling in Israel is subject to several methodological problems. In addition, the outcome in several past elections (e.g., 1977, 2006, 2013) has been a surprise to both analysts and pollsters in part because many people only make up their minds on the day they vote.

Bearing this in mind, Michael Koplow, Guy Ziv, and I thought it might be fun–which is not to say stake our professional reputations on it–to try to predict the vote, and then to compare our predictions. The results are interesting.

Note that voting in Israel closes the night of Tuesday, March 17. It will take an extra couple of days to count all the ballots, including those from abroad (diplomats and soldiers).

Comments welcome!

Party Michael

Koplow

 Brent

Sasley

    Guy

     Ziv

Likud     23     20       20
Zionist Union     22     24       25
Yesh Atid     15     13       13
Joint Arab List     12     13       12
Koolanu     12      9        9
Bayit Yehudi     11     13       12
United Torah Judaism      7      7        7
Shas      6      8        8
Yisrael Beiteinu      4      4        5
Meretz      4      5        5
Yachad      4      4        4
TOTAL    120    120      120

Four Questions About the Israeli Election

Less than a week to go to the Israeli election on March 17, and it’s still too early to call. I don’t think this is the election that will decide Israel’s fate, but it does appear that several trends may be converging at this moment. This means the election could leave a lasting legacy in many different areas of Israeli politics, though as usual much depends on what happens on the 17th, how the coalition bargaining plays out, and how long the next government lasts.

Here are some things we should consider regarding the aftermath of the election:

Is Avigdor Liberman, and by extension his party Yisrael Beiteinu, on his way out? There was a time when some observers argued that Liberman was not just the kingmaker, but the likely next king. That seems unlikely now; polls have him barely getting past the electoral threshold, at 5-6 seats. That’s enough to still get him into the coalition, but that’s about it—he won’t get one of the top ministries.

The drop in Liberman’s fortunes raises another interesting question. If Yisrael Beiteinu becomes a minor partner in the government, it’s possible that the next election could see the end of the party. If that happens, then we can ask whether we have seen the last of the ethnic Russian parties.

To be sure, Yisrael Beiteinu and Yisrael B’Aliyah, which is something like its predecessor, were never only Russian parties. Liberman, in particular, has been working hard to get the general secular-hawkish vote. But many Russian Israelis have still seen it as a political home. If there are no more Russian parties, this could mean the Russian community is integrated enough into broader Israeli society that there’s no need for a party that claims to represent its specific interests.

On the other end of the spectrum, this election might see the end of a viable Jewish political left. Meretz, the home for staunch Jewish liberals and doves, is polling at about 6 seats, as well—down from about 10 at the beginning of the campaign. These once-and-potential voters seem to be moving to Labor and to the centrist parties, Yesh Atid and Koolanu, while there is anecdotal evidence that many Jewish leftist intellectuals and activists intend to vote for the Joint List (the alliance between the three Arab parties).

The Jewish left has been limping along for some time now, with Meretz and Labor getting just enough seats together to remain visible, but without much ability to shape policy. That will probably be the minimum outcome after March 17, too, if Meretz doesn’t pick up more voters on election day and a Labor-led government isn’t formed to look after its interests.

Further, are we seeing the start of two new political camps in Israel: the far-right and the center? This is in contrast to the dominance of the right and the left since the late 1970s. As the electorate has started voting rightward, the leftwing parties—despite their appeal on socio-economic issues—have simply been unable to recapture momentum on security issues.

According to current survey data, the rightwing parties—I call them far-right because many of their MKs hold to maximalist land claims, promote illiberal bills in the Knesset designed to shut down differences and criticisms in Israeli society, and promote a military-oriented solution to many of Jerusalem’s foreign policy problems—are outpolling the left about 44 (Likud, Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Yachad) to 30 (Zionist Union and Meretz). The Joint List is certainly on the left, but given its exclusion from policymaking it forms another political cluster altogether.

Meanwhile, the centrist parties are polling at about 20 seats (Yesh Atid and Koolanu). At first glance that’s a significant gap between the center and the left. But the left in this case isn’t as “left” as it seems. Those 30 seats includes six for Meretz, certainly a party on the left. But it includes 24 seats for the Zionist Union, made up primarily of Labor—and Labor has turned center-left in recent years. Part of the reason is that it has dropped its effort to distinguish itself from Likud and the right on foreign policy, particularly toward the peace process. Labor still proclaims its opposition to (most) settlements, but it hardly talks about the importance of ending the occupation, withdrawing from almost all of the West Bank, and dividing Jerusalem. When the right specifically says it won’t do these things, and Labor doesn’t specifically say it will, it’s hard to argue there is a major difference between them.

On economic issues, Yesh Atid and Koolanu—the contemporary manifestations of an old trend of short-lived third parties—are saying much the same thing Labor is. There is talk about looking after citizens’ needs more effectively, but no talk of returning to Labor’s old socialist roots (for good reasons, of course). There isn’t much difference between left and center here, either, then. In short, the Jewish left is really a very small minority; the bulk of the political left occupies a centrist position on both security and social-economic issues.

The left’s weakness on security may be changing. In the past week, especially, there have been heavy attacks on Benjamin Netanyahu’s poor record on foreign and security affairs by several former military and intelligence officials. It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to convince voters.

Finally, is this a new era in Arab politics? The electoral alliance between Balad, Hadash, and Ra’am-Ta’al is unprecedented, and could well prompt a much greater Arab voter turnout than the previous two elections (56% in 2013 and 53% in 2009). Current polling gives the Joint List 12-13 seats, a sizeable bloc. It won’t join or be asked to join the government, but it can play a more important role in Knesset committees and other legislative politics. Its success might also serve to encourage greater mobilization among the Arab minority.

Still, unless this translates into policy outcomes, it’s not clear such momentum can be maintained. And to have a real effect on policy requires working with the Jewish parties. That’s possible with parties like Labor and Meretz, but it may not be easy if a Labor government includes Yesh Atid and/or Koolanu. It’s out of the question if there is a Likud-led rightist government, and it will be very difficult if there is a Labor-Likud national unity government.

Food for thought.

Labor Chooses an Electoral Slate

Israel’s Labor Party has selected its electoral list. It has provided for a strong role for women, and a concentration on social-economic issues. After party head Isaac Herzog, in second place is Shelly Yacimovich; in third is Stav Shaffir; in fourth is Itzik Shmuli; and in ninth is Merav Michaeli. The slate will be combined with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, and Livni herself will be in second place on the joint list.

A few thoughts on what the results might mean for the election:

It’s a bit weak on security and foreign policy issues. In sixth place is Omer Bar-Lev, who has considerable experience in both. But I am not sure he commands the wide respect other prominent former military and intelligence leaders have in order to make up for the death of security people on the list. The twelfth spot is reserved for a candidate of Herzog’s choice, so the person appointed there could bolster the party’s security credentials. Combined with Livni’s obvious focus on the peace process, it could provide a strong basis on which to assert a foreign policy message.

But with no foreign policy crisis on the agenda, and economic issues continuing to be of great concern to Israelis, at this point it is likely that social justice, rather than foreign policy issues, will be the core issue of the campaign. The prominent role of women on the list will also enhance Labor’s claims to better represent Israeli society. These are Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud’s weaknesses, and Labor could hammer at them on these domestic issues.

That said, in 2013 Labor also had an electoral list strong on social and economic issues. But several other factors intervened to prevent Labor from taking full advantage of it. This included a general suspicion among voters that the left is naïve and irresponsible on security issues; the appearance of Livni and Yesh Atid, who fought for the same leftwing and centrist votes; a surge of support for Bayit Yehudi; and a shift away from what has become its traditional policy issue—the peace process. A crowded political field is bad for Labor.

All of these factors remain in place today. Though Livni is now tied to Labor, the center is still crowded: Despite a drop in the polls, Yesh Atid is still around; Koolanu has appeared as the new Yesh Atid; and even Avigdor Liberman has been reimagining his image as a centrist. Bayit Yehudi is continuing to poll better than its 2013 showing, and is still making an intense play for non-religious Zionist votes. And, as mentioned above, Labor is still a bit weak on security issues, while Herzog hasn’t been able—or willing—to craft a simple and consistent message about the peace process or the occupation that is all that different from Likud’s position.

That brings us back to foreign policy. It’s possible Herzog will let Livni talk up security in the form of peace talks while he focuses on social justice. But Israeli leaders don’t compartmentalize well; they normally like to retain ultimate control over events. That Livni is seen as a political equal to Herzog, while Herzog doesn’t exhibit the same high level of ego most Israeli politicians do, might mean they could pull it off. In addition, they could combine their messages: Problems in the relationships with Europe and, to a lesser extent, with the United States could be tied to social and economic issues through the effects of Israel’s presence in the West Bank, while spending on housing and security in the West Bank could also be tied to problems in government development of cities, towns, and regions within the Green Line.

It’s still a long way to the end of the election campaign, and lots can—and probably will—happen before March 17. It’s become a cliché to say that we cannot predict anything about the Israeli election, and that’s true. But identifying trends during the campaign is useful, and can tell us something about Israeli political parties and the contours of its politics.

Defining Zionism in the Aftermath of Charlie Hebdo

The attacks on French Jews in the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo have clear implications for the Zionist project, and they should spark a bigger, broader transnational conversation on what Zionism means and entails in the era of Jewish statehood, power, and normality (in the classic Zionist sense).

Some have pointed out such a conversation is already taking place in Israel, and indeed has been since 1948. To the extent that (some) Israelis have debated the laws and borders of the Israeli state, I agree, though I’m not sure the fundamentals have been addressed. It’s also true that other efforts to figure out how to define Zionism and diaspora-Israel relations have been taking place that do incorporate non-Israelis. The Jewish People Policy Institute is one good example. Another is the effort by several leftwing diaspora organizations to form a bloc at the World Zionist Congress in order to promote a more critical discussion and reinvigorate global Zionist organizations. (Specific moments when the diaspora has mobilized against a particular Israeli policy, for example regarding “who is a Jew” or a Jewish nation-state bill, are more like exceptions rather than the rule.)

Still, the calls by many on the political right for French Jews to return “home” to Israel indicates a lack of interest in recognizing that the conditions that led to the emergence of Zionism have changed.

The assumption that Jews as a people cannot live anywhere else contains an implicit (and worrying, because of its political implications) eschatological element. Not in the Christian dispensationalist sense but in the underlying notion that Jews—as a national community, an important but not exclusive element of which includes the religion of Judaism—must live only in the Land of Israel. The idea that a group of people can only exist in one place for both spiritual and material reasons—and those who call for diaspora Jews to come “home” do indeed see the two as indistinguishable—displays a religious-like imperative that means the social construction that is human history is irrelevant compared to larger forces beyond our control.

There is nothing inherently unique about the Jewish people’s attachment to a particular piece of territory. Many national communities maintain a similar connection. Their history, collective memories, narratives, and myths center on a particular land. Yet the movement of people around the world is also longstanding. Particularly in an age of advanced technology that allows people to travel and communicate quickly, easily, and cheaply, the idea that one must “return” to a live in a particular territory because that is their “home” is unrealistic.

Such an assumption also ignores the historical and contemporary fact that states are never “finished”—they are constantly in a process of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. There are the obvious cases: we once thought Czechoslovakia was a completed state project. But more common are the less stark changes: domestic shifts in population make-up, identity, and public policy. The discussion on internal borders and political autonomy taking place in many states (e.g., Canada, Britain, Spain, Belgium, Iraq, and Turkey) is a good example of this. These are the questions that deserve attention.

At its emergence, Zionism was perceived by its leaders and adherents as a movement of no or little choice. Anti-Semitic persecution required a safe haven. At the same time, the belief that the Jews could never be a normal people so long as they lived among host societies and didn’t have their own state meant that national redemption was a necessary process, not an optional one.

An effective conversation about Zionism can only begin if participants recognize that things have changed over time. While the events in France reinforce for some the notion that they haven’t, this is a misunderstanding of world, Jewish, and Israeli history.

The Zionist project has largely been completed—Israel as a Jewish state exists, is among the more prosperous and powerful in the world, and is a focal point of pride among Jews around the world. Obviously there are details to be worked out, and challenges to be faced; but the basic goal of Zionism has been met. This should be the starting point for the conversation, rather than an assumption that it hasn’t.

About the New NGO Bill

Far-right members of the Israeli government are planning to submit a bill that requires any Israeli NGO receiving funds from foreign governments to register as a foreign agent. The bill would require, as Lahav Harkov explains, groups

to report any aid they receive from countries overseas and any commitments they have to them, as well as any “foreign activity” they conduct or plan to conduct, and any communication relating to the activity and commitments, among other details, all of which will be accessible to the public, with exceptions like national security or professional secrets.

In short, organizations will have to spend considerable time wasting engaged in reporting their activities and meeting the government’s approval, and will be unable to keep their discussions and planning out of the public eye. The bill will also limit the ability of Israeli NGOs to raise funds abroad. All this while Israel’s existing Amutot Law (Law of Associations) is already more intrusive than comparable laws in other countries. In Israel, NGOs are subject to the supervision of the state, which sets out rules for things like membership and board requirements. An NGO also cannot be formed or maintained if “any of its objects negates the existence or democratic character of the State of Israel.”

Let’s put aside the point that a mature democracy can handle criticism and even calls for new political arrangements. Some have argued that because the bill is modeled on an American version, it’s really nothing so drastic and is well within Western political norms.

The problem with this argument is that it completely ignores context. It’s disingenuous to pretend this isn’t about shutting down criticism from left-wing groups and defining acceptable political discourse. A glance at those sponsoring the bill (and the rhetoric they regularly employ against those they disagree with) should make this obvious enough.

A second argument is that because many leftist NGOs receive funding from European governments and European institutions, and because they often cooperate with outside agencies or organizations to provide information on the Israeli occupation, they are, in effect, foreign agents and undermining the interests of the State of Israel.

But it should also be obvious that it’s acceptable for domestic groups to perform watchdog duties on the government, particularly when government policy has clear moral and physical consequences for Israelis and for others. Indeed, this kind of accountability and citizen participation should be encouraged. There is no indication that Israel is weakened because Israeli organizations want to end the occupation, or even call for the prosecution of Israeli soldiers; indeed, Israel has never been more accepted into world affairs through economic integration and participation in political institutions. Nor has there ever been evidence that European entities control or direct the activities of Israeli NGOs.

An argument might be made that groups focused on the Arab community and Arab political demands undermine the “Jewish and democratic nature of the state.” But a close look at the politics of the Arab minority indicates that the demands most worrisome to rightist politicians (changing the Jewish state into a “state for all its citizens”) occurs primarily at the level of the political and intellectual leadership, not in the community more broadly. These demands are also predicated on the decades of marginalization and discrimination the Arab community has faced. Addressing these underlying conditions would do far more to engender acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state than coercive measures. Finally, since comparisons to the West are common, it should be noted that Canada’s political system has for a long time included a party devoted to breaking up the country–the Bloc Québécois–while other Western democracies have their own legitimate separatist movements. In any event, Arab-oriented NGOs are primarily engaged in protecting and expanding the civil and communal rights of Arab citizens.

Finally, regarding context, comparisons to the U.S. law are misleading. American non-profits and NGOs have a very large source of potential funding to draw on—the American people. The Israeli population is much smaller, and there is no history or norm of widespread giving to support NGOs or other similar institutions. This makes it difficult for any NGO to rely on domestic sources for funding.

This connects back to the first point about the bill serving as a vehicle for shutting down left-wing activity, rather than being applicable to all Israeli groups. In theory, legally, of course, the bill doesn’t distinguish between left and right. But it does in practice: most right-wing NGOs get their funding from private sources abroad, rather than public sources. Leftist groups get much of their support from public rather than private sources. So the bill’s effect is designed to apply primarily to certain organizations only.

It’s hard, then, to avoid the conclusion that this is another effort—in a long line of efforts stretching back to the second Netanyahu government—to define Zionism, patriotism, and loyalty very narrowly.