AIPAC still a force but cracks are showing

AIPAC still a force but cracks are showing
Analysis: AIPAC's is America's biggest lobby conference and a formidable show of strength. But the pro-Israel group is aligning more and more with the American far right and it's influence may be peaking.
5 min read
02 March, 2015
AIPAC is still a force. But aligning with the American far right might backfire (Anadolu)

Every March, year on year, decade after decade, Washington, DC, gets to host possibly the largest political gathering of its kind, the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).


According to Stephanie Butnick of the American Jewish publication, Tablet Magazine, the conference “is the Jewish equivalent of the Oscars or the Grammys – the buzzy annual event that everyone talks about before it happens and gossips about afterward."


     I’m praying that this time... AIPAC is careening towards its own demise.

– Medea Benjamin

But unlike years past, this year's conference, which began Sunday and will end Tuesday, is marred in controversy. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, aided and abetted by Congressional Republicans, has insisted on speaking before a joint session of Congress while attending the AIPAC conference in an apparent all-out effort to undermine US President Barack Obama and his administration’s efforts to reach a deal with Iran regarding its nuclear programme.


All indications are that AIPAC is really annoyed that Netanyahu is giving a speech before a joint session of Congress, and in fact tried to advise Netanyahu against such a misadventure. They may be a bit wary of having had their yearly conference in Washington overlap with tensions between the Obama administration and Netanyahu almost invariably instigated by the obdurate Israeli prime mister who has dogged Obama since his first day in the White House and until now.  

Formidable as ever?

On the face of it, AIPAC looks as formidable as ever, with 14,000 delegates – or so it claims – making the pilgrimage to the Washington Convention Center, the site of its annual conference, barely a mile from the Halls of Congress where it wields much influence and extorts affection. Already, the pilgrims, Republicans and Democrats, incumbents and hopefuls, politicians, think-tankers, journalists and plain folks have arrived at AIPAC's altar showering the organization with accolades in pursuit of favours.


Almost all 54 Republican members of the Senate, and a majority of the remaining forty six Democratic members, along with almost all Republican and Democratic members of the House will make some sort of offering before AIPAC by the time the conference ends.

To set the tone, Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, a fervent pro-Israeli, told AIPACers on Sunday that he will introduce new legislation this week to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. He promised a boisterous crowd that, "There’s gonna’ be legislation introduced this week concerning BDS."


According to Cardin, who vehemently defended Israel's right to wage a slaughter in Gaza last summer, "Israel is isolated internationally, we know that… Look at the UN votes. Look at how they’re discriminated against. When you have a boycott, divestment and sanctions movement you’re discriminating against Israel, and the United States should take a stance to make sure other countries that want trade agreements with the United States do not participate in BDS against Israel. And that’s what this legislation will do, and we need your help."


Not to be outdone hawkish Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who joined Cardin on stage, said the BDS legislation is important to put "countries on notice”.

He told the AIPAC participants that in his capacity as chairman of the foreign relations subcommittee on appropriations, he has issued a warning to the United Nations regarding its continued tolerance of anti-Semitism in Europe.


“All the money that goes to support the UN, and the State Department, and Palestinians, and every other ally and enemy we have in the world comes through my committee. I promise you as chairman of the subcommittee, I will put the United Nations on notice. If they continue to marginalize, to delegitimize and accept the anti-Semitism that’s running rampant through Europe, we’re gonna’ cut their money off too."


Both Joe Biden, the US vice-president, and Secretary of State John Kerry ensured that they would not attend AIPAC by being out of the country. But AIPAC has also managed to exert enough pressure on the White House for the administration to send high-level representatives. Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, and National Security Adviser Susan Rice – who said in a television interview last Wednesday night that Netanyahu’s decision to carry through with the speech before Congress is "destructive" to the US-Israel relationship – will both attend.

Times are a'changing

So AIPAC is far from retreating and remains as boastful as ever about its influence. Its promotional literature claims that this year's policy conference reception in Washington is attended "by more members of Congress than almost any other event, except for a joint session of Congress or a State of the Union address”.


AIPAC boasts more 100,000 members, a network of 17 regional offices and a vast pool of donors. The organisation itself does not raise funds directly, but its members do, and the amount of money they channel to political candidates is difficult to track. It is enough though to keep members in their seats or have them booted out.


But there are signs that things are changing. Increasingly, AIPAC is becoming a partisan organization, adopting positions consistent not just with the Republican Party, but with the fringe Tea Party wing of the Republican Party as well as America’s Christian Right, simply because of their blind support for any Israeli policy. It doesn’t matter whether this is about the continued brutal occupation, the imposition of a horrifying apartheid system against the Palestinians, the feverish pace of illegal settlement building in the West Bank, or in opposing Obama in trying to conclude a deal on Iran's nuclear ambition. In this way, however, AIPAC finds itself increasingly at odds with the majority of Jewish Americans who are mainly Democratic, liberal and opposed to Israel's continued dehumanizing of Palestinians.


Medea Benjamin, an American Jewish author and cofounder of the liberal 'Global Exchange', describes AIPAC like this: "The bottom line is that AIPAC, which is a de facto agent for a foreign government, has influence on US policy out of all proportion to the number of Americans who support its policies. When a small group like this has disproportionate power, it hurts everyone – including Israelis and American Jews."


She adds: "From stopping a catastrophic war with Iran to finally solving the Israel/Palestine conflict, an essential starting point is breaking AIPAC’s grip on US policy. That’s why I’m praying that this time, by snubbing President Obama and offending Democratic members of Congress, AIPAC is careening towards its own demise."


There are many like Benjamin. They who may be too intimidated by AIPAC now to bring about its end. But the road ahead looks promising.