Monday, March 5, 2018

AIPAC Has An Obama Problem, Not A Progressive One

In his remarks at the 2018 AIPAC opening plenary, President Mort Fridman appealed to progressives to be "partners" in the project of supporting Israel. Emphasizing the important of bipartisan support for Israel, Fridman noted the forces "trying to pull [progressives] out of this hall" and cautioned "we cannot let that happen." While AIPAC is right to court progressives, its real problem lies in the antagonizing of former President Obama and his supporters.

AIPAC's conservative streak is well-documented. Since 2008 it has courted the Evangelical right, minimized the impacts of settlement expansion, and emphasized the defense aspects of Israel's relationship with the United States over other elements of the relationship. 

Policy streaks are not problematic for AIPAC. Opinions are easily shifted in a city dominated by 24 hour news cycles. For example, in 2009, AIPAC supported the idea that the 1967 lines were "indefensible." A year later it showed a map of Israel with these same lines drawn in as temporary borders. Lobbyist groups change positions all the time, and AIPAC would not be doing anything radically different were it now to tack toward the left. AIPAC could also point out its historical support for progressive values. It has consistently emphasized Israel's democratic government and supports the two-state solution, a point which Executive Director Howard Kohr reiterated yesterday to the chagrin of the settler movement. AIPAC features democrats during its plenaries and in its breakout sessions, hosts young progressive leaders, and historically tries to tack toward the center of US politics. Its ability to capture the center-left in the future based on policy shifts should not be in doubt.

AIPAC's real problem is not its policies per se but lingering progressive resentment over its constant opposition to Barak Obama as a political figure. While AIPAC has not been radically right-wing from a US politics perspective, it stonewalled the Obama administration's major Middle East policy initiatives at almost every opportunity (Iron Dome funding and the 2016 MoU are notable exceptions). Most notable, AIPAC opposed the administration's 2009 call for a temporary settlement freeze, and the Iran nuclear agreement. In both cases AIPAC made a point of directly and publicly attacking these policies. In 2009 it hosted speaker after speaker at its annual conference who called the 1967 lines "indefensible." In 2015 it spent $1.67 million in a bid to kill the Iran nuclear deal while making ridiculous assertions like the deal would "pave a path to war."

While progressives may not remember policy talking points from AIPAC conferences in years past, they will long remember AIPAC's opposition to President Obama. Many resent AIPAC for airing its disagreements with the Obama administration in such a confrontational way. Rather than framing these disagreements as policy discussions, AIPAC called into question whether the Obama administration was pro-Israel at all. It picked open fights with the US administration while aligning consistently with Israel's more conservative government. Now it is asking the same people whom it alienated to join forces without acknowledging its own role in causing cleavages in the first place.

AIPAC took a substantial risk in directly and publicly opposing an administration which consistently had the majority support of the US Jewish community. It is now paying the price for doing so.