With the crisis in Ukraine eclipsing the rest of the international news, you’d never know that the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) unfolded in Washington this week. That’s bad news for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose latest warnings about the imminent Iranian nuclear bomb—a bomb that’s been “imminent” since the 1990s—went mostly unheard. But it’s also bad news for President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who are planning to unveil their plan for a framework for a two-state solution. Obama met with Netanyahu, of course, and later this month he’ll meet with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.
The big problem for AIPAC, of course, is that they spent all their political capital earlier this year, in vain, trying to impose new sanctions on Iran. Those sanctions would have destroyed the US-Iran talks with the P5+1 and wrecked the chances of a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. It’s not often that AIPAC loses so badly, but lose they did, and it didn’t win them any favors with the Obama administration. They’re still worried about Iran, of course, but with the Obama-Kerry plan about to be unveiled, AIPAC has to refocus on its core issue, namely, Israel and the Palestinians. As the Jewish Telegraph Agency put it, "in the wake of battles over Iran sanctions legislation that pitted the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse against the White House, many congressional Democrats and liberals more generally, AIPAC’s traditional emphasis on Israel as a bipartisan issue has taken on added urgency.
But AIPAC itself is split, and it’s being challenged from the left by groups such as J Street and from the right by ultra-hardliners such as the Republican Jewish Coalition and its patron, Sheldon Adelson. In addition, there’s a new move afoot to create yet another pro-Israel organization, on the far right, that would explicitly oppose a two-state solution of any kind. As reported by the Jerusalem Post, one of its would-be founders expressed the purpose this way:
J Street supports a state of all its citizens, and AIPAC supports a two-state solution…. This has created a situation in which those of us who think that the establishment of a Palestinian state would be a disaster have no way to express this, and there is no organization that will communicate our protestations to the administration in Washington.
That sort of fragmentation can only further weaken both AIPAC and the Israel lobby more broadly. Politico, noting the splits within and about AIPAC, wrote:
As President Barack Obama pushes forward on both an Israeli-Palestinian peace process framework and negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program…there’s an active effort among more liberal groups to show that the changing politics in the American Jewish community mean that AIPAC’s positions represent fewer and fewer people, and should be getting less and less attention.
Indeed, neither Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden bothered to speak to AIPAC, and not because of Ukraine, either. They’d decided to pass it up earlier, though Kerry did make an appearance. Kerry filled his speech with the typical boilerplate about US-Israel ties, but he also strongly defended the talks with Iran, something that the Tehran Times picked up on, under the headline: “Kerry voices support for diplomacy with Iran.” Reported the Tehran Times:
“Those who say strike and hit need to check what might happen after we do that,” Kerry said at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington. “Only strong diplomacy can justify more forceful options if we will have to use them.”
Kerry added, according to the text of his speech, “Let’s seize the diplomatic moment.”
In his speech to AIPAC, Netanyahu didn’t spend a lot of time on Iran, and instead talked a great deal about Israel itself, denouncing the movement to boycott Israel and defending the state’s character. But in J Street's report on Netanyahu’s address, the organization chose to emphasize the positive parts of his remarks. Here’s part of J Street’s news release:
Pledging to work with the US and the Palestinians to “forge a durable peace” based on “mutual recognition,” the prime minister declared, “Peace would be good for us. Peace would be good for the Palestinians” and peace would “catapult the entire region forward.”
Netanyahu acknowledged that “many Arab leaders today already realize that Israel is not their enemy, that peace with the Palestinians would turn our relations with them and with many Arab countries into open and thriving relationships.”
Of course, peace is hardly breaking out in Palestine, and in his meeting with President Obama—where the president, it turns out, had to address Ukraine, too—Netanyahu reverted to his old shibboleths about Palestinian “incitement” against Israel. In a Jerusalem Post article on the Netanyahu-Obama meeting, headlined, “Obama gets lecture on peace talks from Netanyahu in White House meeting,” the Post reported:
“Israel has been doing its part, and I regret to say that the Palestinians haven’t,” Netanyahu said to Obama, in front of the press. “The people of Israel know that it’s the case.”
“What we want is peace—not a piece of paper,” he said. Netanyahu called for a “real peace…based on mutual recognition,” and chided his Palestinian counterparts for promoting “incessant violence” against the Jewish state. “Israel, the Jewish state, is the realization of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination,” Netanyahu said. “I think it’s about time they recognized a nation state for the Jewish people. We’ve only been here for about 4,000 years.”
Actually, it’s more like six decades.
AIPAC is coming in for a lot of criticism these days, including from Peter Beinart and John Judis. The problem that the organization has faced since at least the 1990s, and especially during the administration of George W. Bush, is that it found itself caught between extremes. For years, AIPAC thrived on a kind of traditional bipartisanship, in which it generated nearly equal support from Democrats and Republicans—or even, slightly more Democratic support—and struck a balance between Israel’s liberal left-Zionist establishment and the far-right Likud and that party’s even more rightwing allies. But in a Washington so polarized now, with Republicans out to wreck Obama’s foreign policy whatever he does—even if it means sabotaging the Iran talks and scuttling an Israel-Palestinian accord—AIPAC faces an exceedingly difficult choice. Were it to choose to support the GOP and its wrecking-ball approach on Iran, it would lose any shred of bipartisan balance, and that could cost it dearly. But, at the same time, it will struggle to align with Netanyahu, especially if the Israel government resists what Obama and Kerry propose for a solution.