When thousands of pro-Israel activists from across the country swarm the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, energized and armed with talking points after two days of attending the annual pep rally/policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), they will surely be met with a warm welcome. They will stride through the open doors of congressional offices expecting to find an attentive, sympathetic audience. And with good reason: when it comes to pro-Israel lobbying, AIPAC is second to none.
What began as just a one-man operation back in the 1950s (when AIPAC was called the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs) has grown over the decades into the behemoth of pro-Israel lobby groups.
While AIPAC’s critics often exaggerate its actual impact on U.S. policymaking – falsely blaming it, for instance, for the U.S. invasion of Iraq and for the failure of the U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace process – AIPAC’s influence in American politics, especially in Congress, is indisputable (only the National Rifle Association has a more fearsome reputation).
This influence is not simply “all about the Benjamins” as Rep. Ilhan Omar recently suggested in one of her highly controversial tweets. Money is only part of the reason why AIPAC is influential.
Make no mistake. AIPAC does spend a lot of money on lobbying, more than $3.5 million in 2018, which was much more than any other pro-Israel organization but a lot less than many other lobby groups. AIPAC also has unofficial ties with a large network of pro-Israel political action committees. Legally, AIPAC cannot give money to politicians or publicly endorse them, but it does send clear signals about who should receive political donations and who shouldn’t. AIPAC’s board also includes major fundraisers and donors to both political parties, which means that many politicians are eager to court them.
But AIPAC’s influence is also due to its large national membership, which exceeds 100,000 members. This grassroots base allows AIPAC to cultivate relations with congressmen and senators in their local districts. The fact that many AIPAC activists are deeply devoted and focused on a single issue – supporting Israel – increases their influence because single-issue voters and donors have a disproportionate influence in American politics.
Another factor behind AIPAC’s influence is the constant access its professional lobbyists have with congressional staff members and executive branch officials, and the work that they quietly do behind the scenes in support of legislation in Congress.
Arguably the most important reasons why AIPAC has been successful are its bipartisan image and the belief that it represents American Jews. The former allows AIPAC to work closely with both parties, while the latter gives politicians a reason to listen to AIPAC’s concerns assuming that the group is speaking on behalf of American Jewry.
Sources of Influence at Risk
Both of these sources of AIPAC’s influence are now at risk. American politics is deeply polarized, and there is a growing partisan divide in public opinion towards Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians. In this political climate, it is becoming harder and harder for AIPAC to remain bipartisan.
Progressives on the left denounce it for opposing the Iran nuclear deal and for backing rightwing Israeli governments and their illiberal policies, while conservatives on the right attack it for still supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
More partisan pro-Israel lobby groups, like the liberal J Street and the rightwing Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), have seized on these criticisms of AIPAC in order to attract members and donors and challenge AIPAC’s dominance. J Street, the ZOA, and many other American Jewish groups are also much more willing than AIPAC to publicly criticize Israeli governments. In this respect, they are more in line with growing numbers of American Jews, especially younger ones, who believe they have the right, and even the responsibility, to freely voice their criticisms of Israeli policies and actions.
Support for Israel
American Jewish support for Israel is no longer as uncritical and unconditional as it was once. And as American Jews vociferously criticize, protest, and argue about Israeli policies, it has become increasingly clear that AIPAC does not, and cannot, represent this diversity of opinion. Nor is AIPAC willing to challenge Israeli policies in the way that many American Jews would like.
These trends threaten to gradually undermine AIPAC’s power. Though it will probably remain the preeminent organization within the pro-Israel community for some time, AIPAC is ultimately in danger of becoming an anachronism.
Its preferred approach of working closely with Democrats and Republicans, and publicly supporting whatever Israeli government is in power, now appears to be increasingly untenable and unpopular.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.