Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter

Down But Not Out

Binyamin Rose, Washington DC

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The annual AIPAC Policy Conference always attracts thousands of delegates who get both their inspiration and their marching orders for lobbying members of US Congress to support Israel’s interests. Last week’s conference was no different in its composition, but recent setbacks have left an impression that AIPAC — one of America’s mightiest lobbies — has lost some of its clout. Mishpacha’s news editor, Binyamin Rose, who made the rounds at the convention center and on Capitol Hill, formed 5 impressions of a body that refuses to go down

1. AIPAC Needs a winning streak
A Frenchman, a German, and a Jew are strolling in the park on a hot, muggy day. The Frenchman says, “I’m hot and thirsty, I must have a glass of wine.” The German says, “I’m hot and thirsty, I must have a glass of draught beer.” The Jew says, “If I’m hot and thirsty, I must have diabetes.”
The old joke — an example of how a negative attitude can cloud one’s reasoning — was retold by David Kreizelman, an AIPAC foreign policy associate, but it also summarizes what many commentators view as the storied Israel lobby gripped in the throes of a losing streak.
That streak started last September, after Syria crossed an Obama administration red line by using chemical weapons on its own people. Obama, knowing he would face stiff opposition to deploying US military forces to stop Syria, enlisted AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) to lobby the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on his behalf. When Obama made his now famous about-face a few days later, bowing to a Russian proposal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, AIPAC found it had wasted precious political capital. Although AIPAC enjoys a great deal of credit on Capitol Hill, that line of credit is not unlimited.
The second reversal came when AIPAC policymakers decided to bend to the president’s wishes, and not to lobby the Democratic-controlled Senate for a bill to slap new, stiff sanctions on Iran even as nuclear negotiations continue.
But backing away from what would have been a tough fight sparked open questions as to whether AIPAC has lost its clout.
Lobbying has its inevitable ups and downs. It is highly unlikely that AIPAC, which has built itself into one of Washington’s most formidable lobbies since it was founded in 1951 to support the interests of the government of Israel on Capitol Hill, is on its deathbed. The organization’s predicament might be more accurately defined as another critical moment in its history.
The lobby has faced at least two such moments before. In 1981, AIPAC backed off its opposition to President Reagan’s decision to sell fighter jets equipped with the advanced AWACS radar system to Saudi Arabia. Then, in 1993, when Israel’s Prime Minister Rabin announced the Oslo accords, a badly splintered AIPAC decided that supporting decisions arrived at by Israel’s democratic government would override its concerns about conceding territories to the Palestinians — an issue the lobby had always insisted was vital to Israel’s security.
Undoubtedly, Obama took advantage of AIPAC on the Syrian issue. There is little if any taste in Congress for foreign military adventures of dubious value. As Israel has remained neutral on Syria’s civil war, and AIPAC’s role is to lobby for Israel’s interests, the only motive AIPAC had to leap into the Syrian fray would have been to curry favor with Obama — itself an adventure of doubtful worth in an administration that has bared its teeth to Israel on numerous occasions.
Regarding Iran, AIPAC likely made the wise decision to cuts its losses. For a Democratic senator, in any test of loyalty between a sitting president of his own party and AIPAC, it is a foregone conclusion the president would win.
To say that AIPAC must be ever-more prudent in contending with a politically shrewd White House bent on keeping the lobby’s clout in check is probably true.
To say the Iran issue is proof that AIPAC has lost its power will probably prove to be a gross exaggeration.
Or as John McCain put it in his speech to the policy conference on Monday, after a snowfall shut down Capitol Hill: “The snow may have shut down the government, but it can’t shut down AIPAC.”

2.Obama overplayed his hand
President Obama might have thought he could take the “if not now, when” page out of Hillel the Elder’s book by utilizing the friendly services of journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in a wide-ranging interview on the eve of the AIPAC conference. His agenda was to lecture Prime Minister Netanyahu on the need to make peace now, but the president proved to be out of his league.
By once again putting the onus of concessions on Israel while declaring Abu Mazen — the world’s grandmaster of incitement — to be truly interested in peace, Obama pushed Netanyahu away with both hands.
Even Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, was reportedly miffed at the personal tone of his boss’s remarks, suggesting that the harsh tone would harm Israeli trust in the US and upset progress in the delicate negotiations that he has mediated during ten Middle East visits since last July.
Kerry himself was greeted with a lukewarm reception by AIPAC’s 14,000 delegates. His address was supposed to end at 7 p.m. — which was dinnertime. Well before he finished — a half hour late — many people were already streaming for the exits.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew didn’t fare much better. A seasoned and accomplished economist and highly respected member of Washington’s small Orthodox Jewish community, Lew was the only other representative of the Obama administration to address a public session.
Forced into the role of explaining how sanctions on Iran were still in effect even though they are unraveling faster than a cat untwirls a ball of twine, Lew’s remarks fell on mainly deaf ears.
Even Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was greeted with warmth and enthusiasm, fell a bit flat on this subject. While his speech hit the mark as a pep talk for the lobbyists headed for Capitol Hill the minute he finished, his play on the dated advertising slogan “This Bud’s for You,” which he adapted to “This Scud’s for You” to show Israel’s vulnerability to missile attacks, was greeted with silence and no chuckles.
The one speaker who did bring down the house was New Jersey senator Robert Menendez. He argued that those who try to delegitimize Israel by saying that Western powers established the State of Israel in 1948 based on Holocaust-guilt — and at the Arabs’ expense — were using a “flawed argument in defiance of basic human dignity, and in plain defiance of history.”
“Several thousand years of history leads to an undeniable conclusion,” said Menendez. “The establishment of the State of Israel in modern times is a political reality with roots going back to King David and the time of Abraham and Sarah.… There can be no denying the Jewish People’s legitimate right to live in peace and security in a homeland to which they have a connection for thousands of years.”

3. The defensive line is holding
While chill winds send shivers through Israeli-US political relations, flowers and chocolates best describe the tone of the defense relationship between the two strategic allies.
“We had dinner together on Valentine’s Day last year,” said Dr. Matthew Spence, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Mideast policy, as he shot a glance toward Israeli defense attach? Major-General Yaakov Ayish, seated next to him at an open session. “It was romantic, rough at times, but it’s a deep commitment. We need each other more now and it’s more important than ever to strengthen that partnership.”
The war on terror has brought Israel and US closer since 9/11, but America’s commitment to ensure Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) over its Arab neighbors is an unwritten doctrine dating to the Johnson administration in the 1960s. “We see it as an unshakable, almost moral commitment, to ensure that Israel should have the capabilities to defeat any enemy or any coalition of enemies,” said Spence.
John Kerry may get all the publicity for his monthly shuttle diplomacy to the Middle East, but American and Israeli military officials wing their way to each other hundreds of times a year in an ongoing exchange of information involving the air forces, navies, armies, and special units. Discussions include an ongoing analysis of both current and possible future threats, military doctrine, research and development, cyber warfare, and logistics.
The destabilization of the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring, plus the new dynamics resulting from Syria’s civil war, force both the US and Israel to adapt to ever-changing circumstances.
Syrian refugees have flooded the borders. Lebanon and Jordan are now home to 1 million and 700,000 Syrians, respectively. Overall, some 9 million Syrians, or almost half the country’s population, have been displaced — either externally or internally.
Smelling opportunity, al-Qaeda forces have infiltrated Syria from both neighboring Iraq and from terror cells in Europe. Al-Qaeda has also built a strong terror presence in the Sinai, something Ayish termed “a very dodgy situation,” in what can only be considered to be an understatement.
All this requires the US and Israel to work on the ground together.
“Our primary goal with Egypt is to ensure that Egypt preserves its treaty with Israel,” says Spence. “Secretary of Defense [Chuck] Hagel has spoken to his Egyptian counterpart 30 times since July and he mentions that each time they speak.”
The Pentagon is a very important facilitator, agrees Ayish. “The key is coordination. That’s why, at the moment, the border with Jordan is a quiet one and there is also close coordination, mainly military, between the US presence in the region and Egypt,” he says. “It’s not that we agree on everything, but at least we have the ability to coordinate our moves.”

4. Peace at the grassroots level
Ali Waked might be one of the last people you would expect to show up at a policy conference of the Israel lobby.
Brought up to view the creation of the State of Israel as a nakba, the Arabic word for disaster, Waked is an Arab-Israeli citizen, journalist, filmmaker, and now director of Merchavim, an institute for the advancement of shared citizenship in Israel.
Waked had a tough enough time explaining to his father why he was making an appearance at AIPAC, but not as tough as explaining to him why he did not inherit his father’s staunch resistance to the Jewish state.
As Waked tells his story, in his father’s quest to ensure that he receive both a good education and one “that escaped the Zionist narrative,” his father enrolled him in a French Catholic school. The student body included children from 40 different nationalities and half a dozen religions — including Jews, as well as sons and daughters of French diplomats.
Diverse as his education was, Waked grew up troubled by his father’s worldview.
“During summer vacation, we would travel up north. My father would drive us to what is now Migdal Ha’emek and say, ‘This is where I was born and this is where you are going to bury me.’
“What that meant to me,” said Waked, “was that I was to take out the Jews from Migdal Ha’emek so my father would have a place to be buried.”
Waked recalls how he told his father that when he dies, he will bury him in an Arab cemetery in Nazareth or Jaffa. “By burying him in Migdal Ha’emek, I would be maintaining this circle of conflict and violence between the Arabs and the Israelis, a path that I did not want to continue,” says Waked. “It was a very traumatic moment. It wasn’t easy for my father.”
One of the goals of his Merchavim organization is to develop a shared civic awareness among Israelis in a society that Waked finds fractured and noninclusive. Merchavim sends Arab teachers into Jewish schools, and Waked noted that after spending several months teaching in Israel, one Arab teacher began singing what Waked called “mizmorim.” Waked said he saw no contradiction. “People ask me why I still define myself as a Palestinian. I don’t think there is a paradox being a Palestinian and being a citizen of Israel.”
For AIPAC, the appearance of Waked, as well as other sessions of this nature, was its attempt to show that if there is to be peace in the Middle East, it will sprout from the ground up, and not from the politicians on down. credit
With anti-Israel incitement on college campuses reaching new heights, it becomes more vital than ever to teach the Israeli side of the narrative during the college years, when a student’s worldview is in its formative stages.
Campus engagement has always been an important part of AIPAC strategy and it is not unusual for student body leaders to end up in the halls of power a generation later.
So when Travis Nesbitt, the president of the student government association at Glenville State College in West Virginia, got a call from AIPAC’s campus engagement director, Sarah Spillar, in February 2013, he shouldn’t have been surprised — but he was.
“When Sarah asked me ‘How would you like to go to DC, attend our policy conference, and get to go to Capitol Hill and experience this?’ my first reply was Pac what?” says Nesbitt. “I had never heard of AIPAC, I have no association with the Jewish community, and was not really aware of Israel,” says Nesbitt, who as a member of a Pentecostal church, says he has some familiarity with biblical texts.
Nesbitt said yes, but he soon discovered that because of his position as student body head, his university frowned on his attendance at AIPAC. He was able to convince the university that he wasn’t taking a stand on the Middle East, but was merely attending as a learning experience.
What he learned was eye-opening.
As a cadet in the US Army National Guard, he was wowed by a demonstration of an Israeli company working on a technique to help paralyzed people walk again.
“We have a lot of soldiers with spinal injuries,” said Nesbitt “Not being able to walk again is truly traumatic. So when I got to see this man, who had no use of his limbs below his waist, walk across that stage, there’s not a word that comes to mind for how I felt.
“It was inspirational, it was moving, it pulled on my heart so dramatically to think that now we can take this Israeli technology and use it on veterans who have been hurt.”
That’s one of the messages Nesbitt took back home to campus, and he attended this year’s conference with some wider goals in mind about spreading word on the Israeli-US relationship. “We have an ROTC program on campus, and we are the future officers of the United States military. We are leaders. Leaders should know who our allies are, and not only what we can do for them, but what they can do for us. It’s a partnership.” —



To read the rest of this story, please buy this issue of Mishpacha or sign up for a weekly subscription

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.

Drink to Eternity
Rabbi Moshe Grylak Redemption doesn’t simply mean being let out of jail
Klal Yisrael Is Always Free
Yonoson Rosenblum "In that merit will Klal Yisrael continue to exist”
Home Free
Eytan Kobre My baseline for comparison is admittedly weak
Believe in Your Own Seder
Rabbi Judah Mischel Hashem is satisfied when we do our best
Picture Perfect
Yisroel Besser Take a picture — and this time, send it to yourself
Flying Solo
Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman As Pesach loomed closer, his resentment was growing
Hanging on by a Hair
Jacob L. Freedman MD “Do you still think that I’m not completely crazy?”
A Song for Every Season
Riki Goldstein Influencers map out their personal musical soundtracks
Subliminal Speech
Faigy Peritzman The deeper the recognition, the deeper the effect
The Big Change
Sarah Chana Radcliffe Spelling things out clears clouds of resentment
The Count-Up
Mrs. Shani Mendlowitz Tap the middos of Sefirah to recreate yourself
The Baker: Part 1
D. Himy, M.S. CCC-SLP with Zivia Reischer "She can't get married if she can't build a relationship...
Know This: Infertility
As Told to Bracha Stein There was no place for me. I didn’t belong
Dear Shadchan
The Girl Here's the thing: I need time