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AIPAC: Lobbying on whose behalf?

Founded more than five decades ago, AIPAC lobbied for a very different Israel...

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Had a stranger stumbled by accident into the recent Policy Conference of the American pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC, he or she could have been excused if they had mistaken it for an Arab and Iranian bashing extravaganza. It is an election year after all in the United States, and any expectation of tackling complex issues in a nuanced manner would be naïve.

However, the pandering by presidential hopefuls, to the most partisan segment of Israel’s supporters, was on the verge nauseating. One by one, Clinton, Trump, Cruz and Kasich took to the podium, declaring their love and commitment to Israel to the 18,000 delegates, most of them Jewish, in the Convention Centre in Washington DC.

Their speeches left the impression that Israel was country that could do no wrong in an evil region. Short of claiming that their matzo ball chicken soup recipe was superior to the other candidates, they said almost anything to leave this gathering believing that for the sake of Israel they should support them come the November 8.

One could be forgiven for thinking, considering the performance of the presidential candidates at the AIPAC Policy Conference, that this organization was single-handedly crowning the next president of the United States.

It begs the question, as to how this Israeli lobby became that powerful in Washington, and has become shrouded by the mystical pulling of strings in American politics, to the extent that decision makers in the US put, at times, Israeli interests first.

To be sure this much exaggerated status of AIPAC fed and nurtured both by the organization itself and its harshest critics. Founded more than five decades ago, AIPAC lobbied for a very different Israel, the one before the long hangover from the military victory of the 1967 Six Day War. In the time that has elapsed since then, AIPAC became a very oiled and sleek lobbying machine, which effectively exploits the weaknesses of the American political system to advance Israeli interests.

In the early years of its existence AIPAC was more tentative in ensuring that Israel’s security concerns are heard among the decision makers in Washington. However, in the aftermath of the Six Day War it has supported and promoted Israel’s aggressive and inflexible foreign policy and occupation.

Voice of the community?

Rather cunningly it managed to implant the impression that when it comes to Israeli issues, it is the voice of the Jewish community. Actually, AIPAC does not have more than 100,000 members, not all of whom are Jewish, out of an estimated population of 6 million Jews living in the US. In many cases, AIPAC’s campaigns are out of step with the majority of the Jewish community in the US.

Worse it implicates the entire Jewish population with suspicion of dual loyalty. The Israeli lobby conducted a relentless, at times vitriolic, campaign against President Obama and the nuclear deal with Iran, on behalf of the Israeli government. Yet, days after the UN Security Council unanimously approved the agreement with Iran, a survey showed that 60 percent of Jews in the US supported it.

Moreover, they completely misread the political map in the US on this issue and lost the anti-Iran deal campaign. Interestingly enough, Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, was the only presidential candidate not to address this year’s AIPAC conference.

On the peace process with the Palestinians, AIPAC claims that it supports a two state solution. Nevertheless, in the same breath, it does anything in its capacity to persuade the White House, Capitol Hill and public opinion that there is no Palestinian partner for peace.

It furthermore justifies Israeli policies, including the building settlements or blockading Gaza. In other words, it creates a discourse which blames only one side in the stalemate in bringing peace to Israelis and Palestinians, and detracts from the responsibility of the occupying power.

AIPAC has become a very oiled and sleek lobbying machine, which effectively exploits the weaknesses of the American political system to advance Israeli interests

Yossi Mekelberg

The power that AIPAC has accumulated and exerts in US politics is not straightforward to explain. It is an organization that grasps, that in a country that holds major elections every two years, politicians are vulnerable in terms of electoral support and the need for resources.

AIPAC does not officially financially support, “…rate or endorse candidates for elected or appointed office,” – their supporters definitely financially sponsor and promote candidates in line with the organization’s wishes. It also very successful in instilling in the public mind, that there is almost a complete overlap between US and Israeli interests and values.

Surely sharing military intelligence, common strategic cooperation and developing new technologies, for instance, are of great importance for both, as much as sharing some basic democratic values. However, Israeli governments, past and present, have done more than their fair share in compromising US interests in the Middle East. AIPAC in its activities have contributed to that as well.

Election fever

The four presidential candidates’ speeches to AIPAC’s delegates were another sad example of US elections descending into a charade, which thanks to Donald Trump became also a race towards appeasing the lowest common denominator.

The over-the-top expressions of love for Israel, and disparaging of everyone and everything in the region, which is not Israel, by those who seek to occupy the White House, felt detached and disingenuous.

How often have presidential candidates promised to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, just to find out when elected, that without a comprehensive peace agreement it was counterproductive? Hillary Clinton was the only one daring enough to mention disagreements regarding Jewish settlements, though she almost whispered it at light speed, as if she hoped that no one had heard her.

Sadly, it was another missed opportunity to open an honest dialogue between whoever will be the next US president and grassroots supporters of the long-term wellbeing of the state of Israel. Instead, it was another show of the fear created by the mythological power and influence of AIPAC, and a demonstration of the pathetic class of 2016 presidential candidates.
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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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