BERKELEY, Calif. (JTA) — For the casual observer, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ recent pronouncement that he is skipping the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee out of a “concern about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights” might seem like a political earthquake. Prominent Democrats — first Sen. Elizabeth Warren, then Sanders — have now declared they will skip the annual AIPAC conference.
Is this a harbinger of a sea change in American views about Israel?
Not quite. Despite a few high-profile critics of Israel in the Democratic Party, Americans remain generally supportive of Israel. The snubbing of AIPAC by Democratic leaders does not so much reflect a change in the party’s positions on Israel — both Warren and Sanders remain supporters of a two-state solution — as it does the fact that as American politics has changed, the even-keeled AIPAC has struggled to adapt. And if the Israel lobbying group doesn’t right course soon, it is on the path to becoming irrelevant.
Fearsome reputation notwithstanding, AIPAC historically has avoided narrow orthodoxies around Israel, instead centering its organizing model on relationships and compromise. The organization prides itself on maintaining open lines of communication with politicians carrying diverse views about proper U.S.-Israel relations. But a series of high-profile, one-sided political interventions, such as the group’s opposition to the Iran deal, have severely damaged AIPAC’s veneer of bipartisanship — and Democrats are taking notice.
While much has been written about the evolution in progressive attitudes toward Israel and the pro-Israel community over the past few years, there is a parallel shift in right-wing views. There is a conservative effort to convert Israel into a wedge issue via an insistence that “pro-Israel” only corresponds to a particular, far-right vision for the state — exemplified by President Donald Trump’s remark that Jews who vote for Democrats demonstrate “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
What has often been overlooked is how this evolution has altered the way the right relates to hitherto centrist pro-Israel organizations. Rather than stay within the confines of a broad tent, right-wing pro-Israel activists are out to draw blood — insisting that all pro-Israel organizations must adopt their hard, uncompromising line and punish deviations from dogma. The only acceptable pro-Israel position is a “Greater Israel” that reaches from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
Well before Democrats began questioning whether they should attend AIPAC conventions, many Republicans had concluded that the organization was unreliable and politically mushy. The GOP might still show up at the conference, but in terms of tangible policy influence, AIPAC’s standing on the right has long been eclipsed by more avowedly right-wing organizations like Christians United for Israel or the Zionist Organization of America.
The right is not satisfied by AIPAC showering praise on Trump’s Israel policy. It wants more: It is maddened that AIPAC has not labeled the Democratic Party an outright threat to Israel. Hating Democrats and endorsing perpetual occupation is the new right-wing litmus for what qualifies as “pro-Israel.”
Thus AIPAC is under tremendous pressure from a right flank that will only accept the group as legitimate if it starts knee-capping the left. The fruit of this pressure campaign was seen in a recent ad campaign launched by AIPAC that accused “the radicals in the Democratic Party” of “pushing their anti-Semitic and anti-Israel policies down the throats of the American people,” and even suggested that Democratic politicians were more dangerous than Hamas and ISIS.
AIPAC apologized when the ads came to light, but tellingly did not reveal who had approved them or what steps had been taken to ensure nothing similar would recur. And even this half-measure came at a cost — the right was livid that AIPAC caved.
Meanwhile, for many Democrats, these ads were a particularly visceral illustration of a deeper rot. AIPAC, despite its nominal bipartisanship, had fallen into a trap I warned about years ago: It has treated Democrats as second-class friends.
While it’s true that AIPAC does not align with the political right on every issue — it supports a two-state solution, for instance — it is obvious that AIPAC does not pursue those issues with quite the same enthusiasm that it exhibits when attacking Democrats. AIPAC may murmur support for an eventual Palestinian state in a news release, but you will never see it drop tens of millions in a public campaign of opposition to Trump’s idea of a “peace plan,” as AIPAC-backed groups did in an effort to sink the Iran deal in 2015. AIPAC may not overtly favor infinite settlement expansion, but it wouldn’t dare run ads accusing Greater Israel-aligned Republicans of being tantamount to terrorists.
AIPAC’s aggressive interventions in defense of conservative pro-Israel priorities would be much less aggravating if there were even the slightest chance it would do the same for the issues on which it nominally aligns with progressives. It is this failure of bipartisanship — punching down at the left while treating the right with kid gloves — that ultimately has generated the crisis that AIPAC faces today.
AIPAC made a calculated gamble — that it needed to appease Republicans and could take Democrats for granted. The gamble did not pay off. And now debts have come due.
Simply continuing to invite high-profile Democrats to the AIPAC conference, and paying lip service to a few progressive shibboleths, is no longer sufficient to preserve AIPAC’s bipartisan character. As the right is questioning the usefulness of any Israel organization that isn’t formally committed to burning down the Democratic Party, progressives are wondering what AIPAC has to offer in terms of ending the occupation and creating a lasting and just peace. What has AIPAC actually done concretely to support a two-state solution beyond saying “we support it”?
Can AIPAC right the course? There’s reason to be skeptical: AIPAC is a battleship that doesn’t turn easily. An organization of its size and longevity simply may not have the ability to adapt to the present before it’s too late.
In this not far off universe, AIPAC simply becomes the avowedly right-wing organization the left has long thought it was and the right demands it must be. That would be a catastrophe for the state of pro-Israel politics in America.
But if there is hope for a different outcome, it comes from those progressives who still attend or work at AIPAC. It’s no longer going to be enough simply to show up. The progressive contingent within AIPAC must start insisting on tangible action — real efforts and real investment in the areas that pro-Israel progressives care about — and demand it with equal force and urgency as have their counterparts on the right.
Will it work? It’s too early to say. But if nothing else, Sanders and Warren have delivered a wake-up call. AIPAC will either adapt to the new political terrain — or it will cease to be relevant.