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Why AIPAC Feels 'Like Shit'

I just ran across a couple of noteworthy quotes from members of AIPAC -- the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful organization in the much-dreaded "Israel lobby" -- which began its annual meeting in Washington on Monday:

"We were never exposed to anti-semitism, but we heard about anti-Israel campaigns in colleges, and next year we are going to college, and we want to have the tools to deal with that," said a high school senior, one of some 1300 students and youth at the meeting, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Note how effortlessly this kid moves from "anti-semitism" to "anti-Israel." That's how AIPAC has always recruited youth: Take Americans who have never experienced anti-semitism personally and make them believe that, even if they haven't seen any enemies, those enemies are out there, lurking everywhere, disguised as "critics of Israel," just waiting to pounce on poor, unsuspecting Jews.

But times are changing. Even AIPAC no longer tries to keep up the old fiction that criticizing Israel is, in and of itself, an anti-semitic act. There are too many Israeli Jews, who are obviously loyal to their nation, criticizing their government for that old canard to stick.

So now the right-wingers have come up with a more sophisticated version:  "Soft" critics of Israel are OK -- those who don't go too far in their criticism -- but "hard" critics of Israel are obviously anti-semites. And of course AIPAC and its right-wing partners in Israel gets to decide what counts as going too far.

Apparently it's those "hard critics" who mount the "anti-Israel campaigns in colleges," and they're the ones this AIPAC high-schooler has learned to be afraid of. Well, AIPAC has to have some anti-semites out there to pursue its double-barreled strategy: Incite fear to rally the troops while justifying everything the Israel government does as necessary for Jewish survival, and therefore morally justified.

But what if American Jews stopped being afraid and stopped justifying outrageous Israel actions, like the recent announcement (while Vice-President Joe Biden was visiting the country) of 1600 new Jewish housing units in the occupied territory of East Jerusalem?

Which brings me to the other noteworthy quote, a rather blunt one from AIPAC attendee Donell Weinkopf of New York:  "I would not say that I am disappointed by the Netanyahu government. But I feel like shit. Israel did something stupid by declaring this construction. ... I think that the time has come for Israel to stop biting the hand of a friend."

Weinkopf probably tracked the incident closely.  So he knows that no one has been able to turn up evidence to refute Israeli Prime Minister's Bibi Netanyahu's claim that the announcement, made by a far right cabinet minister, came as a surprise to him. Let's assume it did. But Weinkopf also knows that Bibi could have reversed the decision and immediately healed any rift with the U.S. Instead, though, he merely offered Biden a meaningless apology for "bad timing" and boasted that the building project would go ahead anyway.

Then Israel's PM came to Washington, where Weinkopf and all the other AIPAC'ers heard him deliver a seemingly defiant speech.  The journalist who got the two rich quotes at the AIPAC meeting heard it too and described it this way: "Unsurprisingly, his speech included every possible cliche: Death camps, the relentless persecution the Jewish people have suffered throughout history, the powerful bond between the Jews and the land of Israel and, of course, Jerusalem. ... Far from being a conciliatory effort, Netanyahu's speech was riddled with borderline provocation. ... He did not present a real vision for peace or compromise."

And the very next day, as Netanyahu prepared to meet with Obama at the White House, news came of yet another provocation: approval of a new apartment building for Jews in the hotly-contested Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, a project that has already been criticized by the U.S. government.  It seems likely that the move was intentionally timed by right-wingers to offset any possible image of Netanyahu compromising with Obama.  Bibi "is planting the seeds for the next crisis," one of his political opponents charged.

However, outright defiance of the U.S. could get Bibi in bad trouble politically at home.  So behind the scenes he is backing down a bit in the face of Obama administration criticism (which was repeated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she addressed the AIPAC gathering).

One Israeli journalist, citing unnamed "analysts," says that the harsher tone from Washington "stems not from the decision to build in Ramat Shlomo, but because Netanyahu broke an earlier pledge to improve governmental oversight in order to prevent the Interior Ministry coming out with announcements of the kind that sparked this crisis."

It's probably no coincidence that, precisely as Netanyahu was spending several hours at the White House, the Jerusalem District Planning and Construction Committee decided to freeze all discussion of expanding Jewish construction in Jerusalem "until further notice"(though the one new building in Sheikh Jarrah will proceed).

And according to Israel's Interior Ministry, "the prime minister has decided to form a committee of chairmen to improve the coordination between the various government offices over all matters relating to construction and building permits."  The prime minister had already demanded a list of all plans for large projects in Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods, including Ramat Shlomo.

No, it's not any huge breakthrough. But it's one of those little pieces of evidence that point to Netanyahu's larger strategy. He talks tough and plays the fear card. Quietly, though, he is giving the Americans at least some of what they want. "I can imagine that there will be little building for Jews in Arab neighborhoods," a consultant to the Israeli government told the Times, and "on Ramat Shlomo I imagine the prime minister gave assurances that nothing would be built for some years."  Other Jerusalem insiders disagree, believing that Bibi won't give way very much at all.

Which way the Israelis go depends largely on how much pushback they get from the Obama administration. That's still an open question.

However, it's clear that Israel can no longer count on U.S. support no matter what it does, because the political atmosphere here is changing so fast. There are countless thousands of Donell Weinkopfs throughout the United States, Jews who would not have dreamed of criticizing Israel a few years ago, but are now thinking for themselves rather than offering knee-jerk praise.

Some of them were surely among the respondents to the latest poll of American Jewish opinion. A few of the most striking findings:

  • 82% want the U.S. to "play an active role" in the Israel-Palestine peace process
  • 71% want the U.S. to exert pressure on both sides to make compromises for peace
  • Fully half stick want U.S. involvement even if it means the U.S. exerting pressure on Israel alone to make compromises 
  • Asked whether U.S. criticisms of Israel should be made in public, more Jews say "yes" than "no"
  • 69% voted for Obama and 62% still approve of the job he's doing (far higher than the overall public's rating of the president)
  • Obama's favorable rating is 15 points higher than Netanyahu's.

It's also worth noting that Israel and Judaism are not very central in the lives of this sampling of American Jews:

  • Asked to name the TWO most important issues facing our country, only 10% put Israel on their short list
  • Well over half said they did not follow the controversy surrounding Biden's visit to Israel closely or at all
  • Only 23% attend synagogue services more than a few times a year, and only 39% attend activities of other Jewish groups

That does not sound like a community ready to use its political clout to "stand with Israel" no matter what the Jewish state does. It sounds like a community that identifies as American more that as Jewish, is split by internal conflict on the question of Israel (when it bothers to think about that question at all), and may well be open to supporting Obama and his Middle East policies, even when they involve pressure on Israel.

So AIPAC knows that its old fear-based tactics may still work, but not nearly as well as they once did. Netanyahu knows it too. So does Obama. That's why the rules of U.S. - Israel relations are changing, even if only slightly thus far.

But Obama has his own fears. He and his party face an uphill political fight this year. He cannot know for sure how far he can push the Israelis without triggering a backlash -- not only among Jewish voters but among the many Christians who support Israel for their own reasons, and among a general public long conditioned by the media to see Israel as an underdog oppressed by Muslim "evildoers." Already Republican candidates are burnishing their "pro-Israel" credentials as a way to attack the Democrats.

On the other hand, if Obama does not pressure Israel enough he could trigger a backlash from another powerful quarter: the Pentagon, which is now pushing for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement as a way to ease anger against U.S. troops in the greater Middle East. Democratic presidents who have never served in the military will go to great lengths to avoid alienating their own military leaders, especially if they hope to make good on a controversial pledge to give gays equality in the military. 

More to the point, perhaps, Obama has also publicly pledged to move the Israel-Palestine conflict some significant steps toward resolution.  He cannot do that unless he puts enough pressure on Israel.  Without sufficient pressure, his fears of failure on his boldest foreign policy promise are likely to come true.

Now the president has a chance to send a clear signal.  But no one can say for sure what signal he will send. And that's precisely what made this week's AIPAC meeting different from any in recent memory.

Right-wingers in Jerusalem keep getting more and more outrageous. But the political climate in Washington can no longer be predicted, much less taken for granted. So there's far less reason than before to stand in dread and awe of AIPAC or the "Israel lobby." There's far more reason to think that countervailing pressures from the left can make a real difference, giving the administration the safety belt it needs to act decisively. Perhaps that's what made Donell Weinkopf -- and plenty of other AIPAC members, including its top leadership, I suspect -- feel like shit.

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