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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