Commentary Magazine


Topic: AIPAC

Why AIPAC Matters and Its Critics Don’t

Critiques of AIPAC that predict the end of the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in Congress and the nation are old hat. After the Walt-Mearsheimer Israel Lobby smear campaign and the subsequent media offensive seeking to prop up the left-wing J Street alternative, one would have thought the well had run dry in this genre. But the editors at The New Yorker thought otherwise and commissioned Connie Bruck to rehash some of the same tired material about an out-of-touch Jewish establishment in service to an extremist Israeli government in a lengthy new article. But the bad timing of the publication of the piece illustrates exactly why Bruck’s thesis about AIPAC’s loss of influence is wrong.

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Critiques of AIPAC that predict the end of the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in Congress and the nation are old hat. After the Walt-Mearsheimer Israel Lobby smear campaign and the subsequent media offensive seeking to prop up the left-wing J Street alternative, one would have thought the well had run dry in this genre. But the editors at The New Yorker thought otherwise and commissioned Connie Bruck to rehash some of the same tired material about an out-of-touch Jewish establishment in service to an extremist Israeli government in a lengthy new article. But the bad timing of the publication of the piece illustrates exactly why Bruck’s thesis about AIPAC’s loss of influence is wrong.

The pro-Israel lobby has had its ups and downs and as Bruck’s article, which devotes a great deal of space to the history of the organization, demonstrates. The problems generally occur when Israel’s friends run into confrontations with sitting presidents and those stories always end the same way. Whether it was Ronald Reagan and his decision to sell AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia or Barack Obama’s attempts to head off plans for tough sanctions on Iran, no matter how much support AIPAC can amass on Capitol Hill, no lobbying group can beat the occupant of the mansion at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue if they go all in on a specific issue.

But even an attempt to write a critical history of AIPAC must acknowledge that it has helped forge a U.S.-Israel alliance whose enduring strength transcends party loyalties as well as the changing names of presidents and cabinet secretaries. As Bruck is forced to acknowledge in the lede of her piece, this summer’s congressional action to give Israel more funding for its Iron Dome missile defense system in the midst of the ongoing war in Gaza was a triumph for the lobby. It as also a timely rebuke from the leadership of both congressional caucuses to an Obama administration that had gone out of its way to try and delay the delivery of ammunition supplies to the Israel Defense Forces as part of its strategy to pressure the Jewish state into halting its counterattack on Hamas in Gaza and agreeing to unsatisfactory cease-fire terms. That two bitter foes like Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell who normally couldn’t agree to back a resolution saying the sky was blue would unite on behalf of Israel in this manner, with the Senate agreeing to delay its summer recess in order to get the measure passed, shows that AIPAC’s clout is undiminished. The fact that this is so despite the fact that, for all of its reputation as the most powerful lobby in Washington, AIPAC hasn’t nearly the money or the influence of other lobbies such as that of the oil or pharmaceutical industries only makes their achievement even more amazing.

But Bruck’s main point in a piece where she tries hard to work in quotes from the organization’s critics is not so much as to try and make a weak case about it losing ground on Capitol Hill. Rather it is to claim that AIPAC is out of touch with liberal American Jews who are increasingly distancing themselves from the Jewish state and who view Israel’s center-right government with distaste.

This is the same argument put forward over and over again by people like author Peter Beinart, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, and was rehashed in the same newspaper on Sunday in another lengthy rant by British analyst Antony Lerman. They believe Israel’s refusal to make peace and insistence on occupation and rough treatment of the Palestinians disgusts most liberal Jews in the Diaspora, especially the youth that has grown up in an era in which the Jewish state is seen as a regional superpower rather than as the one small, besieged nation in the midst of Arab enemies determined to destroy it.

But the problem with this argument is that no matter how many times liberal critics of Israel tell us how disillusioned they are with the reality of a Jewish state at war, they invariably neglect, as did Lerman and Bruck, to discuss why it is that the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews see things differently. The point is, no matter how unsatisfactory the status quo may seem to most Israelis, unlike their Diaspora critics, they have been paying attention to events in the Middle East during the last 20 years since the Oslo Accords ushered in an era of peace negotiations. They know that Israel has repeatedly offered the Palestinian Authority peace deals that would have given them an independent Palestinian state in virtually all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem and that it has been turned down flat every time.

Rather than Israel needing to finally take risks for peace, as liberal critics keep insisting, the Jewish state has done so repeatedly. It brought Yasir Arafat and the PLO back into the territories and empowered them and rather than trading land for peace, it got the terrorism and horror of the second intifada. It withdrew every last soldier, settler, and settlement from Gaza in 2005 and instead of creating space for a productive and peaceful Palestinian state, it got a Hamas-run Islamist state that has rained down thousands of rockets on Israeli cities and used international aid funds and materials to build tunnels to facilitate terrorism.

This cruel reality has destroyed the once dominant left-wing Israeli political parties, but American liberals haven’t paid much attention to it or anything the Palestinians do or say. This is especially instructive this summer as Hamas launched a terror war that illustrated even for those not paying close attention that when it says it wants to end the “occupation,” it is not discussing the future of the West Bank but reasserting its goal to eradicate Israel and slaughter and/or evict its Jewish population.

It is true that American Jewry is changing in ways that may eventually cripple its ability to be a coherent force on behalf of Israel as well as its other vital interests. But, contrary to the liberal critics, that has little to do with the policies of Israeli governments and everything to do with statistics about assimilation and intermarriage that speak to a demographic collapse of non-Orthodox Jewry.

That’s a serious problem as is the ongoing tension with an Obama administration whose barely concealed hostility to the Netanyahu government is making mischief on several fronts, including negotiations for a nuclear deal with Iran that seems headed toward appeasement of the ayatollahs rather than a fulfillment of the president’s campaign pledges to prevent Tehran from acquiring a weapon.

But it doesn’t point toward the irrelevance of AIPAC, let alone the ascendance of J Street, its left-wing rival that has gained virtually no ground on Capitol Hill or anywhere else during an administration that should have been their ally.

AIPAC counts because it is connected to the reality of a Middle East where Israel remains the sole democracy and a vital American ally while the Palestinians continue to embrace terror and reject peace. So long as that is the case, Congress and the overwhelming majority of the American people will remain firmly on Israel’s side and, by extension, AIPAC. Though we should expect that its critics will continue to carp away on the sidelines and predict its doom, so long as they ignore what the Palestinians do or say, they will remain irrelevant or sink into the same kind of conspiratorial anti-Semitism that sank Walt and Mearsheimer.

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Was Rand Paul Wrong on Aid to the Palestinians? Not Entirely.

Something interesting happened in the Senate this week. Senator Rand Paul is someone who is not generally considered a great friend of Israel because of his knee-jerk isolationism that has led him as well as his far more extreme father to take stands that are antithetical to the U.S.-Israel alliance. But Paul just proposed something most ardent supporters of the Jewish state generally agree with: an aid cutoff to the Palestinian Authority to punish it for the decision to ally itself with Hamas terrorists. Yet AIPAC, the group that is synonymous with the pro-Israel community, wouldn’t support the bill.

That led Paul to go on Steve Malzberg’s Newsmax.com TV show yesterday to express his dismay at AIPAC in what must be considered an attempt to be more Catholic than the pope. His gibes had to sting, especially since most AIPAC supporters are also deeply critical of the PA. AIPAC wasn’t talking but was clearly pleased when Paul didn’t get unanimous consent to put forward his bill and it died on the Senate floor. However Jennifer Rubin, our former COMMENTARY colleague, didn’t pull any punches in her Washington Post blog denouncing Paul’s gesture as a “phony pro-Israel bill.”

Who’s right in this confused squabble? As difficult as it may be to unravel this tangle, the correct answer is all of them, at least in part. How is that possible? It’s complicated.

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Something interesting happened in the Senate this week. Senator Rand Paul is someone who is not generally considered a great friend of Israel because of his knee-jerk isolationism that has led him as well as his far more extreme father to take stands that are antithetical to the U.S.-Israel alliance. But Paul just proposed something most ardent supporters of the Jewish state generally agree with: an aid cutoff to the Palestinian Authority to punish it for the decision to ally itself with Hamas terrorists. Yet AIPAC, the group that is synonymous with the pro-Israel community, wouldn’t support the bill.

That led Paul to go on Steve Malzberg’s Newsmax.com TV show yesterday to express his dismay at AIPAC in what must be considered an attempt to be more Catholic than the pope. His gibes had to sting, especially since most AIPAC supporters are also deeply critical of the PA. AIPAC wasn’t talking but was clearly pleased when Paul didn’t get unanimous consent to put forward his bill and it died on the Senate floor. However Jennifer Rubin, our former COMMENTARY colleague, didn’t pull any punches in her Washington Post blog denouncing Paul’s gesture as a “phony pro-Israel bill.”

Who’s right in this confused squabble? As difficult as it may be to unravel this tangle, the correct answer is all of them, at least in part. How is that possible? It’s complicated.

Let’s state upfront that Paul’s objectives here are to:

a. Seize any opportunity to cut any kind of foreign aid, a cost-effective measure that the isolationist from Kentucky opposes in principle and which enables him to pander to the large group of Americans who also dislike the idea of sending money abroad, especially to unsavory types like Abbas; and

b. Pander to pro-Israel Jewish voters and donors in preparation for his expected 2016 run for president.

Whether one considers Paul to be sincere in his professions of friendship for Israel or not, attacking aid to the PA is an easy way to achieve both objectives and distract Americans from the fact that he also opposes the vital aid that Israel gets to maintain its qualitative military edge over its enemies.

Rubin explains the opposition to the cutoff as something that is both reasonable and linked to Israel’s interests. Quoting the insightful Elliott Abrams, she explains that pulling the plug on all U.S. aid to the Palestinians is not something the Netanyahu government wants. Some of the money goes to help fund the PA security forces that cooperate extensively with the Israelis. Without these funds the PA could collapse and leave the Israelis with the messy job of having to administer the territories as well as depriving them of the assistance that the Palestinians provide in keeping a lid on terror in the West Bank.

Thus, while the Israelis have been denouncing the PA in the last week since Abbas announced the deal with Hamas that put a formal end to the peace talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry, they actually don’t want anyone in Washington to act on those complaints, at least with regard to the money that the U.S. funnels to the PA.

That means Paul’s line about AIPAC being derelict in its job is, at best, a cheap shot, and, at worse, a devious attack on a group that rightly suspects that his overtures toward the Jewish state are not to be trusted.

But before we file this incident away as an incomplete forward pass cynically aimed at Jewish voters by Paul, those who care about Israel and the slim hopes for peace need to acknowledge that the isolationist isn’t completely wrong here.

The security cooperation between the two peace partners/antagonists helps the PA as much if not more than Israel because without it Hamas might have toppled Abbas in the West Bank just as it did in Gaza in 2007. But, like it or not, Israel needs the PA to stay afloat even if it is an untrustworthy, hate fomenting foe as much as a partner.

Yet part of the problem with the PA dating back to its beginnings in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords is that it has exploited Israel’s dependence on it as a shield against accountability. Rather than use aid to the PA as leverage to force it to stand up against terror and to stop broadcasting hate and undermining peace, the U.S., often with Israel’s connivance, has given it a pass. It has been all carrot and no stick, a situation that has allowed the PA to become an institution that works hard to stoke the fires of the conflict even as it is insincerely praised as a force for peace. No matter what it does, up to and including forming a new alliance with a group that is dedicated not just to Israel’s elimination but also to genocide, it knows it can be sure that the spigot of U.S. taxpayer money funneling into the pockets of Abbas’s Fatah cronies will never be turned off. Just as Kerry’s initiative failed in large measure because of the administration’s unwillingness to press the Palestinians while they were also mercilessly bashing Israel, so, too, does the aid perpetuate the conflict as much it helps keep the peace.

While it is true the Israelis are no more interested in cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinians than the administration, Paul is right in the sense that unless something is eventually done to scare the PA straight, it will never stop feeding the anti-Zionist hate that fuels the conflict. This is a sentiment that is shared by most supporters of Israel, including AIPAC members. Nor is it surprising that the Zionist Organization of America formally endorsed Paul’s proposal.

So while Paul’s swipe at AIPAC was wrongheaded and has more to do with his ambition than any love for Israel, his critics shouldn’t be so blithe about spiking his proposal. It’s time to start holding the PA accountable for its behavior. What’s too bad is that Paul, of all people, seems to be the only one ready to do so.

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Breaking Up Conference Won’t Help Israel

The day after J Street failed in its bid for admission to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the backlash about the vote is growing. The group that represents the largest denomination of American Jewry, the Union of Reform Judaism, is demanding that the Conference change its one group, one vote policy while also openly threatening to leave the umbrella group. An official of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is also demanding changes. Meanwhile liberal commentators are blasting the Conference for its 22-17 vote to deny entry the left-wing lobby and making extravagant claims about this vote symbolizing the growing alienation of the Jewish establishment from the wishes of most of those it purports to represent.

Which means that, all things considered, it was a very good day for J Street. As I predicted yesterday before the vote was held, a defeat at the Conference was the best possible outcome for the left-wing organization that came into existence not to fit in and cooperate with existing Jewish groups and coalitions but to blow them up. The negative vote enables J Street and its various left-wing sympathizers to play the victim and boosts their agenda to first delegitimize groups like the Conference and AIPAC and then to replace them.

But while it is understandable that the Reform and Conservative movements would join the lament about J Street’s defeat in order to assuage some of their liberal constituents who support the left-wing lobby, they should be careful about advancing any agenda that could undermine umbrella groups like the Conference. While such organizations can seem at times to be irrelevant to the day-to-day business of American Jewry, they still serve a vital purpose. If the non-Orthodox denominations help J Street destroy them, they will soon learn that not only will it be difficult to replace them but also they and their constituents will not be well served by the politicized chaos that follows.

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The day after J Street failed in its bid for admission to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the backlash about the vote is growing. The group that represents the largest denomination of American Jewry, the Union of Reform Judaism, is demanding that the Conference change its one group, one vote policy while also openly threatening to leave the umbrella group. An official of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is also demanding changes. Meanwhile liberal commentators are blasting the Conference for its 22-17 vote to deny entry the left-wing lobby and making extravagant claims about this vote symbolizing the growing alienation of the Jewish establishment from the wishes of most of those it purports to represent.

Which means that, all things considered, it was a very good day for J Street. As I predicted yesterday before the vote was held, a defeat at the Conference was the best possible outcome for the left-wing organization that came into existence not to fit in and cooperate with existing Jewish groups and coalitions but to blow them up. The negative vote enables J Street and its various left-wing sympathizers to play the victim and boosts their agenda to first delegitimize groups like the Conference and AIPAC and then to replace them.

But while it is understandable that the Reform and Conservative movements would join the lament about J Street’s defeat in order to assuage some of their liberal constituents who support the left-wing lobby, they should be careful about advancing any agenda that could undermine umbrella groups like the Conference. While such organizations can seem at times to be irrelevant to the day-to-day business of American Jewry, they still serve a vital purpose. If the non-Orthodox denominations help J Street destroy them, they will soon learn that not only will it be difficult to replace them but also they and their constituents will not be well served by the politicized chaos that follows.

Only hours after their defeat J Street was already attempting to make hay from the vote with a fundraising email sent out to their list. It read, in part:

“Thank you, Malcolm Hoenlein and the Conference of Presidents.”

Yesterday’s rejection of our bid to join the Conference validates the reason for J Street: those claiming to speak for the entire Jewish community don’t in fact represent the full diversity of pro-Israel views in our community—or even its prevailing views.

Thus despite J Street leader Jeremy Ben-Ami’s public expression of disappointment about the vote, the group was clearly prepared all along to exploit a rejection to further their campaign to brand both AIPAC and the Conference as out of touch. J Street came into existence hoping to do just that, but over the course of the last five years failed miserably to do so. Though J Street’s raison d’être was to serve as a Jewish cheerleader for Obama administration pressure on Israel, it has little influence on Capitol Hill and has even, to its dismay, sometimes been repudiated by a president it supports unconditionally. Thus it hopes to use this incident to gain more traction against mainstream groups.

But those, like Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev, who are using this vote to bash pro-Israel groups should be asking themselves why so many members of the Conference which already includes left-wing organizations like Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu would vote against adding one more to their ranks. The reason is that many centrist groups clearly resented J Street’s unwarranted pretensions to speak for American Jewry and to undermine the broad-based AIPAC.

The Conference was created to provide a way for a diverse and cantankerous Jewish community a single structure with which it could deal with the U.S. government. The point was, though its members have often disagreed and true consensus between left and right is often impossible, the Conference still provides Congress and the executive branch an address through which they can reach a broad and diverse coalition of Jewish organizations. Adding one more on the left wouldn’t have changed that but unlike other left-leaning groups, J Street has never had any interest in playing ball with rivals or allies. Its purpose is not to enrich and broaden that consensus but to destroy it. And that was something that groups that had no real ideological fight with J Street rightly feared.

Moreover, the arguments that only groups like J Street can speak to Jewish youth are also easily debunked. Rather than seek to bolster the efforts of pro-Israel groups on American campuses, J Street’s cohorts seem more interested in making common cause with anti-Zionist and pro-BDS groups than in standing together with the courageous Jews who are resisting the boycotters.

But if the Reform and Conservative movements aid J Street in this effort what follows won’t aid their cause. If the formal structures of American Jewry split between those backed by the centrist establishment and the J Street-led left, this won’t advance the cause of Israel or the interests of American Jews. Dividing the Jews in this manner will only serve the cause of those who wish to wage war on Israel’s democratically elected government and to widen the splits between Jerusalem and Washington. That isn’t something that any group that calls itself “pro-Israel” should want. Non-Orthodox Jews who wish to bolster the position of their members in the Jewish state should also be especially wary of anything that will make it harder to make their voices heard in Jerusalem.

Whatever one may think of the Conference or of its decision to play into J Street’s hands with this rejection, the notion that including the left-wing group would strengthen Jewish unity or the community’s outreach to youth is a myth. J Street may have failed miserably in its effort to defeat AIPAC in Washington, but its campaign to trash the pro-Israel consensus and replace it with one that seeks to undermine the Jewish state is still very much alive.

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No “Special Relationship” Bingo at AIPAC

In anticipation of the AIPAC conference, Yair Rosenberg over at Tablet published a mock bingo card, with all the buzzwords and catch phrases in U.S.-Israeli relations. As you sat listening to the speeches, you could mark your card as each speaker proclaimed Israel a “major strategic ally” or intoned that “no deal is better than a bad deal” (with Iran). In the center square of the card sits this couplet: “Special Relationship.” It’s the most hallowed of all ways to describe U.S.-Israeli ties, dating back John F. Kennedy and Golda Meir. Nothing more reassures Israelis than to hear that phrase, which elevates U.S.-Israel relations to a very select club.

In December, I provided the evidence here at Commentary that John Kerry, as secretary of state, has avoided using the phrase “special relationship” to describe ties with Israel, reserving it exclusively for the United Kingdom. I argued that this constituted a subtle demotion of Israel. Was he saving the magic words for AIPAC?

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In anticipation of the AIPAC conference, Yair Rosenberg over at Tablet published a mock bingo card, with all the buzzwords and catch phrases in U.S.-Israeli relations. As you sat listening to the speeches, you could mark your card as each speaker proclaimed Israel a “major strategic ally” or intoned that “no deal is better than a bad deal” (with Iran). In the center square of the card sits this couplet: “Special Relationship.” It’s the most hallowed of all ways to describe U.S.-Israeli ties, dating back John F. Kennedy and Golda Meir. Nothing more reassures Israelis than to hear that phrase, which elevates U.S.-Israel relations to a very select club.

In December, I provided the evidence here at Commentary that John Kerry, as secretary of state, has avoided using the phrase “special relationship” to describe ties with Israel, reserving it exclusively for the United Kingdom. I argued that this constituted a subtle demotion of Israel. Was he saving the magic words for AIPAC?

Obviously not: he didn’t utter them in his AIPAC speech. Sure, there were all sorts of emotive expressions of support for Israel. But “special relationship?” Kerry seems as reluctant to speak the words, as Mahmoud Abbas is loath to utter “Jewish state.”

I wonder whether even one of the 14,000 Israel supporters in the Washington Convention Center noticed the omission, in the flurry of sweet nothings floated by Kerry. But have no doubt: no words can substitute for “special relationship.” That’s why it stands at the very center of the U.S.-Israeli bingo card. Israelis know it, and you can be sure that John Kerry knows it too.

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Netanyahu Doesn’t Take Obama’s Bait

The last time President Obama ambushed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli gave as good as he got. This time he turned the other cheek. The reason for this turnabout by the normally combative prime minister tells us everything we need to know about the relative strength of the positions of these two leaders.

While the assumption on the part of most pundits was that Obama has Netanyahu in a corner, the latter’s reaction to the assault the president launched at him in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg this past weekend shows us this isn’t true. Though Netanyahu had to be infuriated by the president’s single-minded determination to blame Israel for the lack of peace as well as his obtuse praise for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, he felt no need to publicly respond to it. Far from feeling threatened by Obama’s tirade, Netanyahu’s decision to ignore the president’s attack shows that he understands the dynamics of both the peace process and U.S. foreign policy actually give him the upper hand over the weak and increasingly out-of-touch lame duck in the White House.

Obama’s decision to give his faithful admirer Goldberg an interview in which he blasted Israel was odd since it came at a time when the Israelis have shown their willingness to accept Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for Middle East peace negotiations and the Palestinians have publicly declared the same document to be unacceptable. More than that, the fact that he chose this particular moment to get in another shot at his least favorite foreign leader just when the world was focused on Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and awaiting an American response to this aggression can only be considered bizarre. Not only did this make his attack on Netanyahu seem both petty and personal, it also guaranteed that the international media that might have otherwise have jumped on the story was distracted elsewhere and diminished its impact. But Netanyahu’s seeming dismissal of this broadside shows that Obama is not in as strong a position vis-à-vis Netanyahu as he thinks.

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The last time President Obama ambushed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli gave as good as he got. This time he turned the other cheek. The reason for this turnabout by the normally combative prime minister tells us everything we need to know about the relative strength of the positions of these two leaders.

While the assumption on the part of most pundits was that Obama has Netanyahu in a corner, the latter’s reaction to the assault the president launched at him in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg this past weekend shows us this isn’t true. Though Netanyahu had to be infuriated by the president’s single-minded determination to blame Israel for the lack of peace as well as his obtuse praise for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, he felt no need to publicly respond to it. Far from feeling threatened by Obama’s tirade, Netanyahu’s decision to ignore the president’s attack shows that he understands the dynamics of both the peace process and U.S. foreign policy actually give him the upper hand over the weak and increasingly out-of-touch lame duck in the White House.

Obama’s decision to give his faithful admirer Goldberg an interview in which he blasted Israel was odd since it came at a time when the Israelis have shown their willingness to accept Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for Middle East peace negotiations and the Palestinians have publicly declared the same document to be unacceptable. More than that, the fact that he chose this particular moment to get in another shot at his least favorite foreign leader just when the world was focused on Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and awaiting an American response to this aggression can only be considered bizarre. Not only did this make his attack on Netanyahu seem both petty and personal, it also guaranteed that the international media that might have otherwise have jumped on the story was distracted elsewhere and diminished its impact. But Netanyahu’s seeming dismissal of this broadside shows that Obama is not in as strong a position vis-à-vis Netanyahu as he thinks.

Back in May 2011, Obama chose to give a speech attacking Israel’s stand on the peace process and demanding that it accept the 1967 borders as the starting point for negotiations just as before Netanyahu arrived in Washington. Obama had picked fights with Israel in 2009 and 2010 over Jerusalem and settlements but this was a direct attack on the prime minister. Netanyahu’s response was just as direct. When he met with Obama in the White House, he launched into a lengthy lecture to the president about Israeli security that made it clear to the president that he would not take the insult lying down. Netanyahu doubled down on that the next day when he received more cheers while addressing a joint meeting of Congress than the president had ever gotten.

But this time, Netanyahu chose to ignore the president’s slights. There were no public or even off-the-record remarks from his party expressing anger. And in his speech to AIPAC today, Netanyahu barely mentioned the president.

Though Israel has been squabbling with the U.S. over the direction of the Iran nuclear talks, Netanyahu broke no new ground on the issue in his speech. He restated his concerns about Tehran continuing uranium enrichment during the nuclear talks. But he did not allude to the fact that the U.S. was letting this happen. While he repeated his vow to do anything necessary to defend Israeli security — a veiled threat to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities — he kept his disagreements to a minimum and emphasized the joint concerns of the U.S. and Israel.

With regard to the topic on which Obama had been most critical — the peace process with the Palestinians — there was also no allusion to disagreement with Washington. To the contrary, Netanyahu spoke more about his desire for peace; his willingness to continue engaging in talks with the Palestinians and the advantages that peace would bring to Israel and the entire Middle East. Far from harping on the points where he and Obama disagree about the terms of a theoretical agreement, Netanyahu emphasized a key point where the U.S. had accepted Israel’s position: the need for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, thus signaling their willingness to end the conflict rather than merely pausing it.

While Netanyahu went on to denounce the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement against as both immoral and anti-Semitic, the key here was a disinclination to use his speech to engage in a tit-for-tat battle with the administration. Why was that?

Some Obama loyalists may claim that this shows that Netanyahu got the message from the president. It’s likely that Israel’s future participation in Kerry’s talks will be cited by some in this group as evidence that Obama’s spanking of the prime minister worked. But this is nonsense. Given that Israel had already signaled that it will accept Kerry’s framework for more talks, that explanation won’t hold water.

A better reason for Netanyahu’s decision to turn the other cheek is that, unlike the president, the prime minister has been paying attention to the currents currently roiling Palestinian politics and knows that Abbas’ inability to rally his people behind a peace agreement renders any potential U.S.-Israeli arguments moot.

It should be remembered that the net results of the 2011 dustup between the two men was pointless. Despite Obama’s best efforts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians, Abbas still wouldn’t budge enough to even negotiate, let alone agree to peace terms. The same dynamic is unfolding today with Israel reportedly offering massive territorial withdrawals of up to 90 percent of the West Bank in the secret talks with the PA while the Palestinians are still tying themselves up in knots explaining why they can’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state or give up the right of return.

Far from needing to defend himself on the American stage as he felt it important to do in 2011, Netanyahu now understands that forbearance is the best way to respond to Obama’s provocations. Try as he might to put the onus for the lack of peace on the Jewish state, Netanyahu knows it will always be the Palestinians who say “no” to peace, not the Israelis.

Similarly, as much as he must have been itching to directly take on Obama’s appeasement of Tehran, Netanyahu realizes that it is Iran’s lust for a nuclear weapon that will do more to undermine the administration’s negotiating tactics than anything he can say.

By eschewing any desire to pressure the Palestinians to make peace, the president more or less guaranteed that Kerry must ultimately fail. And by knuckling under the Iranians in the interim agreement signed by Kerry last November, President Obama has also embarked on a path that cannot lead him to the achievement of his stated goals in the current round of talks.

Though Obama’s attacks did real damage to Israel’s position, the prime minister is right to refuse to take the bait. Netanyahu cannot have failed to see that, far from offering him the opportunity to effectively pressure the Israelis, the president is floundering in his second term especially on foreign policy. The most effective answer to Obama’s taunts is patience since events will soon overtake the president’s positions on both the Palestinian and Iranian fronts, as well as in other debacles around the globe that have popped up because of Obama’s weak leadership. Though the disparity in the relative power of their positions inevitably means Netanyahu must worry about Obama’s barbs, the bottom line here is that it is the president and not the prime minister who is in big trouble.

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AIPAC Will Survive While Obama Fails

With over 10,000 pro-Israel activists in Washington this week for the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and members of both parties lining up as usual to demonstrate their support for the organization and its cause it may seem odd that so many pundits are prepared to bury the group. But given the Obama administration’s recent successful effort to derail Congressional action on Iran sanctions and the president’s own extraordinary attack on the government of the Jewish state this weekend in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg, these are hard times for supporters of the umbrella pro-Israel lobby. Indeed, the collapse of the sanctions campaign combined with what our John Podhoretz correctly described as Obama’s threats against the Jewish state delivered in a pre-AIPAC ambush of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu—who was on his way to Washington to meet with the president and speak at the conference—the power of the lobby seems to have been revealed to be a myth.

As Lee Smith writes today in Tablet magazine, AIPAC’s reliance on the bipartisan coalition it has forged in support of the U.S.-Israel alliance has rendered it unable to punish those who cross it. Smith writes persuasively that President Obama has effectively checkmated AIPAC with a series of moves that demonstrated he couldn’t be constrained by its stands on either the Israel-Palestinian conflict or the Iran nuclear threat. Judged by that standard, he’s right to claim the group “flopped” on Iran sanctions this year. Given that the prospects of AIPAC mobilizing sufficient Democratic support in the Senate for a revived effort to pass a new sanctions bill in the face of Obama’s veto threats are poor, it’s hard to argue with Smith’s belief that the group has been isolated and its power exposed as more a figment of the overheated imaginations of anti-Semitic conspiracy mongers than reality.

But before we join Smith’s musings about AIPAC having to do “some hard thinking about its survival,” some perspective is needed. As bad as things look for the pro-Israel community today, the lobby’s business is in taking the long view of both Washington politics and the Middle East. President Obama may have gotten the upper hand over both AIPAC and Netanyahu in recent months, but any assumption that this situation is permanent rests on the idea that the administration’s diplomatic efforts on both the Palestinian and Iranian fronts will not falter or that these failures can be blamed on Israel and its supporters. As with the fights Obama has picked with Israel earlier in his administration, events have a way of eclipsing his temper tantrums. While it may be entirely in character for the president to choose the weekend when AIPAC is convening and Russia is invading the Ukraine to be issuing ultimatums to Israel, the collapse of U.S. influence abroad due to Obama’s weakness and delusions will make his victory over the lobby a short-lived triumph.

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With over 10,000 pro-Israel activists in Washington this week for the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and members of both parties lining up as usual to demonstrate their support for the organization and its cause it may seem odd that so many pundits are prepared to bury the group. But given the Obama administration’s recent successful effort to derail Congressional action on Iran sanctions and the president’s own extraordinary attack on the government of the Jewish state this weekend in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg, these are hard times for supporters of the umbrella pro-Israel lobby. Indeed, the collapse of the sanctions campaign combined with what our John Podhoretz correctly described as Obama’s threats against the Jewish state delivered in a pre-AIPAC ambush of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu—who was on his way to Washington to meet with the president and speak at the conference—the power of the lobby seems to have been revealed to be a myth.

As Lee Smith writes today in Tablet magazine, AIPAC’s reliance on the bipartisan coalition it has forged in support of the U.S.-Israel alliance has rendered it unable to punish those who cross it. Smith writes persuasively that President Obama has effectively checkmated AIPAC with a series of moves that demonstrated he couldn’t be constrained by its stands on either the Israel-Palestinian conflict or the Iran nuclear threat. Judged by that standard, he’s right to claim the group “flopped” on Iran sanctions this year. Given that the prospects of AIPAC mobilizing sufficient Democratic support in the Senate for a revived effort to pass a new sanctions bill in the face of Obama’s veto threats are poor, it’s hard to argue with Smith’s belief that the group has been isolated and its power exposed as more a figment of the overheated imaginations of anti-Semitic conspiracy mongers than reality.

But before we join Smith’s musings about AIPAC having to do “some hard thinking about its survival,” some perspective is needed. As bad as things look for the pro-Israel community today, the lobby’s business is in taking the long view of both Washington politics and the Middle East. President Obama may have gotten the upper hand over both AIPAC and Netanyahu in recent months, but any assumption that this situation is permanent rests on the idea that the administration’s diplomatic efforts on both the Palestinian and Iranian fronts will not falter or that these failures can be blamed on Israel and its supporters. As with the fights Obama has picked with Israel earlier in his administration, events have a way of eclipsing his temper tantrums. While it may be entirely in character for the president to choose the weekend when AIPAC is convening and Russia is invading the Ukraine to be issuing ultimatums to Israel, the collapse of U.S. influence abroad due to Obama’s weakness and delusions will make his victory over the lobby a short-lived triumph.

Smith is right to claim that AIPAC was thoroughly outmaneuvered by the administration in the last year. The group’s failure to oppose the nomination of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense was seen as a sign of weakness by the re-elected president. Smith believes AIPAC was set up by the administration when it agreed to lobby on behalf of the president’s efforts to get Congress to authorize the use of force in Syria. The writer believes Obama was never serious about striking the Assad regime in defense of the “red line” he enunciated about the use of chemical weapons and that the administration’s humiliating retreat from those threats was designed to strengthen its ties with Assad’s Iranian ally and to make AIPAC look foolish. That may be giving the president a little too much credit since Obama’s humiliation at the hands of the Russians and Congressional critics was far greater than any experienced by AIPAC. But Smith is correct that the episode damaged the lobby.

There’s also no arguing with the verdict that AIPAC was undone in the campaign for new Iran sanctions by its reliance on support from both sides of the aisle. There was never any chance that the group would be able to muscle sanctions through a Democratic-controlled Senate once the president issued a veto threat and falsely framed the debate as one between supporters of diplomacy and those who want war.  Nor can AIPAC seek to punish Democrats who have cowardly retreated in the face of pressure from the White House. Combined with the president’s bizarre attack on Israel and his almost total mischaracterization of the Palestinian position on the peace talks, there’s no disputing that this administration has defied supporters of Israel on their two most important issues and there’s nothing they can do about it at the moment.

But that doesn’t mean that AIPAC has failed or that the president now has carte blanche to force Israel to give in to his demands or to negotiate a deal with Iran that falls short of his promises to halt their nuclear drive.

The problem for this administration today when dealing with Israel and AIPAC is the same as it was in the president’s first term. He can engage in spats with Israel and its supporters as often as he likes and even sometimes gain a tactical advantage over them. But the bottom line in these disputes remains the unwillingness of either the Palestinians or the Iranians to behave in a manner that is compatible with Obama’s delusional view of the world.

Just as Obama’s attacks on Netanyahu on settlements, Jerusalem and the 1967 borders were rendered meaningless by the Palestinians refusal to negotiate, his latest tirade at the prime minister’s expense will also be overshadowed by Mahmoud Abbas’s inability to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or to sign a deal that will give up the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. Israel will, as Netanyahu and his predecessors have proved, take risks for peace but the Palestinians will always say no because they remain mired in a culture of rejectionism that is at the core of their national identity.

Similarly, the president’s ability to hold off sanctions won’t mean much if the Iranians don’t do his biding in the P5+1 talks. The idea that he can go on negotiating and keep Congress from passing new sanctions indefinitely while the Iranians continue pushing towards a bomb is a misreading of the situation.

The bottom line is that 12 months from now, the president’s threats to Israel will be mere footnotes in the history of Kerry’s failed initiative and not even Obama will be able to persuade Congress or the American people that this entirely predictable result and any resulting violence in its aftermath was the fault of Israel rather than his hubristic secretary of state and Abbas. Nor will be able to pretend that his “moderate” Iranian interlocutors wish to embrace engagement after they spend the next year playing their usual delaying game that will bring them that much closer to their nuclear ambition that imperils both the U.S. and Israel.

But a year from now AIPAC will still be a strong voice in Washington for the U.S.-Israel alliance and it will have retained allies in the Democratic Party that will enable it to push for sanctions once the Iranians finish duping Obama. That is cold comfort for those who rightly worry about the damage the president is doing to U.S. interests now. But by playing the long game, AIPAC will survive to live to fight and win another day. Rather than worrying about the lobby’s survival, analysts would do better to ponder whether the president’s string of foreign policy disasters is hastening the moment when his lame duck status will make any further insults hurled by him at Israel and AIPAC pointless.

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The Shelved Iran Report and Diplomacy

With the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference starting this weekend in Washington, the debate about the Iranian nuclear threat is back in the headlines. But, as the AIPAC activists know all too well, in their efforts to mobilize Congress to support increased sanctions on Iran the administration has effectively checkmated them on the issue by claiming the measure would derail diplomacy. Opponents of sanctions have falsely sought to frame the issue as being a choice between war and diplomacy even though the new sanctions, which would not go into effect until after the current negotiations with Iran are seen to have failed, would clearly strengthen the administration’s hand in the talks. But the problem with treating the diplomatic process as sacrosanct is that in doing so, the truth about the nature of the threat may be sacrificed without the West getting any closer to its goal of thwarting Iran’s nuclear program.

That dilemma was illustrated this week when it was revealed that the International Atomic Energy Agency had shelved a new report about Iran’s nuclear project because it was felt its publication would harm the diplomatic process. Sources told Reuters that the report would have been a wider review of the Iranian program including crucial analysis of Tehran’s military research. But the IAEA, whose reports over the last few years have raised awareness of the nuclear threat, ultimately decided that putting out more information about the topic now would, like the sanctions being debated in Washington, harm diplomacy.

After the Reuters report was published, Israel called on the IAEA to release the report. In response, the agency claimed today that it doesn’t exist. But all that tells us is that the decision to spike the report took place before it was formally prepared. The bottom line remains the same. Whatever new information the IAEA has obtained about military dimensions of Iran’s program is not going to be published because the more the Western public knows about the subject the less likely they are to give diplomats the leeway they need to craft a nuclear deal that will fall short of their stated goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

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With the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference starting this weekend in Washington, the debate about the Iranian nuclear threat is back in the headlines. But, as the AIPAC activists know all too well, in their efforts to mobilize Congress to support increased sanctions on Iran the administration has effectively checkmated them on the issue by claiming the measure would derail diplomacy. Opponents of sanctions have falsely sought to frame the issue as being a choice between war and diplomacy even though the new sanctions, which would not go into effect until after the current negotiations with Iran are seen to have failed, would clearly strengthen the administration’s hand in the talks. But the problem with treating the diplomatic process as sacrosanct is that in doing so, the truth about the nature of the threat may be sacrificed without the West getting any closer to its goal of thwarting Iran’s nuclear program.

That dilemma was illustrated this week when it was revealed that the International Atomic Energy Agency had shelved a new report about Iran’s nuclear project because it was felt its publication would harm the diplomatic process. Sources told Reuters that the report would have been a wider review of the Iranian program including crucial analysis of Tehran’s military research. But the IAEA, whose reports over the last few years have raised awareness of the nuclear threat, ultimately decided that putting out more information about the topic now would, like the sanctions being debated in Washington, harm diplomacy.

After the Reuters report was published, Israel called on the IAEA to release the report. In response, the agency claimed today that it doesn’t exist. But all that tells us is that the decision to spike the report took place before it was formally prepared. The bottom line remains the same. Whatever new information the IAEA has obtained about military dimensions of Iran’s program is not going to be published because the more the Western public knows about the subject the less likely they are to give diplomats the leeway they need to craft a nuclear deal that will fall short of their stated goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

We don’t know what a new IAEA report on Iran would have said. Given that the interim nuclear deal signed by the U.S. in November did not provide for inspections of Iranian facilities where military research is being conducted, it may be that the agency has not learned of any breakthroughs or further evidence of Iran’s clear intent to build a bomb. But past IAEA reports have served an important purpose in clarifying the danger involved in letting Tehran continue to use diplomacy to run out the clock until they reach their nuclear goal. But whether the IAEA acted on its own or if it succumbed to pressure, the effect is the same. The Obama administration and its P5+1 partners understand that the more information is released about the ongoing Iranian efforts to circumvent the diplomatic process, the harder it is to silence criticism of their tactics or to prevent Congress from seeking to put more sanctions in place.

There is no disagreement between the administration and its critics about whether a diplomatic solution is the best way to resolve this issue. No one wants the U.S. to be forced into a position where its only choice really is between the use of force and accepting a situation in which Iran becomes a nuclear power. But the suppression of the free flow of information about the nature of that threat raises suspicions that what is going on now is more about preserving diplomacy for its own sake than anything else.

By agreeing to negotiations that tacitly recognized Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and loosened existing sanctions, the administration has allowed Tehran to believe that it will never have to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. Having triumphed in the interim talks, it is little surprise that Iran’s leaders believe they will achieve their nuclear goal either through diplomacy or by stalling the process until the point where their bomb is a fait accompli. It is to be hoped that the administration means what it says about preventing an Iranian bomb. But the more President Obama seeks to suppress the truth about the Iranian threat and to silence debate about sanctions, the harder it is to believe that he will keep his promises. The goal must be to make it impossible for the Islamist regime to build a bomb, not detente. A diplomatic process that aims for anything less than that is not worth the effort or the sacrifices of the truth required for keeping it alive.

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Free Speech and the Left’s War on AIPAC

The failure of the Senate to pass a bill authorizing additional sanctions on Iran if the current nuclear negotiations fail has emboldened some critics of the pro-Israel community. The inability of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to ensure the bill’s passage despite the support of a bipartisan coalition of 59 members of the U.S. Senate has some of the lobby’s detractors smelling blood even though it was unfair to expect it to prevail in the face of President Obama’s veto threats. Author and columnist Peter Beinart called last month for the administration to boycott the group’s annual conference next month and when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offended his liberal fan base by endorsing the group, the writer was among a host of left-wing celebrities who signed a joint letter warning the mayor that he risked their ire by aligning himself with AIPAC. That letter set off a controversy since two of those who joined with Beinart to denounce AIPAC were prominent Manhattan Rabbis Rolondo Matalon and Felicia Sol. When some of their congregants at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun expressed their outrage at having their house of worship implicated in a scurrilous attack on AIPAC, Beinart, who mocked their support of Israeli democracy, in turn denounced them. Now Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former leader of the American Reform movement, has weighed in on the issue in an honorable attempt to try and put this matter in perspective in a Haaretz column and I believe his thoughtful article deserves a response.

According to Yoffie, both sides are well within their rights in this dispute. The rabbis were expressing a legitimate point of view and so were their congregants. While he sides with those who defend AIPAC, he took issue with my assertion that the claim that rabbis who wish to criticize Israel live in fear for their livelihoods is something of a myth. Yoffie believes such pressures exist and should be resisted. He wants all sides of the debate about Israel and AIPAC to speak up candidly for the sake of building a vibrant community where no one should fear to speak up. To a large extent I agree with that formulation. But the problem with the anti-AIPAC campaign as well as much of the efforts on the left to pressure or boycott Israel is that it is, at its heart, an attempt not to promote democratic discussion but to essentially disenfranchise Israeli voters and silence their American friends. That is why I must dispute Rabbi Yoffie’s effort to assign equal virtue to the positions of Beinart and the rabbis as well as to their critics.

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The failure of the Senate to pass a bill authorizing additional sanctions on Iran if the current nuclear negotiations fail has emboldened some critics of the pro-Israel community. The inability of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to ensure the bill’s passage despite the support of a bipartisan coalition of 59 members of the U.S. Senate has some of the lobby’s detractors smelling blood even though it was unfair to expect it to prevail in the face of President Obama’s veto threats. Author and columnist Peter Beinart called last month for the administration to boycott the group’s annual conference next month and when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offended his liberal fan base by endorsing the group, the writer was among a host of left-wing celebrities who signed a joint letter warning the mayor that he risked their ire by aligning himself with AIPAC. That letter set off a controversy since two of those who joined with Beinart to denounce AIPAC were prominent Manhattan Rabbis Rolondo Matalon and Felicia Sol. When some of their congregants at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun expressed their outrage at having their house of worship implicated in a scurrilous attack on AIPAC, Beinart, who mocked their support of Israeli democracy, in turn denounced them. Now Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former leader of the American Reform movement, has weighed in on the issue in an honorable attempt to try and put this matter in perspective in a Haaretz column and I believe his thoughtful article deserves a response.

According to Yoffie, both sides are well within their rights in this dispute. The rabbis were expressing a legitimate point of view and so were their congregants. While he sides with those who defend AIPAC, he took issue with my assertion that the claim that rabbis who wish to criticize Israel live in fear for their livelihoods is something of a myth. Yoffie believes such pressures exist and should be resisted. He wants all sides of the debate about Israel and AIPAC to speak up candidly for the sake of building a vibrant community where no one should fear to speak up. To a large extent I agree with that formulation. But the problem with the anti-AIPAC campaign as well as much of the efforts on the left to pressure or boycott Israel is that it is, at its heart, an attempt not to promote democratic discussion but to essentially disenfranchise Israeli voters and silence their American friends. That is why I must dispute Rabbi Yoffie’s effort to assign equal virtue to the positions of Beinart and the rabbis as well as to their critics.

Rabbi Yoffie is right that some liberal rabbis who criticize Israel may worry about offending some of their congregants as do others who are, as he notes, pressured from the left to disassociate themselves from the Jewish state. But my point was not to deny that such rabbis have their critics but to point out that efforts to restrain them are almost universally ineffective, as the continued tenure of the B’nai Jeshurun rabbis illustrates. Moreover, my point was not merely about the way rabbis use their pulpits to undermine Israel but to highlight the fact that, contrary to the myth promoted by the left, such figures, be they clerics or not, are generally richly rewarded by the praise of the secular mainstream media. For a Jew to speak out against Israel and/or AIPAC is to invite praise from a liberal media that is always eager to lionize such critics and to falsely portray them as courageous.

It should also be pointed out that the anti-AIPAC letter signed by Matalon, Sol, and Beinart was not about promoting diversity of views or a debate about the peace process so much as it was an attempt to shun and delegitimize AIPAC and its supporters. Though Rabbi Yoffie believes the signers crossed no “red lines” of offensive conduct, I would insist that by seeking to demonize AIPAC, those letter-writers were reinforcing the offensive and bigoted stereotype about the pro-Israel lobby promoted by those who see it as a conspiratorial group that doesn’t really speak for Jews and manipulates U.S. policy against American interests. No one is saying that AIPAC’s critics don’t have a right to voice their differences with the group, but what they want is not so much to debate it as to destroy it. Much as one would wish to bridge such differences, this is one argument where both sides are not right. One must either defend the right of the pro-Israel community to speak out on behalf of the democratically-elected government of the Jewish state as the BJ congregants have done or one joins with those who wish to isolate and pressure it, whether to save it from itself as Beinart thinks or to destroy it as the open anti-Zionists who signed the anti-AIPAC letter seem to want.

What is at stake here is not a right to speak up against Israel and AIPAC but the ability of the pro-Israel community to survive an all-out attack designed to silence it. As Rabbi Yoffie eloquently states:

I don’t agree with AIPAC on everything, but I agree with them most of the time; and the harsh dismissal of AIPAC by the signatories to the letter troubles me greatly. A Washington without AIPAC would not mean an Israel at peace; it would mean an Israel isolated and vulnerable, lacking the anchor that AIPAC has long provided and without which peace would be impossible.

Freedom of speech is not an issue in a community where dissent against Israel is widespread and generally rewarded with praise while supporters are often dismissed as stooges or hypocrites. Those who would destroy what Yoffie rightly called “Israel’s safety net” are not going to be silenced, but they should be held accountable.

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The Attack on Israeli Democracy and AIPAC

One of the most disgraceful conceits of American Jewish life is the pose of martyrdom adopted by critics of Israel. American Jews who publicly berate Israel’s government and those Americans who support the Jewish state never stop telling us that what they are doing is courageous. They claim the Jewish establishment seeks to silence them all the while freely shouting their message from the rooftops to the applause of the mainstream media. To disassociate oneself from Israel is a guarantee of a platform for your views on the op-ed pages of major newspapers like the New York Times if not a lucrative book contract. But if you dare to call out such persons, watch out. You stand a fair chance of being demonized or shunned by the chattering classes.

That’s the lesson to be learned from an exchange centering on the conduct of the rabbis at Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. As I wrote on Monday, Rabbis Rolondo Matalon and Felicia Sol joined with other fashionable New York liberals last week to denounce New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for his support for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The prominent letter writers were outraged at the ultra-liberal mayor’s willingness to embrace the umbrella pro-Israel group that they maliciously and falsely denounced as a right-wing group that does not speak for American Jews. This was too much for a group of BJ congregants who wrote a letter to their rabbis to express their pain at the spectacle of their synagogue’s spiritual leaders aligning themselves against an organization whose sole mission is to support the democratically-elected government of Israel. For their pains, the group was subjected to a scathing denunciation in today’s Haaretz by writer Peter Beinart, who was himself one of the signatories along with Matalon and Sol, of the letter to de Blasio.

Beinart’s diatribe against the BJ congregants is interesting for two reasons. One, it shows again that while blasting Israel and AIPAC wins you praise in the media, speaking up against such slanders can earn you the sort of opprobrium that can make you very unpopular, especially on New York’s Upper West Side. But just as important was the argument Beinart made. He claimed the congregants were employing Orwellian language when they said it was appropriate for American Jews to back the verdict of Israeli voters. As far as Beinart is concerned the fact that the West Bank is not a democracy renders that argument false. To speak of support for Israeli democracy is therefore in Beinart’s view emblematic of a culture of dishonesty and “euphemism” on which the pro-Israel lobby is built.

But in this case it is Beinart who is playing Orwellian tricks with language. In doing so, this self-proclaimed Zionist is not only seeking to delegitimize the majority of Israelis who have ignored his advice about what to do about the West Bank but also willfully misrepresents the nature of the conflict.

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One of the most disgraceful conceits of American Jewish life is the pose of martyrdom adopted by critics of Israel. American Jews who publicly berate Israel’s government and those Americans who support the Jewish state never stop telling us that what they are doing is courageous. They claim the Jewish establishment seeks to silence them all the while freely shouting their message from the rooftops to the applause of the mainstream media. To disassociate oneself from Israel is a guarantee of a platform for your views on the op-ed pages of major newspapers like the New York Times if not a lucrative book contract. But if you dare to call out such persons, watch out. You stand a fair chance of being demonized or shunned by the chattering classes.

That’s the lesson to be learned from an exchange centering on the conduct of the rabbis at Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. As I wrote on Monday, Rabbis Rolondo Matalon and Felicia Sol joined with other fashionable New York liberals last week to denounce New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for his support for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The prominent letter writers were outraged at the ultra-liberal mayor’s willingness to embrace the umbrella pro-Israel group that they maliciously and falsely denounced as a right-wing group that does not speak for American Jews. This was too much for a group of BJ congregants who wrote a letter to their rabbis to express their pain at the spectacle of their synagogue’s spiritual leaders aligning themselves against an organization whose sole mission is to support the democratically-elected government of Israel. For their pains, the group was subjected to a scathing denunciation in today’s Haaretz by writer Peter Beinart, who was himself one of the signatories along with Matalon and Sol, of the letter to de Blasio.

Beinart’s diatribe against the BJ congregants is interesting for two reasons. One, it shows again that while blasting Israel and AIPAC wins you praise in the media, speaking up against such slanders can earn you the sort of opprobrium that can make you very unpopular, especially on New York’s Upper West Side. But just as important was the argument Beinart made. He claimed the congregants were employing Orwellian language when they said it was appropriate for American Jews to back the verdict of Israeli voters. As far as Beinart is concerned the fact that the West Bank is not a democracy renders that argument false. To speak of support for Israeli democracy is therefore in Beinart’s view emblematic of a culture of dishonesty and “euphemism” on which the pro-Israel lobby is built.

But in this case it is Beinart who is playing Orwellian tricks with language. In doing so, this self-proclaimed Zionist is not only seeking to delegitimize the majority of Israelis who have ignored his advice about what to do about the West Bank but also willfully misrepresents the nature of the conflict.

AIPAC’s position and that of the overwhelming majority of the American people is that Israel’s people have the right to govern themselves and not have solutions to the conflict with the Palestinians imposed on them from the outside. But in Beinart’s twisted reasoning, backing the verdict of the overwhelming majority of Israeli voters who elected the current government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu—and gave parties that share Beinart’s views only a small percentage of their votes—is somehow anti-democratic. Since Israelis believe they have no choice but to stay in the West Bank until the Palestinians are ready to make peace, Beinart has adopted the ludicrous and hypocritical position that they have no claim on the word democracy.

Attempts to create a Palestinian democracy faltered in the last decade. Gaza fell under the despotic rule of Hamas. In the West Bank, Israel’s supposed peace partner Fatah has as little interest in liberty as their Islamic rivals. Current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is serving the 10th year of the four-year term to which he was elected. None of this is Israel’s fault. Israel would welcome the creation of a real democracy as opposed to an Islamist dictatorship or a Fatah kleptocracy posing as one. But, as Beinart knows, that isn’t in the cards, whether or not Israel withdraws from the West Bank.

More to the point, three times in the last generation Israel has offered to withdraw from almost all of the West Bank and even a share of Jerusalem in order to create a Palestinian state. Three times they were turned down because Yasir Arafat and his successor Abbas could not bring themselves to sign a treaty that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn or to renounce the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. Even the supposed “right-wing government” that Beinart and his fellow letter-writers so despise is now negotiating with the PA and has reportedly expressed its willingness to withdraw from 90 percent of the West Bank and make territorial swaps to create a Palestinian state. No one, except perhaps Secretary of State John Kerry, expects the Palestinian response to be positive. If Israeli voters have rejected Beinart’s pleas to withdraw from the West Bank regardless of the dangers, it is because they have been paying attention to the events of the last 20 years during which the Jewish state has continually sought to trade land for peace and received only terror in return.

The point here is not so much that Beinart is out of touch with both Israeli opinion and the reality of Palestinian intransigence, but that in order to justify his stand he is willing to trash the idea that Israeli democracy matters. The position of AIPAC is not that it seeks to justify perpetual Israeli rule in all of the West Bank. It is one of support for the right of Israel’s democratic government to wait until the Palestinians are ready to make a genuine peace before risking a repeat of what happened in Gaza when the Jewish state withdrew every settlement and soldier.

Rather than Israel’s defenders engaging in dishonesty, it is Beinart and his colleagues who have twisted the truth in this debate. The question in the Middle East is not whether Israel will let the West Bank become a democracy but whether the one true democracy in the region—Israel—will continue to exist. AIPAC and its supporters stand with the people of Israel in their efforts to defend their country. Those like Beinart, the BJ rabbis, and the assorted anti-Zionists who joined with them to denounce de Blasio have placed themselves in opposition not so much to AIPAC but the people of Israel and echoed the arguments of those in the BDS movement that wage economic war on the Jewish state. If they wish to truly renew and cleanse Jewish life as they claim, they should look in the mirror before casting aspersions on either Israel or its defenders.

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Iran and the Limits of AIPAC’s Power

Supporters of Israel are frustrated. Despite the bipartisan endorsement of 59 members of the U.S. Senate, the effort to enact a new round of tougher sanctions against Iran has stalled. President Obama’s opposition to a measure that would only go into effect after it had been determined that the current negotiations with Iran had failed has effectively spiked the bill. The administration’s misleading effort to portray more sanctions as the moral equivalent of a declaration of war on Iran was enough to stiffen opponents and to spook many of the bill’s Democratic supporters. With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid determined not to allow a vote and with prominent pro-Israel Democrats like New York’s Chuck Schumer not wishing to go toe-to-toe with the White House on the issue, the bill is stuck in limbo.

That has angered Republicans as well as pro-Israel activists who are still determined to keep the issue alive and left some of them looking to assess blame for the bill’s failure. The principal target of those recriminations appears to be the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). As Eli Lake reports in the Daily Beast today, AIPAC is being blamed for its decision to pull back on advocacy for sanctions earlier this month after it realized the bill could no longer count on bipartisan support. Lake describes the lobby’s on-again, off-again campaign for sanctions as a botched job that has disappointed both Republicans and the Israeli government.

But while it’s clear this episode is far from being AIPAC’s finest moment, any effort to pin the blame on the group is mistaken. Whatever mistakes AIPAC may have made in the last few months, once President Obama decided to go all-out to stop the sanctions bill, the issue was decided. Nothing AIPAC could do or say was going to convince Democrats to stand up to a president that claimed opposition to his position was advocacy of war. Scapegoating AIPAC in this manner not only fails to take into account the limits of even the vaunted lobby’s power but also is a misreading of how the group operates.

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Supporters of Israel are frustrated. Despite the bipartisan endorsement of 59 members of the U.S. Senate, the effort to enact a new round of tougher sanctions against Iran has stalled. President Obama’s opposition to a measure that would only go into effect after it had been determined that the current negotiations with Iran had failed has effectively spiked the bill. The administration’s misleading effort to portray more sanctions as the moral equivalent of a declaration of war on Iran was enough to stiffen opponents and to spook many of the bill’s Democratic supporters. With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid determined not to allow a vote and with prominent pro-Israel Democrats like New York’s Chuck Schumer not wishing to go toe-to-toe with the White House on the issue, the bill is stuck in limbo.

That has angered Republicans as well as pro-Israel activists who are still determined to keep the issue alive and left some of them looking to assess blame for the bill’s failure. The principal target of those recriminations appears to be the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). As Eli Lake reports in the Daily Beast today, AIPAC is being blamed for its decision to pull back on advocacy for sanctions earlier this month after it realized the bill could no longer count on bipartisan support. Lake describes the lobby’s on-again, off-again campaign for sanctions as a botched job that has disappointed both Republicans and the Israeli government.

But while it’s clear this episode is far from being AIPAC’s finest moment, any effort to pin the blame on the group is mistaken. Whatever mistakes AIPAC may have made in the last few months, once President Obama decided to go all-out to stop the sanctions bill, the issue was decided. Nothing AIPAC could do or say was going to convince Democrats to stand up to a president that claimed opposition to his position was advocacy of war. Scapegoating AIPAC in this manner not only fails to take into account the limits of even the vaunted lobby’s power but also is a misreading of how the group operates.

AIPAC is among the most effective lobbies on Capitol Hill and has, thanks to support from a broad cross-section off American society that cares deeply about the Jewish state, helped build a wall-to-wall consensus in favor of the U.S. alliance with Israel. When AIPAC takes up an issue or seeks supports for a program of joint interest to the U.S. and Israel, it usually gets its way. But thanks to the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theory, AIPAC’s reputation as a Washington super lobby has grown out of all proportion to reality. Far from being the pro-Israel tail that wags the American dog, it is, in fact, nothing more than a manifestation of the bipartisan support for the Jewish state that is deeply engrained in the political DNA of the United States.

Though it has, at times, been unfairly labeled as only supportive of Israeli right-wingers or a tool of the Republican Party, it is nothing of the sort. AIPAC loyally supports whomever the Israeli people elect to govern their nation. And it has as many, if not more, Democratic supporters as it does Republicans. It is that bipartisan nature that is key to its ability to produce results. Though it has consistently pushed both Republican and Democratic administrations to give more to Israel or to be more vigilant about threats to Middle East peace such as Iran, its ability to prevail is based on the sort of access to the leaderships of both parties that makes its involvement in partisan disputes impossible.

That is why Obama’s decision to throw down the gauntlet and veto new Iran sanctions even if they passed both Houses of Congress rendered AIPAC’s role in the debate moot. AIPAC can oppose a policy but it can’t go to war with Democrats any more than it could with Republicans. If Senate Democrats like Schumer were unwilling to stand up to the president’s threats, there was never anything AIPAC could do about it.

As for the government of Israel, it, too, may be frustrated with AIPAC over the defeat of sanctions. But if so, that says more about their frustration with Obama than it does about AIPAC’s shortcomings. AIPAC has a specific role to play in the alliance. That role is to work with the administration and the Congress, not to engage in knock-down, drag-out fights that will hamper its ability to keep U.S. aid flowing to the Jewish state and to foster increased cooperation between the two countries.

One may well argue that the Iranian nuclear issue is of such importance that all other considerations should be put aside in favor of advocacy of a tougher U.S. stance. But even here AIPAC—and the State of Israel—must look at the long-term picture rather than vent anger after a momentary defeat. If the administration’s engagement with Iran fails—as it almost certainly will—then AIPAC must be in position to renew the fight for sanctions and more U.S. action to stop the nuclear threat. Burning their bridges with the Democrats now will undermine future efforts along these lines.

The Israeli government is also in no position to decry AIPAC’s current moderation at the moment on Iran sanctions. AIPAC’s retreat on sanctions is no different from the efforts of the Israelis to paper over their differences with Secretary of State John Kerry over the peace negotiations with the Palestinians. They understand only too well that keeping close to the administration is an imperative even when it does—or in Kerry’s case, says—things that undermine the alliance.

AIPAC may have lost a battle in the last month over Iran sanctions but it still is in a position to win the war to hold the administration to its pledge to stop the nuclear threat from Tehran. In order to do that, unfortunately, it must retreat now in order to prevail later.

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The Rabbis Who Attacked AIPAC and the Congregants Who Hit Back

It has become a commonplace observation in some portions of the organized Jewish community to complain that American rabbis are afraid to discuss Israel with their congregations. The assumption underlying this claim is that to criticize the State of Israel is the kiss of death for Jewish clergy who live in fear of offending wealthy donors. It’s all very sad but, in fact, completely untrue. Critics of Israel aren’t shunned in American Jewish life. If anything, they have a much better chance of being heard in the secular media—and given space on the opinion pages of major newspapers such as the New York Times—than those who attempt to defend the Jewish state against the slanders that are hurled at it by both its Arab foes and Jews who adopt a “more in sorrow than in anger” pose.

Consider the rabbis at a prominent synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, B’nai Jeshurun. Two of them, Rolando Matalon and Felicia Sol, signed a letter (as this story in New York’s Jewish Week reported) attacking New York City mayor Bill de Blasio for speaking at an AIPAC event where he said, “City Hall will always be open to AIPAC. When you need me to stand by you in Washington or anywhere, I will answer the call and I’ll answer it happily ’cause that’s my job.” The letter they signed said the following: “The needs and concerns of many of your constituents–U.S. Jews like us among them–are not aligned with those of AIPAC, and no, your job is not to do AIPAC’s bidding when they call you to do so. AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us.”

As it happens, B’nai Jeshurun’s congregants include a number of people who are deeply involved with AIPAC. They are predominantly liberal themselves, as well as predominantly Democratic Party voters, and as such, they give the lie to the idea that AIPAC is a right-wing cabal. They have issued a public letter of their own, expressing their profound distress at their rabbinical leaders for their spurious attack:

Please understand that your words, besides being factually incorrect, are offensive to many of your congregants. As our rabbis, your public comments reflect on our synagogue and on us. We are proud supporters of AIPAC, and we object to the way you mischaracterize the work that AIPAC does and the diverse political affiliation of its many members. Your letter is divisive and contains false and unsubstantiated statements. By attempting to paint AIPAC into an ideological corner, you have injured AIPAC’s ability to continue its bipartisan efforts, and in so doing have hurt the State of Israel as well.

You can read the rest of the letter here.

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It has become a commonplace observation in some portions of the organized Jewish community to complain that American rabbis are afraid to discuss Israel with their congregations. The assumption underlying this claim is that to criticize the State of Israel is the kiss of death for Jewish clergy who live in fear of offending wealthy donors. It’s all very sad but, in fact, completely untrue. Critics of Israel aren’t shunned in American Jewish life. If anything, they have a much better chance of being heard in the secular media—and given space on the opinion pages of major newspapers such as the New York Times—than those who attempt to defend the Jewish state against the slanders that are hurled at it by both its Arab foes and Jews who adopt a “more in sorrow than in anger” pose.

Consider the rabbis at a prominent synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, B’nai Jeshurun. Two of them, Rolando Matalon and Felicia Sol, signed a letter (as this story in New York’s Jewish Week reported) attacking New York City mayor Bill de Blasio for speaking at an AIPAC event where he said, “City Hall will always be open to AIPAC. When you need me to stand by you in Washington or anywhere, I will answer the call and I’ll answer it happily ’cause that’s my job.” The letter they signed said the following: “The needs and concerns of many of your constituents–U.S. Jews like us among them–are not aligned with those of AIPAC, and no, your job is not to do AIPAC’s bidding when they call you to do so. AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us.”

As it happens, B’nai Jeshurun’s congregants include a number of people who are deeply involved with AIPAC. They are predominantly liberal themselves, as well as predominantly Democratic Party voters, and as such, they give the lie to the idea that AIPAC is a right-wing cabal. They have issued a public letter of their own, expressing their profound distress at their rabbinical leaders for their spurious attack:

Please understand that your words, besides being factually incorrect, are offensive to many of your congregants. As our rabbis, your public comments reflect on our synagogue and on us. We are proud supporters of AIPAC, and we object to the way you mischaracterize the work that AIPAC does and the diverse political affiliation of its many members. Your letter is divisive and contains false and unsubstantiated statements. By attempting to paint AIPAC into an ideological corner, you have injured AIPAC’s ability to continue its bipartisan efforts, and in so doing have hurt the State of Israel as well.

You can read the rest of the letter here.

This letter reveals a sobering truth: the most pressing problem for American Jews is not the failure of spiritual leaders to disassociate themselves from Israel and its backers but the scandalous impunity with which some prominent rabbis and Jewish organizational leaders use their pulpits to undermine the pro-Israel community and lend aid and comfort to those seeking to wage economic war on the Jewish state. It takes little courage these days to denounce the pro-Israel cause; the rewards of doing so are actually quite substantial. Rather than needing more tolerance for those who seek to support their disgraceful campaign of delegitimization, perhaps what is required is for more American Jews like the signatories of the letter opposing their rabbis’ statement to find the guts to start speaking out against those who seek to shout down the Jewish state’s defenders.

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Sanctions Stall Doesn’t Signal AIPAC’s Fall

After amassing an impressive 58 senators from both parties to co-sponsor a bill calling for new sanctions on Iran in case the current negotiations end in failure, the legislation has stalled in the Senate. Alarmed by what it felt was a threat to its diplomacy with Iran, the administration and its backers launched an all-out attack on the measure, claiming its passage would so offend Tehran that it would end nuclear talks with the West and leave the United States no alternative but to go to war. Even worse, some of the president’s supporters claimed that the only reason so many legislators, including 16 Democrats, would back the bill was that they were acting, in the words of influential television comedian Jon Stewart, as senators “from the great state of Israel.” This not-so-subtle invocation of the Walt-Mearsheimer canard in which a vast pro-Israel conspiracy manipulates a helpless Congress paid off by wealthy Jews to the detriment of American interests has become a chestnut of Washington policy debates, but one the administration’s cheerleaders haven’t hesitated to invoke.

All this has chilled a debate about passing more Iran sanctions that might be considered moot in any case since as long as Majority Leader Harry Reid is determined to keep the bill from coming to a vote, it has little chance of passage. But rather than discuss the administration’s scorched-earth campaign on the issue, the New York Times prefers to join with the administration in taking another shot at the arch-villain of the supporters of the conspiratorial view of U.S. foreign policy put forward in the infamous “Israel Lobby” thesis: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). According to the Times, the lull in the battle over sanctions is a sign that AIPAC is losing its touch on Capitol Hill. This is considered good news for the administration and critics of the pro-Israel lobby and the bipartisan community for which it speaks. But while AIPAC can’t be happy with the way it and other advocates of sanctions have been brushed back in this debate, reports of its decline are highly exaggerated. While the administration has won its point for the moment in stalling the bill, the idea that it has won the political war over Iran is, at best, premature.

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After amassing an impressive 58 senators from both parties to co-sponsor a bill calling for new sanctions on Iran in case the current negotiations end in failure, the legislation has stalled in the Senate. Alarmed by what it felt was a threat to its diplomacy with Iran, the administration and its backers launched an all-out attack on the measure, claiming its passage would so offend Tehran that it would end nuclear talks with the West and leave the United States no alternative but to go to war. Even worse, some of the president’s supporters claimed that the only reason so many legislators, including 16 Democrats, would back the bill was that they were acting, in the words of influential television comedian Jon Stewart, as senators “from the great state of Israel.” This not-so-subtle invocation of the Walt-Mearsheimer canard in which a vast pro-Israel conspiracy manipulates a helpless Congress paid off by wealthy Jews to the detriment of American interests has become a chestnut of Washington policy debates, but one the administration’s cheerleaders haven’t hesitated to invoke.

All this has chilled a debate about passing more Iran sanctions that might be considered moot in any case since as long as Majority Leader Harry Reid is determined to keep the bill from coming to a vote, it has little chance of passage. But rather than discuss the administration’s scorched-earth campaign on the issue, the New York Times prefers to join with the administration in taking another shot at the arch-villain of the supporters of the conspiratorial view of U.S. foreign policy put forward in the infamous “Israel Lobby” thesis: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). According to the Times, the lull in the battle over sanctions is a sign that AIPAC is losing its touch on Capitol Hill. This is considered good news for the administration and critics of the pro-Israel lobby and the bipartisan community for which it speaks. But while AIPAC can’t be happy with the way it and other advocates of sanctions have been brushed back in this debate, reports of its decline are highly exaggerated. While the administration has won its point for the moment in stalling the bill, the idea that it has won the political war over Iran is, at best, premature.

The chief problem with the article is that its premise is based on the myth that AIPAC is a monolithic and unstoppable group that can pass any bill it likes. The article’s assertion that AIPAC has gotten its way on every public policy issue since its futile effort to stop the Reagan administration from selling AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia in 1981 is foolish. AIPAC rarely, if ever, directly challenges presidents and when it does it inevitably comes out on the short end, as in its confrontation with the George H.W. Bush administration over loan guarantees to Israel in 1991 when the elder President Bush depicted himself as “one, lonely, little guy” standing up to AIPAC. Written by White House correspondent Mark Landler, one of whose previous recent forays into foreign policy was a sycophantic paean to the virtues of Secretary of State John Kerry, today’s equally slanted piece simplifies the congressional debate on Iran—which has been driven as much, if not more, by longstanding Senate sanctions activists such as Senate Foreign Policy Committee chair Robert Menendez and his Republican counterpart Mark Kirk than outside lobbyists—into a one-on-one duel between Obama and AIPAC.

That suits the administration since it wishes to show itself as having bested AIPAC. But it dramatically distorts the truth about the way AIPAC operates and its aversion to involvement in partisan debates. The charge that the group is biased toward Republicans is bunk. The group and its large cadre of supporters throughout the nation are only interested in whether a member of Congress is a supporter of Israel and enthusiastically backs Democrats who fit that description and does the same for those in the GOP. Nor is it the American branch of the Likud, as some falsely assert and Landler implies in his misleading article. The group’s guiding principle is respect for Israeli democracy and when that means, as it did for much of the 1990s, backing a left-wing government that embraced Oslo, that stand was a source of frustration to AIPAC supporters sympathetic to the Israeli right. Its primary purpose is to encourage support for the alliance between the two countries and that goal is bound to disappoint partisans on both ends of the political spectrum.

It is precisely because AIPAC is not equipped for partisan battles that it’s invariably reluctant to directly challenge any president. That was true last year when it passed on the opportunity to oppose Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense despite his vocal support for Walt-Mearsheimer slurs, and it is true today when it has decided to tread lightly on the Iran sanctions issue rather than express open opposition to the president.

By smearing all those who want a measure that would actually strengthen his hand in negotiations with Iran as warmongers, the president has faced down AIPAC and the pro-sanctions bipartisan Senate majority. But if, as is likely, the administration’s Iran diplomacy yields no dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program and its stockpile of enriched uranium, the president will find himself facing the same bipartisan majority demanding more sanctions and action on Iran led by Menendez, his own party’s foreign-policy point man.

In the meantime, when AIPAC supporters gather by the thousands next month in Washington, the message to the group from Congress will give the lie to the conceit of Landler’s piece. Liberals hoped that alternatives to the mainstream pro-Israel group, such as J Street, would equal or supersede the organization. But after more than five years the leftist alternative remains without influence in Congress or in an administration that has proved time and again that it knows it must reckon with AIPAC as the principal voice of pro-Israel opinion in this country. AIPAC’s power does not reside in a mythical ability to override the will of presidents but in the simple fact that support for the Jewish state transcends party politics as well as ethnic or religious lines.

It says something disturbing about this administration that it has been more solicitous of the sensibilities of the Islamist dictators of Iran in the past few months than those of Americans who care about Israel’s security. But anyone, including the White House correspondent of the Times, who expects an all-out war between the Obama administration and AIPAC in the coming months is misinterpreting both AIPAC’s purpose and the ability of the White House to sustain its dangerous push for détente with Tehran in the absence of any tangible progress toward ending the Iranian nuclear threat.

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Politics and the Anti-Sanctions Coalition

With news that support for Iran sanctions may now be showing signs of crumbling among Democrats in the Senate, it’s worth recalling that there have been a host of Jewish and self-titled liberal Zionist groups working tirelessly to make this happen. When UCLA Professor Mark Kleiman recently urged those who “have Jewish sounding names” to lobby their senators against further Iran sanctions, it was because he knew that these calls would seem to carry extra weight and legitimacy if they appeared to be coming from those who are assumed to be pro-Israel.

Several Washington-based lobby groups, claiming to be pro-Israel, have been lending their image of legitimacy to an organized coalition that is working to lobby against Iran sanctions. In joining this group, which also receives its briefings from White House officials, J Street and Americans for Peace Now are putting themselves into coalition with a number of other organizations and individuals who are at best completely indifferent to Israel’s welfare, such as, for instance, the National Iranian American Council.

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With news that support for Iran sanctions may now be showing signs of crumbling among Democrats in the Senate, it’s worth recalling that there have been a host of Jewish and self-titled liberal Zionist groups working tirelessly to make this happen. When UCLA Professor Mark Kleiman recently urged those who “have Jewish sounding names” to lobby their senators against further Iran sanctions, it was because he knew that these calls would seem to carry extra weight and legitimacy if they appeared to be coming from those who are assumed to be pro-Israel.

Several Washington-based lobby groups, claiming to be pro-Israel, have been lending their image of legitimacy to an organized coalition that is working to lobby against Iran sanctions. In joining this group, which also receives its briefings from White House officials, J Street and Americans for Peace Now are putting themselves into coalition with a number of other organizations and individuals who are at best completely indifferent to Israel’s welfare, such as, for instance, the National Iranian American Council.

That said, it is doubtful that these left-wing Jewish groups are being motivated by any explicitly pro-Iranian sentiment. Rather it seems that, in J Street’s case in particular, this action is an expression of shameless partisan loyalty to what is after all a Democrat administration and to the policies generated from the left of the Democratic Party. As recently as July of last year, J Street had been vocally supporting sanctions when the Obama administration was pushing this as an alternative to military action; now that the administration is also setting about dismantling the sanctions J Street has also fallen in line and is advocating precisely the same policy. American’s for Peace Now, hardly to their credit, have been a little more consistent in opposing sanctions against Iran. They even opposed sanctions when the administration thought them a preferable way to encourage Tehran to participate in negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. 

The coalition was brought together by the Ploughshares Fund, which advocates for a nuclear free world (the irony). Those attempting to justify logically and morally untenable positions often feign sophistication by appealing to the counterintuitive, yet the fact that this effort against sanctions–sanctions that are specifically designed to prevent a nuclear Iran–is being led by people claiming to be against nuclear weapons is simply beyond paradoxical. It was noteworthy at the time that many of those who campaigned against the war in Iraq, claiming they favored non-violent solutions, had previously protested sanctions against Iraq also. Now, with Iran, those who were against the military option are also lining up to try and prevent the sanctions option. Indeed, in an almost Orwellian inversion, some in this coalition have accused the supporters of sanctions of “warmongering.” The question arises, what kind of pressure for preventing the proliferation of the very nuclear weapons that these people claim to oppose would they consider acceptable?

In the case of both of the supposedly pro-Israel groups in question, their participation in this coalition would seem to suggest that whatever it is that they are committed to, it is hardly Israel’s welfare first and foremost. J Street already made clear that it took its marching orders from the Obama administration when it lobbied hard for Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense. Hagel had made a series of infamously anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish comments and had been concerningly ambiguous in his stance on Iran. J Street not only failed to oppose his nomination, they supported it.

American’s for Peace Now may be less slavish to the dictates of the Obama administration, but their consistent opposition to even peaceful measures for preventing Iran from getting the bomb would seem to betray a general hostility to Western interests as well as to the security and survival of Israel in particular. 

When American Jews and friends of Israel look to AIPAC, or the ZOA, or the Emergency Committee for Israel, they may not agree with all of their tactics or even their policies. Yet, they can be sure that these groups are unequivocally pro-Israel. Of J Street and American’s for Peace Now they know no such thing.  

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Leftist Roots Trump Obama for J Street

The irony is delicious. In the fall of 2008, the leaders of the J Street lobby boldly asserted their group’s coming preeminence as the leading voice in Washington about Israel over the more established AIPAC. The reason for that confidence was J Street’s close ties to the incoming Obama administration. Pointing to the huge majority of Jewish votes won by the Democrat in the 2008 election, J Street not only claimed that its views were more representative of American Jewry but that it would serve as a necessary pro-Obama counterweight to what they falsely claimed was an AIPAC that favored Republicans. But fast forward to September 2013 and the reality of the alignment of these two groups is vastly different from what J Street propagandists were saying a few years ago. Not only is J Street a shadow of the liberal behemoth that some expected would lead the discussion about the Middle East, disconnected from public opinion in Israel and bereft of influence on Capitol Hill or in the White House. It is also at odds with the man they once served as his main Jewish cheerleaders.

While AIPAC has reacted to the president’s puzzling decision to pass off responsibility to Congress for a strike on Syria by mobilizing its resources to back him up on the issue, J Street is standing on the sidelines of a vote that will have huge implications for the future of U.S. influence in the Middle East. In doing so, J Street is not only burning what’s left of its bridges to an administration that they’ve been out of step with for the past two years. It’s also showing that their leftist roots as the Jewish rump of the MoveOn.org movement trumps their loyalty to the president or to the cause of human rights.

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The irony is delicious. In the fall of 2008, the leaders of the J Street lobby boldly asserted their group’s coming preeminence as the leading voice in Washington about Israel over the more established AIPAC. The reason for that confidence was J Street’s close ties to the incoming Obama administration. Pointing to the huge majority of Jewish votes won by the Democrat in the 2008 election, J Street not only claimed that its views were more representative of American Jewry but that it would serve as a necessary pro-Obama counterweight to what they falsely claimed was an AIPAC that favored Republicans. But fast forward to September 2013 and the reality of the alignment of these two groups is vastly different from what J Street propagandists were saying a few years ago. Not only is J Street a shadow of the liberal behemoth that some expected would lead the discussion about the Middle East, disconnected from public opinion in Israel and bereft of influence on Capitol Hill or in the White House. It is also at odds with the man they once served as his main Jewish cheerleaders.

While AIPAC has reacted to the president’s puzzling decision to pass off responsibility to Congress for a strike on Syria by mobilizing its resources to back him up on the issue, J Street is standing on the sidelines of a vote that will have huge implications for the future of U.S. influence in the Middle East. In doing so, J Street is not only burning what’s left of its bridges to an administration that they’ve been out of step with for the past two years. It’s also showing that their leftist roots as the Jewish rump of the MoveOn.org movement trumps their loyalty to the president or to the cause of human rights.

That J Street should be aligning itself with the isolationists on both the left and the right against the administration shouldn’t be any surprise. Despite their boasts about representing the mainstream of Jewish opinion in this country, it has always been a creature of the isolationist left. Though opposition to Syria intervention is widely unpopular, J Street might have been expected to rally to President Obama’s side in what is probably the most crucial moment of his second term. If Congress fails to grant him authority to attack Syria his credibility is shot at home and abroad and we might as well hang a sign around his neck saying “lame duck.”

But the MoveOn.org crowd from which J Street sprung does not share the president’s apparent ambivalence about the use of U.S. power even when used against a Syrian dictator who has used chemical weapons against his own people. They are always against it. While J Street belatedly condemned Syria’s use of chemical weapons their outrage over this crime wasn’t enough to convince the leaders of the group to back up the president whose stands on Israel once enthralled them.

I deplore J Street’s belief that the U.S should use its status as Israel’s only ally to pressure it to make concessions to a Palestinian Authority that has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. But do they think America’s capacity to use its influence in the Middle East will be enhanced by the evisceration of Obama’s ability to lead on foreign affairs by Congress? It is that reason that the pro-Israel community in this country which largely disagrees with J Street’s calls for pressure on Israel has weighed in on the president’s behalf. AIPAC was loath to involve itself in the squabble in Syria because it rightly felt that Israel favored neither side in the Syrian civil war. But a United States that is no longer capable of stepping up to punish those who use weapons of mass destruction in this manner is also an America that has been effectively rendered irrelevant in the Middle East. No matter what you think about the fighting in Syria or about the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, that should be a big problem for those who purport to speak for pro-Israel opinion in this country.

Nevertheless, it should be conceded that J Street’s opposition to Obama on Syria wouldn’t decrease its influence in Washington. That’s because it has none. Though it has been cheering wildly for Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to restart peace talks, it’s been out of touch with the administration’s attitude toward Israel since the beginning of 2012 when the president began a Jewish “charm offensive” in order to help his reelection. J Street loved it when Obama was picking fights with Israel during his first three years in office, but even then it was clear the White House understood just how insignificant a player the group was. That it must now look to AIPAC for help on Syria again demonstrates not only the mainstream lobby’s importance but also how foolish J Street’s attacks on it have been.

When push comes to shove, it appears J Street’s core beliefs about the illegitimacy of American power will always trump its claim to want to bolster Israel or even Obama. If few have noticed that they’ve abandoned the president, it’s largely because their hard-core ideological approach to issues always rendered it a marginal force even in Democratic councils, let alone the public square they once thought to dominate.

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U.S. Credibility, Not “Israel Lobby” Will Decide Syria Vote

There was never much doubt that sooner or later any debate about U.S. action on Syria would get around to an effort to drag the “Israel Lobby” canard out of the closet. While some on the right are wrongly characterizing the case for striking the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons as Obama’s war for “al-Qaeda in Syria,” some on the left are back to riding their own favorite hobbyhorses and blaming the whole thing on Israel. That’s the upshot of a piece published on the Atlantic’s website in which James Fallows posted a lengthy quote from William R. Polk in which the author and former State Department staffer seeks not only to claim that the proof of chemical weapons was cooked up by Israel but that the Jewish state used chemical weapons in Lebanon and Gaza. Suffice it to say the former charge is contradicted by the large body of evidence about what happened in Syria that has been made public in the last week as the impact of the most recent use of chemical weapons by Assad became clear. The latter charges are simply lies.

That such weak and nasty stuff should get an airing at the Atlantic is troubling. But it is just as unfortunate to read accounts in other mainstream outlets such as the New York Times that the Obama administration appears to be counting on supporters of Israel to pull the president’s chestnuts out of the fire on Syria. While Israel certainly has an interest in the survival of American influence in the Middle East, the idea of shifting the discussion from one that revolves around America’s credibility and national security to one that seeks to parse the decision as either good or bad for the Jewish state is a profound misreading of the administration’s problem. No endorsement from Israel or AIPAC can substitute for the ability of the president and his team to articulate a case for the sort of action that they know they must take.

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There was never much doubt that sooner or later any debate about U.S. action on Syria would get around to an effort to drag the “Israel Lobby” canard out of the closet. While some on the right are wrongly characterizing the case for striking the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons as Obama’s war for “al-Qaeda in Syria,” some on the left are back to riding their own favorite hobbyhorses and blaming the whole thing on Israel. That’s the upshot of a piece published on the Atlantic’s website in which James Fallows posted a lengthy quote from William R. Polk in which the author and former State Department staffer seeks not only to claim that the proof of chemical weapons was cooked up by Israel but that the Jewish state used chemical weapons in Lebanon and Gaza. Suffice it to say the former charge is contradicted by the large body of evidence about what happened in Syria that has been made public in the last week as the impact of the most recent use of chemical weapons by Assad became clear. The latter charges are simply lies.

That such weak and nasty stuff should get an airing at the Atlantic is troubling. But it is just as unfortunate to read accounts in other mainstream outlets such as the New York Times that the Obama administration appears to be counting on supporters of Israel to pull the president’s chestnuts out of the fire on Syria. While Israel certainly has an interest in the survival of American influence in the Middle East, the idea of shifting the discussion from one that revolves around America’s credibility and national security to one that seeks to parse the decision as either good or bad for the Jewish state is a profound misreading of the administration’s problem. No endorsement from Israel or AIPAC can substitute for the ability of the president and his team to articulate a case for the sort of action that they know they must take.

Does Israel benefit from U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war, as Polk claims? In principle, the answer to that question has always been no. Israel has no friends in Syria and no matter which side wins that struggle it will be on its guard. But, like every other friend of the United States across the globe, the Jewish state cannot look on at the spectacle of impotence and indecision on the part of President Obama last week with anything but dismay. If the White House requires a congressional vote to get up the nerve to keep his word about a “red line” on chemical weapons, it’s no surprise that many Israelis, like its President Shimon Peres, who is a dedicated fan of Obama, hope he will get it.

It is also true that friends of Israel are deeply worried that if President Obama is unable to respond to a direct challenge in Syria there is little hope he will ever do so on Iran, even though his promises to stop Iran have left him no wriggle room on the issue. As such, many are hoping he will show that when he makes a threat about a weapon of mass destruction, it’s not mere rhetoric as many of the president’s defenders have treated his original “red line” comment. However, there is no guarantee that even if Obama eventually orders a strike on Syria that he will ever act on Iran, even after his latest feckless attempts to engage the ayatollahs inevitably fail. The president’s willingness to keep his word on Iran is as much up in the air as his ultimate intentions in Syria.

But the question of American credibility and influence is bigger than Israel and everyone in Washington knows it. It is not only Jerusalem that should tremble at the dispiriting abdication of responsibility by the president. Those who try and shoehorn this issue into the familiar arguments and myths about the power of the “Israel Lobby” are missing the real issue: whether the United States can effectively go on defending its national interests if the word of its president is allowed to be so flagrantly flaunted by a Middle East butcher like Assad or frustrated by the stacked diplomatic deck at the United Nations. A congressional vote won’t resolve those doubts. Doing so will obligate the president to lead and to make his case for action on its own merits rather than to put the blame on Israel and its friends.

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Syria and Israel Lobby Conspiracy Theories

Israelis were lining up for gas masks and dusting out their air raid shelters today as the prospect of U.S. attacks on Syrian targets this week provoked threats of retaliation against the Jewish state. That Israelis as well as their neighbors seem to take the idea that they should be attacked because Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians as nothing out of the ordinary. This is par for the course in the Middle East where Israelis have always served as the all-purpose scapegoats for everything that happens. But though Americans may not be quite as jaded to this sort of thing, some in our nation’s capital also seem to subscribe in some ways to the Arab world’s conspiratorial view of Israel. That was evident in a Politico story published last night that pondered why it was that the so-called “Israel lobby” was “silent on Syria.”

The assumption behind the story and the headline seems to be that anything that happens in the Middle East or any foreign policy initiative undertaken by the United States has to be in some way the result of machinations by supporters of Israel even if the conflict in question is one on which they have no rooting interest. That Jerusalem doesn’t have a favorite in a fight between a genocidal maniac dictator and an opposition that is heavily infiltrated by people related to Al Qaeda is a given. But the fact that backers of Israel are as divided about what the U.S. should do about Assad’s atrocities as the rest of the country is seen as somehow anomalous. But, like the Iraq War, which was, contrary to the anti-Semitic conspiracy mongers, not fought at Israel’s behest, there seems to be no stopping those who subscribe to the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that claims the Jewish state and the wall-to-wall bipartisan coalition that supports it somehow manipulates U.S. foreign policy against the best interests of the nation. However, in this case the slow march of the Obama administration to act on Syria gives the lie to the idea that Israel is the tail that wags the dog in Washington.

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Israelis were lining up for gas masks and dusting out their air raid shelters today as the prospect of U.S. attacks on Syrian targets this week provoked threats of retaliation against the Jewish state. That Israelis as well as their neighbors seem to take the idea that they should be attacked because Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians as nothing out of the ordinary. This is par for the course in the Middle East where Israelis have always served as the all-purpose scapegoats for everything that happens. But though Americans may not be quite as jaded to this sort of thing, some in our nation’s capital also seem to subscribe in some ways to the Arab world’s conspiratorial view of Israel. That was evident in a Politico story published last night that pondered why it was that the so-called “Israel lobby” was “silent on Syria.”

The assumption behind the story and the headline seems to be that anything that happens in the Middle East or any foreign policy initiative undertaken by the United States has to be in some way the result of machinations by supporters of Israel even if the conflict in question is one on which they have no rooting interest. That Jerusalem doesn’t have a favorite in a fight between a genocidal maniac dictator and an opposition that is heavily infiltrated by people related to Al Qaeda is a given. But the fact that backers of Israel are as divided about what the U.S. should do about Assad’s atrocities as the rest of the country is seen as somehow anomalous. But, like the Iraq War, which was, contrary to the anti-Semitic conspiracy mongers, not fought at Israel’s behest, there seems to be no stopping those who subscribe to the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis that claims the Jewish state and the wall-to-wall bipartisan coalition that supports it somehow manipulates U.S. foreign policy against the best interests of the nation. However, in this case the slow march of the Obama administration to act on Syria gives the lie to the idea that Israel is the tail that wags the dog in Washington.

Apparently for the editors of Politico, the lack of a concerted effort on the part of pro-Israel groups either in favor of or against intervention in Syria is like the dog that doesn’t bark in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. If you start thinking in Walt-Mearsheimer terms in which everything revolves around Israel, then the absence of pro-Israel groups in a debate must seem suspicious or at least odd. But there’s nothing unusual about neutrality on Syria, especially since the Jewish state has good reason to distrust both sides in the civil war and will probably suffer if the U.S. attacks.

It may be a shock to some to think that Israel’s friends don’t have a vested interest in every issue on the table. Groups like AIPAC do speak out on topics like aid to Egypt (which is directly related to maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel) or strengthening ties to moderate Arab nations like Jordan. But Israel doesn’t directly figure in calculations about Syria or most questions between the U.S. and Arab and Muslim nations.

If anything, events of the last few years in which Arab Spring protests and rebellions have debunked the long-cherished view of Israel’s critics that holds that the conflict with the Palestinians is the central issue around which all conflicts revolve in the Middle East. That’s a concept that those heavily influenced by the Walt-Mearsheimer canard have a tough time wrapping their brains around. But those willing to subscribe to conspiracy theories in which Israel provides the explanation for every mystery and misery on the planet now find themselves searching for an Israel angle about Syria. But other than the fact that Israel will be blamed for the outcome no matter what happens, there is none. Conspiracy theorists and their journalistic enablers need to move on.

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The Elephant at AIPAC

The AIPAC Policy Conference ended this morning, after an evening gala where the 13,000 delegates were joined by 63 percent of the Congress: 65 senators and 274 House members. The conference has nearly doubled in size from the 7,000 delegates who attended in 2008. The plenary hall extended almost two football fields wide. But the hall was not large enough to hide what Shmuel Rosner called, after the first day of the conference, “the elephant in the room”:

[The] elephant is American policy in the region. In one session after another one hears criticism of American inaction, American hesitation, American lack of coherence. The criticism is at times subtler, and at times more direct, but it’s almost always there. You hear it from the experts on the different panels, from Americans and Israelis. You get less of it, but still some, even in the larger gatherings where the politicians and the leaders speak, where the politicians attempt to make it seem as if there are no problems and no daylight between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government. Americans and Israelis are now all walking on eggshells, making sure not to interfere with the “reset” of relations, not to add new tensions into the delicate relations between the second Obama administration and the second Netanyahu government. The elephant is there though … There’s surely doubt in Israel, and there’s concern in pro-Israel circles in the US (“we need a national security team that is pro-Israel”, Senator McCain said Monday morning).

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The AIPAC Policy Conference ended this morning, after an evening gala where the 13,000 delegates were joined by 63 percent of the Congress: 65 senators and 274 House members. The conference has nearly doubled in size from the 7,000 delegates who attended in 2008. The plenary hall extended almost two football fields wide. But the hall was not large enough to hide what Shmuel Rosner called, after the first day of the conference, “the elephant in the room”:

[The] elephant is American policy in the region. In one session after another one hears criticism of American inaction, American hesitation, American lack of coherence. The criticism is at times subtler, and at times more direct, but it’s almost always there. You hear it from the experts on the different panels, from Americans and Israelis. You get less of it, but still some, even in the larger gatherings where the politicians and the leaders speak, where the politicians attempt to make it seem as if there are no problems and no daylight between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government. Americans and Israelis are now all walking on eggshells, making sure not to interfere with the “reset” of relations, not to add new tensions into the delicate relations between the second Obama administration and the second Netanyahu government. The elephant is there though … There’s surely doubt in Israel, and there’s concern in pro-Israel circles in the US (“we need a national security team that is pro-Israel”, Senator McCain said Monday morning).

In an extraordinary address to the gala, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said that throughout his lifetime he had “never questioned America’s resolve and support for Israel … until now.” The video is here, and the transcript is here.

On Monday morning, Vice President Biden asserted that President Obama is “not bluffing” about Iran, but his speech stuck to the now-familiar administration phrase: “acquiring a nuclear weapon,” rather than acquiring “nuclear capability,” which is the Israeli red line. In his own comments Sunday morning, Israeli ambassador Michael Oren made it clear that for Israel the important date is not the one on which Iran may acquire a nuclear weapon, but the date on which it will no longer be possible to stop it from acquiring one. He called the window for diplomacy “small.”   

AIPAC produced its most successful conference yet; the speeches, panels, breakout sessions, and videos were outstanding, and the congressional support for Israel was remarkable. But the conference also served to demonstrate that, as the president prepares to visit the region in two weeks, Israel is more nervous than Iran. When the president chooses two famously anti-war senators as his new secretaries of state and defense; when he stands by month after month doing nothing in Syria, while Iran and Russia act; when he keeps an aircraft carrier and other military forces out of the region for budgetary reasons; and when six months after an American ambassador is murdered he is still searching for the real killers, the actions (and inactions) speak louder than words. At the end of the conference, the elephant was still there.

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Is Iran Listening to Biden’s Threat?

The Obama administration may now have among its members a secretary of defense who can’t get its position on containment of a nuclear Iran straight. But the administration continues to lay down markers on its commitment to stopping Tehran’s nuclear ambitions as if Chuck Hagel’s nomination was an aberration, rather than a signal that is being interpreted in Iran to mean that it need not worry about President Obama’s threats. Vice President Biden’s speech at the annual AIPAC conference today in Washington contained more pledges that the president wasn’t bluffing on Iran. While nothing Biden said, let alone the utterances of the president on this subject, guarantees that the U.S. will ever act to stop Iran, the accumulation of their rhetoric is going to make it even harder for them to back away from their promises.

The vice president arguably went even further than the statement President Obama made at last year’s AIPAC conference when he specifically disavowed containment as an option. While Biden’s typically long-winded and meandering speech contained some highly questionable statements, such as his defense of engagement with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, his remarks also took the administration another step down the road to confrontation with Iran. Instead of merely alluding to the use of force by saying that all options were on the table, he made the case that the current futile diplomatic process with Tehran was defensible because it gave the administration the ability to tell the world that it had done everything possible to avoid conflict before resorting to force.

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The Obama administration may now have among its members a secretary of defense who can’t get its position on containment of a nuclear Iran straight. But the administration continues to lay down markers on its commitment to stopping Tehran’s nuclear ambitions as if Chuck Hagel’s nomination was an aberration, rather than a signal that is being interpreted in Iran to mean that it need not worry about President Obama’s threats. Vice President Biden’s speech at the annual AIPAC conference today in Washington contained more pledges that the president wasn’t bluffing on Iran. While nothing Biden said, let alone the utterances of the president on this subject, guarantees that the U.S. will ever act to stop Iran, the accumulation of their rhetoric is going to make it even harder for them to back away from their promises.

The vice president arguably went even further than the statement President Obama made at last year’s AIPAC conference when he specifically disavowed containment as an option. While Biden’s typically long-winded and meandering speech contained some highly questionable statements, such as his defense of engagement with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, his remarks also took the administration another step down the road to confrontation with Iran. Instead of merely alluding to the use of force by saying that all options were on the table, he made the case that the current futile diplomatic process with Tehran was defensible because it gave the administration the ability to tell the world that it had done everything possible to avoid conflict before resorting to force.

The “if we will be forced to use force” phrasing can, of course, be represented as an empty promise or just a cheap political point being made on the eve of the president’s trip to Israel. The U.S. decision to go along with the West’s decision to make concessions to Iran at the most recent P5+1 talks last week is hardly indicative of strength or resolve. Yet by spelling out a scenario in which, as the vice president said, “God forbid” the Iranians don’t give in on their nuclear ambition, the administration has raised the possibility of using force against Iran from the purely speculative to a rational scenario.

Hagel’s confirmation places a man who was an opponent of sanctions–let alone the use of force–against Iran in a position as a senior advisor to the president. That may have encouraged the Iranians to think that Obama doesn’t mean what he says about never allowing them to gain nuclear capability. But by sketching out a scenario in which four years of feckless engagement and a reliance on failed diplomacy and often unenforced sanctions was justified as a necessary preliminary to a last resort attack on Iran, Biden has turned up the heat on the Iranians and laid the foundation for public support for another Middle East conflict. If, as the New York Times reports today, Biden is going to play an outsized role in foreign policy during the president’s second term, his AIPAC speech may be looked back on as a moment when that claim was validated.

It is certainly possible to doubt Obama’s word–or Biden’s–on this subject. The Iranians may wise up and accept a weak offer from the P5+1 group that will defuse the crisis and allow them to eventually go nuclear anyway in the same manner that their North Korean allies did after signing nuclear agreements with the West. But if they continue, as they have for the last decade, counting on their ability to run out the clock with the U.S. via diplomatic delays and deceptions, Biden offered some hope that this administration might actually be considering taking action to end this farce before an inevitable announcement of an Iranian bomb. It must be hoped that Tehran was listening and drawing the appropriate conclusions about the need to abandon their nuclear gambit before American threats become reality.

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Hagel and the “Israel Lobby”

If there is any message to come out of Chuck Hagel’s confirmation, perhaps it is a refutation of the commonly heard charge, made most infamously by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer and echoed by Hagel himself, that the dread “Jewish lobby” insidiously controls American foreign policy. How strong can this lobby be if it failed to block the appointment as defense secretary of someone who was widely seen (rightly or wrongly) as inimical to Israeli interests?

As Lee Smith notes in a typically thoughtful column, AIPAC–the most powerful pro-Israel group in Washington–actually sat out the whole fight ostensibly because it wants to affect policy, not personnel decisions. But it’s also possible that it sat out the fight because it knew that it would lose; indeed after Chuck Schumer gave his blessing to Hagel, there was no realistic chance of stopping his nomination absent a unified Republican filibuster–which was never likely to last for more than a few days. And certainly other pro-Israel groups, such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, did go all-out to try to stop Hagel.

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If there is any message to come out of Chuck Hagel’s confirmation, perhaps it is a refutation of the commonly heard charge, made most infamously by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer and echoed by Hagel himself, that the dread “Jewish lobby” insidiously controls American foreign policy. How strong can this lobby be if it failed to block the appointment as defense secretary of someone who was widely seen (rightly or wrongly) as inimical to Israeli interests?

As Lee Smith notes in a typically thoughtful column, AIPAC–the most powerful pro-Israel group in Washington–actually sat out the whole fight ostensibly because it wants to affect policy, not personnel decisions. But it’s also possible that it sat out the fight because it knew that it would lose; indeed after Chuck Schumer gave his blessing to Hagel, there was no realistic chance of stopping his nomination absent a unified Republican filibuster–which was never likely to last for more than a few days. And certainly other pro-Israel groups, such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, did go all-out to try to stop Hagel.

Pro-Israel groups have failed not only on this front, but on others. They have hardly been able to dictate American policy even on their (and Israel’s) top issue: the Iranian nuclear program. True, Congress has passed and President Obama has reluctantly signed tough sanctions. But just last week the U.S. and other Western states were negotiating with the Iranians in Kazakhstan and even offering concessions to coax them into a deal.

This is a far cry from what Israel–and for that matter America’s Gulf Arab allies–would like to see, which is American air strikes to cripple the Iranian nuclear program. Indeed, given the pace at which Iran continues to advance its nuclear designs, it seems likely that only such military action can stop it from acquiring the bomb. But the odds of such strikes under an Obama administration were close to nil even before Hagel took over Defense; they are even lower today. Of course the Iranian mullahs know this, and it will only feed their intransigence.

There are, to be sure, valid arguments for not bombing the Iranian nuclear program. But suffice it to say that if the “Zionist Lobby” actually ran American foreign policy–as so many seem to imagine–it is puzzling why such strikes have not yet been undertaken. Or why in 2007 the Bush administration refused to bomb a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor, as advocated by Vice President Dick Cheney, leaving that task to the Israeli Air Force. By contrast the U.S. did go to war in the last decade in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya and to a lesser extent (via drone strikes) in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. While Israel was not opposed to any of those interventions, it was not particularly in favor of any of them either. It would take an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist of great imagination to come up with any plausible Israeli role in any of these military actions.

There are, of course, numerous other instances of U.S. policymakers acting in ways opposed by pro-Israel advocates–from the days when the George H.W. Bush administration was pressuring Israel over settlements (remember Jim Baker telling Israel’s government: “Everybody over there should know that the telephone number [of the White House] is 1-202-456-1414. When you’re serious about peace, call us”), to the Obama administration doing the same.

The notion that the Jews–or, as they are more politely described, “pro-Israel lobbyists” or “Zionists”–are in control of U.S. foreign policy has always been a fantasy, of course, and a particularly malign one. Like most such conspiracy theories it is impossible to refute, so no doubt the Mearsheimers and Walts of the world will find some convoluted explanation of why “The Lobby” is actually getting what it wants even when it is plainly not achieving its goals, such as stopping Hagel’s confirmation. Whatever they come up with, it should be good.

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Can Jewish Groups Speak Out on Hagel?

One of the interesting subtexts about the debate over the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense has been the relative silence from the organized Jewish world. Though there was widespread shock from most pro-Israel activists, even those who were loyal liberal Democrats, about the president’s decision to choose one of the least Israel-friendly members of the U.S. Senate in the last generation to run the Pentagon, none of the major groups, aside from the Zionist Organization of America, spoke up publicly about his unsuitability for the post or his out-of-the mainstream views.

The reasons for this silence were obvious to anyone who understands their missions and how they operate. The refusal of the major Jewish organizations was rooted in their natural reluctance to embroil themselves in fights they think would hamper their ability to do their jobs. But at this juncture in the Hagel saga, after the nominee flopped at his Senate confirmation hearing and demonstrated how insincere his conversion from being tough on Israel and soft on Iran to a garden-variety backer of the Jewish state, it is time for them to reconsider. Though the odds still favor his confirmation, and with some senators, including Chuck Schumer and Claire McCaskill, citing their silence for their support for the nominee, the rationale of the organized Jewish world for staying out of this contretemps has evaporated.

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One of the interesting subtexts about the debate over the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense has been the relative silence from the organized Jewish world. Though there was widespread shock from most pro-Israel activists, even those who were loyal liberal Democrats, about the president’s decision to choose one of the least Israel-friendly members of the U.S. Senate in the last generation to run the Pentagon, none of the major groups, aside from the Zionist Organization of America, spoke up publicly about his unsuitability for the post or his out-of-the mainstream views.

The reasons for this silence were obvious to anyone who understands their missions and how they operate. The refusal of the major Jewish organizations was rooted in their natural reluctance to embroil themselves in fights they think would hamper their ability to do their jobs. But at this juncture in the Hagel saga, after the nominee flopped at his Senate confirmation hearing and demonstrated how insincere his conversion from being tough on Israel and soft on Iran to a garden-variety backer of the Jewish state, it is time for them to reconsider. Though the odds still favor his confirmation, and with some senators, including Chuck Schumer and Claire McCaskill, citing their silence for their support for the nominee, the rationale of the organized Jewish world for staying out of this contretemps has evaporated.

Groups like the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee or even AIPAC are not in the business of involving themselves in partisan fights. Nor are they interested in futile gestures that embroil them in squabbles that would make it more difficult for them to gain access to decision makers. These are things that often infuriate people who rail at them for not being representative of ordinary Jews or being “self-appointed” leaders. But these are generally unfair criticisms.

All Jewish groups in this country are voluntary associations. If the heads of these groups are not elected by a broad cross-section of the community it is only because most Jews don’t take the trouble to get involved with these organizations. We can argue about whether many of the so-called “major” groups still perform any vital functions. Indeed, many of them are vestigial remnants that have long ceased having any rationale other than institutional inertia. Others are mere partisan fronts for the political parties (the Republican Jewish Coalition has actively campaigned against Hagel while the National Jewish Democratic Council has tried to downplay the appointment) or Jewish surrogates for other liberal causes. Many are merely fundraising outlets for various causes. But some do still perform vital tasks, like compiling data about anti-Semitism or advocacy on behalf of Israel, and don’t deserve all of the scorn that is thrown in their direction.

However, the Hagel nomination illustrated that groups that see themselves as above politics can’t entirely avoid some fights. The nomination of a person who has publicly bragged about his standing up to the “Jewish lobby” and opposed sanctions or even the threat of using force against Iran should have crossed the line between something that merely raised eyebrows and battle that needed to be fought.

Some of the major organizations, or at least their leading donors, are dyed-in the-wool Democrats who would never put themselves in direct opposition to the president. Yet even those who were privately upset about Hagel reasoned that the campaign to stop Hagel was doomed. After abandoning Susan Rice, his preferred candidate for the State Department, there was good reason to believe that President Obama would fight harder for his “soul mate” at Defense. A popular president whose party has a majority in the Senate is not liable to lose such a nomination fight, so they thought it made more sense to shut up about Hagel and retain their access than to fight and lose.

This was a not unreasonable conclusion, but it was also a self-fulfilling prophecy. While many Jewish leaders were hoping that Hagel could be stopped without their help, by their very silence they gave cover to pro-Israel Democrats who decided that avoiding giving offense to the president took precedent over defending their principles. On this point, Schumer, whose announcement of public support for the nominee seemed to take all the drama out of the confirmation battle, has been quite candid, as he has explained that it was impossible for him to fight Hagel while Jewish groups kept their own counsel.

But my expectation that Schumer’s move would more or less end the controversy was confounded by Hagel’s catastrophic performance at his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday. At this point even those who have no problem with Hagel’s troubling positions are grappling with the fact that the president’s choice has given the appearance of incompetence and an inability to articulate the president’s stated positions on the issues.

It was assumed that Hagel’s confirmation conversion to positions that affirmed the alliance with Israel and hostility to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran would be done in such a manner as to at least quiet concerns about his transformation from foe to friend of the pro-Israel community. But at his hearing, Hagel was not just unprepared; the insincerity of his flip-flops was transparent. He refused to admit that he was wrong to refuse to vote to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group. Nor did he disavow his slanders about Israel’s conduct during the 2006 Lebanon War. And he could not give a straight answer as to his views about containment of Iran even when given three tries to do so.

At this moment, when even partisan Democrats are expressing their discomfort about Hagel, it is time for the major Jewish groups to, at the very least, express their belief that the nomination should be reconsidered. They needn’t issue an outright call for a no vote on his confirmation or directly fight the president. But they can speak out about the problematic nature of what Hagel said at his hearing and whether the president ought to think twice about insisting on shoving him down the throat of an obviously troubled Democratic caucus.

Doing so would involve some risk and cause them to be criticized by some Democratic partisans. But as they already know, the only people who are actually enthusiastic about Hagel are those, like the vicious Israel-basher MJ Rosenberg, who think the nominee is lying about changing his views about Israel and Iran.

Let’s also dispense with the notion that if Jewish groups speak out on Hagel, they will be confirming the myth that the “Israel Lobby” is an all-powerful force that, as the nominee said, “intimidates” Congress into doing “stupid things.” It is true that that is what some foes of Israel will say if Hagel loses. But the truth is they are already saying it and the vast majority of Americans—who are the backbone of the bipartisan consensus in support of Israel—reject these slanders. The question now is whether an advocate of those views, even one who has now disavowed some of that statement, albeit in a manner that lacks all credibility, will be elevated to one of the highest positions in the government.

Whatever it was that Hagel has been telling Democrats like Schumer or even the big Jewish groups who got a private meeting with the nominee, no one who watched that hearing can seriously believe his protestations of a change of heart. Though he may still be confirmed if the president goes to the mat for him, the outcome is by no means certain. That means this is a moment when the major Jewish groups must drop their reticence and speak truth courageously to power.

Though it is often wise for such groups to stay out of fights with the White House, this is not the moment for such caution. Were the major groups to call for a reconsideration of his nomination, it could be the tipping point in the debate. Should they fail to find their voices now about Hagel, many of the good people inside these organizations may have reason to look back with regret on their decisions. Hagel’s appointment raises genuine doubts about this administration’s commitment to stopping Iran’s nuclear threat and continued support of Israel at a time when its enemies (such as the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt) are gaining strength. Silence at such a moment is impossible for men and women of conscience.

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