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On Sunday, 15,000 will converge on Washington, DC for the 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the country’s largest pro-Israel lobbying organization, knows how to throw a party. It is a marvel of organization, with every contingency anticipated and planned for. There are events for young and old and everyone in between. “Delegates” will get to meet with their representatives — two-thirds of Congress will be attending — and presidential candidates from both parties will deliver addresses.
AIPAC’s mission and methods are often misunderstood. Three principles govern its approach. First, it focuses on Congress. Although it may issue a policy statement from time to time, it seeks to develop relationships and influence the legislative branch, not the executive. Second, it is an American organization. It only advocates policies and legislation that it perceives of benefit to both the US and Israel. And third, it works hard to maintain a nonpartisan posture. Any legislation it lobbies for must have both Republican and Democrat co-sponsors.
In practice, this results not in a nonpartisan orientation, but in a bipartisan one. Beyond the fact that AIPAC’s leadership is disproportionately Democratic, there is reasonable thinking behind this approach. It allows the group to maintain its relevance regardless of which party is in power. Also, it is easier to present the group as first and foremost pro-American when both parties support it.
But such an approach increasingly requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Over the past 40 years, the GOP has become more and more pro-Israel, as the Democratic Party has become more neutral — or even hostile — toward the Jewish State. After the 2014 midterms, I attended a presentation by AIPAC’s regional director. “This is the most pro-Israel Congress ever,” she said. Left unsaid was the fact that it was also the most Republican Congress since Israel was founded.
The extent of this denial, and the drawbacks to a bipartisan approach, were starkly exposed by Obama’s deal with Iran. The president threatened senators from his own party, driving a wedge between them and Israel. AIPAC, forced to choose between aggressively pursuing its pro-Israel mission and maintaining bipartisanship, went with the latter. And after the deal was done, the group signaled that it would forgive and forget. The upshot was that it became clear to all that AIPAC could be crossed with impunity. The Israel Lobby was a paper tiger. Obama had used AIPAC’s bipartisanship to neuter it.
It is worthwhile to compare AIPAC’s ineffectiveness against the success of another famous lobby: The National Rifle Association. Even as Democrats rail against the power of the NRA, many of them — including former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — maintain “A” or “B” NRA ratings. That is because getting on the wrong side of the NRA can lose you an election.
The NRA’s lobbying arm differs from AIPAC in two essential ways. First, it is laser-focused on its mission: Protecting and advancing the rights of firearm owners. This makes it truly nonpartisan. If Democrats are on board, great. If not, that the NRA will work to advance its agenda regardless. Meanwhile, the group rewards and punishes solely on the basis of that mission. Harry Reid may be an enemy of liberty in all other domains, but as long has he supports gun rights, he earns his NRA rating honestly. His party affiliation matters not a whit.
The second difference is in what the NRA offers in return for supporting its agenda. Gun-control advocates misattribute the NRA’s influence to the financial backing of gun manufacturers. This could not be further from the truth. The NRA is supported by millions and millions of gun-owning voters. It provides them with information on an issue about which they are passionate. It is votes, not money, that makes the NRA strong.
In contrast, AIPAC’s members are nowhere near as passionate. There is deep and strong pro-Israel sentiment in America, but very few will prioritize Israel above other concerns. Even the most fervent Israel advocates subordinate the issue of the US-Israel relationship when they enter the voting booth.
As a result, all the glitz of the AIPAC Conference is a farce. The size of the crowd masks the fact that it is not a grassroots organization. What AIPAC has to offer politicians is donor money. The important sessions at the conference are the ones held behind closed doors.
Unfortunately, this is largely a structural problem that is fiendishly difficult to address. But its leaders might succeed if they follow the NRA’s example. They must make AIPAC truly nonpartisan. If they demonstrate that they consider Israel the paramount issue, not just one among many, perhaps they can persuade the grassroots to elevate its importance. They might start demonstrating this by voting Republican.Published in