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AIPAC stays on task

There are many red lines in American politics, and requiring AIPAC to abandon its bipartisan approach over any given one could result in some sticky challenges.

AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2021. Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO.
AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2021. Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO.
Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur

Republicans put the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in a delicate position. Then Democrats made the worst of it. The most likely loser is Israel.

From its creation in the early 1960s, AIPAC has been a focused organization that works with elected officials of both parties and all ideologies to promote the safety and security of Israel and strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship. Their philosophy was summarized in a letter last week from the organization’s leaders:

“We have friends who are pro-choice and pro-life, those who are liberal on immigration and those who want to tighten our borders, and yes, those who disagree strongly on issues surrounding the 2020 presidential election… This is no moment for the pro-Israel movement to become selective about its friends.”

The rationale for such a self-evident message was the outcry from some progressive Jewish leaders over AIPAC’s new political action committee’s first congressional endorsements. The list was almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, but 37 of the GOP endorsees voted against the certification of Joe Biden’s election after the Jan. 6 Capitol riots last year. 

The criticism against those endorsements was based on the premise that members of Congress who refused to uphold the outcome of a legally-determined election are not deserving of support. Fair enough. Many Americans agree wholeheartedly with that premise. My hunch is that many Jews, including individual AIPAC employees and donors, share similar sentiments. 

But as an organization, AIPAC exists for one strategic reason—to advocate for Israel and its relationship with America. The reason they have been so successful over the years is that they work with elected officials on both sides of the aisle. As the letter referenced above states: “We can never let the things that divide Americans politically determine whether the United States will support Israel. We must be willing to stand with those who stand with Israel.”

AIPAC’s critics argue that those politicians who opposed Biden’s certification—and therefore also opposed a fundamental principle of democracy—have created an exception to AIPAC’s one-issue policy and no longer deserve the organization’s backing regardless of their positions on Israel. In other words, these 37 Republicans crossed a “red line.”

But there are many red lines in American politics, and deciding that this is the only transgression that should require AIPAC to abandon its bipartisan approach will create some tricky challenges when advocates for other issues decide that their red lines deserve the same consideration.

There are those in the Democratic Party, for example, who passionately argue that no issue, even election certification, is more essential than climate change. For them, supporting pro-fossil-fuel politicians is an unforgivable transgression. Those who devote themselves with equal moral fervor to issues such as abortion or marriage equality (on either side) could similarly assert that those who oppose them on these matters should be eliminated from consideration.

And Democrats do not hold a monopoly on this type of line-drawing. At the same time, AIPAC was being attacked from the left for supporting these three dozen Republicans, they were under assault from conservatives because 27 of their Democratic endorsees had supported the 2015 nuclear arms agreement with Iran.

Those who opposed this endorsement point out that unlike the debate over a U.S. presidential election, the Iranian nuclear deal endangers Israel’s existence, and threatens not just the region but America itself. But AIPAC, which fiercely led opposition to the accord, determined that these Democratic members were otherwise sufficiently strong in their support of Israel that even this fundamental disagreement does not merit violating its bipartisan approach.

It’s understandable that partisans on both sides would be happier if every supporter of Israel also shared their views on every hot issue. But AIPAC is unique in its ability to work with those from across the ideological spectrum. Creating even one exception—no matter how tempting and well-deserved—would unravel their bipartisan efforts, putting Israel’s security at risk, destabilizing the fragile geopolitics of the Middle East and weakening the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.

This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.

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