(March 27, 2019 / JNS) The 2019 AIPAC Policy Conference that wrapped up on Tuesday grappled with growing intra-Jewish tensions over the organization and other Jewish groups’ controversial stances on a number of important issues, including disagreements with Israel’s right-wing led government.
Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser and a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center, backed AIPAC’s rare move to condemn Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election alliance with right-wing parties that include the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party, an outgrowth of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach Party.
Referring to accusations from many on the right that AIPAC was interfering in Israel’s election, Freilich responded: “Interfering? Their response was the absolute minimum after the prime minister brought heinous racists into our political life and maybe the next governing coalition.”
Asked about criticism by some against AIPAC for its double standard by not condemning left-wing parties for their willingness to align with Arab parties to bloc Netanyahu from forming a coalition, Freilich replied that they are separate issues. “I am not supporting partnering with Arab parties until they change their rhetoric,” he said.
On the other hand, he noted, “there are no depths Netanyahu is not willing to go in order to save his own neck.”
Asked about criticism of AIPAC and Jewish organizations for being weak in backing Israel, for example, on the 2015 Iran deal, Freilich responded that AIPAC did lobby “very hard on Iran.”
He went on to say “I think AIPAC is a remarkable organization and incredible proponent of Israel’s interests and the U.S.-Israel relationship. All sides in Israel and the U.S. should leave AIPAC out of the political debate, and let it do its job of promoting the bilateral relationship.”
Time for the next generation of leadership
Harold Rhode, a former adviser on Islamic affairs in the U.S. Department of Defense and now a distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute think tank asked whether AIPAC seeks “access over influence.”
Rhode, who knows many of the players in Washington, especially on the Israel or Middle East issue, said that generally, “lobbying groups such as AIPAC support candidates that support their position, but with AIPAC, has it come to a point where they are willing to support candidates that oppose their positions?”
He noted how AIPAC carried out its lobbying campaign against the Iran deal during the second term of former President Barack Obama. “Highly knowledgeable sources told me AIPAC told its lobbyists to make sure never to threaten, even indirectly, a loss of support,” he said.
He added that “regarding lobbying, there is always an implied incentive and implied threat: Vote the way I ask you to vote, especially on matters of great concern to me, and I will support you. Vote against me, and I will take my financial backing elsewhere.”
When AIPAC and other liberal Jewish groups lead congressmen, senators and other leaders on trips to Israel, posed Rhode, “why is AIPAC and the other major U.S. Jewish groups so hesitant to take people to see the Jewish towns and villages in Judea and Samaria?
“I have had congressmen and senators tell me, “What is wrong with AIPAC? How come they won’t take us to visit the Jews in Judea and Samaria?” he said.
Jewish organizations take their members to visit Arab politicians who are sworn enemies of the State of Israel; at the same time, these organizations don’t condemn them. In reality, many Israeli Arabs don’t see these Arab politicians as representing their interests, which are to continue to live in Israel with all of the economic and social benefits that entails.
Indeed, said Rhode, “it seems that a lot of these American Jewish organizations, like the ADL, care more about toppling Netanyahu than supporting positions affecting the survival of the Jewish state.”
The longtime Washington insider also observed that these Jewish organizations are quick to criticize the right, but avoid criticizing and even meet with anti-Israel leftists. This, of course, reflects the makeup of the American Jewish community, which has long leaned left and has voted primarily for the Democratic Party.
Rhode said the leadership of most of these organizations is getting older, and it’s time for the next generation to exert its influence. “New young blood is needed that more reflects the values of those people who passionately care about the Israel-American relationship,” he said.
Another issue he said explains a lot of why the Jewish organizations are soft when it comes to Israel can possibly be explained by “the weak Jewish commitment of the ‘Jewish leadership’ to Judaism and Jewish identity.”
All told, he stated that “no doubt, AIPAC is good on the margins, but when they are most needed, like on the Iran issue, why does access seem to matter more than supporting a position that deals with the survival of the Jewish state?”
As Rhode posed: “Does access matter more than principle?”