The American Israeli Public Action Committee, widely known as AIPAC, has managed to remain bipartisan for nearly 70 years. Its membership is divided roughly equally between Democrats and Republicans. Leaders from across the American political spectrum – everyone from Vice President Mike Pence to Sen. Kamala Harris – have spoken at the influential lobbying group’s conferences.
But as a political scientist who teaches and writes about U.S. foreign policy and Middle East politics, I have been observing changing political landscapes within the United States and Israel. Growing competition between AIPAC and J Street, a relatively new pro-Israeli lobbying group, along with changes in how American Jews regard increasingly hardline and conservative Israeli policies, reflect a growing partisan split. I believe that ultimately these changes could make AIPAC’s agenda more attractive to Republicans than to Democrats, with potentially significant consequences for American-Israeli relations.
AIPAC is a nonprofit that promotes close ties between the U.S. and Israeli governments. It lobbies members of Congress directly, organizes trips to Israel for legislators across party lines, and hosts an annual conference at which a prominent lineup of American and foreign leaders speak. The American Israel Education Foundation, a charity that operates as a branch of AIPAC, supports its educational activities and funds trips to Israel for lawmakers and what it calls “other political influentials.”
Although he is campaigning for re-election and is slated to be indicted by Israel’s attorney general for corruption, Benjamin Netanyahu will address attendees at AIPAC’s upcoming annual conference in Washington that begins March 24. The Israeli settler leader Oded Revivi has told the Israeli media that he will also be on the roster, as has Benny Gantz – Netanyahu’s rival in the upcoming elections.
One thing that AIPAC does not do, despite suggestions to the contrary, is directly finance political campaigns. Perhaps the confusion owes something to its name. The letters “P-A-C” typically signify that a group is a political action committee, or PAC, whose purpose is to raise campaign cash. The “PAC” in AIPAC is different. As a social welfare group, technically known as a 501(c)(4) organization under the tax code, it is primarily devoted to legislative advocacy through lobbying, activism and education.
AIPAC does, however, connect sympathetic candidates to a formidable base of donors, who may then contribute directly to political campaigns.
The U.S. is home to the world’s largest Jewish population, estimated at 5.7 million as of 2010. It is an ideologically and politically diverse group and not uniformly represented by AIPAC. According to the group’s own website, not all of the organization’s 100,000 members are Jewish.
AIPAC is nearly as old as the Israeli government. President Harry Truman formally recognized Israel within minutes of the announcement that the state was forming, on May 14, 1948. Three years later, the Canadian-born American journalist, lawyer and philanthropist Isaiah L. “Si” Kenen founded the pro-Israel lobbying organization.
American-Israeli relations have flourished ever since, regardless of the parties in power in the U.S. or in Israel. Even when Israeli policy has conflicted with international laws and norms, such as with the expansion of Jewish settlements into occupied Palestinian territory or the use of force against Palestinians, the U.S. has continued to support Israel and to protect the country against international censure at the United Nations and other fora.
The U.S. has given Israel a total of about US$135 billion since 1951, mostly for military purposes, and Israel is usually the top U.S. aid recipient. For most of this time, the U.S. has seen Israel as a strategic and geopolitical ally that it could rely on in an oil-rich and frequently unstable region.
Yet shortly before Donald Trump took office, cracks began to appear in this close relationship.
In 2016, against AIPAC’s strong objections, the Obama administration refrained from blocking a United Nations resolution condemning Israeli settlements. President-elect Trump supported a veto, and he vowed to reinvigorate U.S.-Israeli relations.
Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is ardently pro-settlement. The president has also made good on campaign promises by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocating the U.S. embassy to the contested city, moves that AIPAC applauded. And relations between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu could not be better.
Netanyahu has found Trump a reliable ally for some of his most controversial policies. For instance, he is actively pressuring the Trump administration to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights. Israel first occupied the Syrian territory in 1967. It annexed the land in 1981 over international objections, including U.N. condemnation.
Many American Jews, especially younger ones, are deeply troubled by changes in Israel that they see as inherently discriminatory. Recent passage of a nation-state law legally enshrines Israel’s Jewish character at the expense of Israel’s non-Jewish Arab minority, which composes 20 percent of the population. Pending legislation and regulations could alter recognition over religious conversions and redefine who qualifies as Jewish.
This rightward turn has alienated the many American Jews who don’t see eye to eye with Israeli Jews on questions of religion, security and the prospect of a two-state solution.
Netanyahu’s recent overture to Israel’s Otzma Yehudit Party, known for its extremism and racism, is likely to widen that rift.
Israel’s growing conservatism has long troubled many U.S. Jews, a clear majority of whom consistently vote for Democrats and make more campaign contributions to Democrats than Republicans overall. While AIPAC distanced itself from the most controversial parts of Netanyahu’s record, it has continued to support his hawkish tendencies toward the Golan Heights and Iran, as well as the possible annexation of parts of the West Bank.
It has yet to be seen whether AIPAC’s balancing approach will be enough to quell the concerns of more liberal Jewish Americans.
Amid this discomfort, another U.S.-Israeli lobby group called J Street formed in 2007 as an alternative to AIPAC.
J Street advocates for a peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict in line with international law. Unlike AIPAC, it criticizes Israeli policies, such as settlement expansion, as obstacles to a two-state solution, and supports the continuation of foreign aid to both Israel and Palestinians.
J Street, through its political action committee, gave Democratic Party candidates roughly $4 million in 2018 and nothing to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog. By comparison, AIPAC does not donate directly to campaigns, but it spent more than $3.5 million on direct lobbying, compared to J Street’s $300,000.
J Street and AIPAC are taking different positions on some key issues where the two major U.S. political parties are at odds regarding relations with Israel. While AIPAC lobbied strongly against the Obama-backed Iran nuclear deal, an agreement that Netanyahu also strongly condemned, J Street supported it.
Likewise, when Trump announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement, AIPAC supported Trump’s decision while J Street opposed it. J Street’s position matched the positions of most Democrats and AIPAC’s approach reflected GOP consensus.
If AIPAC’s legislative and foreign policy preferences appear to align more closely with Republicans, I believe that its bipartisan credentials could be compromised.