Chemi Shalev
Haaretz (Opinion)
March 6, 2013 - 1:00am

Regardless of one’s political convictions - whether you believe Israel is warmonger or peace seeker, aggressor or defender, victim or victimizer, hero or villain, sinner or saint – the Annual AIPAC Policy Conference is a sight to be seen, a pageant to behold, a formidable spectacle that cannot be ignored.

It’s hard to decide which is more impressive: the sheer scale of the event, the many thousands of participants, the professional management, the impeccable execution, the creative pyrotechnics, the mind-boggling percentage of American lawmakers and officials who grace the event with their presence or their unequivocal, across the board, no ifs or buts support for the Israeli government and its policies.

It may not be the all-powerful cabal directing US policies, as portrayed by Walt, Mearsheimer et al, but it is nonetheless an immensely formidable political “superlobby”, as JJ Goldberg calls it in his invaluable book Jewish Power. Viewing its proceedings this week tended to confirm its description as “intimidating”, as Chuck Hagel put it, but also as amanifestation of Jewish power that Jews can rightfully be proud of, as Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote in Haaretz this week.

But AIPAC, it should be remembered, is an advocacy organization. It is devoted to defending Israel and to promoting its interests, as these are defined by the government in Jerusalem and by the organization’s leadership in the US.

AIPAC is not an objective observer, a witness for the prosecution or an impartial judge. It serves, in many ways, as a defense attorney: it does not feel obliged to tell both sides of the story. It highlights the information that is favorable to its client, and tries to repress evidence that works against its case.

Thus, both the plenary sessions and the panel discussions in this week’s three day policy conference in Washington were devoted to shining a harsh spotlight on Israel’s rivals and enemies while ignoring the country’s own shortcomings; to emphasizing the repressiveness and instability of Arab and Muslim regimes while blotting out the unseemly stains on Israel’s own “unparalleled democracy”. In the conference’s word cloud, terrorist, jihad, and nuclear loomed large while settlements, occupation or human rights were barely visible, if at all.

The omnipresent theme of the proceedings is of a clear and present danger, an imminent existential threat, a potential Holocaust in the making. The prescient 1938 Yiddish poem “Our Town is Burning” written by Mordechai Gebirtig with its “Evil winds, full of anger, rage and ravage, smash and shatter” could serve as an accompanying anthem to most of the discussions. It is a routine easily detected and adopted by both AIPAC leaders and invited speakers: John McCain said the situation is more dangerous today than at any time since he was born; Vice President Biden described delegitimization as the biggest threat to Israel in the past 40 years: and AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr sent his delegates lobbying with a vision of an enduring cataclysm that may never go away: “This is not a spasm that will ripple and recede. After this earthquake may come a tsunami, a wave of radicalization, reaction, rage aimed at the age-old enemies :Israel and America.” 

By Israeli standards, AIPAC is a right wing organization, almost by definition. While its leadership has steadfastly tried to hang on to its bipartisan appeal in America, the core message of the group is one that corresponds completely to the worldview advanced by Israel’s right. It is the Israeli right that defines the world in the same stark with us or against us terms, the right that focuses exclusively on the sinister nature and designs of Israel’s rivals and enemies, the right that downplays the consequences and often the very existence of the occupation, the right that portrays most criticism of Israel from the outside as tantamount to anti-Semitism and from the inside as a manifestation of self-hatred or worse.

In the picture that AIPAC paints there is no room for the Israeli left’s self-critical Weltanschauung about the annexationist policies and actions of the Israeli government, the injustices of the occupation or the practical and moral cost that it has exacted from Israeli society as a whole.  Those who share the Israeli left’s concerns, if they are active at all, have gravitated to the rival J-Street. President Obama’s indictment, as reported by Jeffrey Goldberg, that “Israel doesn’t know what it’s best interests are” is one that was embraced by the Israeli left but would seem to implicate not only the current Israeli government but the lobby that promotes and defends it as well.

This unavoidable right-wing tilt and discomfort with Obama were pervasive and palpable throughout the conference, in the decibels of the applause accorded any thinly-veiled critique of the Administration’s policies, in the centrality of the Hagel controversy in the small talk in the sprawling AIPAC Village underneath the Washington Convention Center and in the growing prominence of pro-settlement Orthodox Jews among the delegates. It is buttressed by the significant presence of groups such as Christians United For Israel (CUFI), which is not only staunchly pro-Israel but also just as resolutely pro-conservative and anti-Obama. And it was evident in the lineup of topics under discussion as well as the makeup of the speaker’s roster, stacked as it is in favor of right-wing conservatives who are “balanced” by centrists who mark the left wing boundaries of the debate and which is glaringly devoid of any true anti-establishment, anti-status quo speaker who might challenge the prevailing conventional wisdoms.

Then again, AIPAC is not a debate club. It is an organization with an aim and with a purpose. Its members are not looking for doctoral dissertations or open-ended discussions. Some of them are, but many of them aren’t particularly knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the Palestinian conflict or Arab-Israeli peacemaking, especially those who hailed from the otherwise impressively large number of college students who came to Washington. For them, the conference is both a social happening and a pep rally, and the officially sponsored talking points, carefully crafted and vetted by AIPAC executives, are the marching orders with which they are to engage critics and lobby lawmakers, no questions asked.

One of the main sources of AIPAC’s strength and influence is that it represents the basically pessimistic worldview shared by many American Jews  – at least those who are involved with Israel - including Democrats who may have voted for Obama for domestic reasons but are nonetheless wary about his attitude towards the Jewish state. And despite its protestations that it follows the lead of whatever government is in power in Jerusalem, AIPAC has historically operated more comfortably with right wing governments and with their “whole world is against us philosophy”, to the point that in the 80’s and 90’s it was accused of promoting the right’s agenda even when the leftist governments of Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin were in power.

AIPAC sees only one side of the coin, and ignores the other - a charge that can equally be made, of course, against so many of its detractors. Its critics see it as an agent of the status quo, a buffer that allows the Israeli government to ignore the consequences of its actions. Much of the anger directed against AIPAC, however, is often the result of the frustration felt by those who have failed to convince Israelis themselves of the error of their ways.

In the final analysis, having witnessed the manifestation in Washington this week of this awe-inspiring apparatus, one conclusion is clear. Other than those who ascribe to the saying wrongly associated with Lenin “the worse, the better”, or those who believe the Middle East would be paradise if only Israel was nicer towards the Palestinians - most Israelis should be more than grateful that a powerful and effective organization such as AIPAC is on our side, warts and all, rather than on theirs.


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