Friday, June 12, 2009

AIPAC Wall Beginning to Crack

AIPAC Wall Beginning to Crack


By Ira Chernus, t r u t h o u t | Perspective


June 9, 2009


Israeli President Shimon Peres speaks at the AIPAC

policy conference in Washington, DC, in May.


Israeli President Shimon Peres speaks at the American

Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy

conference in Washington, DC, in May. (Photo: Getty Images)


For years, AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs

Committee) has helped to stonewall the Middle East

peace process by building a solid wall around the

Israeli government, protecting it from criticism in the

US. Senators and representatives have feared the wrath

of AIPAC come Election Day, even in states and

districts where the Jewish vote is negligible. Whatever

they may have thought privately about Israel's policies

toward the Palestinians, they've remained silent.


I got a first-hand glimpse of the process shortly after

last year's election, when I talked to an aide of a

newly elected House member. The new member, who

represents a district with hardly any organized Jewish

community, knew very little about the Middle East when

the campaign began. The representative had been

"educated" on the issue, the aide told me, by a handful

of wealthy Democrats - none from the member's district,

all generous contributors to the campaign, and all

staunch supporters of the AIPAC line. That's how it

works, all over the country.


Or at least that's how it used to work. Now, for the

first time, there are signs of a crack in AIPAC's

vaunted political edifice. The wedge issue is the Obama

administration's public demand that Israel stop all new

construction in its West Bank settlements, including

what the Israelis call expansion to accommodate

"natural growth."


Though Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads

the right-wing Likud party, settlement expansion is

hardly a partisan matter in Israel. It has continued at

a more or less unbroken pace for years, regardless of

which party headed the government. And Israeli Defense

Minister Ehud Barak, leader of the opposition Labor

Party, is equally staunch in demanding the right of

"natural growth."


What's new is the serious objection being voiced in the

US government, not merely by the president and his

administration, but by members of Congress, including

John Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations

Committee, and several prominent Jewish lawmakers, such

as Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services

Committee; Howard Berman, chair of the House Foreign

Relations Committee; and influential representatives

Henry Waxman and Robert Wexler.


When they met recently with Netanyahu, they made him

"very, very aware of the concerns of the administration

and Congress," according to one Congressional aide.

They pressed Netanyahu on the need to stop building in

settlements and rejected his call for Palestinian

reciprocity on terrorism as a precondition.


(Another sign of the change: A Congressional delegation

visiting Israel actually discussed, in private, the

possibility of prohibiting Israel from using American

weapons in the West Bank.)


After so many years of AIPAC dominance, it would be too

much to expect all Democrats to back Obama on the

settlements question. There are still plenty in

Congress who toe the AIPAC line.


"We are applying pressure to the wrong party in this

dispute," said Rep. Shelley Berkley. "I don't think

anybody wants to dictate to an ally what they have to

do in their own national security interests," said Rep.

Gary Ackerman. Though he allowed that there's "room for

compromise," his version of compromise sounds very much

like the Israeli government's version: "I think that

most people could understand somebody having a child

and their child living with them, as long as it's not a

ruse to expand" the settlements.


But the fact that there is any debate at all on this

issue in Congress marks a sea change in Washington,

brought about by a perfect storm of converging factors.


Most obviously, there is the administration's tough

public stance on the settlement expansion. It's not

easy for Democrats in Congress to buck a very popular

president of their own party, especially when he's

making an argument based on national interests and

national security.


Less obviously, there is a remarkable change in

attitude among American Jews. Well, it's less obvious

to those who get all their information from the mass

media, where this change is far too little reported.

But to those of us who have been working in the once-

tiny American-Jewish peace movement, the growth of that

movement all around us is nothing short of astounding.


It was already evident a couple of years ago. In the

last two years, the thin stream of dissent has grown

steadily broader and higher. At the rate it's going, it

could well become something close to a torrent sooner

than anyone might imagine.


Two-thirds of American Jews say they want the US to

play an active role in moving Israel toward peace, even

if it means the US publicly disagreeing with, and

exerting pressure, on the Israelis. That's according to

a poll conducted last summer by J Street, the pro-

Israel, pro-peace lobby now widely seen as the

counterweight to AIPAC. Contributions to J Street are

growing at a rate faster than AIPAC's. In last year's

election, of 41 candidates endorsed by J Street for

their pro-peace positions, 31 were winners.


Working closely with J Street is the grassroots Jewish-

American peace group, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, which now

claims some 45,000 members and pledges of support from

over 1500 rabbis and cantors. Just a few months ago,

that latter number was less than 900, another indicator

of how fast the Jewish community is changing.


But numbers tell only part of the story. Inside the

Jewish community, there is an intangible but

unmistakable new mood of open discussion, and even

debate, about Israeli policies. Politicians, whose job

is to sense those intangible moods, are beginning to

pick it up. More and more of them realize that the

leaders of Jewish organizations who still parrot the

AIPAC line may dominate the mass media, but they can no

longer dominate their own rank-and-file.


And those organizational leaders are surprisingly muted

in their support for Netanyahu on the settlements

issue. "Even the most conservative institutions of

Jewish American life don't want to go to war over

settlement policy," said David Twersky, who was until

recently the senior adviser on international affairs at

the American Jewish Congress.


The convergence of a changed presidential

administration and a changing Jewish community opens up

room for legislators to be influenced by a third

factor: common sense. These politicians are smart

enough to realize that Netanyahu's demand to

accommodate "natural growth" is just what

Representative Ackerman fears: a ruse to expand the settlements.


According to Israel's own Central Bureau of Statistics,

some 40 percent of the growth in settlement population

comes not from "natural growth" (the excess of births

over deaths), but from new immigration. Since those new

immigrants need not only new bedrooms, but new

kitchens, living rooms, dining rooms, as well as all

the expanded public services that adults require, it

seems likely that well over half of the new

construction is to accommodate them and not for "natural growth."


What's more, as Israeli columnist B. Michael pointed

out, when a family in Israel proper has another child

or a couple gets married, their government does not

provide them with new living space. They just move to

new quarters, if they can afford it; if they can't,

they make do with the space they already have. Why

should the settlers be treated any differently?


Indeed, since the settlers are living in their current

homes illegally by most interpretations of

international law, there is all the more reason that

they should be expected to move back to Israel proper,

where there is plenty of housing to accommodate them.


"What the hell do they want from me?" Netanyahu

reportedly complained after his talk with Obama. In the

weeks and months ahead, we can expect a growing chorus

in the US Congress to echo the changing views of

American Jews and answer: We want you to heed the

president's call to stop settlement construction

completely, comply with international law, and open the

door to serious negotiations with the Palestinians

toward a two-state solution.


Every time that answer is heard publicly, it widens the

crack in AIPAC's wall and brings us closer to the day

when that wall, inevitably, crumbles.



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