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
Israeli President Shimon Peres speaks at the American
For years, AIPAC (The American
Committee) has helped to stonewall the
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
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
construction in its
what the Israelis call expansion to accommodate
the right-wing Likud party, settlement expansion is
hardly a partisan matter in
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
What's new is the serious objection being voiced in the
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
possibility of prohibiting
weapons in the
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
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
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
play an active role in moving
if it means the
exerting pressure, on the Israelis. That's according to
a poll conducted last summer by
counterweight to AIPAC. Contributions to
growing at a rate faster than AIPAC's. In last year's
election, of 41 candidates endorsed by
their pro-peace positions, 31 were winners.
Working closely with
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.
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
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
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
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.