Should I renew my AIPAC membership?

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My American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) membership expires this September. Should I renew or demand a refund? I joined AIPAC nearly 30 years ago because I support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and because I believe that support for Israel is and must remain bipartisan. I support a two-state solution, as does AIPAC, because Israel cannot retain the West Bank indefinitely and remain both Jewish and democratic. But I believe that the role of the United States should be to facilitate negotiations between the parties and to support Israel, not to pressure Israel to take risks for peace that Israel believes are too dangerous.

{mosads}At a time of increasing polarization, AIPAC must maintain both the appearance and the reality of bipartisanship to remain effective. That is why AIPAC’s Republican drift, whether by accident or design, is so troubling.

In the past few years, the atmosphere at AIPAC meetings has become increasingly partisan. Democratic speakers get polite applause, if any, while Republican speakers get thunderous applause. Speakers whose views diverge from mine on other issues, such as Pastor John Hagee, and whose rationale for supporting Israel is troubling, seem too popular among too many AIPAC members. But I can live with that as long as their support for Israel does not require me to support the rest of their agenda.

And yet their agenda became AIPAC’s agenda when AIPAC opposed President Obama’s plan to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Toward the end of 2013, the administration and AIPAC disagreed about the wisdom of further sanctions against Iran. The announcement of the interim agreement with Iran presented the perfect face-saving opportunity for AIPAC to withdraw its support for sanctions and give the interim deal a chance. Instead, AIPAC continued to push for the Kirk-Menendez bill. It was as if AIPAC wanted sanctions for the sake of sanctions, no matter what the price, and no matter how clear it became that support for Kirk-Menendez was far from bipartisan in the true, historical sense of that term.

In July, AIPAC took only a few hours to announce its opposition to the complex 149-page Iran deal, which played into the hands of those who argued that no realistic deal would have satisfied AIPAC. Instead of recognizing that the pro-Israel position is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and that policymakers committed to the safety and security of Israel could reasonably differ on how best to achieve that goal, AIPAC immediately took sides in a partisan fight.

I don’t expect AIPAC to publicly oppose the prime minister of Israel, nor would I want AIPAC to, even on the Iran deal. AIPAC should have remained neutral, just as AIPAC has maintained neutrality on other important issues, including the legitimacy of settlements and the Iraq War.

It was obvious from the start that AIPAC would not get the votes to override a veto and that this partisan fight was not winnable (and yes, it is partisan when every Republican is on one side and all but a handful of Democrats are on the other side). AIPAC should have recognized that the Iran deal was a done deal the day it was signed and begun work on bipartisan legislation that would not torpedo the deal, but strengthen it.

This losing effort was not justified because it highlighted the deal’s flaws. The flaws in the deal could have been addressed through constructive legislation, without needlessly dividing the community and playing into the hands of Republicans willing to turn Israel into a partisan issue for short-term political gain. Instead, AIPAC alienated the president, alienated members of Congress, and for what?

The secret of AIPAC’s success is not money or intimidation. AIPAC usually wins because AIPAC chooses its battles carefully. It’s hard to lose when both parties agree, when the facts are on your side and when you face no meaningful opposition. But on the Iran deal, AIPAC waded into a partisan fight and made misstatements of fact and misleading arguments. The failure of Congress to block the Iran deal does not mean that AIPAC is suddenly weak; it means that even AIPAC, when it is on the wrong side of a partisan fight, cannot win. That’s as it should be. AIPAC is not the National Rifle Association, nor do I want it to be.

AIPAC can return to bipartisanship by making clear to its political activists that the Iran deal is not a litmus test and has no bearing on whether a member of Congress is a “friendly incumbent” deserving of financial or other support. Are dozens of members of Congress previously considered pro-Israel suddenly undeserving of support because of one vote? These pro-Israel members of Congress voted differently from AIPAC’s preference because intelligent, informed members of Congress committed to the safety and security of Israel can legitimately come to different conclusions on this issue.

Moreover, AIPAC should disassociate itself from the barrage of horrible epithets hurled at Jews who support the Iran deal. If the Anti-Defamation League can condemn the attacks on Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and others, why can’t AIPAC? Some AIPAC activists have damaged the pro-Israel community’s relationship with certain members of Congress by using language and a tone that AIPAC discourages. AIPAC should reach out to members of Congress and clarify that these activists do not speak for AIPAC. The perception that AIPAC’s agenda is the Republican agenda will become reality unless AIPAC corrects the mistakes it and some of its activists made throughout its campaign to kill the Iran deal.

AIPAC must find its way back to being America’s bipartisan pro-Israel lobby, a place where Democrats and Republicans alike can feel comfortable working toward shared goals. The purpose of the AIPAC I joined was to promote a strong U.S.-Israel relationship; this necessarily means acting independently in practice, as well as in theory, from the government of Israel when necessary. AIPAC needs to find a way to distinguish between Israel the nation and Israel’s current leadership and to support the U.S.-Israel relationship based on principles that transcend any particular government.

Yes, this is emotional. It’s hard to watch an organization you’ve enthusiastically supported for 30 years be so wrong on such an important issue and not know whether it is an aberration or the continuation of a trend you’d like to deny.

AIPAC’s past work has earned it the benefit of the doubt, but there is a limit to how long voices like mine can be marginalized. I’ll renew this time, but whether I and others like me renew next time depends on whether AIPAC renews its commitment to the ideals that caused us to join in the first place.

Sheffey has long been active in the pro-Israel community and in Jewish communal life. He is a lifelong member of AIPAC and served on the board of CityPAC, a pro-Israel Chicago-based political action committee, for seven years, including two years as its president. He is also active in Democratic politics and served as an elected delegate to the 2012 Democratic Convention from Illinois. Click here to sign up for Sheffey’s weekly e-newsletter.

Tags AIPAC American Israel Public Affairs Committee Iran agreement Iran deal Iran nuclear agreement Iran nuclear deal Israel Israel–United States relations Jerry Nadler
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