By Shuki Friedman
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, recently announced that it would no longer confine itself to its usual political activity in Washington, but would support specific candidates for office, Republicans and Democrats, who support Israel — even in the upcoming primary season. In so doing, AIPAC is changing its policy of avoiding direct involvement in U.S. election proceedings.
The change, which the organization’s leaders believe is necessitated by reality, will make Israel much more of a central issue in U.S. elections. Time will tell if the move increases support for Israel, but it is already clear that it will place AIPAC at the forefront of U.S. political campaigns and no doubt pose difficult dilemmas for its backers. It even spurs fears that it will cause more antisemitism, from both the right and the left.
The growing political polarization in the United States, and the almost complete inability of Republicans and Democrats to cooperate, has changed the rules of the game. This change could have a significant impact on support for Israel. After many years of being an issue that managed to unite significant parts of the two parties, support for Israel has been eroded by shifts in American politics.
In the past, AIPAC enjoyed sterling status in and access to all parts of the U.S. Congress. In recent years, however, it has discovered that the traditional ways of working with the House of Representatives — through volunteers within the constituencies of elected officials, for instance — are increasingly being blocked.
Understanding that U.S. election results are, in part, determined in primaries at the local, district and state levels, the lobby has decided to plunge into the stormy waters of direct financial support for House and Senate candidates. To this end, AIPAC has launched two political action committees (PACs), a federal PAC and a super PAC, which are virtually unhindered in the sources of their fundraising, to unabashedly support the campaigns of pro-Israel candidates in both parties.
Until now, AIPAC acted, mainly, only when the composition of the House had been determined in its biennial election cycle — to persuade the elected representatives to support Israel — but, from now on, it will actively endeavor to facilitate the election of pro-Israel candidates.
Given the political reality in the United States, AIPAC’s move may indeed be a pragmatic innovation. But it is also clear that this course of action entails risks — for AIPAC, for American Jews and also for support for the State of Israel.
A foundational ethos of AIPAC’s work has been its bipartisan positioning. The establishment of political action committees, fundraising and direct support for candidates’ campaigns will allow each party to argue that the lobby invests more money in the opposing side, thus tying it, and Israel, to a particular political faction.
The litmus test for “Israel support” can also be elusive. Will extremist candidates from the right and left who support Israel in principle but sharply criticize it for its policies toward the Palestinians or toward those who deploy semi-antisemitic expressions be considered supporters of Israel? Will those who unequivocally support Israel but oppose the continuation of its U.S. security assistance merit backing?
Israel’s place in the U.S. elections in recent decades has been relatively marginal. Pro-Israel candidates and their campaigns, in light of AIPAC’s financial backing, may feel incentivized to prioritize it on their political agenda.
This gamble could emerge as a blessing, but it also carries a risk of blowback from Israel’s critics on the left, or antisemites on the right, that Israel’s prominence in the machinations of U.S. politics will “stab them in the back.”
Another possible risk is that Israeli actors might be tempted to intervene in the U.S. electoral process, which would be perceived by more than a few Americans as a gross interference in their political system.
U.S. support for Israel and its security is perhaps the most important strategic asset that Israel has in the international arena. AIPAC’s evolution and preservation are also essential, and finding ways to maintain these in America’s changing political reality is welcome.
It is to be hoped that the new strategy will be carefully and sensibly seasoned and prove itself over time, and that the lobby will not—for the sake of Jews and Israel—lose its bet.
Dr. Shuki Friedman is the vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer of law at the Peres Academic Center.