This is a guest post by David Axelrod.
This year’s policy conference was marred with partisan controversy more than any other since the inception of the lobby. This controversy tested the core values of AIPAC. Those values will also continue to be tested in the coming weeks, as we see how truly bipartisan the pro-Israel lobby is, not just in rhetoric but in reality. It will also show where the lobby stands in relation to the leaders of America and Israel. For weeks now we have heard political pundits weigh in on the efficacy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress–both in reference to how it came about, and how much it coincides with this year’s conference.
While many American Jews affiliated with the lobby voiced support for the Prime Minister’s decision to address Congress despite the White House’s disapproval, many have also shown concern that they were in essence being asked to side with the Prime Minister over their own elected President. This tension was most palpable during UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s speech at AIPAC (the most senior Administration representative sent this year by the White House). There was one moment when Rice was visibly bothered by applause that broke out mid-sentence, purposefully cutting her off. Rice began by saying that some would prefer to slap new sanctions on Iran at this juncture, and before she could proceed with her negation of this concept, a very audible amount of applause did not allow her to finish the phrase. The applause lasted long enough for all to see the annoyance register on her face. Underlying divisions within the AIPAC community during this historic conference was the smattering of applause from the more liberal elements at the conference when Ambassador Rice stated that settlements where a problem for Israeli security and peace.
The Minnesota delegation was definitely noticed this year. My synagogue, The Temple of Aaron, alone had around 40 congregation members attend this year. Coming from a state that heavily supports the Democratic Party, it was clear that the rift between the Israeli PM and the American President would be on the minds of much of the Minnesota delegation. Though the Prime Minister’s address to AIPAC wisely focused solely on emphasizing that his coming address to Congress was in no way a gesture of disrespect against Obama or the office of the presidency, and that similar disputes were a natural recurrence in the American-Israeli relationship, the address to Congress was less conciliatory. The Prime Minister was much more direct in his address to Congress, not mincing words in explaining the miscalculation he sees unfolding in the White House regarding their evaluation of the regime in Iran.
Even though few doubted that Netanyahu’s address to Congress would clearly demonstrate the conflicting philosophies and head-butting nature of the personal relationship between the President and Prime Minister, not everyone foresaw how forcefully Netanyahu would pit himself against the administration’s efforts to sign a deal with Iran. Netanyahu explained that this was not only a bad deal, it was a very bad deal that would itself pave the way for a legitimized Iranian nuclear arsenal and nuclear proliferation in the most violent portion of the world. Though I was not one such person, it is reasonable to conclude that the typical “Minnesota Nice” culture we are all accustomed to here played into an additional shock factor felt by some in regard to the Prime Minsters’ bluntness; especially for the President’s supporters.
Lobbying efforts this year centered around pushing for our representatives to support legislation that would give Congress a voice in the emerging deal with Iran. Though most of the lobbying was par for the course as every year, Representative Ellison allocated a full hour this year to hear our concerns (his staff took over after half that period). Further, and though time did not allow Ellison to elucidate clearly what he meant, the representative appeared to convey that he believes the regime in Iran to be a rational political actor (like us and others in the West). Such language usually accompanies the argument that, in light of this rationality, there is less need to fear a Nuclear Iran than Netanyahu and others would argue.
In the coming weeks, we will see if AIPAC will continue to successfully hold the pro-Israel community together in spite of tensions that are sure to be exacerbated as the finalizing of the deal comes closer and closer. Will the lobby continue to support the Israeli position whatever it may be on Iran, and thus possibly antagonize the administration itself? Or will the lobby change course under the leadership those that opposed Netanyahu’s speech. Regardless, it seems clear that this is the most important mobilization by AIPAC in its history, and the partisan controversy it finds itself in will act as a crucible to test its fortitude and character.
David Axelrod has been a 24 year resident of Minnesota after arriving from the Soviet Union as part of the massive Jewish emigration. He attended the University of Minnesota for two years after transferring from Brandeis University, and received his Bachelors degree in 2013. David is about to begin earning his Masters in Jewish Studies this upcoming Academic year.