The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is preparing for its annual conference. The meeting could prove more contentious than usual, as the powerful lobby group faces questions as to the extent of its reach.
It's a well-worn exercise: The finishing touches are being made, readying the Washington Convention Center for the AIPAC meeting on March 24-26. A sound-check is carried out on the speakers through which the unmistakable American-accented baritone of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will boom, as he addresses a crowd of up to 18,000 participants — a man in the final throes of his bid for reelection. The LED panels are lit up, showing two interlinked Stars of David, one red, one blue, and the point at which they intersect shines a sparkling purple, signaling bipartisanship — a rare commodity in the current political climate.
Unlike other partisan, pro-Israel lobby groups, AIPAC's membership of roughly equal part Republicans and Democrats has proved somewhat of a recipe for success, allowing it to maintain a staunchly pro-Israel Congress, and secure its position as one of the nation's most powerful lobbies for close to 70 years.
What has been reexamined as of late is the extent to which AIPAC's influence and reach is considered healthy. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbying and campaign expenditures, AIPAC spent $3.5 million on its efforts last year.
It is at times an uncomfortable debate, thrust awkwardly into the spotlight off the back of comments made by Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. The freshman lawmaker spoke out against supporters of Israel and AIPAC on a number of occasions, in terms criticized as anti-Semitic, earning her rebuke from more established members of Omar's own party, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Omar's remarks also exposed ideological and generational rifts within the party, however. Senator Bernie Sanders wrote in a statement that "we must not equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government." Similarly, young, progressive House newcomers like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also came to the defense of her freshman colleague.
Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, observes that "the Democratic Party now has a younger generation that views the Israel-Palestine conflict through the lens of human and civil rights rather than a question of security and terrorism."
Younger Democrats "don't have the view of the heroic Israel at its establishment against a regional Goliath," Sachs said. They see Israel as the Goliath and the Palestinians as David." It's a divide which could dampen Democratic support for AIPAC, dealing a blow to its long-held mantra of bipartisanship.
For Aaron David Miller, former adviser to six secretaries of state and current Middle East Program director at the Wilson Center, "AIPAC is a powerful voice, but not a veto over US Middle East policy." Miller suggests that perceptions of AIPAC's power as outsized may be due to a shifting in the political landscape, both in the US and Israel. "The Trump administration is the most preternaturally pro-Netanyahu and anti-Palestinian I have ever seen."
Under Donald Trump's leadership, the US has undone decades of foreign policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, halting aid to Palestine, and exiting from the Iran nuclear deal. Now reports point to the US as poised to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights in Syrian territory, handing Netanyahu yet another precious political victory.
Indeed with Trump, Netanyahu appears to have found a reliable partner in "a somewhat exclusive relationship," said Miller, which could well be strengthened when the Israeli premier is hosted by the US president at the White House on Monday. The two men have much in common: policies favoring walls, their position in the crosshairs of corruption investigations, and shared populist refrains of "fake news!" faced with detractors.
"You have an Israeli prime minister who is willfully manipulating Israeli politics to create the impression that the Republican Party is the go-to party on Israel," Miller believes. "You also have Republican president willfully manipulating the environment to the same end."
Calls to boycott
But many Jewish Americans, in particular younger ones, are concerned by what they view as increasingly hardline policies from the Israeli premier in lockstep with the US president. Jewish Voice for Peace, a grassroots group which supports the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel — known as BDS — has launched a social media campaign in defense of Ilhan Omar and the questions she has raised with regards to the room for dissenting voices, with the hashtag #IStandWithIlhan.
Meanwhile, liberal group MoveOn is calling on Democratic presidential candidates to boycott this year's conference. "It's no secret that that AIPAC has worked to hinder diplomatic efforts like the Iran deal, is undermining Palestinian self-determination, and inviting figures actively involved in human rights violations to its stage," wrote Iram Ali, campaign director at MoveOn Political Action in a statement.
AIPAC itself, appears to be walking a tightrope. This year's speakers, as is tradition, still come from both sides of the aisle. For the time being, "much hangs on the next election," Miller said. "A new Israeli prime minister and different US president could ameliorate the situation."
For those who question the sway of the organization's influence, the slogan of this year's meeting appears to propose a direct reply: "Connected For Good," reads the banner hanging over the stage under which speakers will deliver their remarks starting Sunday. The question on the lips of many liberal Jewish Americans and others now though is: When it comes to the US's approach to Israel, who gets to define what that "good" is?