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Newsflash: AIPAC (probably) isn’t pushing for an attack on Iran

I have read even more drivel than usual about AIPAC in the blogosphere these days, and thought I would explain a few things to those who have never attended an AIPAC Policy Conference.

First of all, AIPAC does not appear to be trying to prod the U.S. to bomb Iran. If it is, I have not seen any credible evidence, just a lot of inferential yammering by those whose stock-in-trade is to promote the notion that the so-called “Lobby” is a bunch of bellicose fifth columnists.

Here, for example, is Justin Raimondo, an articulate libertarian whose is an increasingly popular source for all things anti-Israel and anti-AIPAC: “Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visit to the U.S. is part of a concerted effort, by the Israeli government and its American lobbyists, to convince U.S. lawmakers – and, most of all, President George W. Bush – that the time to attack Iran is now.”

At last week’s Policy Conference, attendees got a distinctly different impression. Sure, there was obligatory tough talk about the perils of a nuclearized Iran. Sure, anyone who asserted or hinted that the military option should remain on the table could count on applause in the small seminars and the large plenary sessions. Of course the notion of unconditional dialogue with Iran was an object of scorn.

And, yes, the action agenda pushed for tightened sanctions against Iran. AIPAC called for its grassroots troops to descend on Congress and urge passage of the Iran Counterproliferation Act in the Senate, and to promote a slightly tougher, non-binding resolution from Reps. Gary Ackerman and Mike Pence. But, as described by Ron Kampeas of JTA, one of the smartest reporters in Washington:

The language of the [Ackerman-Pence] resolution is sensitive to the political realities of a presidential campaign that has made the possibility of war against Iran a partisan issue: It explicitly counts out military action — a point hammered home in the AIPAC talking points.

“The resolution specifically states that nothing in the resolution shall be construed to be an authorization for military action,” the sheet says. “In fact, the sanctions called for in H. Con. Res. 362 are the best way to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability by avoiding military action.”

Additionally, the action part of the resolution opens by declaring “that preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, through all appropriate economic, political, and diplomatic means is vital to the national security interests of the United States and must be dealt with urgently.”

Notably absent from AIPAC’s talking points is any mention of military force — a prospect that spooks Democrats and would discomfit an organization that prides itself on its bipartisanship. [emphasiis added by DF]

Kampeas is spot on. I suspect a large part of the membership would have been upset by overt war-mongering. I know this is a rather inconvenient truth. Painting the AIPACers with a broad brush as a dangerous, evil band of Likud supporters and war-hungry “neocons” makes it much easier for those who oppose the group to mobilize, and to write angry op-eds and blog posts filled with reckless generalizations that ignore complex, institutional truths. Mea culpa: I’ve written a few of those myself.

Dismissing AIPAC as nothing but a support group or cheering section for Dick Cheney and Richard Perle feeds the hunger of those on the far left and far right for a bogeyman, an organization that can serve, along with Israel itself, as a kind of totemic hate object, a repository of all that is wrong. I am trying to write a book about the conventional Israel lobby and my task would be much easier if AIPAC could be summed up so glibly. But I’m afraid it can’t.

The inconvenient truth is that many of its members and board members are centrist Democrats; they are politically moderate, at least by American standards. They want the U.S. to keep Israel strong by giving it a qualitative military edge because they believe Israel’s neighbors still want to destroy it. They are deeply worried about Iran and the dangers they believe it poses to Israel and to the U.S., especially to American troops in Iraq, But they are not irresponsibly trigger happy. Even Philip Weiss, a hero of the cabal-watchers, was initially a bit perplexed when, in the first policy conference he attended, he found himself rubbing shoulders with attendees and listening to speakers who were moderate, temperate and as desirious of peace as he is (although they don’t care as much about Palestinian suffering or Palestinian rights as he does).

My friend and fellow Ameinu board member Judy Gelman, described the AIPACers in an email to the organization’s leadership:

Who goes to AIPAC? This year’s conference had over 7500 participants, about 1200 of who were students. The attendees also included many large congregational groups. I don’t know how many rabbis brought congregants but 4 rabbis were acknowledged as having brought more than 100 congregants with them. Two of these congregants were large Conservative shuls from LA, one of which (Valley Beth Shalom) had over 200 participants (the other was Sinai Temple). Stephen Wise Synagogue from NY (also Conservative) was one of the others. So the participants at the Policy Conference are not a group of wild-eyed reactionaries. Kippot are rare and tzitzit almost completely absent.

It is pretty much the people you would be sitting next to at Holy Holidays at a Conservative shul. Like most Jews, these are largely Democrats–not the most liberal Democrats, but still Democrats and mostly from NY, CA, Chicago, Philly, Southern Florida, but also from the smaller Jewish communities like Tulsa, Salt Lake City and Orlando. From these smaller communities, it is not uncommon for AIPAC activists to overlap heavily with the Federation and local congregational leadership. AIPAC gives these people (mostly people of considerable wealth) a way to connect to Israel politically, and also to connect with their local politicians on behalf of Israel. What AIPAC “sells” them is a way to be informed about Israel and a way to be involved for Israel.

She’s right. Most of them are not “neocons.” They are just very worried about Israel. They come to these conferences expecting guidance and instruction about how they –and America– can help to keep it safe. It’s not much more complicated than that. What’s more, although they were urged to suppress partisan poltical instincts, many of them cheered for Obama not only because they were glad he expressed support for Israel; they also cheered for him because they were Democrats and, like the rest of us, want an end to the Republican reign of error.

Of course, there are also vocal, irrepressible militarists in that organization. In a speech to the plenary on Monday night, Executive Director Howard Kohr gave, I think, some clues about the pressures on him from that wing of AIPAC. After rattling off the many dangers posed by Iran and the need to sanction it, he said:

Now, I have spoken to you and I know you feel a real sense of frustration. Of impatience. You have asked me, from New York and Los Angeles, what more can we do? You wonder, is there still time for our efforts to work?

My friends, I understand your concern.

But I want to make the case to you today that the path of political and economic sanctions is still the best immediate option. There is still persuade Iran through sanctions that its leader cannot vow to wipe Israel off the map. It cannot promise to visit destruction on Israel, and escape the consequences of its actions…My friends, we cannot lose our determination to stay on this path –together we must make it clear that Iran must change its behavior.

He could have gone much further. He could have revved up the crowd to show the attentive world that these American Jews were serious about doing whatever was necessary to take out Iran’s nuclear capability. Instead, he urged the AIPACers to trod what was, at least in their Manichean version of reality, a middle path.

I still think they are wrong, these AIPACers, about a good many things. They are wrong to ratchet up tensions with Iran and favor all sticks and no carrots. They have been wrong about Draconian restrictions on aid to the Palestinian Authority and will continue to be wrong in their opposition to evenhanded American diplomacy in the Middle East. I still think an alternative political bloc, a lobby for the rest of us that encourages a new American course in the Middle East, is necessary. The stony, uncomfortable silence that greeted Sec. of State Rice when she dared to refer to the “daily humiliations” suffered by Palestinians is reason enough to develop that alternative.

But if we want to change the current, conventional Israel lobby, we need to understand how it actually works and who is in it, not create straw men and straw women.

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