AIPAC still rules but alternative voices are growing louder

Sunday 02/04/2017
Still influential. US Vice-President Mike Pence speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, on March 26th. (Reuters)

Washington - The American Israel Pub­lic Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference in Washington featured the usual parade of pandering politicians: More than two-thirds of the members of Con­gress spoke to at least some of the 15,000 in attendance.

US President Donald Trump did not appear — although he gave a rousing speech to AIPAC in 2016 — but Vice-President Mike Pence was there, as was the entire congres­sional leadership, both Republican and Democratic.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke to the audience by satellite.

It was business as usual for the powerful pro-Israel group, whose lobbyists constantly work the halls of Congress and whose chapters in all 50 states are vigilant: If a member of Congress says or does something that does not have AIPAC’s blessing, he can expect to receive a barrage of e-mails, phone calls and letters from voters in his home state.

In recent years, AIPAC has faced a new challenge, not from Arab- American or American-Muslim or­ganisations but from Jewish-Amer­ican groups that say AIPAC’s blind support for Israel is ultimately to the detriment of the Jewish state.

J Street, which promotes itself as the “anti-AIPAC” Jewish lobby, had its annual conference in Washing­ton in February. More than 3,500 people attended but only a hand­ful of the members of Congress did, including former Democratic presi­dential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, who in 2016 turned down AIPAC’s offer to speak at its confer­ence.

Jewish Voices for Peace convened its annual conference on March 31st in Chicago with more than 1,000 attendees. It supports the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel.

There are other signs that AIPAC’s grip is weakening: David Friedman, Trump’s pro-settler choice to be US ambassador to Israel, was approved by a Senate vote of only 52-46.

So, is AIPAC’s power waning?

In one sense, the answer is yes. There are more opposition voices now and AIPAC has lost its ability to immediately de-legitimise any politician who dares to oppose any aspect of Israeli policy.

AIPAC’s strength in one key area remains unmatched: Political cam­paign donations. While AIPAC itself cannot donate to campaigns due to its legal status as a non-profit educational organisation, dozens of pro-Israel political action commit­tees (PACs) across the United States follow AIPAC’s guidance when dol­ing out campaign dollars.

The Center for Responsive Poli­tics said that in 2016 such pro-Israel PACs and individuals donated more than $17 million to House and Sen­ate political campaigns.