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The humbling didn’t end there. The sanctions battle revived the longstanding liberal accusation that AIPAC is a de facto ally of the Republican Party.
It was never really true. The lobby’s initiatives always receive bipartisan sponsorship. Democrats outnumber Republicans among the members.
It’s true, though, that the organization’s goals are often in sync with neoconservatives and Republican hawks. That’s only been exacerbated during the Obama presidency by suspicion among pro-Israel hawks that the president isn’t a friend.
Now, after challenging Obama and losing, the organization is under pressure from Democrats to demonstrate centrism. The result at the conference was a constant drumbeat of assurances from the organization’s officers that AIPAC is bipartisan. But if it were obvious, it wouldn’t have to be said.
Pressure comes from the grassroots, too. Liberal Democrats have come in recent years to see themselves as a distinct faction within AIPAC, and not an empowered one. The fact that the organization has staffers responsible for outreach and shepherding of liberals, and programs like “The Progressive Case for Israel” are written into the schedule of the annual conference, only reinforce the sense among liberals that they’re outside the mainstream.
“This year the conference seems more bipartisan, but in some years the tone of the politics here gets so hostile,” said Fran Grossman of Los Angeles, a self-described liberal Democrat. “It’s a fluid thing.”
What happens to AIPAC now? Speakers at past conferences were always a careful balanced of Democrats and Republicans. The principal speakers this year were Republican John McCain and four Democrats, Menendez, New York Senator Chuck Schumer, Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. In the rush to mend fences, caution was thrown to the winds.
Striking, too, was the tone of debate from the rostrum. Usually the organization is able to present a single, clear message uniting Democrats and Republicans. This year’s speeches were exchanges of insults aimed at each other. Lew and Kerry strongly defended the administration’s Iran strategy. Menendez criticized it and defended his bill. McCain simply savaged the president. Schumer, speaking just before Kerry, took potshots at his handling of the Palestinian negotiations.
An advocacy organization can’t function without unity in its ranks and anger toward its foes. A chastened, polite AIPAC, thrashing out the issues in public and avoiding insult, is a crippled pro-Israel lobby. Even critics of its policy choices shouldn’t welcome that.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org