Netanyahu's policies put AIPAC in crisis

AIPAC is facing an identity crisis because of its close connection with Netanyahu's hardline policies.



The annual conference of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convened in Washington past week was overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine and overtaken by the refusal of White House to adopt Israel's demand to tighten sanctions on Iran. Nevertheless, AIPAC boasted that 14,000 delegates and two-thirds of the members of Congress attended the gathering. But this year, the AIPAC convention was not addressed by President Barack Obama, who decided against participating well before the Ukraine crisis erupted. Also absent was Vice President Joe Biden, who usually makes an appearance when his boss
declines an invitation.

Only hours before the conference opened, Obama warned hardline Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that it would be increasingly difficult for the US to defend Israel against efforts to isolate it on the international plane if negotiations with the Palestinians fail. Obama also urged Netanyahu not to press Congress to boost sanctions that could torpedo ongoing negotiations with Tehran. This message was not delivered privately but publicly: do not reject the US-mediated peace deal with the Palestinians or put at risk an agreement involving curbs on Iran's nuclear programme.
This was the first time in a long while that a US president dared to take such a firm verbal line with an Israeli leader. Obama earlier issued a declaration of independence on the Iran issue when he told Congress he would veto any new sanctions legislation adopted due to AIPAC pressure. As the beneficiary of full AIPAC support, Netanyahu has promoted a “policy of three nos” - no Iranian enrichment of uranium, no centrifuges for enriching uranium, and no weaponisation of nuclear material.

Flat rejection

In spite of the punitive sanctions regime imposed by the Western powers that has plunged Iran into an econo- mic crisis, Tehran flatly rejects Israel's demands, compelling these powers to understand that the nuclear programme will not be dismantled and Iran will retain the capacity to enrich uranium for its own needs under strict monitoring by the International Atomic
Energy Agency.

Instead of attending the AIPAC gathering Obama dispatched cabinet level officials, Secretary of State John Kerry, who handles both the Iran and the Palestine-Israel files, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew who deals with sanctions policy. Both defended the administration's West Asia policies. Kerry vowed to continue with his effort to achieve Palestinian-Israeli peace while Lew pledged that Washington would enforce the current punitive sanctions regime until a comprehensive agreement is achieved on Iran's nuclear programme.

Rival Republican congressmen were predictably critical of the Democratic administration in their addresses, and expressed concern that the current level of sanctions would not compel Iran to downsize its nuclear programme to the satisfaction of the Western powers. The partisan Republican approach violated this year's theme of “bipartisanship” intended to promote cooperation with Democrats on issues important to Israel. Unless there is cooperation, AIPAC cannot secure Israel's demands.

Netanyahu avoided confrontation with the administration but made no concessions.  He blamed the Palestinians for the failure of Kerry's effort to reach a peace deal and called on them to recognise Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. He continued to press for Iran to surrender its nuclear programme without making unwelcome threats of military action as he has done previously. AIPAC is facing an identity crisis because of its close connection with Netanyahu's hardline policies.

Eighty-seven per cent of US Jews do not subscribe to Netanyahu's colonisation policy and 82 respected Jewish figures have signed a letter to Congress opposing new sanctions on Iran. While Representative Michele Bachmann, a intemperate member of the Republican right, accused US Jews of selling out Israel, the conservative Jerusalem Post argued that AIPAC'S "bipartisan reputation is in tatters and it sounds increasingly like a mouthpiece for Netanyahu and for hyper-partisan Republicans rather than the voice of the American Jewish community."

However, instead of losing campaign contributions due to his refusal to capitulate to Netanyahu, Obama's Democratic party has attracted more donations. Furthermore, Jewish support is rising for J Street, AIPAC's liberal competitor although it still cannot command the influence or the funds garnered by AIPAC. J Street founder and president Jeremy Ben-Ami argues the administration is "saving Israel" from the wrong-headed policies of Netanyahu and the Israeli right by pursuing a pro-Israel policy that promotes peace with the Palestinians and prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, thereby providing for Israel's long-term security.

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