Opinion

President Obama, AIPAC, and the myth of bipartisan consensus on Israel

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Philip Klein,Barack Obama,Israel,Benjamin Netanyahu

Each year, thousands of delegates to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual conference descend on Washington to hear speeches perpetuating the myth of a bipartisan consensus on the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel.

With this year's conference taking place as President Obama threatens Israel with international isolation and negotiates with a radical Islamic regime that threatens Israel with nuclear annihilation, the bipartisan consensus talk has never rung more hollow.

The reality is that there is no bipartisan consensus on Israel. Americans who identify as Republicans are overwhelmingly sympathetic to Israel's plight, while Democrats are divided. The liberal base of the Democratic Party increasingly sees Israel - not as the victim of a long campaign of terrorism for having the audacity to establish a free Jewish state - but as the oppressor of the innocent occupied Palestinian people.

If the past is any indication, when the Conservative Political Action Conference meets later this week, speakers voicing strong support for Israel will be greeted with huge applause. This is not the case at liberal conferences.

Polling data also backs this up. In a February 2013 Gallup poll, 78 percent of Republicans said they sympathized more with Israel than the Palestinians, while just 55 percent of Democrats (and 51 percent of liberals) said the same. Even among Jews, this divide exists, with an October 2013 Pew poll finding that 50 percent of Republican Jews said they were emotionally “very attached” to Israel, which was more than double the 25 percent of Democratic Jews who said the same. When those who were “somewhat attached” are added, Jewish Republicans still had a stronger connection to Israel than Jewish Democrats, 84 percent to 65 percent.

But this polling data is just a crude indicator of where the differences really lie. They mask the deeper divisions regarding views toward Israel. Liberal Democrats, who in a poll would say that they sympathize with Israel, may argue that being pro-Israel means giving “tough love” to Israelis by convincing them to make concessions to the Palestinians in the name of self-preservation. To conservative Republicans who consider themselves pro-Israel, such policies threaten Israel’s very existence.

There were times when it was easier for AIPAC to paper over these differences. For much of the 1990s, the governments of both countries were dedicated to the peace process and AIPAC reflected those views. Then Palestinians rejected peace and launched a campaign of suicide bombings and then the Sept. 11 attacks happened. So, in the early 2000s, both the U.S. and Israeli governments were engaged in a war on terrorism and AIPAC again reflected the views of the governments. As a result, the organization's leaders were inaccurately viewed back then as inherently hawkish, and some sort of all-powerful wizards pushing America toward war.

The election of Obama and return of Benjamin Netanyahu completely changed this calculus. In 2009, Obama's first year in office, he said his goal was to create more distance between the U.S. and Israel to jump-start the peace process. “When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states,” Obama lectured American Jewish leaders, according to the Washington Post.

In his first term in office, Obama did successfully create a schism with Israel, portraying Jews building homes as the central threat to the peace process. But all this did was embolden the Palestinians to dig in deeper and convince Netanyahu – rightfully – that Obama couldn't be trusted to protect Israel's security interests in any negotiations.

Despite this, AIPAC and Democrats had a mutual interest in perpetuating the bipartisan consensus myth. No matter what Obama’s policies, Democrats could go to AIPAC’s conferences, utter a few reassuring lines about the “unbreakable bond” between the U.S. and Israel, and throw that in the face of Republicans who claimed Obama was anything but a staunch supporter of Israel. As he was running for re-election, Obama spoke at AIPAC to launder his anti-Israel views and present himself as within this mythical consensus. And for AIPAC, the parade of leaders affirming the unquestionable bipartisan consensus only propped up the Image of the group as powerful and influential.

Obama's second-term has helped expose this myth. Obama tapped Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, a man who had derided AIPAC's letter-writing campaigns as “stupid” and infamously griped that, “the Jewish Lobby intimidates a lot of people up here."

Obama nominated John Kerry as secretary of state to pursue a naive diplomacy with Iran that has already effectively conceded the Islamist regime's right to enrich uranium. Additionally, the Obama-Kerry tag-team is pressuring Israel to make suicidal concessions as part of a doomed to fail peace process.

AIPAC has been caught completely flat-footed as Obama has successfully lobbied Democratic lawmakers to hold off on new sanctions against Iran. As if to pour salt in the wounds, last month, Obama tapped Robert Malley to join the National Security Council - even though Malley had to cut ties with the 2008 Obama campaign, where he served as an informal adviser, because he met with members of the terrorist group Hamas.

Ahead of the AIPAC gathering and his Monday meeting with Netanyahu, Obama boasted to Bloomberg's Jeffrey Goldberg that he'll threaten Netanyahu with increasing international isolation if he doesn't make a peace deal with a Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.

I use the term “a Palestinian leader” intentionally, because Abbas has no control over Hamas, which is dedicated to the destruction of Israel and controls Gaza, from which it has launched rockets and suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. A Hamas official recently told Al-Monitor, “Abbas doesn't represent anyone.”

Obama also said that Palestinians are ready for peace, despite polling data to the contrary and a history of Palestinian rejection of any Jewish presence in the region. Alas, Obama is not taking this message to the AIPAC conference this year, because he is not seeking re-election and therefore no longer needs to launder his anti-Israel views. For more on the Obama interview, check out Commentary's John Podhoretz.

For AIPAC, the strategy of conjuring up this illusion of a bipartisan consensus on Israel has run its course. With Obama pursuing a dangerous diplomacy with Iran and setting up Israel as the fall guy for any failure to reach peace with the Palestinians, the time for mealy-mouthed political statements is over. Either AIPAC becomes willing to take on Obama more openly and aggressively, or it continues down the path to irrelevance.

(Disclosure: In 2008, the author took a trip to Israel funded by the AIPAC-linked American Israel Education Foundation.)

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