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Jewish Journal

Is Israel drifting out of focus?

By Douglas Bloomfield

May 17, 2011 | 10:19 am

When AIPAC convenes what it boasts will be another record-setting gathering of the faithful next week at the Washington Convention Center, some of the lobby’s most valuable assets will be locked out.

The usual sources will again proclaim the lobby’s power but none so convincingly as its adversaries. The seemingly endless parade of AIPAC-haters who bloat the blogosphere with their attacks are invaluable to enhancing the lobby’s aura of invincible might – and stimulate AIPAC’s donors and delegates.

They will be picketing the Convention Center futilely hoping to “expose” and weaken the group but will succeed only in enhancing the group’s reputation as Washington’s most powerful foreign policy lobby. Google “AIPAC” to read some of the myths they create and spread.

They are as much responsible for AIPAC’s aura of power as all those pandering politicians –this year promises the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of Israel and half the Congress. Climaxing the conference, thousands of delegates will swarm across Capitol Hill to lobby their representatives and senators.

In the 1980s, when I was legislative director at AIPAC, I got a call one day from a Soviet diplomat who wanted to talk about recent passage of the latest foreign aid bill.

He asked how it worked, and I gave him the PoliSci 101 version that can be found in a free handbook available in every Congressional office titled “How a Bill Becomes a Law.”  Everything is right in there, I told him.  There are no secrets.  It’s all done in the open, there are no secret night flowers.

He frowned and said I wasn’t leveling with him (I was, totally).  He knew the truth, he informed me.  In his version I personally went to the Speaker of the House and told him exactly what AIPAC wanted in the bill, and he made sure it happened, simple as that; it was a done deal.

This dialogue went on just about every time the House or Senate passed one aid bill or another.  Finally, I gave up trying to convince him and confessed, “You’re right; I called Tip O’Neill and he did everything I told him to do.”  My visitor smiled triumphantly.  “I knew it,” he exclaimed.  True story.  Just ask the FBI; they used to follow us to lunch at the Monocle Restaurant and probably tried to listen in.

AIPAC’s real enemy, however, may be a rising tide of apathy. The deeply committed, particularly those with the deepest pockets, are a minority of a Jewish community that is growing weary of a conflict that seems to drag on endlessly under weak and ineffective leadership, and the failure of Israelis and Palestinians to make peace – or even a serious effort.

The conflict is older than most of the delegates.  For many years it was easy to argue that Israel faced mortal danger from a hostile Arab (and Communist) world and needed all the help we could give because it wanted peace but the Arabs didn’t.  That’s a tough argument to make these days.

The Arabs don’t love Israel – and never will – but most states have shown a readiness to live with it in peace.

That’s not the message AIPAC will hear Monday from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  It had been hoped that he would bring to Washington a new peace initiative but it appears more likely he will repeat his desire for peace and readiness for compromise and then produce a catalogue of conditions, complaints and dangers, concluding with the same lament we hear from his Palestinian counterpart:  I’m ready, but I have no partner.

Each side hides safely behind preconditions it knows are unacceptable to the other and points a finger of blame.

George Mitchell, the administration’s special Mideast peace envoy, quit last week out of frustration with a lack of commitment on both sides, and reportedly with the administration as well.

“I’m so tired of this,” one Jewish community leader told me this week. ” How many rallies can we organize and keep people motivated?”

I’ve heard of that growing weariness and drift often as I travel around the country meeting with Jewish groups.

Most American Jews don’t care about settlements and they see Netanyahu prefers settlement expansion to peace with the Palestinians.  They know Mahmoud Abbas is also looking for excuses to avoid talking to Netanyahu, but they expect more from an Israeli leader who likes to boast of his courage and commitment.

The hardcore activists gathering in Washington will be very visible on the Hill but, “We’re becoming grasstops organizations,” said a leader in a major community, “getting big donors to call their congressmen and senators; that is the new basis of Israel advocacy.”  He said it is increasingly difficult to “get our folks to make calls” while Congressional offices are being bombarded with anti-Israel calls from more motivated groups.

Activists tell me it is increasingly difficult to excite young people about Israel; they don’t see a mortal danger but a muscular, nuclear-armed Israel that can handle itself; increasingly, they don’t see the “Middle East’s only democracy” but a country dominated by extremists, political and religious, that seems intent on abandoning its democratic roots.

As one who speaks to Jewish audiences around the country I have noticed an increasing sense of what one author called the “waning American Jewish love affair with Israel.”

Polls in the last two election cycles showed Israel is no longer the high priority issue it once was.

This is Middle East week in Washington.  Jordan’s King Abdulla II started it off; on Thursday the President will give a major foreign policy address at the State Department, meet Netanyahu on Friday and speak to AIPAC on Sunday. Netanyahu addresses the group on Monday and a joint session of Congress on Tuesday.

Obama is not expected to unveil any new peace initiative; it would be futile since neither Netanyahu nor Abbas is ready or interested.

However, if and when President is ready to make a serious effort for peace—I don’t expect much before the 2012 US elections—he will need to travel farther than the State Department or the Washington Convention Center. He is long overdue to make a trip to Israel and take his case directly to the Israeli people, who want peace more than some of their leaders.

Douglas M. Bloomfield, bloomfieldcolumn@gmail.com

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