Chuck Hagel’s confirmation for Secretary of Defense hit another snag yesterday, when the Senate did not vote—as the Democrats were looking to do—to stop debate over the confirmation. Using the filibuster, Republicans argued that more time was needed in order for Hagel to produce more speeches to organizations he is supposed to have given several years ago, to provide further documentation on the funding of organizations he’s been affiliated with in one way or another (including only by giving speeches to their audiences), and to press the White House on—yes, it’s still hanging there—the consulate attack in Benghazi.
The strongest pro-Israel advocacy group in the U.S., AIPAC, hasn’t supported or opposed Hagel’s nomination, because it doesn’t get involved on presidential nominations. But unfortunately for AIPAC, it’s been dragged in anyway: those on the far left insist they see AIPAC’s “fingerprints” all over the opposition, while less partisan commentators simply conflate AIPAC with the pro-Israel lobby. Combined with the aggressive efforts of hawkish pro-Israel groups, like the Emergency Committee for Israel, to shift the discourse on Israel, AIPAC’s effort to remain bipartisan and focus on real threats to the American-Israeli relationship are being undermined.
Although much has been made of the looming presence of Israel in both attacks on Hagel’s qualifications and the nomination hearing itself, and it’s certainly the case that far-right Jewish groups and Christian Zionist organizations have fought hard against him, there are other factors at play in the Republican opposition. This includes the fact that he threatens long-held conservative ideas about foreign policy, his ideas about cutting the defense budget, and a general sense that he’s no longer one of their own.
It’s this disconnect—the struggle to make this about Israel versus the broader GOP foreign policy future—that puts AIPAC in a difficult position. Its work, and that of the centrist pro-Israel Jewish community in general, is hampered when Israel becomes a major issue between the parties, and when American policy is made about what’s good for Israel rather than what’s good for both.
Indeed, during the presidential campaign AIPAC felt compelled to release a statement praising Barack Obama for his support for Israel, to counter belligerent Republican efforts to make Israel a wedge issue in the election.
That Republicans and conservatives keep mentioning Israel and, by extension, the Iranian nuclear program, as their main motivation for concern over Hagel means Israel is constantly kept in the spotlight, while “real support” for it is increasingly being identified as a Republican thing rather than a bipartisan thing.
Under these conditions, AIPAC’s effectiveness is weakened. This is not to say its overall ability to influence the decision-making process is disappearing. But it is being complicated by Republican, conservative and Jewish hawk efforts to attack Obama and the Democrats on Israel.
AIPAC will continue to be one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, but the changing public discourse on Israel might force it to criticize more directly—and aggressively—Republicans and other Jewish organizations for their short-term tactics. This, too, is something AIPAC would prefer to avoid: its organizational structure is meant to be inclusive of most organizations in the American Jewish world, even if its decision-makers are less representative.
If AIPAC can’t control the conversation, it will have to address these changes, and soon. Otherwise, it may find itself advocating on Israel-related issues in ways it never really wanted to.