The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has had an unenviable task in recent years.
AIPAC was created to support and strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.
But during the past two presidential administrations, a bipartisan consensus on what such support entails and whether it should be offered at all has eroded.
The most recent example of this challenge involves Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex portions of the West Bank.
On the surface, this might not seem to be a hard call for U.S. politicians.
Israeli leaders have said for nearly three decades that any two-state solution with the Palestinians would have to allow Israel to defend its border in the Jordan River Valley and account for the Jewish majority settlements in the West Bank.
President Donald Trump’s peace plan, unveiled in January, says explicitly that the valley and Jewish majority settlements will be part of Israel in any final deal.
Nonetheless, the issue has divided Republicans and Democrats.
Even the Trump administration has quietly warned Netanyahu and his aides not to move forward with annexation unless and until it’s clear that Israel’s unity government is committed to Trump’s broader peace plan.
As my colleague Zev Chafets wrote this week, it appears that Netanyahu intends to move forward with annexation without implementing the other parts of that plan that are more favorable to the Palestinians.
This looks like cherry-picking to rationalize a land grab, especially considering that elements of the prime minister’s political base oppose any Palestinian state at all.
In light of all that, AIPAC has decided to sidestep the issue.
According to reporting this week from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, AIPAC is privately telling lawmakers that as long as they don’t push to limit U.S. aid to Israel, "they can criticize the annexation plan without risking future support from the lobby group."
In some ways this is not surprising.
In the 1980s and 1990s, AIPAC on some occasions supported primary opponents against lawmakers who were outspoken critics of Israel. But in recent years the organization has backed away from this practice.
In 2015, AIPAC still supported some Democrats in Congress who voted for the Iran nuclear deal that the organization opposed.
The context matters, however.
In recent weeks, more liberal groups have pressed Democrats to openly oppose Netanyahu’s annexation ploy. Some have even favored leveraging U.S. military aid (of which Israel is the largest recipient) to dissuade the annexation.
Here, AIPAC’s message is important.
While it takes no position on annexation, it says in a recent one-page policy paper sent to Congress, a sustainable peace is "achievable only if the United States continues to help ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge — the ability to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat while sustaining minimal damages and casualties."
In other words, conditioning or decreasing military aid to Israel would undermine the larger goal of a two-state solution.
That may be true.
At the same time, it’s also true that there will be times when Israeli and American leaders disagree on policy. The most recent example was Barack Obama’s nuclear bargain with Iran. And it’s almost certain that a Democratic president would clash with a center-right Israeli government on Trump’s peace plan. Netanyahu sees that plan as a rare opportunity for Israel to create more secure borders for future generations. Most Democrats see it as cover to destroy what is left of the peace process that began nearly 30 years ago.
In this respect, AIPAC is wise to avoid the annexation issue.
The organization cannot be effective if it alienates one political party in favor of the other.
But this controversy also raises a deeper question about AIPAC’s broader purpose and strategy.
America and Israel see eye to eye on most strategic issues.
But there will be times when they don’t.
In those circumstances, $3.8 billion in U.S. military assistance will likely be used as a kind of leverage. A wiser long-term strategy for Israel and AIPAC would be to anticipate those inevitable disagreements and start gradually phasing out the aid altogether.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. Read Eli Lake's Reports — More Here.
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