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What the controversy over Ilhan Omar’s tweets tells us about AIPAC today

- February 12, 2019
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by one of his security guards, addresses the 2015 American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Newly elected Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar (Minn.) faced widespread criticism this week for again tweeting comments about Jews/Israel that are widely seen as trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes. The moment energized both defenders and critics of Omar, Israel and prominent national Jewish organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). After a condemnation by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Omar apologized for her tweets.

The firestorm over Omar’s tweets risks obstructing a productive debate over how interest groups such as AIPAC actually operate in Washington. AIPAC does wield an outsize influence over policy toward Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is widely viewed as an effective and powerful lobbying organization. So why is there a problem with Omar’s mentioning it in the way she did, and why was the backlash so fierce?

The answers are rooted in a broader context, particularly the partisan nature of Israel. During the Obama years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked to identify the Republican Party as the “pro-Israel” party, and he has aligned himself even more closely with President Trump. Younger Democrats are challenging the entrenched party consensus on Israel. The global and regional strategic context is changing. All of these developments are raising questions about the status quo.

What is the appropriate role of interest groups?

Interest groups have always been an important part of the policymaking process in the United States. It is normal, not nefarious, that interest groups lobby Congress, the executive and the bureaucracy to get their priorities on the agenda. Interest groups play such a role on almost every issue, and many of them are highly effective at shaping agendas and votes.

Why is there such concern when AIPAC does the same thing? In part, this reflects a broader suspicion about the role of ethnic communities in lobbying, especially on foreign policy.

But that general suspicion takes on a more sinister tone when applied to Jewish organizations. Complaints about AIPAC’s presence in politics puts many people in mind of classical anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish money, power and control over governments. Anti-Semitism has a long history in the United States. Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and Father Charles Coughlin were all prominent personalities who promoted long-standing canards about Jewish power and control. There are solid reasons for American Jews to fear the normalization of rhetoric associated with this anti-Semitic past.

Why is AIPAC influential?

AIPAC’s influence stems from several factors beyond money, some of which predate its emergence as a lobbying powerhouse in the 1980s.

It operates in a very favorable political environment. Americans have been sympathetic to and approving of the Jewish-Israeli position over the Arab and Palestinian position for decades. Israel is viewed by a majority of Americans as being close to the United States in cultural, religious and political terms. A swath of the U.S. public views Israel as “like us.” This is also clearly demonstrated by the high levels of support for Israel among the evangelical Christian community.

Jews have long been acclimatized to American political culture. As anti-Semitism declined significantly in the 1950s and 1960s, they became integrated into the U.S. political and economic systems. Jewish organizations have thus been advantaged in being able to present their arguments directly to U.S. policymakers, in intimate and direct ways that many other ethnic lobbies have struggled to emulate. The same process has taken place in Canada.

The strategic alliance dimension

The mainstream Jewish organizations’ strength lie in their ability to focus their political activity on two very narrow positions: a strong American-Israeli relationship and support for Israel’s positions in its conflict with the Palestinians. When AIPAC tries to operate on new and different issues, it often loses.

Israel is a decades-old strategic partner of the United States. Beginning in the 1960s, Washington increasingly saw Israel as a key ally against the Soviet Union in the Middle East. Wars between Israel and the Arab states were seen as testing grounds for American- and Soviet-made weapons. Israeli intelligence, including with the capture of Soviet military assets, provided U.S. defense officials with insight into Soviet military capability.

Since the Cold War, intelligence sharing, joint defense production and access to several countries around the region also provide a strong rationale for the alliance with Israel. Shared concerns about Iran as a regional threat, better ties between Israel and some Gulf states, and Gulf lobbying efforts in the same direction have enhanced the perception that Washington’s Middle East policy dovetails with a strong relationship with Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

Where is the debate going?

The current fight is taking place at the beginning of a new chapter in American and American Jewish history, and this makes the controversies over what it means to lobby on Israel more fraught. The U.S. Jewish community is riven by more fractures than ever before, along religious, ideological and racial lines. They are occurring at a moment of unprecedented grass-roots and youth mobilization against mainstream national Jewish organizations such as AIPAC and wealthy donors who lean right on Israel-related issues such as Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban.

This loose movement has been pushing the conversation on Israel in new directions, particularly in the Democratic Party, prompting politicians, especially new politicians, to embrace alternative languages and viewpoints. This disrupts the embedded view on Israel that has held since around the mid-1980s, that policy need not change.

Whether these changes will be enough to drive a shift in policy is unclear at this point. Omar is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and that she — along with other newly elected Democrats — is intent on pushing a more progressive agenda, including on foreign policy, indicates that these tensions are likely to expand. This will lead to pushback from politicians comfortable with the status quo, setting up a bigger struggle within the party and across the political system.

Brent Sasley is associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is the co-author of “Politics in Israel: Governing a Complex Society.”