These are desperate times for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC. AIPAC has canceled its single most important program. The lobby’s grip on Congress is slipping and its influence in the Foreign Affairs Committee has been truncated. Is AIPAC finished? There are three reasons to believe it may be.
First came the cancellation of AIPAC’s March 2021 policy conference, ostensibly due to "uncertainties created by the COVID-19 pandemic." The disadvantage this brings to the Israel lobby ecosystem which is the "spear" behind AIPAC’s "tip" cannot be overstated. The conference is the Israel lobby ecosystem’s single key lobbying initiative because every year it allows "citizen lobbyists" to interface with their representatives. The amount AIPAC discloses that it spends to the Clerk of Congress on its own dozen or so professional lobbyists is quite small compared to the expenditures on the policy conference, and there is a reason for that.
The annual policy conference has long been an opportunity for pro-Israel activists to network, participate in sessions on how to generate public support for Israel, and learn about the AIPAC policy agenda. It is telling that AIPAC is not even considering a "virtual" or hybrid online event. That is because it has never really been about the "intimate educational sessions" or "demonstrations of groundbreaking Israeli innovations" that AIPAC publicly touts. Rather, the core purpose of the gathering is keeping members of Congress in line.
AIPAC’s policy agenda has nearly always mirrored the demands of the Israeli government. AIPAC was, after all, founded by a registered Israeli foreign agent, and was itself ordered to register (it never did). Conferences have mostly proceeded smoothly . After a few days hobnobbing with elected U.S. and Israeli government officials, attendees march up to Capitol Hill to pre-scheduled meetings with their representatives, all speaking the same talking points in favor of unconditional US foreign aid, robust US confrontation with Israel’s rivals, and demand for legislative undermining of the free speech rights of Israel’s growing number of American critics.
Not in 2021. This is important because Congress has grown restless. More and more members have refused to be unconditionally supportive of AIPAC or its Israel agenda. Last year, Betty McCollum wounded AIPAC deeply by accurately portraying its actions as those of a hate group. But the rebellion is poised to become bipartisan. Shibley Telhami’s latest poll reveals that majorities of Republican and Democratic voters now believe it is either "acceptable" or "the duty of" members of the US Congress to question the Israeli-American relationship. That is not sentiment favorable to AIPAC.
AIPAC has recently been nearly invisible on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s key initiative – annexing large swaths of the West Bank where indigenous Palestinians vastly outnumber Israeli colonizers. The lobby has even timidly acquiesced to members of Congress criticizing the move. Why?
The American public not only opposes most of the vast subsidies the US has delivered to Israel, such as unconditional foreign aid and diplomatic support including the recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. A plurality also opposes the US formally recognizing annexation, which most of the world rightly believes is both unjust and unlawful. AIPAC likely now fears the diminution of its own power and influence as the true nature of Israel and AIPAC emerges. After annexation, professional AIPAC "peace processors" such as Dennis Ross will no longer be able to pretend to be negotiating over the future of the "pizza" – Palestine – even as Israel ravenously consumes it – via settlements and discriminatory laws.
The mask will finally fall.
Lastly, AIPAC’s campaign contribution ecosystem has been trounced. Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, once bragged that he would sit down with AIPAC on "every piece of legislation coming out of the Foreign Affairs Committee." Engel’s easy defeat by upstart Jamaal Bowman nakedly reveals the organization’s relative weakness compared to the old days. Back then, AIPAC could fine-tune supposedly "independent" PAC contributions to individual candidates or even tip a key senate election by having proxies fund a spoiler like Ed Vallen. No longer.
As more members of Congress fully understand they can win elections without prostration before AIPAC and subordinating legitimate US foreign policies to those of Israel, many more will break free from Israel’s most important foreign agent.
Grant F. Smith is the director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy in Washington which is co-organizer of the 2021 Transcending the Israel Lobby at Home and Abroad conference at the National Press Club.