The Jerusalem Post

What's pro-Israel activism's future amid Netanyahu's war on democracy? - opinion

 US SECRETARY of State Antony Blinken addresses the AIPAC Policy Summit in Washington in June. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
US SECRETARY of State Antony Blinken addresses the AIPAC Policy Summit in Washington in June.

Growing numbers of Jews and Americans fear Israel is moving toward a theocratic/nationalist/apartheid autocracy. Will J Street absorb pro-Israel supporters from AIPAC?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war on Israeli democracy is turning Jews and other supporters away from Israel at an alarming rate, raising the question of whether they will find another home or just go away.

For half a century, their home was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where support for Israel had been single-mindedly bipartisan. The lobby group was careful not to rate or endorse candidates, and largely kept hands off when it came to campaign contributions until it felt threatened by a small rival.

I spent the 1980s as the organization’s legislative director, and am very proud of my bipartisan group of lobbyists who put aside our own politics for the good of the cause. All of us got occasional flak from friends and family for working with lawmakers with whom we often disagreed on so many other, unrelated issues.

Has AIPAC become a pro-Netanyahu, anti-Israel lobbying group?

No longer. AIPAC has plunged into partisanship with a hard turn to the Right, embracing Evangelical Christians, hardline conservative Republicans, and election deniers whose views on everything but Israel were largely anathema to the mainstream Jewish community.


The group apparently shared Netanyahu’s view that those groups were a more reliable base, more inclined toward his thinking than those argumentative Jews and liberals. The lobby’s leadership at the staff and donor levels were predominantly right wing and in tune with Likud and Republican brands.

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen with AIPAC leaders in the Knesset, in the Israeli capital of Jerusalem, on June 13, 2023 (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen with AIPAC leaders in the Knesset, in the Israeli capital of Jerusalem, on June 13, 2023 (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

Netanyahu cultivated a close relationship with congressional Republicans and conservative AIPAC figures when he was number two at the Israeli embassy in Washington in the early 1980s. That led to a dramatic turning point in the US-Israel relationship in 2015, when the prime minister blind-sided then-president Barack Obama by accepting the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives’ invitation to help lead the GOP opposition, in coordination with AIPAC, to the administration’s Iran nuclear agreement.

Netanyahu already had a reputation for meddling in US partisan politics on behalf of Republicans, and this brought further deterioration in relations with American Jewry and the Democratic Party for which Jews traditionally cast nearly three out of every four of their votes.

Israeli premiers Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak, and even Ariel Sharon complained that AIPAC, in cahoots with Netanyahu, consistently worked against their peace policies, which had broad support among Jews and Democrats.

If Iran was a turning point, the assault on democracy and Israel’s independent judiciary may be a breaking point.


A Haaretz editorial this week called AIPAC “the pro-Netanyahu, anti-Israel lobby.” It accused the group of “helping” Netanyahu “perpetuate a coup” to “destroy democracy” in Israel by trying to soften Democratic opposition to his assault on the justice system.

It’s more than the assault on the judiciary. Growing numbers of Jews and Americans fear Israel is moving toward a theocratic/nationalist/apartheid autocracy.

J Street: The leftist lobby AIPAC fears

J Street, a smaller leftist lobby, wants to be the alternative to AIPAC. It’s a David vs Goliath contest. AIPAC donors contributed $96.6 million in 2020 to the group, according to ProPublica, while J Street reported just over $10m. last year for the lobby and its Political Action Committee (PAC).

AIPAC, NOTWITHSTANDING the same letters in its name, standing for Public Affairs Committee, had avoided having a PAC, preferring to secretly advise and coordinate a network of pro-Israel PACs so it could avoid the pressure of lawmakers overtly asking for contributions in exchange for their votes.

That ended last year when AIPAC saw J Street using its PAC and more liberal views gaining support on Capitol Hill, an AIPAC insider suggested. The giant lobby took a deep dive into the PAC world that served to drive away more Jews and Democrats. It poured tens of millions into endorsing, funding and helping campaigns by more than 100 election deniers who voted to support Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

J Street clearly has AIPAC worried. It offers an alternative vehicle for expressing support for Israel but not for extremists like the Netanyahu government or Trump acolytes.

Both call themselves a pro-Israel lobby but have very different approaches. If AIPAC is seen as too supportive of the Israeli rejectionist Right, J Street is considered by many overly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. That may prove to be an obstacle for those uncomfortable with AIPAC’s direction but not ready to go as far as J Street. It must focus on a base that supports peace in Israel.

Nonetheless, AIPAC is scared. That comes through in its scathing attacks on the much smaller competitor.

In a hysterical letter to donors, AIPAC called J Street “one of the gravest threats to American support for Israel’s security” and part of “the anti-Israel fringe.” It “masquerades as a supporter of Israel” while endorsing “its most virulent critics,” the letter charged. The reference was to J Street’s support for some of Israel’s most strident critics in Congress, endorsements that can put off ex-AIPACers.

J Street responded by accusing AIPAC of “scaremongering” and being silent on urgent issues like the judicial coup, settler violence, settlement expansion, dominant influence of nationalist and religious extremists and the deterioration of Israeli democracy

AIPAC’s leading message since its inception seven decades ago has been about fellow democracies with shared values. As Israel grew into a regional military superpower, that was amended to add “strategic partner.”

With MAGA Republicans poised to nominate for president a twice-impeached and four-time-indicted, would-be autocrat with contempt for democratic values, if it follows its own precedent, AIPAC can be expected to spend millions keeping or putting the Trumpists in office.

Support for Israel can’t be a high priority since AIPAC’s SuperPAC, United Democracy Project, spent $31m. last year and didn’t mention Israel once in its name or in any of its attack ads and other messages, according to published reports.

There’s nothing wrong with raising money to help elect your friends and defeat your opponents, but concealing your true agenda raises serious ethical questions, especially if you’re working to help people who voted to override the US Constitution and disenfranchise millions of voters.

Jews and Democrats, especially young voters, who are turned off by AIPAC and its GOP/Likud movement away from democracy and historic values, may find J Street a place to take their activism. Moderate Republicans must be brought in as well.

But that will be difficult so long as J Street continues to embrace and endorse some of Israel’s most strident critics, such as Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and others whose attacks border on antisemitism. The future of US support for Israel may depend on it.  

The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist, and former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.