On September 14th, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu signed a 10-year military-assistance deal containing the largest package of military aid that the US has ever given to any country. The $38 billion pledge, averaging $3.8 billion per year, constitutes a roughly 27% increase from the last such agreement in 2007 — which already made Israel the recipient of the most cumulative US foreign aid since World War II. A week after the two leaders signed the deal, they met again in New York. Obama took this opportunity to publicly reprimand Netanyahu for the ongoing construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a process that has systematically and increasingly endangered the viability of a peaceful two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We want to make sure that we keep alive this possibility of a stable, secure Israel at peace with its neighbors, and a Palestinian homeland that meets the aspirations of the Palestinian people,” he told reporters. Netanyahu showed no interest in halting settlement expansion, and only vaguely remarked on peace as something to be desired.
From a diplomatic standpoint it might seem bizarre that the United States, which has repeatedly condemned the Israeli military and civilian occupation of the Palestinian territories, would issue yet another high-profile rebuke only after forfeiting its massive leverage in the form of military aid. For years, the State Department has released periodic statements of anxiety over the occupation’s threats to American interests, as well as to Israeli safety and to Palestinian human rights. In Washington, though, many politicians in both parties have accepted the status quo US-Israel relationship as inevitable and unchangeable. Among the greatest contributing factors undergirding this dearth of political will toward a peace process is Congress’s submission to AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group. As US demographic tides shift and younger generations of American Jews enter the political arena, AIPAC’s domination of US-Israel relations and the global damage it perpetuates may finally be facing serious political counteraction. Whether such opposition can establish itself in time to ameliorate the effects of Obama’s deal with Netanyahu, however, remains to be seen.
For decades, the startling power of AIPAC in Washington has hinged on its huge influence across the political spectrum. The lobby has more than 100,000 members and an enormous pool of donors. Between 2010 and 2015, AIPAC spent more than $14 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies to press its causes—primarily the continuation of military aid to Israel and new sanctions against Iran (before international negotiators successfully negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran). The lobby does not officially endorse congressional candidates or raise funds for them directly, but it encourages its members to do so.
While it is not easy to track the sum of money that AIPAC members donate to candidates, congressional Democrats and Republicans are well aware of the group’s power. As Brian Baird, a former U.S. Representative from Seattle, explained: “In order to get elected to Congress, if you’re not independently wealthy, you have to raise a lot of money. And you learn pretty quickly that, if AIPAC is on your side, you can do that.” Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky said in 2014: “AIPAC clearly has a great deal of clout in the Republican conference, and many Democrats still think that they have to be responsive to it.” Yarmuth, a Jewish member of Congress, has been accused of anti-Semitism for his criticisms of AIPAC and Netanyahu. But he has insisted that placating the lobby too often obstructs real US interests: “We all took an oath of office,” he said, “and AIPAC, in many instances, is asking us to ignore it.” In 2011, when the Palestinian National Authority petitioned the UN for statehood, AIPAC played a significant role in assuring the opposition of 446 members of Congress. During this U.S. election season, aid to Israel remains one of few relatively static topics. Notwithstanding Donald Trump’s proneness to contradictory statements on Israel-Palestine, he has firmly promised a strong relationship between Israel and the United States. Hillary Clinton has long established her consistent support for Israeli administrations, while secretary of state and otherwise.
At the same time, American voters are developing increasingly mixed views on the sort of unconditional support that their government offers to Israel. Differences of opinion follow the divides of political party and age group. A 2016 Gallup poll found that over 60% of Americans identified with greater sympathy toward Israel than toward Palestinians — but nearly 80% of Republicans were sympathetic to Israel, while only 50% of Democrats said the same. Separately, a Brookings poll revealed that roughly half of surveyed Democrats saw Israel as exerting too much influence on the US government. Further, young Americans are generally far less sympathetic to Israel than older voters. In a 2014 Gallup poll, half of respondents between 18 and 34 favored support of Israel over that of Palestinians, versus 58% of 35 to 54-year-olds and 74% of those aged 55 and older. During the Democratic primary season, Bernie Sanders won praise from his distinctly young base for criticizing Israel. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement — which demands that organizations in the US and abroad sever their financial ties with Israel — has steadily gained popularity on college campuses, especially after its endorsement by the Movement for Black Lives this year.
For decades after Israel’s founding, American Jews understandably sought collective self-definition through their united, largely unconditional support for the state. But a growing portion of the community, and particularly its younger membership, chafes at the impenetrable lack of progress toward peace in the area. Many have found that AIPAC does not represent them. In 2008, Jeremy Ben-Ami consolidated a political challenge to AIPAC through his founding of J Street, an advocacy group that claimed the tagline: “pro-Israel, pro-peace.” The organization has attracted American Jews who advocate for a two-state solution and denounce the occupation as a direct impediment to both Israel’s wellbeing and its claim to democracy. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas recalled that in 2010, AIPAC’s clout was great enough to pressure Congress members into removing their names from the J Street gala’s honorary host committee. “I don’t view criticizing Netanyahu as being any more anti-Israel as criticizing Dick Cheney is anti-America,” said Doggett, and added: “J Street has given us an ability to discuss this in an organized way.” Although the group’s funding and influence in Congress are minuscule compared to AIPAC’s, it is still, as Husam Zomlot of the PLO said, “the first organized Jewish group with a different agenda in Washington since Israel was established.”
If there remains a hope for redemption in US-Israel relations, it lies in the potential for public backlash against US military aid, and the tacit support of the occupation that such packages represent. Shifting popular views on Israel among Americans, combined with a growing political space for alternative understandings of the “pro-Israel” position, may be building toward such a backlash. But the timeline for any public pressure to change the status quo grows more and more constricted, as Israeli settlement expansion continually imperils the viability of a two-state solution and the possibility of peace.