You’ve seen the tweets, watched the speeches, and read the opinion pieces from this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference. What can one even make of this year’s grandiose production, when depending on whom you speak with, either U.S.-Israel ties have absolutely never been better or growing partisanship is seriously jeopardizing the relationship moving forward?I’ve attempted to organize some thoughts and reflections (outside of Twitter) below from my fifth time joining the conference. As the director of Israel Policy Forum’s IPF Atid young professionals initiative, I pay particular attention to developments regarding next generation support for Israel and the two-state solution. Some other necessary disclaimers and context points: -Policy Conference hosts hundreds and hundreds of incredibly diverse speakers. The majority speak in break-out session panels on a variety of topics, while the main plenary stage is reserved for AIPAC’s curated line-up of presenters and politicians. Israel Policy Forum and our partners, the Commanders for Israel’s Security, spoke on five different panels focused on two states, Jerusalem, and the region. -Estimates state that 18,000 participants were in attendance this year, with 4,000 hailing from colleges or high schools. The majority of these students are likely already involved with AIPAC-affiliated clubs, a similar history I share. Observers must acknowledge the diversity of opinions in such a large group of people, and distinguish between the attitudes of AIPAC as an organization and its base of community supporters. -In addition to personally working with AIPAC on campus as a student, I am proud to have interned for AIPAC during Operation Protective Edge four years ago and served during my senior year on the AIPAC National Council. 1.) Navigating the two-state issue is becoming increasingly complex
From the mainstage, key mentions of support for two states came from AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr, Senators Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez, Israel’s Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay, and others. Vice President Mike Pence also reiterated that if both parties agree, the administration will support it. This vocal support – notable because two states is no longer enshrined in official Republican foreign policy, supported by Israel’s governing coalition, or championed by many key American philanthropists – comes in the context of additional factors, including the incoming veiled Trump peace plan and four separate corruption cases open against Prime Minister Netanyahu that risk dissolving his government. The settlement lobby in Israel responded harshly to AIPAC with a letter, claiming their position has “no basis in fact.” From the break-out sessions and broader community, there were varying responses to these dynamics (to say the least). Perhaps my most notable experience came three blocks away from the convention center where the Yesha Council, Jordan Valley Regional Council, and Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy convened their “Manufacturing Peace” reception in support of annexing Judea and Samaria, with notable MKs and speakers like Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, and Yuval Steinitz. The line to get in to the non-affiliated event was around the corner, with the 400-person room filled with those hearing speech after speech declaring “the two-state solution dead” and highlighting meetings these right-wing politicians shared behind closed doors with American supporters. It is unclear how many in the room grasped what the event’s vision truly entails – annexing Area C to Israel, leaving Palestinian cities and villages to be islands without contiguity – but the enthusiasm and messianism was palpable and disturbing. It is difficult to come to any conclusion other than that the concept of two states is under more serious assault than it has been since its widespread acceptance two decades ago. 2.) “Israel can solve absolutely any problem in the world, except for its dilemma with the Palestinians.”
Israel’s groundbreaking innovations are prominently highlighted by most pro-Israel American organizations and at each Policy Conference. The American Jewish community rightfully has become a champion of the start-up and innovation nation narrative, showcasing the newest and greatest examples of Israeli technology and thinking that is solving the world’s most complex problems. And in the last speech of the conference, Prime Minister Netanyahu dedicated almost half of his twenty minute speech to this topic. The problem arises, especially for younger generations of Zionists, when this inspiring narrative is paired with how every mention of peace (or two states) is associated with Palestinian rejectionism as the ultimate, insurmountable obstacle. Including the questionable claim perpetuated by the organized Jewish community that Israel – in its current leadership – supports a Palestinian state and a peace process, active observers can see clearly through the consensus talking points. If Israel can bring water out of thin air, then why can it not, as a peace-loving nation, make strides towards the two-state solution? Are the Palestinians really this talented at rejecting Israel’s hand for peace? While the answer lies partly with Palestinian rejectionism, it also partly lies with an Israeli political philosophy that is not aligned with peace at the moment. The “next-generation Jewish community,” a majority liberal and Democratic Party demographic, knows this because they read Israeli news and talk to their Israeli friends. Like myself, they attend Yesha Council events and hear for themselves Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs triumphantly boast about permanently taking over the West Bank. Where the organized Jewish community has succeeded tremendously is in passing along strong Zionist ideals to my millennial generation, but it has failed miserably in telling the truth about political and regional realities. This is why young Jews are dissociating themselves from Israel and the organized community, and why I helped create IPF Atid last summer. 3.) The criticism and blame should not all be placed on AIPAC.
The troubling trend from those in the center and left-of-center camp is to ascribe all the blame on these issues (and others) to the fault of AIPAC. While the annual conference is a networking must for any Jewish communal professional, it seems each year the reluctance to attend AIPAC grows stronger among younger American Jews. I admit that such backlash is understandable when one hears so many plenary speakers discuss an Israel detached from reality, with no mention of issues that currently dominate Israel’s headlines such as Netanyahu’s crippling corruption cases, the attack on Israel’s democracy from within, and the Israeli right’s abandonment of the peace process. The answer of course is: why would they? The pro-Israel lobby’s focused mission is to support the U.S.-Israel relationship by rallying American support. The present situation – with strong support in the White House and a bipartisan Congress – marks an apex in the lobby’s history, and its future is guided by its outreach to non-Jewish (and non-Evangelical) communities. In this sense, AIPAC is playing an important role with each administration through new pro-Israel legislation, and it is fulfilling its stated role precisely as it should.
The storm AIPAC and American Jewry have to weather is Benjamin Netanyahu and his long tenure as prime minister. His policies, perspectives, and political partnerships run contrary to much of what the American Jewish community represents and advocates in terms of democracy, tolerance, and other liberal values. Netanyahu and the Israeli right-wing have been more successful than their Israeli opponents in appealing to the organized Jewish community in America, especially in the aftermath of a failed Oslo process and the Second Intifada. In this sense – by not portraying and advocating for the full Israeli landscape – the entire Jewish community, and not as much AIPAC, is playing the negative role with each rising generation and its declining support for Israel.
How to reach and retain the younger generations of pro-Israel Americans was precisely the focus of Senator Schumer’s plenary remarks and his lunch meeting with Netanyahu the following afternoon. The answer is not more hasbara, which by definition neglects the full picture. The generational issue, as well as broader U.S.-Israel growing divides, are not AIPAC’s burden alone, but rather the wider establishment’s.
Concluding Thoughts and Where to Go Next
For the majority of young (and perhaps non-young) pro-Israel Americans who work to support Israel in efforts towards an eventual agreement with the Palestinians and broader Arab world in our lifetime, and maintain bipartisan U.S. support for Israel and its security, there are clearly many reasons to be concerned.
In addition to some of the dynamics outlined above, an insightful glimpse into the pulse of the community can be found in the question and answer portions of these panels. As a professional who has hosted and listened to roughly fifty of these policy events in the past year alone – including many reserved only for younger attendees born after 1980 – I can track how the opinions from the older group reflect the existing establishment’s conventional consensus and their experience advocating for Israel in the 1960s. Specifically, their questions and comments focus on Arab rejectionism, a perception that all Arabs and Palestinians oppose the Jewish state, and an abstract hope that the Palestinians will disappear into Jordan or elsewhere somehow. This group can effectively explain why two states cannot work but is incapable of articulating any other viable option. Given the very real existential threats Israel faced historically and in modern times, can we blame them?
However, the young professionals I work with, including but not limited to our IPF Atid leadership around the country, have been shaped by the Middle East of 2018 and not 1967. The guiding principles and talking points of the organized community are slowly beginning to adapt and reflect new, interconnected geopolitical realities. These primarily include Israel’s qualitative military edge and Arab-Israeli relations inching towards normalization, both of which were made possible by the assistance of the United States and AIPAC’s leadership in the Jewish community. With nearly every industry beyond politics being disrupted and now defined by entrepreneurs under the age of forty, the time is ripe for the organized pro-Israel community to not just cater to younger generations, but to elevate and integrate these great thinkers into leadership and advisory roles.
Since today’s 35-year-old Jewish leaders will certainly be leading the community en masse in the coming decades, their integration is a matter of when and not if. The question is whether or not major Jewish communal organizations are forward-thinking enough right now to embrace today’s reality.