I just came back from AIPAC 2016 and I had a blast! There was magic in the air when we, almost twenty-thousand AIPAC delegates - all Israel-lovers, filled the Verizon Center to near capacity. The unity of purpose of the gathering, to strengthen Israel and the US - Israel relationship, gave the event an air of a pilgrimage holiday, albeit not in Jerusalem, but at another great capital, Washington.
But as an Israeli, American, and settler at the Policy Conference, I had mixed feelings and many thoughts:
Who Is AIPAC Really For?
First, I could not help being impressed with Washington which is so grand, so aesthetic, so powerful. Coming from a much smaller and younger Israel, one appreciates the level of civilization achieved in America's capital, and the whole Northeast corridor for that matter, which I traversed on the way down to DC. Moreover, not only is America big, but the AIPAC experience itself is big and well produced - inspiring one to think bigger and classier about an Israel which sometimes suffers from Middle Eastern repressed, divisive, and small thinking.
On the other hand, as an Israeli in DC you realize why American Jews love AIPAC - it gives them the perception of a perfect life balance: You get to live in America - but you also get to feel as though you are indispensable to Israel because of your lobbying efforts, and your political strength which helps keep the World's Superpower on Israel's side. Perfect! You can be Zionist but live in America - the best of both worlds. And it makes sense: if American Jews continue to choose life in America, why not help Israel and be true to both your loves? But one sometimes wonders whether AIPAC is as much about American Jews feeling good about themselves as it is about helping the Jewish State move forward.
Homeland vs. Motherland
As I pondered these issues, I heard a speech by Rabbi Steven Weil, Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union, in which he blessed “Our home land, America” and “Our mother land, the State of Israel.” At first, I winced at that formulation. I personally chose to unite the concept of homeland and motherland by choosing Israel over America to live out my life’s-passion. But after a short reflection, I understood that his sentiment was honest, and frankly, understandable.
American Jews have helped make America great. They feel ownership over New York and Los Angeles, cities which they had a hand in building. But while they may choose to live in America, AIPAC Jews also love Israel, come to Israel, send their children to Israel, and support Israel with their hearts, money, and political clout. So for me, flying to America and taking the train down to Washington for Policy Conference is an exercise in loving the brother and sister who is not making Aliyah, but still wants to be connected to the project of building and defending the Jewish State. And I make that trip gladly.
The Future of the Two-State Solution at AIPAC
As a representative of the Jewish communities of Judea & Samaria, eastern Jerusalem (where I live) and Hebron (where I work), I was quite attuned to Two-State Solution and Land-for-Peace messaging at the Conference - a set of ideas that people like myself have been trying to defeat for decades. AIPAC is still pushing the Two-State Solution and the official mission statement says: “As America's bipartisan pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC urges all members of Congress to support Israel through foreign aid, government partnerships, joint anti-terrorism efforts and the promotion of a negotiated two-state solution – a Jewish state of Israel and a demilitarized Palestinian state.”
The so-called Two State Solution is one of the most empirically tested political arrangements of all time and every test has proved that the formula is a disastrous failure. Indeed, the three Gaza wars since the Disengagement proved to the average Israeli that Land-for-Peace is a dud! But American Jews see the future of the Two State Solution quite differently as was reported by a recent Pew Research Center poll:
“Jews from the United States and Israel have differing perspectives on a range of political issues concerning the State of Israel and the peace process. While Israeli Jews are skeptical that Israel and an independent Palestinian state can peacefully coexist, most American Jews are optimistic that a two-state solution is possible. On the controversial issue of the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the prevailing view among Israeli Jews is that settlements help the security of Israel. By contrast, American Jews are more likely to say the settlements hurt Israel’s own security.”
(Pew Research Center, March 8, 2016, “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society”)
So how do we resolve this apparent policy clash?
AIPAC Must Change to Stay Relevant
At the conference I conducted my own non-scientific poll about the future of the Two-State Solution among American Jews, and everyone, including an important AIPAC staffer, seemed to suggest that AIPAC will never change its policy on the issue. I thought that was a strange position to take given that things on the ground are changing, as was shown by the Pew study, and even articulated by Left-leaning intellectuals and politicians from Thomas Friedman to Isaac Herzog who say that Two-State is dead. Quite visibly, most serious players understand that Two-State won’t work because there are too many “settlers” to evacuate, and the Palestinian Authority is an incitement-machine which is no longer looking to negotiate, and even if negotiation would be possible, ISIS-HAMAS would immediately take over any land concessions. In other words, it’s over.
Moreover, not only is Israeli public opinion moving away from Two-State, but AIPAC’s constituency as well. With the advent of JStreet, the hard-Left has been pulled out of the AIPAC ranks. At the same time AIPAC is courting the American Orthodoxy and the pro-Israel Evangelical Christians. The latter are two forces which will naturally shift AIPAC’s policy rightward. In other words, both in Israel and in the pro-Israel community in the United States, there is nationalistic political shift, and AIPAC will not always be at leisure to tow an old line. AIPAC’s goal will always be, above all, to remain relevant. Holding fast to Two-State will soon begin undermine its relevancy. Therefore, I fully expect that next year’s Policy Conference, which will mark 50 years since the Six Day War and the return to Judea and Samaria, will include panels discussing serious alternatives to Land-for-Peace and the Two-State Solution.
Israel’s Heartland Represents in Washington
Even with AIPAC’s pro-Two-State stance, I felt that Washington was amazingly receptive to our message of a strong Israel which holds on to its ancestral homeland. On the Thursday before the conference I gave a Congressional Briefing on the Hill about Hebron. The event, which was organized by the Endowment for Middle East Truth and sponsored by Congressman Doug Lamborn, brought in a large, curious crowd interested in understanding the reality on the ground. On Sunday evening of the conference, myself and the Director General of the Hebron Jewish Community, Uri Karzen, took part in an event organized by the One Israel Fund and co-sponsored by the Council of Judea and Samaria. Here too, a lot of people asked questions about our life and the political future of the Jews of the Israeli Heartland.
At the actual conference we spoke to what seemed to be thousands of people, many Jews and Gentiles, who want to know more, want to understand, are open-minded, and are happy to speak with someone who is American like them on the one hand, and on the other hand, lives in Israel and deals with the challenges of settling the land, facing the Jihad, and building the Jewish State on the ground.
A Worldwide Audience for Pro-Israel Messaging
The AIPAC organization produced a magnificent event in which the leading candidates for President of the United States attacked the anti-Semitism at the UN, laid into Palestinian incitement, and even castigated the US for the Iran deal and emphasized the need to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem (when is that going to happen already?). These messages were carried live on CSPAN and rebroadcast on most news outlets - in fact, I jumped into a cab at some point and the driver from Somalia was intensely listening to the conference live.
This, to me, is AIPAC's amazing accomplishment: the world is full of lies and hostility towards Israel, yet AIPAC managed to bring American leaders out in front of a massive audience in an incredible venue - and there they declared messages of truth and clarity about Israel and her enemies, and those words and messages were heard around the world.
Next Year Australian Wines Won't Cut It
One last point: At the pre-conference Shabbaton we were served inexpensive Australian wine along with our Kosher food. Come on! If we get together to celebrate the birth and the flourishing of the Jewish State, can we not imbibe its blessings as embodied in award winning and delicious wines that bring us closer to the heartland on a bodily and savory level? Let's not BDS our own wines! Next year at AIPAC - and I am planning on coming back next year - can we please get some Israeli wines at our tables? I’m looking forward.
Yishai Fleisher is the International Spokesman for the Jewish Community of Hebron
Follow him @YishaiFleisher
This op-ed also appeared in the Jerusalem Post.