It Takes an AIPAC Village
When it comes to influencing U.S. foreign policy, the preeminent pro-Israel lobby knows which fights are worth fighting.
But AIPAC rank and file have moved on. “I was not happy about Hagel, but a lot of people are saying that he’s going to be different than what he used to be,” says Shoshana Marcus.* “Israel produces a lot of technology. The United States gives the means to produce it. Someone like Hagel, he’s going to learn that aiding Israel is to the United States’ benefit. Is President Obama always pro-Israel? No. I don’t think so. But he does the right things.”
This, with a little less angst, was the Obama-Biden campaign’s 2012 pitch to wayward Jews. At his defensive 2012 speech to AIPAC, the president asked lobbyists to ignore his gaffes and look at the balance sheet. “The fact is, my administration’s commitment to Israel’s security has been unprecedented,” he said. “If during this political season you hear some questions regarding my administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by the facts.” The Obama campaign wanted Jewish voters to think about Iron Dome. One year later, Iron Dome was mentioned so often at AIPAC’s conference that Tablet put it at the top of its AIPAC Bingo card. Hagel was mentioned once, when Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak wished him “all the best.” (Barak was the first foreign counterpart to get a meeting with newly installed Secretary Hagel.)
“I trust President Obama,” said Joyce Wolf, an AIPAC donor from Michigan. “If Hagel really had a black heart, the president wouldn’t have nominated him.”
Any residual Hagel bitterness, if it existed, was kept behind closed and carefully guarded doors. Conference organizers restricted media access to most breakout sessions, including every session involving a current member of Congress. No reporter could watch the leaders of the House Foreign Relations Committee debrief on the year to come; none could watch Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who spent the last month asking for records of old Hagel speeches, speak at a town hall about “how members of Congress experience Israel.”
No, Republicans had to be subtle with their Hagel-bashing. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican whip in the Senate—a man who deserves credit for the first, ultimately vain Hagel filibuster—never mentions the nominee. He just mentions that he, John Cornyn, “supported every single piece of pro-Israel legislation,” unlike some people. “I know some U.S. officials have called for greater engagement with Hamas,” says Cornyn. I scan the rows, the thousands of AIPAC lobbyists-for-a-week, and saw wry smiles. I see more of them when Sen. John McCain, steamrolling New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in a short policy panel, says, “We need members of the national security team who are pro-Israel, not anti-Israel.”
It’s not like the “Israel lobby” disagrees with that. Its leaders simply decided that it wasn’t worth challenging a nominee for secretary of defense and losing. Did they want to make a statement, or did they want to keep the aid and research dollars flowing? At a “town hall” about the U.S.-Israel relationship, Union College Professor Stephen Berk reminds skeptics that “Richard Nixon said some hateful things about Jewish people” right before he re-armed Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Barack Obama said the wrong things, but they weren’t going to pressure him by undermining him.
The president missed AIPAC this year—no great scandal, since he’s making his first in-office trip to Israel later this month. He dispatched Vice President Biden, a font of stories about the Israeli prime ministers he’s known, a pol who knows which words do and do not spook the lobby. Biden appears onstage to the strains of “Hail to the Chief,” and runs over to hug Ehud Barak, as outgoing AIPAC president Michael Kassen preps his introduction.
“Because of this administration’s dedication to Israel,” says Michael Kassen, “more than $400 million has been invested in Iron Dome.”
Biden talks for more than 30 minutes, acknowledging that “we’ve always disagreed on tactics,” but moving right on to the good stuff.
“I don't have to explain [the Iron Dome] to anybody anymore,” he says. “Everybody saw, the world saw!”
Correction, March 5, 2013: This article originally attributed a quotation to Shoshana Gold. The quote was spoken by Shoshana Marcus, quoted earlier in the article. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.