"[The senior political analyst will] work with AIPAC's regional offices to: track and provide analysis for congressional races; schedule candidate meetings and obtain pro-Israel position papers."[my bold]
One of the most frustrating aspects of critiques of AIPAC by Andrew Sullivan and others is that they confuse the responsibilities of the lobbyists with those of politicians. When congressmen stick to their guns on pro-Israel positions that are of dubious benefit to Americans, this is treated by Sullivan et al not as a political failure, but assomething to be laid at the feet of the lobby, amid accusations of illicit dealings.
Beyond the uncomfortable overtones of Protocols-era anti-Semitism lurking in such talk, the fact of the matter is that AIPAC is essentially being punished in commentary for being effective at its stated goal: to build US support for Israel. When other lobbies succeed in pushing legislation, they are considered powerful. When AIPAC succeeds, it is not powerful but manipulative. It is only a short leap from such a characterization to start seeing the "Lobby" behind all sorts of political decisions over which it has actually exercised no influence whatever. A conspiracy theory is born -- or a dozen.
While it is today a certain segment of "realist" commentators pushing this meme, in the end AIPAC probably has neoconservatism's eight years of rotten harvest to thank for its worsening public image. Whether it can properly be considered part of that political philosophy is up for debate, I suppose. I tend to think not; AIPAC's purpose is too singular, and the neocon demagoguery of the Israel issue too pervasive, to produce anything but a false positive.
(It's interesting, by the way, to compare AIPAC's public image to certain other lobbies routinely flogged for their competence. I mean the "death lobbies," those representing tobacco, alcohol, and firearms. A success for these groups is treated (rightly?) as a failure for the public wellbeing. I see a similar attitude emerging among "realists" with regard to AIPAC. But if there are medical studies proving the health risks of Israeli success, I have yet to see them.)
AIPAC may be in a position to do right by Americans in rethinking its short- and mid-term lobbying goals. But it has no responsibility to do so. It is a lobbying group whose affairs and objectives are there for all to see. And if that sounds cold, imagine the temperature of the politicians shirking their manifest duty to the public, the better to toe the line on a contentious foreign policy issue.
The question of AIPAC's responsibility to American Jews, however, is a little different. With or without their express consent, Jewish Americans are part of what may well be the most interesting and risky cultural/national experiment to have begun in the 20th century. By virtue of being Jews, they are invested in Israel. By virtue of being Americans, they shoulder more responsiblity for Israel's successes and failures than Jews living elsewhere in the diaspora.
AIPAC may be a thorn in the side of "realists" fed up with what they see as a counterproductive alliance with a controversial foreign power. But in that view, AIPAC is one piece of a much larger puzzle.
In the American Jewish community, AIPAC is something bigger. It has for many years set the tone and agenda for discussions about Israel, through community events and literature, lectures, and a reputation as the authority on advocacy earned on its merits. AIPAC is supported by a tremendous number of Jewish philanthropies, and in turn supports programming all the way down to the micro level, designed to shore up American support for Israel among what must always be its base -- the Jewish community.
Organizations like J-Street are beginning to challenge AIPAC's monopoly on dialogue within the community. J-Street has recently hired a few campus coordinators to begin to develop competitive university programming, traditionally an easy win for the larger organization. (Full disclosure: I applied for one of these positions and did not get it; a friend did.)
College campuses are an obvious choice: political activism there tends to be more liberal, and Jewish students are already living in an environment where, like it or not, they are forced by Arab students to confront some of Israel's negative portrayals. Though it makes no apologies for a pro-Israel stance, it stands to reason that J-Street will benefit from comparisons to AIPAC in the college world. But this is less than a dent in AIPAC's wider influence, and even if the program succeeds it is not clear to me where else J-Street can turn.
Like other lobbies, AIPAC doesn't just lobby the government -- it lobbies everyone. Unlike other lobbies, though, AIPAC has this natural captive audience which appears to me to be more and more confused by the dissonance between what AIPAC is saying in synagogue events and what a growing number of political commenators are saying on the Internet.
When AIPAC searches for a senior political analyst in DC, they are unquestionably seeking someone to operate on Capitol Hill -- a lobbying position, in other words, political and influential and certainly not involved in community organizing.
But on the local end, AIPAC is attempting to shepherd American Jews using the same tricks in a country whose hostility toward the lobby, and perhaps the cause, is growing in volume. My questions to AIPAC, then: do you need to acknowledge this? And do you need to respond? And how would you?
It's too early to say whether AIPAC's control over the conversation about Israel amongst American Jews is going to weaken. But some of J-Street's own polling suggests the ground is shifting, a process that has been sped up by the recent political turn within Israel itself. It may be time for AIPAC to consider treating the Jewish community less as a lobbying target, and more as an equal party to decisions about American support for Israel. If they fail to do so, they run the risk of cutting their base off entirely from the majority.
That would be nothing less than a crisis for Israel advocacy in America, on par with the current chaos dominating the remains of the Republican party: hijacked by conspiracy theorists and clowns, and careening full-tilt toward irrelevance.
The responsible decision for AIPAC would be to shift its rhetoric and its treatment of the Jewish community, to try to bring itself more in line with the state of advocacy today. Embracing the reality of American Jewish doubts and fears about Israel, instead of denying their existence, is the only way to maintain a strong base capable of interacting with the wider American community.