My Life With AIPAC: Plus Its Internal Strategy Document For This Week

And there is AIPAC's secret memo on its strategy with Congress this week. h/t American For Peace Now and Lara Friedman, its analyst extraordinaire.


I understand what is going on at AIPAC right now. I know it because I volunteered there for a year back in the 1970's and then had a senior job there in the 1980's. I left for a better job. But I left on great terms. My then-boss, Tom Dine, the Executive Director is a good friend and took me with him when he left AIPAC for the Clinton Administration.

But times and people change. So do institutions. Back then AIPAC was less rigid. Yes, it rarely, if ever, deviated from the Israeli line. But, one, the Israeli line was not as hard right as it is today. And both AIPAC and even rightwing Israeli prime ministers (like Menachem Begin) tried to avoid conflicts with American administrations.

When I worked at AIPAC the first time, its founder and executive director, I.L. Kenen, told me this: "My worst fear is that a President of the United States will get on television and say to the American people, 'I have made the following request to the Israeli government.' He then describes it and says that Israel's refusal to accept it would harm US interests. At that point, the Israeli government would fold and so would AIPAC."

I said, "But what if it was a life or death issue?"

He said, "But it never would be. America will never ask Israel to commit suicide. If it happens, it would be a demand to get out of the occupied territories or divide Jerusalem or something like that. Life or death it would never be. Still, it's my biggest fear."

That theory was tested a few years later when conflict came and even Begin backed down in the face of a resolute President. (From Lou Cannon's biography of Reagan, "The Role Of A Lifetime").

In 1982, the Israeli air force was bombing Beirut relentlessly. President Ronald Reagan saw the destruction and carnage on television and, on his own initiative, picked up the phone and called Begin. Reagan National Security Council staffer Geoffrey Kemp remembers the call:

"'Menachem, this is a holocaust' Reagan said.

'Mr. President, I think I know what a holocaust is' Begin replied, in a voice that Kemp would recall as 'dripping with sarcasm.' According to [Deputy Chief-Of-Staff Michael] Deaver, Reagan continued 'in the plainest of language' to tell Begin what he thought about the bombing of Beirut, concluding by saying, 'It has gone too far. You must stop it'

Twenty-minutes later Begin called back and said he had issued the order to [General Ariel] Sharon to stop the bombings. After he had hung up the phone Reagan said to Deaver, 'I didn't know I had that kind of power.'"

But he did. And so does Obama. And that was at a time, not quite two years into his Presidency, when Reagan's poll numbers were so low that it was thought he might quit after one term. Two years later he won 49 states.

Reagan's decisiveness, and its effect, is the happy part of the story. The terrible part is that if Reagan had flat-out told Begin "don't even think of invading Lebanon," tens of thousands of lives would have been saved, most of them Lebanese and Palestinian.

1,221 Israelis were killed between 1982 and 2000 (when the last Israeli soldier left Lebanon). They left after endless protests led by bereaved parents made a continued Lebanon involvement politically impossible. They left unilaterally and, after 18 years and all those dead, they left with nothing to show for all the destruction.

Luckily Reagan made the bombing stop. Too bad he didn't block the entire disaster.

Of course, AIPAC opposed -- as it always opposes -- US pressure on Israel.

And it is undaunted by the fact that US pressure, if Israel had yielded to it, would have spared thousands of Israeli lives. If the Israelis had listened to President Nixon in 1971, who told them to withdraw from the banks of the Suez Canal and accept President Sadat's peace offer, there would have been no Yom Kippur War. Israel would have given up a fraction of the Egyptian territory that it ended up yielding in peace negotiations five years later. Instead, Israel said no, lost all the Egyptian territory it held, along with 3,000 young men.

Naturally, the lobby in this country backed Israel in that refusal.

The lobby wants to paper over the differences the United States has with Israel - especially before the big AIPAC rally this weekend and certainly before the President meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

I know, from my years at AIPAC, that it wants Obama to back down. I also know that even the slightest retreat from our demands will be presented by AIPAC as a great victory. "All is back to normal," AIPAC will say. And the whole world -- especially Israelis and Palestinians -- will see us as chumps.

The latest polls show Obama's position favored (by a 2-1 margin) over Netanyahu's here. In Israel, they are pretty much tied, with Obama far more popular than previously believed.

The shift in US opinion -- from seemingly solid support for Israeli positions to a 2-1 support for Obama's hard line on settlements -- indicates that General David Petraeus' statements have had a powerful effect. Once Petraeus said that perceptions of American one-sidedness put American lives in Afghanistan and Iraq at risk, the game was essentially over.

Unless the United States blinks.

I know that because I know AIPAC. Right now they are terribly worried that Obama will not back down. No matter how tough the AIPAC big shots talk to Rahm Emanuel, Hillary Clinton, or David Axelrod, they are very, very nervous. The are desperate that the US back down for many reasons, not so much about Israel, which needs peace, but for AIPAC and its standing as the most powerful foreign policy lobby in Washington.

The President and Secretary of State must not back down. Not in action. Not in words. If they cave, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is finished for the duration of this Presidency. Like health care reform, Obama must win it now or lose it forever.