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AIPAC and Obama Headed for a Showdown?

‘Mother Jones’ thinks so

Allison Hoffman
September 11, 2009

The current issue of Mother Jones, which hit stands a few weeks ago, has a story asking whether AIPAC is heading for a showdown with the Obama administration over Israel policy. The piece, by Robert Dreyfuss, makes a nice bookend to James Traub’s story in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine about J Street, the new progressive challenger to AIPAC’s long-held dominance on Israel-policy issues. Taken together, they offer a portrait of how the arrival of the MoveOn generation—which includes not just Obama but his right-hand guys, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, who aren’t mentioned in either piece, but should have been—is changing Washington’s Jewish power structure.

But where Traub seemed to be looking for what J Street says about American Jewry, politically speaking, Dreyfuss appears to be setting up a political version of fantasy football, handicapping how many (and which) members of Congress would side with the White House over AIPAC should they wind up in a showdown over, say, settlements. In that universe, J Street (and groups like the Israel Policy Forum) only matter insofar as they provide political cover for members of Congress—including, in this world, staunch pro-Israel Democrats like Carl Levin, Howard Berman, and Henry Waxman—who might support Obama at the expense of Benjamin Netanyahu’s political agenda.

Two things to note, though. One, while Dreyfuss raises the infamous Mearsheimer/Walt argument that AIPAC and other groups in the “Israel lobby” promote their objectives at the expense of American interests, it’s worth remembering that AIPAC hasn’t always been a home for neoconservatives—once, it was a place for people who opposed Reagan, including on the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, like other Jewish groups that took a rightward drift during the Bush years, AIPAC seems to have gone out of its way to appoint a new president who is on good terms with Obama, Lee Rosenberg, so it could just as well be argued that J Street is a kind of stalking horse presaging AIPAC’s return to the center. (Stephen Walt, incidentally, undoes the entire conceit of the piece by speculating to Dreyfus that Obama isn’t really “ready” to take on AIPAC, anyway.)

Two, there’s a blind quote near the bottom from a PR specialist with “close ties to the Israeli Embassy” that essentially blames naive Reform Jews for abetting this new era of dovish realpolitik. “All the cultural Jews, the Reform Jews, go, ‘Oh my God, he’s our guy! Seder in the White House, Bagel Month, Passover at the White House,’” this person said. Which is nice, because it’s reassuring to know that some things never change.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.