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Biden's need to manage expectations with AIPAC in cleaning up Trump’s Middle East mess

posted on: Feb 10, 2021

President Biden is familiar with AIPAC from the Obama days Photo CBS News

By John Mason /Arab America Contributing Writer

Last week in this space we enthusiastically endorsed President Biden’s initiative to reverse former President Trump’s most egregious disasters perpetrated on Israel-Palestine relations. Here we discuss Biden’s hesitancy to take on some of the more intransigent issues that contribute to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. One of these issues is the hand-in-glove relationship the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has with the State of Israel. John Mason walks us through these issues.

Will Biden deal with AIPAC directly in addressing Israel-Palestine issues?

Biden is no stranger to frankness with AIPAC, as typified in his campaign message to this U.S. lobby in March of 2020, which alleged that AIPAC’s Israeli policies were undermining support among U.S. youth. A Times of Israel article reported on a video message from Biden during his campaign in March 2020 expressing his opinion that annexation plans and settlement activities were “choking hopes for peace.” These plans, of course, were promulgated by the combined efforts of Trump son-in-law Kushner, Trump himself, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Biden is unwinding Trump-Kushner-Netanyahu intrigues to reduce even more Palestinian territory Photo The Forward

To balance his critique, Biden, in this same video presented to AIPAC at its annual policy conference in Washington D.C., called on Palestinians to “end incitement and rocket fire.” He maintained that U.S. support of Israel’s policies was alienating American youth in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Biden stressed the damage any future annexation by Israel would do in preventing “a future possible contiguous Palestinian state.” We have spoken elsewhere on Arab America about the dimming possibility for a two-state solution, despite Biden’s optimism regarding such a solution.

AIPAC and the State of Israel work hand-in-glove, sometimes blurring the role of American advocacy organizations Photo Jewish Telegraphic Agency

In most quarters it is agreed that more Israeli annexation is taking Israel further from its democratic values, and in Biden’s eyes it will especially undermine younger American youth support for Israel. A side note to this story—both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Democratic candidates, chose to avoid the AIPAC forum. Sanders noted that his refusal was related to AIPAC’s platform aimed “to express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”

Use of the Public Space and Popular Opinion as Possible Antidotes to AIPEC Influence

As noted in last week’s post, we saw the chances of moving Israel’s capital to Jerusalem as unlikely; ending the Trump-Netanyahu plan to annex 1/3rd of the West Bank was likely; and reversal of the cutoff of U.S. aid to Palestinians was likely as well—these are just a few of innumerable wrong-headed acts by Trump and his folks in favoring Israel over Palestinians that the Biden-Harris team must address. How to address these, while considering the oversized influence of AIPAC, is the high wire act Biden must conduct.  

Former President Obama, though he dealt with AIPAC, learned to debate U.S.-Israel issues in the public space Photo The Electronic Intifada

Pre-Biden examples of dealing with AIPAC are rare, but instructive. One was Israel’s continuation of its settlement construction on Palestinian land in the late ‘80s—early ‘90s during George H.W. Bush’s administration. According to Grant Smith, writing for Anti-War.Blog, Bush threatened to withhold loan guarantees to Israel to get it to stop building on the West Bank. He did it by “going public with grievances,” namely a public relations campaign that raised the issue publicly, and in that sense thwarting AIPAC.

Another example was Barack Obama’s opposing Israel’s objection to the Iran nuclear deal. Obama made his point clear in a speech laying out the facts. Grant Smith noted that, “By opposing the Iran nuclear deal, Israel and its lobby were essentially demanding that the US go to war with Iran, claimed Obama. Americans overwhelmingly agreed with him.” Again, according to Grant Smith, “If Israel and its lobby decide to whip up another phony crisis, Biden could immediately take it to the court of public opinion rather than suffer in silence.”

Risks of playing “hard ball” with AIPAC

A recent event demonstrated the clout of AIPAC in dealing with those who cross its boundary of “what’s appropriate” and what is not. A story in Jewish Journal reported on an NBC retraction of a news item that questioned a Biden appointee’s donations to APAIC. NBC picked up the story from Mother Jones, which reported that Biden’s appointee to be Deputy National Security Adviser for Cyber and Emerging Technology, Anne Neuberger, had donated, through the Neuberger foundation, $559,000 to AIPAC over several years.

According to Mother Jones, “several anonymous officials and experts as well as a Washington University law professor, argu[ed] that the donations raise questions about Neuberger’s ‘impartiality’ when it comes to matters involving Israel.” NBC in citing the story, featured a quote from the National Security Council, stating that “Neuberger will abide by the Executive Order on Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel.”

AIPAC was upset with NBC, calling it out, saying that it should “retract this offensive story. Charges of dual loyalty are anti-Semitic and insult millions of Americans—Jewish & non-Jewish—who stand by our ally Israel. We will not be deterred from exercising our rights as citizens to advocate for a strong US-Israel relationship.”

Meanwhile, Mother Jones is sticking to its guns, standing by their reporting, denying that the story “invokes the dual loyalty trope, tweeting in response to the AJC that his article and the NBC News article simply ‘reported that national security and government ethics experts consider these donations problematic.’”

This story underscores the powerful role that AIPAC plays in U.S. politics, much less U.S.-Israeli politics-diplomacy. Nevertheless, such an enlarged influence should not deter Biden from containing the Netanyahu-shaped Israeli impulse to makeover Palestine as Israel. As predecessor presidents have done, Biden should use the public space to make his case, rather than taking on AIPAC directly. Biden’s heart is in the right place as regards the proper Israeli position on sovereign Palestinian territory, but he needs to get real in dealing with continuing encroachments on the Palestinian homeland.


“Biden tells AIPAC Israel’s policies undermining support among US youth,” Times of Israel, 3/2/2020

“Biden Could Reverse Six Harmful Israel Policies… With the Only Power That Stops Israel’s Lobby,” by Grant Smith, Anti-War.Blog, 1/23/2021

“NBC News Retracts Story Questioning Biden Appointee’s AIPAC Donations,” by Aaron Bandler, Jewish Journal, 1/28/2021

John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He did fieldwork in an east Libyan Saharan oasis and has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo. John served with the United Nations as an official in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, the UN, and the World Bank in 65 countries.

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