Sunday, February 09, 2020

Rate That Apology, Part 9: AIPAC!

A few days ago, it emerged that AIPAC had ran some rather ... aggressive ads targeting Democrats. "The radicals in the Democratic Party," the ad text read, "are pushing their anti-Semitic and anti-Israel policies down the throats of the American people." Whoof. The ads also linked to a petition which said that "It’s critical that we protect our Israeli allies especially as they face threats from Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah ISIS and — maybe more sinister — right here in the U.S. Congress." Double whoof.

When I first saw these ads, they were so out-of-character for AIPAC (which -- reputation notwithstanding -- generally tries to avoid wading into partisan frays) that I assumed they were fake. But they were not, and AIPAC has apologized for running them.

So let's rate that apology, shall we?

The apology is four paragraphs long, and it is interesting while it starts off pretty good, each paragraph is worse than the one which comes before it. Let's take them one at a time:
We offer our unequivocal apology to the overwhelming majority of Democrats in Congress who are rightfully offended by the inaccurate assertion that the poorly worded, inflammatory advertisement implied.
That's not bad! What I like most about this is the phrase "rightfully offended". Not "those who were offended", not "if you were offended", not "read it as offensive". The apology owns up that the ad was, objectively, offensive. It also agrees that the ad was inaccurate and inflammatory. "Poorly worded" is a bit of a hedge, but in the context of the rest of the paragraph I don't think it detracts from the message.
We appreciate the broad and reliable support that Democrats in Congress have consistently demonstrated for Israel. The bipartisan consensus that Democrats and Republicans have established on this issue forms the foundation of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
This is also generally fine. It's less "apologetic" than the first paragraph, to be sure. But had these been the only two paragraphs, I think this would have been an overall pretty decent, unequivocal apology. Alas....
The ad, which is no longer running, alluded to a genuine concern of many pro-Israel Democrats about a small but growing group, in and out of Congress, that is deliberately working to erode the bipartisan consensus on this issue and undermine the U.S.-Israel relationship.
I understand the temptation to try to explain, in one's apology, why you said the thing you're apologizing for. I'm not going to say one should never do that, but it's a high-risk proposition and it rarely pays off. Mostly, that's because it comes off as an effort to dodge responsibility and to rehabilitate what actually matters, which is the underlying cause. But here we see pitfall of a different and more ironic sort. The purpose of the ad was to express concern about the erosion of a bipartisan consensus around Israel? Well gosh golly, what do they think this ad did if not contribute to that erosion? It'd be like writing an apology for cursing out prominent entertainer and then saying you did it only to draw attention about diminishing civility in public life.
We regret that the ad's imprecise wording distorted our message and offended many who are deeply committed to this cause. We look forward to continuing our work with friends in Congress to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship and oppose any efforts to undermine its deep, bipartisan support.
Oh how far we've fallen from the first paragraph. At the start, "poor wording" was contextualized in language that straightforwardly accepted responsibility. Here, it stands alone, suggesting that the only problem with the advertisement was in its choice in rhetoric and that it was expressing an important point poorly. Nooope. The advertisement called Democrats antisemites who were ramming anti-Israel politics down the throats of the American people in a fashion potentially more sinister than ISIS. We're a well ways past the point of poor wording here. AIPAC needs to actually reckon with what it did here, and why it was wrong. If the beginning of the apology seemed to gesture in that direction, it's gone by the end.

I'll add one more note. For the most part in this series we've rated the apology of individuals, not organizations. And there are certain additional elements of an institutional apology that don't make a lot of sense for an individual. An individual can't "discipline" or "fire" the person responsible, nor can they really implement processes to "guard against this happening again". But an institution can, and maybe should be expected to. I don't think AIPAC has said anything on either of these fronts -- who was responsible, what actions (if any) were taken to discipline them, and what guardrails have been put up to ensure we don't see a repeat. That's worrisome, and knocks them down a grade.

In general, my view of AIPAC differs substantially from the conventional wisdom. The latter sees AIPAC as this titan of Washington politics that brutally crushes even the slightest deviation from Likudnik policy. I see AIPAC as a paper tiger that generally seeks to cultivate relationships more than enforce dogma and has largely struggled to flex any concrete muscle in circumstances where there is significant political energy pushing against it. This truth is masked because for many years there rarely was any political energy pushing against -- but you see it in the case of, e.g., the Iran Deal, where AIPAC really did go all out to sink it and made pretty much zero headway.

The problem AIPAC is running into is twofold. First, it wants to be bipartisan in an era of increased polarization. And second, it has a staff which I suspect actually is mostly left-of-center paired with a donor base that is increasingly right-wing. As much as folks like me see AIPAC as engaging in partisan attacks against Democrats (for all its talk about how it "supports a two-state solution", one never sees it drop $40 million to attack Republicans for abandoning it), it's also under a lot of pressure from its right flank which wants to see it really take the gloves off and explicitly come out as an anti-Democratic actor. They are tired of what they see as AIPAC coddling Democrats and want it to announce what they already know: Democrats are the anti-Israel party. These ads almost certainly came either from actors within AIPAC who agree with that sentiment, or as a result of pressure from external donors who are pushing that narrative. Hyperpolarization cuts both ways: Republicans, too, have little use for even a politically-friendly organization if it continues to gesture at straddling the middle. They don't want earnest efforts at cultivating bipartisanship; they want an attack dog.

AIPAC isn't paying me for advice, but I'll offer some anyway: this would be a very short-sighted strategy. It's not just because explicitly aligning with the right would be perhaps a boon for the Republican Party but a disaster for pro-Israel politics. It's also that the right-wing actors AIPAC would embolden are ones whom AIPAC has surprisingly little influence over. Even as its reputation has drifted right-ward over the past few years, AIPAC has progressively lost influence among Republican elected officials who prefer to take their cues from more explicitly partisan outlets like ZOA or CUFI. AIPAC might rule the roost of "bipartisan" Israel talk, but it's hard to see what their niche is as just one explicitly right-wing group among many.

For better or for worse, though, I doubt AIPAC is going to be able to right ship. It's just too big, and archaic, and creaky, and doesn't have the institutional adroitness to adjust to the new era its finding itself in.

Unfortunately for people like me, these sorts of transitions are difficult, and there will be adjustment pains. Is it fun watching AIPAC get used as a punching bag, accused of forming an "unholy alliance" with Islamophobes and White Nationalists while prominent Democratic candidates nod along? Not for me -- but then again, perhaps AIPAC should have thought of that before handing out money to Frank Gaffney or putting Adam Milstein on its national board. More broadly, to the extent the pro-Israel movement aligns itself with Trump, that ipso facto represents allying with an Islamophobe and White Nationalist of the highest order.

The sad truth is that AIPAC is mostly reaping what it has sown here. We can wince at intemperate rhetoric all we want, but the fact is the claim that AIPAC has aligned itself with -- has supported and is supported by -- at least some Islamophobes and White Nationalists is just as strong as the case that Bernie Sanders has aligned himself with antisemites, and the folks getting themselves up in high dudgeon over Elizabeth Warren not rushing to AIPAC's defense hardly would blink at similar accusations being leveled at Sanders (the idea that, if a rally-goer prefaced a question by saying Sanders is "forming an alliance with antisemites and Communists", Donald Trump would do anything but cheer him on is almost as fanciful as the idea that the national media would view it as an unspeakable slander if Trump did nothing more than ignore it).

Anyway, I've digressed a bit from rating that apology. So: A good start is undermined, albeit not wholly erased, by a mediocre ending. 5.5/10

No comments: