AIPAC and How Bipartisanship Matters

This essay was originally published in The Times of Israel.

“Our challenge is less to calm the forces that are pelting our society than to reinforce the structures that hold it together. That calls for a spirit of building and rebuilding, more than of tearing down. It calls for approaching… institutions with a disposition to repair so as to make them better versions of themselves.” – Yuval Levin, A Time to Build

I thought of these words while attending AIPAC’s policy conference this week.

I came because I believe that for the United States to be an effective leader on the world stage, we need a comprehensive foreign policy – one that is built on a strong, bipartisan consensus. I’ve written before about the fraying global credibility of the United States as a consistent partner, which is due to the failure of incoming administrations to uphold the international commitments of previous opposing party administrations, and, in some cases, the outright reversal of those agreements. Our commitments are most reliable when they are built on a broad foundation of support across Congressional aisles. When bipartisan commitment is lacking for an agreement – whether on climate change or on how to contain Iranian ambitions – critical support does not endure beyond one administration. But the security relationship with Israel is the best example of the ongoing commitment that results from bipartisan support through Congress after Congress, under both parties’ control, upholding and sustaining ten-year agreements made under Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama.

Because we desperately need more of that credibility in the world, I believe in the importance and value of institutions like AIPAC; the rare spaces these days where Americans come together despite partisan differences in support of a bipartisan shared agenda on key foreign policy concerns.

This week, as in the past, there was so much that I appreciated at AIPAC, like the diversity of voices and the honest conversations, including explicit main stage calls to support Palestinian rights and statehood (which we support). There was some candid criticism of Israel’s actions in the West Bank by supporters of the US-Israel relationship. There were some speakers that didn’t resonate as much for me, making the strong case for policies that I don’t agree with. But hearing those voices is a part of committing to bipartisanship.

I welcomed the message of “yes, and” from some on the main stage; the articulation of “and this is how I work for two-states” as part of a statement that “yes, I’m committed to Israel’s security.” Notably, it was exciting and validating to hear Senator Schumer announce his support for the Partnership Fund for Peace on the main stage this year. It’s an area we’ve focused on at JCRC for several years, under the leadership of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, as an essential component of how we engage with the conflict.

Still, when I see that bipartisanship which AIPAC strives to represent being strained – from without and within – by the fractured politics of our time, I worry. When I see those in or seeking power working to replace the pursuit of shared values across political ideologies with doctrinaire, partisan approaches to the world, I worry. And when our allies and enemies watch us with increasing doubts about our will, knowing that our commitments, which are no longer bolstered by broad consensus, are not likely to last more than 4-8 years, I worry.

For decades, AIPAC has framed American support for Israel as one in which we have “friends, and potential friends.” Notably, this week we heard a distinct shift to the effect that “some people will never be our friends.” It was hard to hear this, but – in the hyper-fractured politics of our time and with some who are waging an active war on the US-Israel relationship – I have to agree, sad as that makes me regarding the state of our nation.

But if the core of this work is about building and maintaining bipartisanship on foreign policy and support for the US-Israel relationship, then it is also true that some of our friends, regardless of their love of and devotion to Israel, are doing us no favors either. Not for the first time, a very small number of speakers at AIPAC used that platform to make hyper-partisan attacks across the aisle, to applause from some part of the audience; I believe that they do as much damage to our purpose as the ones who attack the movement from outside. I hope that AIPAC will find a way to convey more clearly that these voices hurt our movement, and will educate participants to not respond to such overly partisan attacks when they come.

I care about the continuing success of AIPAC and about the success of American bipartisan leadership in the world.

Yuval Levin challenges us: “This is not a time for tearing down. It is a time to build.”

Let us continue to build together a broad consensus where we can.