On September 14th, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu signed a 10-year military-assistance deal containing the largest package of military aid that the US has ever given to any country. The $38 billion pledge, averaging $3.8 billion per year, constitutes a roughly 27% increase from the last such agreement in 2007 — which already made Israel the recipient of the most cumulative US foreign aid since World War II. A week after the two leaders signed the deal, they met again in New York. Obama took this opportunity to publicly reprimand Netanyahu for the ongoing construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a process that has systematically and increasingly endangered the viability of a peaceful two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We want to make sure that we keep alive this possibility of a stable, secure Israel at peace with its neighbors, and a Palestinian homeland that meets the aspirations of the Palestinian people,” he told reporters. Netanyahu showed no interest in halting settlement expansion, and only vaguely remarked on peace as something to be desired.

From a diplomatic standpoint it might seem bizarre that the United States, which has repeatedly condemned the Israeli military and civilian occupation of the Palestinian territories, would issue yet another high-profile rebuke only after forfeiting its massive leverage in the form of military aid. For years, the State Department has released periodic statements of anxiety over the occupation’s threats to American interests, as well as to Israeli safety and to Palestinian human rights. In Washington, though, many politicians in both parties have accepted the status quo US-Israel relationship as inevitable and unchangeable. Among the greatest contributing factors undergirding this dearth of political will toward a peace process is Congress’s submission to AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group. As US demographic tides shift and younger generations of American Jews enter the political arena, AIPAC’s domination of US-Israel relations and the global damage it perpetuates may finally be facing serious political counteraction. Whether such opposition can establish itself in time to ameliorate the effects of Obama’s deal with Netanyahu, however, remains to be seen.

For decades, the startling power of AIPAC in Washington has hinged on its huge influence across the political spectrum. The lobby has more than 100,000 members and an enormous pool of donors. Between 2010 and 2015, AIPAC spent more than $14 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies to press its causes—primarily the continuation of military aid to Israel and new sanctions against Iran (before international negotiators successfully negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran). The lobby does not officially endorse congressional candidates or raise funds for them directly, but it encourages its members to do so.

For decades, the startling power of AIPAC in Washington has hinged on its huge influence across the political spectrum.

While it is not easy to track the sum of money that AIPAC members donate to candidates, congressional Democrats and Republicans are well aware of the group’s power. As Brian Baird, a former U.S. Representative from Seattle, explained: “In order to get elected to Congress, if you’re not independently wealthy, you have to raise a lot of money. And you learn pretty quickly that, if AIPAC is on your side, you can do that.” Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky said in 2014: “AIPAC clearly has a great deal of clout in the Republican conference, and many Democrats still think that they have to be responsive to it.” Yarmuth, a Jewish member of Congress, has been accused of anti-Semitism for his criticisms of AIPAC and Netanyahu. But he has insisted that placating the lobby too often obstructs real US interests: “We all took an oath of office,” he said, “and AIPAC, in many instances, is asking us to ignore it.” In 2011, when the Palestinian National Authority petitioned the UN for statehood, AIPAC played a significant role in assuring the opposition of 446 members of Congress. During this U.S. election season, aid to Israel remains one of few relatively static topics. Notwithstanding Donald Trump’s proneness to contradictory statements on Israel-Palestine, he has firmly promised a strong relationship between Israel and the United States. Hillary Clinton has long established her consistent support for Israeli administrations, while secretary of state and otherwise.

At the same time, American voters are developing increasingly mixed views on the sort of unconditional support that their government offers to Israel. Differences of opinion follow the divides of political party and age group. A 2016 Gallup poll found that over 60% of Americans identified with greater sympathy toward Israel than toward Palestinians — but nearly 80% of Republicans were sympathetic to Israel, while only 50% of Democrats said the same. Separately, a Brookings poll revealed that roughly half of surveyed Democrats saw Israel as exerting too much influence on the US government. Further, young Americans are generally far less sympathetic to Israel than older voters. In a 2014 Gallup poll, half of respondents between 18 and 34 favored support of Israel over that of Palestinians, versus 58% of 35 to 54-year-olds and 74% of those aged 55 and older. During the Democratic primary season, Bernie Sanders won praise from his distinctly young base for criticizing Israel. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement — which demands that organizations in the US and abroad sever their financial ties with Israel — has steadily gained popularity on college campuses, especially after its endorsement by the Movement for Black Lives this year.

For decades after Israel’s founding, American Jews understandably sought collective self-definition through their united, largely unconditional support for the state. But a growing portion of the community, and particularly its younger membership, chafes at the impenetrable lack of progress toward peace in the area. Many have found that AIPAC does not represent them. In 2008, Jeremy Ben-Ami consolidated a political challenge to AIPAC through his founding of J Street, an advocacy group that claimed the tagline: “pro-Israel, pro-peace.” The organization has attracted American Jews who advocate for a two-state solution and denounce the occupation as a direct impediment to both Israel’s wellbeing and its claim to democracy. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas recalled that in 2010, AIPAC’s clout was great enough to pressure Congress members into removing their names from the J Street gala’s honorary host committee. “I don’t view criticizing Netanyahu as being any more anti-Israel as criticizing Dick Cheney is anti-America,” said Doggett, and added: “J Street has given us an ability to discuss this in an organized way.” Although the group’s funding and influence in Congress are minuscule compared to AIPAC’s, it is still, as Husam Zomlot of the PLO said, “the first organized Jewish group with a different agenda in Washington since Israel was established.”

If there remains a hope for redemption in US-Israel relations, it lies in the potential for public backlash against US military aid, and the tacit support of the occupation that such packages represent. Shifting popular views on Israel among Americans, combined with a growing political space for alternative understandings of the “pro-Israel” position, may be building toward such a backlash. But the timeline for any public pressure to change the status quo grows more and more constricted, as Israeli settlement expansion continually imperils the viability of a two-state solution and the possibility of peace.


Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013, talks to Brown Political Review’s Sam Rubinstein. Oren stepped down from his post a week before this interview.

Brown Political Review: Have sanctions had enough of an impact on the Iranian economy as to render the Ayatollah open to a settlement, or are President Rouhani’s overtures a stall tactic?

Michael Oren: I think it is a stall tactic, but they are not mutually exclusive. However, sanctions have dealt a serious blow to the Iranian economy that does not translate into a willingness to dismantle their nuclear program, which is what would be acceptable to Israel. Rouhani came to New York to lift the sanctions, not to stop the nuclear program.

BPR: For Israel, what would constitute a good deal regarding Iran? Is the window for Israel to act alone closing?

Oren: The window for Israel’s action is not unlimited — it is short and growing shorter. The acceptable outcome from Israel’s perspective is the dismantling of the program entirely. If Iran is left with thousands of centrifuges, and a stockpile of even 3.5 percent enriched uranium, then they have the wherewithal and the knowledge to quickly enrich that stockpile to weapons-grade uranium, and can do it in between inspections. All it takes is a room about the size of your average Brown lecture hall, hidden underground in a country about half the size of Europe.

BPR: Do you believe that Palestinians have the incentive and desire to reach a negotiated agreement with Israel?

They can choose the Gaza model, or they can choose a model of a state that has close diplomatic and economic cooperation with Israel, even defense cooperation. Oren: I hope they do. I don’t think there is an alternative path to a viable and stable statehood for the Palestinians other than through negotiations. You have a model of what a Palestinian entity looks like that doesn’t negotiate with Israel for statehood, and doesn’t have peaceful coexistence and recognition — that model is in Gaza. It’s hard to call Gaza anything other than a failed state. They can choose the Gaza model, or they can choose a model of a state that has close diplomatic and economic cooperation with Israel, even defense cooperation. We are faced by common enemies. They can make that choice.

BPR: What is the justification for the continued construction of settlements?

Oren: Almost all the construction is going on in East Jerusalem and the settlement blocks — neighborhoods and areas that everyone knows will be part of Israel in any negotiated settlement. The final status of the West Bank will be determined through negotiations, and there should be no preconditions. We have a lot of things we want the Palestinians to do upfront, but they’re not going to do it. They’re not going to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state, but that has to be the outcome of negotiations. Freezing settlement construction upfront is not actually good for the Palestinians. We had a 10 month moratorium, and it did not bring Palestinians to the table — it pushed them farther away. Why? Because in the world of Middle East diplomacy, if you are conceding things upfront then the public is going to say:  “Why should you make concessions at the negotiation table?”

BPR: Regardless, doesn’t the political cost of settlement construction outweigh the benefits for Israel?

Oren: It is certainly a legitimate question. We are a democracy, and the Israeli public has come down pretty strongly on that issue through successive elections, even during the height of the Oslo process under the Rabin government. There was far more settlement construction back then than there is today. There was something — I wouldn’t call it a consensus — but there was a strong majority in favor of continued construction. Before 1967, our border was eight miles wide, which wasn’t secure. Part of the reason the settlement block was built was to thicken out our borders. There exists a strong Israeli consensus for not going back to the ’67 borders. However, the decision does carry a political price with it. Certainly in international relations it carries a price, but also a majority of the Israeli public sees the logic and justification to it. Israelis will continue to support it until there is a negotiated solution. And we understand we will have to pay a price for it, maybe even a painful price, in terms of territory.

BPR: You recently stepped down from your post as ambassador. What is your proudest accomplishment?

Oren: Missile defense was huge. Last November, Israel was struck by hundreds and hundreds of rockets, and 1 million Israelis under fire from those rockets watched as we shot them down. That was made possible as a direct result of support we received from the Obama Administration and Congress, which all occurred during my watch. Another success was the outreach to various communities. I spent a long time building ties with the Hispanic community, African American community and LGBT community. I instituted the first Israeli Iftar, and we’ve now had three Iftars. Generally, I would say that Israeli-U.S. relations are deeper and more multifaceted now than they were at any time in the past.

BPR: What do you mean by deeper and more multifaceted?

Oren: I mean the Israeli-U.S. commercial and scientific relationship. At a time when companies are outsourcing to Asia, Israeli companies are outsourcing to the U.S. There are tens of thousands of Americans who are employed, directly or indirectly, by Israeli industries. Apple never had an overseas R&D center, but it’s going to open its first in Israel. That is a rapidly expanding part of the Israeli-U.S. relationship.

BPR: How has the chemical weapons deal with Syria and Russia been received by the rest of the international community?

Oren: I hate clichés, but the proof is in the pudding. If the combination of diplomacy with a credible military threat produces the desired result — which is the removal of weapons of mass destruction from the hands of a radical regime — then it will be viewed as extremely successful.