WASHINGTON — There is a mostly unchallenged assumption in American politics that AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel organization in Washington, wields irresistible political influence. There are reasons to take this assumption seriously. It is hard to find a bill or position supported by AIPAC that fails to win passage and support on Capitol Hill.

That may explain why AIPAC’s recent stumble over a new Iran sanctions bill has caught many observers by surprise and led critics from left and right to suggest the organization’s once-unassailable position has grown more precarious.

“The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobby once dubbed an ‘800-pound gorilla’ for its ability to frighten senators and representatives into supporting its efforts on behalf of Israel, recently seems to have lost a bit of heft,” one critic, John B. Judis, wrote giddily in Foreign Policy last month.

Judis echoed the arguments of many on the American left when he claimed AIPAC had moved rightward in recent years, a shift that has led to its estrangement from its own majority-liberal Jewish base and Democratic power centers in Washington, including the White House.

AIPAC also drew criticism from the right in recent days, with some complaining at its apparent inability to browbeat the Senate and White House on the fundamental issues driving the US-Israel relationship — first and foremost, Iran.

The battle over the bill

AIPAC has spent months pushing a bill to allow President Barack Obama to further increase US sanctions on Iran if the P5+1 nuclear talks fail. It won signatures from over half the Senate before the White House announced its opposition to the bill out of a concern that any new sanctions threat could derail nuclear negotiations with Tehran.

The White House was adamant; AIPAC buckled. It didn’t abandon the bill, but it agreed to delay its own push for its passage. Continuing to push the bill would have meant going to battle against the very same president AIPAC hopes will be ready to implement new sanctions if talks falter.

But as soon as AIPAC agreed to the president’s demand to delay the bill, it encountered unexpected opposition from another quarter — Republican senators who insisted on continuing to push for sanctions, against the wishes of the White House and even the bill’s initiators.

“AIPAC was forced, in the wake of Democratic opposition, to retreat for the moment on the Iran sanctions bill the group had been pushing for months,” noted Eli Lake in the Daily Beast. “Then, nearly every Republican in the Senate ignored AIPAC’s call for a retreat on the bill, and decided to keep on pushing for a vote on it, anyway.”

The result was an embarrassing spectacle.

“Somehow, on the issue arguably of most importance to both the Israeli government and America’s pro-Israel community — Iran and its nuclear ambitions — AIPAC didn’t merely fail to deliver. It alienated its most ardent supporters, and helped turn what was a bipartisan effort to keep Iran in check into just another political squabble. The lobby that everybody in Washington publicly backs somehow managed to piss off just about everyone,” Lake wrote.

Even Israel was disappointed.

“Sen. Bob Corker [Republican from Tennessee], the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he had a ‘very direct conversation’ with Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, on the sanctions bill early last month. ‘AIPAC and Israel are in different places on this issue,’ Corker said of his conversation with Dermer, who he said supported the sanctions bill now and not at a later date,” Lake wrote.

The image is not a pretty one: AIPAC pushing legislation unwanted by the White House, pulling back under administration pressure but to Israel’s dismay, then facing blowback from Republicans all the more eager to advance the bill because it had come to represent for them what they saw as the administration’s weakness in the Iran talks.

Many observers, including some of AIPAC’s most ardent supporters, agreed the organization had stumbled badly. Others wondered openly if the stumble was part of a broader diminution.

The secret behind the power of the Israel lobby

Any talk about AIPAC weakening would naturally grab the attention of pundits. AIPAC’s power has seemed so undeniable and unassailable for so long that in the political imagination of Washington policymakers, or at least of Washington’s commentators and activists, the group’s political machine is the primary explanation for the huge support Israel enjoys in Congress and the administration.

Despite the popularity of this view, it is nevertheless incorrect. The simple truth is that Israel is loved in Washington because it is loved in America.

One sign of this support is evident in Americans’ views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Americans’ sympathies lean heavily toward the Israelis over the Palestinians, 64% vs. 12%. Americans’ partiality for Israel has consistently exceeded 60% since 2010.” So wrote the Gallup corporation following a February 2013 poll of Americans.

Indeed, popular support for Israel has been rising for the past decade as support for the Palestinians remained at a consistently low level. Or, put another way, the middle ground of Americans with no meaningful opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly abandoning the middle and siding with Israel.

vyfm_nkgb0e6sf3_j2ipegIt is possible that AIPAC’s opponents, from conspiracists like Walt and Mearsheimer to frustrated critics like Judis and Thomas Friedman, are right, and the largest pro-Israel organization in Washington is in fact an inexplicably powerful cabal whose sheer coercive power is enough to force a faint-hearted Congress to do its bidding.

Or, perhaps, the overwhelming support Israel has enjoyed in Congress in recent decades reflects the ability of members of Congress to discern their own constituents’ views.

Either way, the discourse about AIPAC’s weakening, even when it comes from voices sympathetic to the organization’s agenda, assumes some version of the former: that disagreement with the White House or Senate Republicans must signal a decline in the group’s influence. Otherwise, how could there be such disagreement?

But if AIPAC’s influence has its roots in the remarkable national consensus on Israel, then that influence is both more dependable and more resilient than its opponents believe — and sure to weather the recent hiccups.

The fracturing consensus

That, at least, is the optimistic conclusion one can draw from a better understanding of the roots of AIPAC’s power.

But the immediate fate of the Iran sanctions bill holds another lesson for AIPAC, one with vast repercussions and far more potential danger than a momentary error or a lobbyist’s waning influence over a particular president.

Simply put: it is losing the consensus. Since its actual power relies on a preexisting popular consensus, AIPAC — and support for Israel generally — is susceptible to shifts taking place in American political life that are making it harder to forge any such consensus on any issue.

The big split

American prosperity and the past half-century’s remarkable revolutions in travel and communications have caused a vast, unexpected change in how Americans interact with one another.

“… Most places, most communities in the nation, are growing more politically one-sided — either more solidly Democratic in presidential elections or more reliably Republican…. We’re increasingly sorting into communities that reliably vote Democratic or Republican in presidential elections.”

That’s how journalist Bill Bishop describes what he calls the “Big Sort,” a homogenization of American political life driven by the the growing tendency of Americans to live, work and otherwise interact increasingly with people who share their political and social views.

This phenomenon is worryingly comprehensive in scope.

“… Our political differences are really just the tip of what has been a social and economic transformation,” writes Bishop. “The nation has sorted in nearly every way imaginable. Young people have congregated in some cities and left others. People with college degrees have increasingly clustered in particular places. Not only have demographic groups sorted themselves into particular places, we’ve also constructed our social lives so that we spend more time around like-minded others. Over the last thirty years, our civic clubs, our neighborhoods, and our churches have all grown more politically homogenous.”

Electorally, this has meant that the number of counties and communities — and more importantly for our purposes, Congressional constituencies — that are truly in play in any given election has shrunk markedly in the past 40 years.

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maplarge2004That social polarization has led to a stark polarization of political views in the halls of power in Washington.

In both the House and Senate measures of political polarization are at six-decade highs. The robust center — just ten years ago, the most right-wing Democrats were to the right of the most left-wing Republicans — has all but evaporated.

Since all politics in the American system of regional representation are necessarily local, this increasing uniformity of opinion at the local level has vastly reduced the incentive of any member of Congress to compromise with the other side — or even to be seen to cooperate.

It is no accident that this Congress is among the least productive in terms of legislation in seven decades.

The warning shot

AIPAC will comfortably weather the current setback with the White House. But the events around the Iran sanctions bill should alarm the organization for another reason. Until today, Iran sanctions have advanced relatively smoothly through both houses of Congress and won the easy endorsement of President Obama.

The latest bill may have been an exception, a momentary lapse, too small an incident to justify such broad conclusions. Yet it is hard to ignore the fact that some Republicans resisted the White House in large part because of the political identity of its occupant, while some Democrats abandoned the bill for the same reason.

And it is only the latest incident in recent years in which Israel found itself transformed from a consensus issue into a starkly partisan political football. In the 2012 election, one self-described “pro-Israel advocate” in a major organization affiliated with one of the presidential candidates told this reporter bluntly that they planned to use the “Israel issue” to hurt the opposing candidate.

It should not surprise any observer of recent American politics that the US-Israel relationship could be subsumed by the crippling partisanship of Washington. Far larger issues, in American terms, have gotten the same treatment, from healthcare to economic stimulus to Syria.

The emergence in recent years of organizations such as J Street on the left and the Emergency Committee for Israel on the right are also signs of this trend. It is beside the point here whether the views of either organization are right or wrong. Merely by identifying the pro-Israel cause emphatically with just one political label, whether “progressive” or “neoconservative” or any other nomenclature, these groups reflect and encourage the polarizing trend.

Of course, one might argue that the polarizing of the debate reflects substantive policy differences, including on Iran sanctions and the peace process, and that these differences matter.

That is undoubtedly true, but it only serves to highlight the extent to which the content (and not merely the rhetoric) of political debate on Israel has fractured and polarized.

In this new reality, AIPAC faces a growing number of calls for it to pick a side, and a growing sense among each side’s activists that bipartisan support for Israel is becoming categorically impossible.

As one longtime observer of Jewish lobbying in Washington said resignedly on Monday, “there are those on both sides criticizing AIPAC because they want to pull it toward their own views. That’s life.”

For its part, AIPAC understands that this question, the growing difficulty of straddling a bipartisan consensus in a Washington increasingly inimical to such things, is its most acute longterm challenge.

The group’s 2014 Policy Conference, which concluded Tuesday in Washington, was saturated with repeated calls and ceaseless, effusive praise for bipartisanship. The conference opened with a stage occupied by a progressive black woman standing alongside an evangelical Christian preacher, and hosted sessions about how AIPAC activists might reach out to progressives.

At one of the conference’s plenaries, two House leaders, Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer made a dramatic show of bipartisanship.

“For Steny and me,” Cantor told 14,000 assembled AIPAC delegates, “this issue extends beyond partisan politics.”

Cantor did not mention that in December, at the urging of the administration, Hoyer withdrew his support for an Iran sanctions measure sponsored by Cantor in the House — an act praised on the left for paving the way for the more recent action by Senate Democrats.

Policy differences are inevitable, and it’s hard to have politics without, well, politicking. But AIPAC’s bipartisan strategy, and with it perhaps Israel’s bipartisan standing, are under threat from pressures far larger and more permanent than the politics and disagreements of the moment.