WASHINGTON, September 15, 2014 — Lobbying groups in Washington have, for many years, had a pernicious influence upon policy-making in many areas. Wall Street lobbyists promoted a bailout of their failed financial institutions, and lobbyists for General Motors did the same. Lobbyists for Boeing and other large corporations have kept the Export-Import Bank afloat. The National Rifle Association, often going against the wishes of its own members, has resisted background checks even for the mentally ill who seek to purchase guns. Agricultural interests have received huge taxpayer subsidies for their constituencies. Labor unions have an army of lobbyists as does the pharmaceutical industry, realtors and virtually every interest group in our society.
These lobbying enterprises represent particular groups of Americans. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the positions they advocate, no foreign government is involved, and the interests of a foreign state, which may be contrary to our own, are not being promoted.
This, however, is not the case with one of Washington’s wealthiest and most powerful lobbies, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). This lobbying group promotes massive American aid to a particular foreign country, Israel, and rewards members of Congress who do its bidding and do everything possible to defeat any who do not.
AIPAC, in the opinion of many, is harmful not only to American interests in the region, but to the long-run interests of Israel as well. In reality, it is the voice of Israel’s right-wing, which continues to build settlements on the occupied West Bank which makes a two-state solution, which U.S. policy supports, impossible. Israel is the recipient of more than $3 billion annually in U.S. aid, not to mention the Iron Dome missile defense system. This takes place despite the fact that Israel is a prosperous country with nuclear weapons and the most powerful military in the Middle East. Yet, while the government of Israel takes our money, it rejects our advice, an unusual agent-client relationship. Israel has rejected U.S. policy initiatives to bring peace to the region and AIPAC, with its associated political action committees to keep Congress in line, has made certain that Washington will acquiesce in Israel’s virtual takeover of the land upon which a Palestinian state would have to be built. By financing Israel’s colonization of the West Bank, ill will has been spread toward the United States throughout the Arab world.
In early September, the U.S. levied unusually harsh criticism at Israel, denouncing plans to seize a large tract of West Bank land for Israeli homes. The State Department called on Israel to reverse its announced plan to appropriate nearly 1,000 acres in the West Bank. The U.S. considers Israeli settlements to be illegitimate but, in part because of AIPAC’s influence, refrains from calling them illegal under international law, which Britain and other U.S. allies do. Hanan Ashwari, a leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the move “clearly represents Israel’s deliberate intent to wipe out any Palestinian presence on the land and to willfully impose a de facto one-state solution.” The State Department’s Jen Psaki says that, “These steps are contrary to Israel’s stated goal of negotiating a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians, and it would send a troubling message if they proceeded.”
Fortunately, AIPAC’s influence in Washington appears to be in retreat. Perhaps its cheerleading for the assault on Gaza, with nearly 2,000 civilian casualties, hundreds of them children, has helped to tarnish its image and challenge its power. Because of AIPAC’s endless lobbying, Israel was able to use the most advanced U.S. weapons to attack civilian targets, including U.N. schools. These attacks are now under investigation as possible war crimes and have been harshly criticized by the State Department. If it is determined that war crimes have been committed, our own hands will not be clean.
An important article in The New Yorker examines AIPAC’s role in promoting Israel in Washington and argues that, for a variety of reasons, its unparalleled influence may be coming to an end. According to Connie Bruck, “A former AIPAC executive, Steven Rosen, was fond of telling people that he could take out a napkin at any Senate hangout and get signatures of support for one issue or another from scores of senators, AIPAC has more than 100,000 members, a network of 17 regional offices and a vast pool of donors…In 2012, when the Palestinians announced that they would petition the U.N. for statehood, AIPAC helped persuade 446 members of Congress to co-sponsor resolutions opposing the idea.”
Once AIPAC was truly bipartisan, but with Israel’s right-wing government clearly more comfortable with hawkish Republicans and evangelical Christians in Congress, it is decidedly less so today. In Bruck’s view, “This difference represents a schism among American Jews–AIPAC’s vital core. For decades, the Jewish community was generally united in its support for Israel. Today, a growing number of American Jews, though still devoted to Israel, struggle with the lack of progress toward peace with the Palestinians. Many feel that AIPAC does not speak for them. The Pew Center’s survey found that only 38 per cent of American Jews believe that the Israeli government is sincerely pursuing peace; 44 per cent believe that the construction of new settlements damages Israel’s national security. In a Gallup Poll in late July, only a quarter of Americans under the age of thirty thought that Israel’s actions in Gaza were justified. ”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, says: “Many people I know in their twenties and thirties say, I have a perfectly good Jewish life here—why do I need to worry about the country in the Middle East where they’re not representing who I am as a Jew? I’m not proud of what’s happening there. I’m certainly not going to send money.”
Whether AIPAC is a genuinely American organization or is, in fact, acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government remains a subject of debate. It was incorporated in 1963 and its leader,Isaiah (Si) Kenen, had been a lobbyist for American Zionist organizations and an employee of Israel’s Office of Information at the United Nations. In that job, Kenen had to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Journalist M.J. Rosenberg, who worked for AIPAC in the 1970s and is now a critic, recalled Kenen saying the foreign-agent model was too restrictive. AIPAC would lobby for aid to Israel, but its members would be Americans.
AIPAC’s influence over Congress has been so great that it has enabled Israel to ignore the American president almost entirely. Discussing Benjamin Netanyahu’s behavior during the Clinton administration, Connie Bruck writes: “Then, as now, Netanyahu displayed a vivid sense of his own historical importance, as well as flashes of disdain for the American President. After their first meeting, Clinton sent a message to another Israeli, wryly complaining that he had emerged uncertain who, exactly, was the President of a superpower. But even if Netanyahu had trouble with the executive branch, AIPAC could help deliver the support of Congress, and a friendly Congress could take away the President’s strongest negotiating chit—the multimillion-dollar packages of military aid that go to Israel each year.”
When President Obama gave a speech about the Arab Spring, he said, “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on 1967 lines with mutually assured swaps.” This represented no change in long-standing U.S. policy. The next day, Netanyahu arrived in Washington and rebuked the president in the Oval Office. He said: “We can’t go back to those indefensible lines.” A veteran Israeli politician was shocked at Netanyahu’s performance: “This is the President of the United States of America, and you are the head of a client state,let’s not forget that. AIPAC should have come to Bibi and said, ‘You don’t talk to the President the way you do! This is not done. You have to stop it.” Needless to say, with AIPAC’s encouragement, Netanyahu continues to heap scorn upon the president, Secretary of State Kerry and other U.S. officials who wish to move Israelis and Palestinians toward peace.
Former Rep.. Brian Baird (D-WA) says that, “Any member of Congress knows that AIPAC is associated indirectly with significant amounts of campaign spending if you’re with them, and significant amounts against you if you’re not.”\ In early 2009. Israel carried out Operation Cast Lead, an incursion into Gaza in which nearly 1,400 Palestinians were killed, along with 13 Israelis. Rep. Baird visited the area a few weeks later and returned several times. As he wrote in an article, he saw “firsthand the devastating destruction of hospitals, schools, homes, industries and jnfrastructure.” That September, the U.N. Human Rights Council issued a report based on an inquiry by the South African jurist Richard Goldstone, that accused Israel of a series of possible war crimes.
AIPAC attacked the U,N, report, saying if was “rigged.” A month-later an AIPAC-sponsored resolution in the House was passed with 344 votes. Rep. Baird notes that, “I read every single word of that report, and it comported with what I had seen and heard on the ground in Gaza, When we had the vote, I said, ‘We have member after member coming to the floor to vote on a resolution they’ve never read, about a report they’ve never seen, in a place they’ve never been.”
In 2010, Baird decided not to run for re-election. He is now president of Antioch University in Seattle. Baird says: “When key votes are cast, the question on the House floor, troublingly, is often not ‘What is the right thing to do for the United States of America?’ But ‘How is IPAC going to score this?’ There’s such a conundrum here, of believing that you’re supporting Israel, when you’re actually backing policies that are antithetical to its highest values and, ultimately, destructive to the country.”
More recently, AIPAC has seen setbacks. It’s push for war with Iran was rebuffed, and as the U.S. began negotiations with Iran, AIPAC urged tougher sanctions which would have scuttled the talks. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, gave a pointed speech on the Senate floor in which she warned that if the AIPAC-supported bill passed, “diplomatic negotiations will collapse. We cannot let Israel determine when and where the United States goes to war.” The bill was also opposed by Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In the House, a letter opposing the AIPAC sponsored sanctions bill was signed by more than a hundred members. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) said: “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. I think there is a growing sense among members that things are done just to placate AIPAC, and that AIPAC is not really working to advance what is in the interest of the United Stares. We all took an oath of office. And AIPAC, in many instances, is asking us to ignore it.”
Senators Feinstein and Levin and Rep. Yarmuth are Jewish. Public opinion polls make it clear that AIPAC does not represent the views or values of the vast majority of American Jews. And those Israelis who seek peace view AIPAC as a dangerous obstacle in the path to a two-state solution. The respected Israeli intellectual, Zeev Sternhell, winner of the Israel Prize and an expert on European fascism, says, “I consider AIPAC’s role to have been absolutely disastrous, because it prevents any possibility to move with the Palestinians. We cannot move without American intervention–but we are more or less free of American intervention. This is AIPAC’s job. So the present coalition has this sentiment of impunity.”
Blind support in Congress for whatever the Israeli government does is, of course, not based on conviction of any kind, As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written, “It had been bought and paid for.” The United States has, sadly, subcontracted our Middle East policy to a foreign government and its unregistered proponents. The policies they have promoted have endangered our interests in the region, and made us unnecessary enemies. These policies have also been harmful to Israel. Hopefully, AIPAC’s influence will continue to wane. It is clear that the best interests of our own country are low on its list of priorities, an unusual posture for a group which has been able to wield such power. It is high time that this power is curtailed.