The key component of the Israel Lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is the most powerful foreign policy lobby in Washington. It exists only to maintain and increase United States support for Israel, no matter what Israel does and no matter what the actual American interests might be. It has a budget of more than $70 million, an endowment in excess of $100 million, and it employs more than 200. One of its senior lobbyists once said that its power over congress was so great that he could circulate a napkin and have the signatures of 70 Senators on it within one day. Israeli former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, referring to the influence wielded by AIPAC, said that “We, the Jewish people, control America. And the Americans know it.”
AIPAC is only one of a constellation of Jewish and non-Jewish organizations whose raisons d’etre are to shield Israel from all criticism and to increase the United States government’s commitment to support Israel and Israeli policies. For the Christian Zionists it is a matter of their interpretation of the book of Revelation, which suggests that a return of the Jews to the Holy Land is a precursor for the second coming of Christ and the End Time. As Jews who do not convert will also be killed in the process has meant that the Israeli government holds its nose when dealing with its Christian allies but is quite willing to exploit them nevertheless.
For the Jewish groups, many of which were founded to fight prejudice against Jews but have now found themselves without a purpose due to the decline of anti-Semitism, it is a particular irony that they now find themselves playing lapdog to a nation which has institutionalized both racial and religious discrimination. They too often choose to hold their noses and look the other way but they are being increasingly challenged by liberal Jews who are finding the mixture a bit too toxic and also by Jewish scholars who insist that Judaism is a religion while Israel is a nation and the two concepts should never be confused.
AIPAC’s annual conference held early in March brought together 1,400 supporters and hosted most of Congress as well as Joe Biden and John Kerry. The conference highlighted the alleged Iranian threat and included denunciations of the Palestinians, making clear that Israel longs for peace but the Arabs do not. These have been familiar themes at all AIPAC gatherings but there was also more than a trace of unease over the growing boycott and divestment movements that are increasingly being used to put pressure on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
That Israel has become a rogue nation akin to South Africa under apartheid and is increasingly recognized as such is at the heart of Tel Aviv’s legitimacy problem and it is also the rotten core of the Israel Lobby’s message. While the friends of Israel might still have vast resources and the ear of every fearful politician, they have nevertheless found themselves defending the indefensible, meaning that they have lost the war of ideas and they know it. Few believe that Israel has any desire to make peace and most now accept that peace talks have been little more than a long running charade to permit continuous expansion on Arab land. Many have noted that Israel is any longer a beleaguered little democracy and most observers would instead conclude that it is the regional military super power bully that is rapidly becoming a country with a racist and supremacist ideology. The myth of Israel has crumbled. Benjamin Netanyahu is not Paul Newman anymore and Exodus is little more than theme music while charges of anti-Semitism are no longer working very well to silence critics.
The Israel Lobby’s has killed itself because of its own success. Failing to appreciate that Americans are tired of war and demanding retrenchment, it has suffered major defeats over the Hagel nomination, the bombing of Syria, and negotiations with Iran. Convinced that it was bullet proof and could get anything it wanted out of a spineless congress and a weak finger-in-the-air-testing-the-winds White House, it has continued to seek more and more for Israel even as the evidence grew that Israel is not exactly the kind of state that most Americans would have much sympathy with. Theocracies are not the American way and Israeli policies against Palestinians, reminiscent of racial discrimination in the Jim Crow South, are increasingly hard to justify. As long as the Lobby was able to dominate the media with its false narrative about Israel everything went its way, but the rise of the alternative media has permitted contrary views to surface and even become dominant.
AIPAC regularly claims that opinion polls demonstrate strong support for Israel. But asking simplistic questions about “who do you prefer, the Israelis or Palestinians” predictably continues to produce a pro-Israel result due to the relentless propaganda bombardment that the US public has been subjected to over the past fifty years. And when other less Manichean questions are asked, the results are somewhat different. Most Americans do not want to take sides in the Middle East and are strongly opposed to starting another war in that region. Many identify Israel as the major promoter of war with Iran. Increasingly, Americans are becoming aware that the United States has no real quarrel with the Iranians.
Regarding the Lobby itself, more Americans now understand how it has corrupted our political system through PAC money flowing to congress and in terms of how it plays domestic politics. The open Israeli support for Mitt Romney in 2012 was noted by many while, more recently, the push against politicians and journalists who are anti-intervention and therefore seen as unfriendly to Israel has been intensifying. The Emergency Committee for Israel, headed by Bill Kristol, recently decided against running an ad that it had bankrolled which attacked Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina because of his vote against Iran sanctions and his failure to support a 2012 bill pledging blanket support for Israel. The ad featured protesters burning Israeli and American flags, suggesting that Jones was encouraging such behavior and also pari passu linking Israeli security with that of the United States.
In spite of the opening of the door to criticize Israel and its Lobby which began with the publication of the Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy in 2006, one might well argue that groups like AIPAC continue to exercise great power, particularly over congress and the media, which might suggest that little has changed. Stephen Walt would agree but would also argue that the atmosphere today is much different in terms of the breadth and depth of the open criticism of Israel and the Lobby, much of it coming from prominent American Jews, while sentiment in many formerly sympathetic circles is shifting strongly against Israel. This is particularly true among those well informed on the issues and, inevitably, congress will figure out that knee jerk support of Israel is not an automatic ticket to reelection.
The recent media accounts regarding the Obama administration’s apparent willingness to free convicted Israel spy Jonathan Pollard demonstrate what I and others have been noting emerge in the mainstream media. A New York Times feature article on Pollard attracted 310 comments before it was closed. The comments ran about 20 to 1 against Pollard and, frequently, also against Israel and its wag the dog relationship with Washington. Some noted that the Israelis would accept Pollard as a gift from Washington, would celebrate him for spying against the United States and then would do absolutely nothing to return the favor. And bear in mind that the comments were moderated, which suggests that the more strongly expressed views reflecting genuine anger over the situation were likely suppressed. If one reviews similar stories about the Middle East in other outlets within the mainstream media the same imbalance almost always occurs in spite of moderation by editorial staffs that are likely to be inclined to be friendly to Israel. So that would suggest to me that opinion has shifted strongly, at least among the informed public.
Why are Israel and its Lobby so important? They are important not only because they have corrupted our politics but also because the so-called “special relationship” has created an entanglement that is without doubt a major impediment to a sane foreign policy on the part of the United States. Would the US have invaded Iraq if not for Israel? Possibly, but it would have been less likely. Would Washington be threatening to use force against Iran for a nuclear weapons program that does not exist? Undoubtedly “no.” Would there be a never ending war on terror or even a major terrorist problem for Americans if Washington were not seen as a surrogate for Israel? Again, “no.” So what America is today is sometimes a reflection of the imbalance that Israel brings to our political system. Will the Israel Lobby die soon? Undeniably, “no” again, but the writing is on the wall.