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Book Excerpt: ‘The Israel Lobby’
Posted on Oct 8, 2007
THE LOBBY’S MODUS OPERANDI
It is difficult to talk about the lobby’s influence on American foreign policy, at least in the mainstream media in the United States, without being accused of anti-Semitism or labeled a self-hating Jew. It is just as difficult to criticize Israeli policies or question U.S. support for Israel in polite company. America’s generous and unconditional support for Israel is rarely questioned, because groups in the lobby use their power to make sure that public discourse echoes its strategic and moral arguments for the special relationship. The response to former President Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid perfectly illustrates this phenomenon. Carter’s book is a personal plea for renewed American engagement in the peace process, based largely on his considerable experience with these issues over the past three decades. Reasonable people may challenge his evidence or disagree with his conclusions, but his ultimate goal is peace between these two peoples, and Carter unambiguously defends Israel’s right to live in peace and security. Yet because he suggests that Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories resemble South Africa’s apartheid regime and said publicly that pro-Israel groups make it hard for U.S. leaders to pressure Israel to make peace, a number of these same groups launched a vicious smear campaign against him. Not only was Carter publicly accused of being an anti-Semite and a “Jew-hater,” some critics even charged him with being sympathetic to Nazis. Since the lobby seeks to keep the present relationship intact, and because in fact its strategic and moral arguments are so weak, it has little choice but to try to stifle or marginalize serious discussion.
Yet despite the lobby’s efforts, a considerable number of Americans—almost 40 percent—recognize that U.S. support for Israel is one of the main causes of anti-Americanism around the world. Among elites, the number is substantially higher. Furthermore, a surprising number of Americans understand that the lobby has a significant, not always positive influence on U.S. foreign policy. In a national poll taken in October 2006, 39 percent of the respondents said that they believe that the “work of the Israeli lobby on Congress and the Bush administration has been a key factor for going to war in Iraq and now confronting Iran.” In a 2006 survey of international relations scholars in the United States, 66 percent of the respondents said that they agreed with the statement “the Israel lobby has too much influence over U.S. foreign policy.” While the American people are generally sympathetic to Israel, many of them are critical of particular Israeli policies and would be willing to withhold American aid if Israel’s actions are seen to be contrary to U.S. interests.
Of course, the American public would be even more aware of the lobby’s influence and more tough-minded with regard to Israel and its special relationship with the United States if there were a more open discussion of these matters. Still, one might wonder why, given the public’s views about the lobby and Israel, politicians and policy makers are so unwilling to criticize Israel and to make aid to Israel conditional on whether its actions benefit the United States. The American people are certainly not demanding that their politicians support Israel down the line. In essence, there is a distinct gulf between how the broader public thinks about Israel and its relationship with the United States and how governing elites in Washington conduct American policy.
The main reason for this gap is the lobby’s formidable reputation inside the Beltway. Not only does it exert significant influence over the policy process in Democratic and Republican administrations alike, but it is even more powerful on Capitol Hill. The journalist Michael Massing reports that a congressional staffer sympathetic to Israel told him, “We can count on well over half the House—250 to 300 members—to do reflexively whatever AIPAC wants.” Similarly, Steven Rosen, the former AIPAC official who has been indicted for allegedly passing classified government documents to Israel, illustrated AIPAC’s power for the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg by putting a napkin in front of him and saying, “In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.” These are not idle boasts. As will become clear, when issues relating to Israel come to the fore, Congress almost always votes to endorse the lobby’s positions, and usually in overwhelming numbers.
WHY IS IT SO HARD TO TALK ABOUT THE ISRAEL LOBBY?
Because the United States is a pluralist democracy where freedom of speech and association are guaranteed, it was inevitable that interest groups would come to dominate the political process. For a nation of immigrants, it was equally inevitable that some of these interest groups would form along ethnic lines and that they would try to influence U.S. foreign policy in various ways. Cuban Americans have lobbied to maintain the embargo on Castro’s regime, Armenian Americans have pushed Washington to acknowledge the 1915 genocide and, more recently, to limit U.S. relations with Azerbaijan, and Indian Americans have rallied to support the recent security treaty and nuclear cooperation agreements. Such activities have been a central feature of American political life since the founding of the country, and pointing them out is rarely controversial.
Yet it is clearly more difficult for Americans to talk openly about the Israel lobby. Part of the reason is the lobby itself, which is both eager to advertise its clout and quick to challenge anyone who suggests that its influence is too great or might be detrimental to U.S. interests. There are, however, other reasons why it is harder to have a candid discussion about the impact of the Israel lobby.
To begin with, questioning the practices and ramifications of the Israel lobby may appear to some to be tantamount to questioning the legitimacy of Israel itself. Because some states still refuse to recognize Israel and some critics of Israel and the lobby do question its legitimacy, many of its supporters may see even well-intentioned criticism as an implicit challenge to Israel’s existence. Given the strong feelings that many people have for Israel, and especially its important role as a safe haven for Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and as a central focus of contemporary Jewish identity, there is bound to be a hostile and defensive reaction when people think its legitimacy or its existence is under attack.
But in fact, an examination of Israel’s policies and the efforts of its American supporters does not imply an anti-Israel bias, just as an examination of the political activities of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) does not imply bias against older citizens. We are not challenging Israel’s right to exist or questioning the legitimacy of the Jewish state. There are those who maintain that Israel should never have been created, or who want to see Israel transformed from a Jewish state into a bi-national democracy. We do not. On the contrary, we believe the history of the Jewish people and the norm of national self-determination provide ample justification for a Jewish state. We think the United States should stand willing to come to Israel’s assistance if its survival were in jeopardy. And though our primary focus is on the Israel lobby’s negative impact on U.S. foreign policy, we are also convinced that its influence has become harmful to Israel as well. In our view, both effects are regrettable.
In addition, the claim that an interest group whose ranks are mostly Jewish has a powerful, not to mention negative, influence on U.S. foreign policy is sure to make some Americans deeply uncomfortable—and possibly fearful and angry—because it sounds like a charge lifted from the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that well-known anti-Semitic forgery that purported to reveal an all-powerful Jewish cabal exercising secret control over the world.
Any discussion of Jewish political power takes place in the shadow of two thousand years of history, especially the centuries of very real anti-Semitism in Europe. Christians massacred thousands of Jews during the Crusades, expelled them en masse from Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, and other places between 1290 and 1497, and confined them to ghettos in other parts of Europe. Jews were violently oppressed during the Spanish Inquisition, murderous pogroms took place in Eastern Europe and Russia on numerous occasions, and other forms of anti-Semitic bigotry were wide spread until recently. This shameful record culminated in the Nazi Holocaust, which killed nearly six million Jews. Jews were also oppressed in parts of the Arab world, though much less severely.
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