Meretz USA has cordial relations with the people involved in the development of a liberal pro-Israel lobby. After a year and a half of speculation, the press is announcing its birth (see front-page article in this week’s NY Jewish Week). We have word that this is about two weeks before it was meant to be unveiled.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is a key figure in this effort, along with Daniel Levy, a British oleh (immigrant to Israel) who will shortly return to Israel after a stint on a think-tank fellowship in Washington, DC working on peace process issues. I once shared a speaking platform on a panel with Jeremy, a most cordial and impressive individual. His bio includes his current position as senior vice president of Fenton Communications and being a deputy domestic policy advisor for President Clinton. On American-Israel issues, he has worked for the Center for Middle East Peace, the New Israel Fund and the Geneva Initiative-North America. He is also currently a member of the board of Americans for Peace Now.
The following is part of a long comprehensive article, well worth reading, “A Liberal Israel Lobby” by Gershom Gorenberg in the April 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine, a British publication (hence the spelling):
… It is easier, even cheaper, for America to keep Israel strong than to defend it directly. But Washington must also accommodate Arab allies. …getting Arabs and Israelis to agree [on] a peace deal would resolve the contradictions in US policy—andwould be the best guarantee of Israeli security. The question then becomes one of how much the US should lean towards providing for Israel’s immediate security needs, and how much it should be pushing Israel towards a peace agreement as a strategic solution.
Aipac, according to sources familiar with Capitol Hill lobbying, tries to keep US policy almost entirely on the side of security needs, of protecting an embattled Israel. … Aipac does not come out explicitly against peace efforts. But the list of initiatives it boasts of promoting includes nothing aimed at a two-state solution, and much aimed at restricting US relations with the Palestinians and otherArab and Muslim actors.
…As MJ Rosenberg of the dovish Israel Policy Forum comments, “They create an atmosphere on Capitol Hill that is sceptical of Palestinians in any shape or form.”Another knowledgeable source explained to me that Aipac promotes an American stance that the Palestinian side is the one “responsible for what is going wrong, and it hasto prove itself first. And if that’s always going to be the definition of the peace process, they’ve killed it from the start.”
Aipac has reportedly created hurdles even when the Israeli government itself has tried to make peace. In1995, for example, Aipac backed a bill in congress tomove the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The legislation looked pro-Israel. But as Michael Massing argued in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere, it was actually an ambush for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was negotiating with the Palestinians. Moving the embassy would have thrown a spanner into the Oslo peace talks. (The bill passed, but with a loophole enabling Presidents Clinton and Bush to avoid the move to Jerusalem.)
Another of the things that a responsible researcher could say with confidence is that within US politics, Aipac does not represent the views of American Jews. In 2004, only 24 per cent of Jews voted for Bush, according to exit polls. Yet when Bush spoke at Aipac’s convention earlier that year, delegates reportedly interrupted him 67 times with ovations and chants of “Four more years!”
The liberal Jewish tilt even applies to middle east issues. The American Jewish Committee’s most recent year-end survey of Jewish opinion showed a 46-43 plurality of US Jews in favour of establishing a Palestinian state. Support for the war in Iraq is consistently lower among Jews than among Americans ingeneral. The AJC survey showed 57-35 per cent opposition among US Jews to American military action to stop Iran’s nuclear programme.
As for Aipac, one of its current legislative concerns is promoting a hawkish position towards Iran. The organisation’s website celebrates its role in the passage last year of the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, a Senate resolution on Iran. Among other provisions, theamendment labels the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organisation. Democratic critics of the resolution saythat it could open the door to the Bush administration going to war against Iran. Nonetheless, 76 out of 100 senators voted for it—meaning it got a majority even among Democrats.
That vote came too late for Mearsheimer and Walt to describe, but it raises a big question: how significant is Aipac’s role in influencing Democratic lawmakers to take stances apparently to the right both of their constituency and of US Jewish opinion? This is not a rhetorical question; other pressures must be accounted for too, including Democrats’ abiding fears of appearing insufficiently muscular.
In any case, Mearsheimer and Walt did not write the sober and balanced book that we need on this emotional subject. Among other things, they described the neoconservative movement as being a subset of the Israel lobby rather than a wider political stream for whomIsrael is just one concern—and whose positions on the middle east sometimes differ sharply from that of the Israeli government. The neocons, for example, thought they could democratise Arab countries; Israeli officials and experts generally fear that democracy will empower Islamic extremists or destabilise their neighbours, and they were ambivalent about the invasion of Iraq.
Yet perhaps the most striking flaw is that Mearsheimer and Walt accept Aipac’s own claims regarding its power and who it represents. “In 24 hours, we could have the signatures of 70 senators on this napkin,” they quote an Aipac official telling a journalist, and they insist it is not bluster. Though they sometimes note that “the lobby” is not the same as the American Jewish community, they also cite guesstimates that Jews provide between 20and 60 per cent of donations to the Democratic party and its presidential candidates, and explain this as basic to “the lobby’s” influence.
In a strange way, the book thereby becomes an advertisement for Aipac: the organisation’s attraction for supporters is the power of its influence overcongress and US policy. Its allure to candidates is its influence over Jewish donations and, to a lesser extent, votes. There’s a truth here, as we have seen, but there is also a mythic shadow and politicians are sometimes frightened of the shadow. The potential for a counter-Aipac dovish lobby lies, in part, in dispelling fear of the shadow. The concern of US politicians to stay in Aipac’s good books becomes especially clear during election campaigns. Its status as a lobby means it is not allowed to directly raise money for candidates, or to endorse them. Instead, explains Rosenberg, it works closely with”50 to 60″ political action committees—the bodies that actually raise and dispense donations.
One way for a politician to gain Aipac’s approval is to publish a position paper on Israel, such as one that Hillary Clinton posted on her website last year. She begins by praising Israel as “a beacon of what democracy can and should be.” She asserts that “Israel’s right to…an undivided Jerusalem as its capital… must never be questioned.” (Israel’s vice-premier, Haim Ramon, is among those who supports negotiating a political division of Jerusalem.) She defends “Israel’s right to build a security barrier” without mentioning that it runs through occupied territory, meaning Israeli settlements in the West Bank are de facto annexed to Israel. Indeed, the paper contains no mention of settlement, occupation, or helpful changes in Israeli policy. In Israel, it would place her firmly on the political right.
Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination, BarackObama, has his own policy statement on Israel, opening with a snippet of a speech he gave to an Aipac forum. Strikingly, though, his paper includes a promise to”work towards two states living side by side in peaceand security.” Obama has also been more forthright in calling for a shift in strategy towards Iran, including direct talks. Click here to read the entire article.
This talk of a dovish Israel lobby bothers me almost as much as the talk of a beligerant Israel lobby. Mearsheimer and Walt already included dovish organizations in their conception of “the Lobby.”
Instead, I’d rather talk of having a leadership responsible to its constituency, noting that Jews in America do not really have this. The most powerful Jewish organizations are too often ambassadors *to* the Jewish community.