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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

August 12, 1985, Page 1

Special Report

The Israel Lobby in America

By Robert Hazo

 

"Some of the biggest men in the United States ... are afraid of something. They know that there is a power somewhere so organized, so subtle, so watchful, so interlocked, so complete, so pervasive that they had better not speak above their breath when they speak in condemnation of it." Woodrow Wilson used this statement to describe a conspiracy of major industrialists in the presidential campaign of 1912. It could just as easily be applied today to what is called the Israel lobby, believed by many to be the single most powerful political force in America.

On the assumption that failure is often more revealing than success, it may be useful in evaluating the clout of the lobby to examine first those occasions when it did not prevail in imposing its will on the executive or legislative branches of the federal government. There are not many.

The Bithurg incident is the most recent. Despite a vigorous and protracted campaign against President Reagan's symbolic visit, despite timely help from the American Legion and other groups, despite overwhelmingly disapproving votes of 83-0 and 390-26 in the Senate and the House (which, moreover, did not reflect the even split in public opinion polls), the President, after including in his itinerary a few mollifying gestures, made the visit and apparently did not emerge any the worse for it.

On a more substantive matter—the sale of five AWACS and sophisticated add-on equipment for Saudi Arabia's F-15s—Reagan confronted and defeated the lobby in 1981, as had Carter before him in selling 62 F-15s to the Saudis in 1978. Both victories, however, required maximum presidential pressure, were gained by narrow margins and were accompanied by promises of additional arms and greater generosity to Israel. Carter even went so far as to say that he would rather commit suicide than injure Israel.

Reagan, less melodramatically, pledged to preserve Israel's strategic superiority over any possible combination of its neighbors. Exasperated by the tenacity of the opposition, however, the President did not object to the slogan "It's Reagan or Begin" and even said at one point, "It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy," a clear slap at pro-Israeli, heavy-handed pressure and presumption. A clarification, however, was issued to the effect that the President was only trying to neutralize a mistaken impression regarding Israeli influence.

In retrospect, only President Eisenhower, among American presidents, was able to oppose the lobby openly, uncompromisingly, unapologetically and successfully. The confrontation occurred at the end of the 1956 presidential campaign—that is, at the highest point of his vulnerability as a candidate when Eisenhower, without hesitation, condemned the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt. Shortly thereafter, using the economic leverage at his disposal—including that of invoking Secretary of the Treasury Anderson's discretionary powers regarding tax-deductible contributions—he forced the Israelis to withdraw from the Sinai.

A Question of Presidential Resolve

The four occasions differ in many respects, but they do have one thing in common: presidential resolve. Though many American political figures, including presidents and would-be presidents, have backed off from confrontations with the lobby, it remains a fact that no American president who has openly opposed it on a specific public issue has lost.

Other political figures have not been so fortunate. Accordingly, three species of politicians have emerged with respect to how they behave towards the lobby: the many who willingly acquiesce, the few who grudgingly acquiesce, and the exceptions who defy and are—as a rule—defeated.

An example of the first type is Vice President Mondale claiming before a Zionist group during the 1984 election campaign that he would "rather lose with your support than win without it," a sentiment he did not express to any other special interest group, even to organized labor. Another is when Mondale's chief rival for the nomination, Senator Hart, trying to one-up him in the New York primary, adopted, in effect, the platform of Israel's rightwing, extremist Likud coalition—an instance of groveling so zealous that it embarrassed the American Jewish community and served only to tarnish Hart's image.

By contrast, there are those who are meek in public, but candid in private. President Truman pointedly noted in his memoirs the blatant, offensive pressure exerted on him by the lobby, and he claimed (ingenuously, one supposes) that U.S. recognition of Israel was granted in spite of rather than because of it. Presidents Carter and Ford both claimed, ex post facto albeit, that they would have used economic leverage on Israel had it become necessary. In fact, however, neither did. Most candid perhaps of Israel's former reluctant American fellow travelers is Zbigniew Brzezinski—even today remembered for his famous "Bye, bye PLO" remark while he was Carter's National Security Advisor—who has suggested that the Reagan Administration will have to include Palestinian representation in any successful peace negotiations. Asked why the Carter Administration had failed to do so while he was in office, Brzezinski candidly replied, "The question answers itself."

Few Dare to Speak Out

Of those prominent in American political life, only a few are of the breed who have openly and successfully defied the lobby. Senator Hatfield did so in 1978 despite a national campaign to unseat him. He was also reelected in 1984. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina survived targeting by the lobby in a close race in 1984, but his statements since then suggest an attempt to ingratiate himself sufficiently to avoid future problems with Israel's U.S. supporters. Overall in 1984 the lobby was 80 percent successful in defeating targeted candidates—a high winning percentage but one that is substantially less than in previous election years.

Almost all of those who have been targeted have been classified as antiZionist—or, more frequently, as anti-Semitic—simply because they refused to be 100 percent pro-Zionist. Most argued only for a more balanced, pro-American policy in the Middle East that would also address Arab, particularly Palestinian, grievances.

Frustrated in his attempt as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to bring about such a policy, Senator Fulbright of Arkansas flatly complained on national television that "Zionists control the American Congress." He was defeated in a bid for reelection to the Senate in 1974.

The same fate befell one of Fulbright's successors in 1984, Senator Percy of Illinois, after he had gone public with his reservations about American Middle East policy. Percy, unseated in the Senate election by Rep. Paul Simon, openly complained about the $1.5 million plus that one Jewish individual, Michael Goland, had donated for negative publicity about him. Goland was not even a resident of Illinois.

Adlai Stevenson III, Percy's former colleague from Illinois, was another who risked voicing reservations about a one-sided Middle East policy from the Senate floor. In 1982, he was defeated in his bid to become Governor of Illinois. Representative Paul (Pete) McCloskey, who stated publicly that Congress; is "terrorized" by the Israel lobby, was beaten in the 1982 California primary in his effort to move, after 15 years in the House, to the Senate.

Many knowledgeable observers believe that George Ball was eliminated as a candidate for Secretary of State under President Carter because of his publicly stated views on the Middle East.

Paul Findley, ousted from the Congress after 22 years of service in 1982, detailed his own victimization by the lobby and that of many other public and private figures in his recent book, They Dare to Speak Out. Though conceding that the political process in America is not tidy enough to admit of indisputable conclusions, he nevertheless claims that the activities of the Israel lobby were a significant, if not decisive, factor in all the cases with which he deals—and they are many.

What is this Israel lobby that so many consider a colossus on the American political scene? What are its elements? What is the scope of its influence and, above all, what are its limits and vulnerabilities?

Genesis of a Lobby

The Israel lobby did not emerge full blown on the American scene. American Jewry was not receptive to the Zionist movement until the late 1930s and, even then, largely in reaction to Nazi persecution in Europe. By 1942 Zionism in America had largely overcome most of its opposition, though a substantial remnant remained unconvinced, most significantly the 20 percent or more of the American Jewish community represented by the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism. This remnant was neutralized after the 1967 six day war. There was a mild upsurge of a movement of reconciliation, Breira, in the early 70s but it was targeted by the Jewish mainstream and was crushed. From that point on American Jewish opposition to Zionism has been extremely limited, confined to individual Jews or small movements.

As a result, the lobby is monolithic in its political stance towards the Middle East. It has consistently supported Israeli policy to the extent that mainline organized Zionism in the United States—as opposed to prominent individual Jews who have spoken out clearly and forthrightly—has never expressed any reservations about, much less opposed, any Israeli policy.

It was no secret, for example, that many in the American Jewish community were shocked and depressed over the election of Menachem Begin in 1977, because of his terrorist past and image as a fanatical ideologue. Yet, within a few days, Jewish organizations in this country were issuing statements about Begin's potential as a statesman.

Thomas Dine, the Executive Director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, went even further. Having jumped the gun and expressed favorable comments about the Reagan peace proposals just after they were announced in 1982, he abruptly reversed his position when Israel reacted negatively to the proposals. Indeed, the Israel lobby's record of strict conformity to Israeli policy makes it the functional equivalent of a foreign agent of Israel.

Its record is spectacular, the kind that Washington legends are made of. From engineering instant recognition of the state of Israel in 1948 to—most recently—forcing the Reagan Administration to withdraw a proposed arms sale to Jordan, the lobby has rarely suffered a major congressional defeat.

That Israel does what it wants and usually gets what it wants no matter what it does is confirmed by the fact that Israel often has used American subsidies to implement policies condemned by the U.S. government, e.g., the building of settlements in the occupied territories. In this respect America can be said to be the political and economic captive of its own client.

What are the elements of this awesome power? One of them is the historical event that transformed Zionism into a serious movement: the Jewish holocaust in Europe during World War II. Every effort is continually made to keep the memory of it alive and, as a corollary, to keep the intimidating charge of anti-Semitism as effective as it can be. Another is the relentless zeal of the American Jewish community in pursuing its political objectives. Still another is that community's financial and human resources. Though numbering only six million, the overwhelming majority of American Jews stand in the middle to upper classes economically. No other ethnic group has as high a voting quotient.

No other ethnic group is even within reach of its per capita political contributions. At last count almost $6.5 million was contributed by identifiable pro-Israel Political Action Committees in the 1984 elections. There is no exact figure for combined PAC and pro-Israel individual contributions in 1984, or in previous election years, since no public record is kept of the religious or ethnic origins of individual political contributors and since pro-Israel PACs are often disguised with generic names. One frequently heard, but unverifiable, contention, however, is that pro-Israel political contributions from all sources come close to a third of the amount given to Republican candidates and well over half of that given to Democratic candidates.

Anatomy of a Political Colossus

The manipulative artistry of the lobby is rivaled only by its organizational genius. There are three principal foci in its current organizational network. One is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the principal vehicle for contact between the American Jewish community and Israel as well as the principal agency for pro-Israel activities in Washington. AIPAC's lobbying efforts are primarily, though not exclusively, directed at the Congress.

The second focal point is the elaborate infrastructure of about 200 national organizations-38 of which belong to the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations—each with regional and local chapters supplemented by independent regional and local organizations. The third focal point is the intellectual apparatus of the American Jewish community, exemplified by the Lehrman Institute and Commentary magazine in New York, among others.

As important (if not more so) as these three institutional foci are the outreach networks which extend well beyond identifiably Jewish organizations to most American groups, fields of endeavor or institutions. There are few areas left in American life where the lobby does not have a foothold. Judging by the results, the lobby is effectively at work in the Trade Union movement, in the various Christian churches (especially the evangelicals), in the entertainment field (most notably in motion pictures), obviously in the media, in colleges and universities, in many branches of commerce, in the field of social service, among minorities, in all levels of government, etc. It is nothing short of amazing how the Israeli line on a particular issue appears quickly, virtually simultaneously, almost unchanged and endorsed in so many quarters of American society.

Some Chinks in the Armor

Given its awesome structure and record of accomplishment, what then are its liabilities? We have already seen that it is vulnerable to presidential resolve—and we may see so again should the Congress vote to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and the President then veto the measure. Another limitation is provided by the lobby's success: the backlash provoked by overplaying its hand and flaunting its capabilities.

The Begin government, in particular, embarrassed the American Jewish community on a number of occasions: Its public condemnation of Secretary Weinberger, its excoriating rebuke of the Reagan Administration for mildly reprimanding Israel for annexing the Golan Heights, its public questioning of the Pope's morals when he met with Yassir Arafat, its appeals to the American public and American media to reject U.S. government positions, its leaked contempt for President Carter, Begin's patronizing reassurance to President Reagan that he would handle congressional reaction, and so forth. Each instance left a residue of unspoken bitterness.

Another limitation is the unwillingness of the American Jewish community, despite its record of energetic compliance with Israel's wishes, completely to subordinate its own interests to Israeli policy. Taunted by Ben Gurion, Begin and others and, to some extent, held in contempt by them, the American Jewish community has resolutely refused to endorse a policy of mass American Jewish migration to Israel.

The lobby's principal liability, however, is reality itself. The reality behind the fiction that two countries as different and as widely separated as Israel and the United States have substantially the same interests has burst through the carefully sustained layers of unreality on a number of occasions, most recently during the hostage crisis when a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed a 42 to 41 split in favor of not being so tightly tied to Israel. Others were the oil embargo in 1973, the Israeli attack on the U.S. Navy ship Liberty in which 34 American sailors were killed and 171 wounded, the extent and character of the invasion of Beirut as seen for months on television, the predicament of the Marines in Lebanon as a result of Israeli aggression against that country and, right now, a situation in which Congress and the federal government are asking virtually every sector in America to take less while they plan to give Israel a double helping.

That Israel has experienced only temporary loss of support because of these circumstances is due to the absence of an effort to sustain the negative impact they have had. There is opposition that is serious and growing, however, despite the lobby's intimidation. Because it lacks coordination its efforts frequently are the equivalent of throwing cups of water on a raging forest fire. Were it to achieve overall coordination, it would not have to achieve the lobby's size, power and sophisticated workings nor, indeed, necessarily argue its case strategically or morally.

Its greatest asset is a massive geopolitical contradiction that is becoming more and more self-evident despite continuous and copious efforts to disguise it. Therefore, all it would need do is concentrate its resources and efforts to amplify the perceptions of real conflicts between American interests and Israeli interests—which are occurring more and more frequently. The results of doing so with an adequate, sustained and quality effort over a substantial period may well be more extraordinary than anyone now dares imagine.

 

Robert Hazo is Chairman of the Middle East Policy Association and senior political consultant of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.


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