AIPAC's Dangerous Grip on Washington
by Ari Berman
www.thenation.com/, July 31, 2006
The congressional reaction to Hezbollah's
attack on Israel and Israel's retaliatory bombing of Lebanon provide
the latest example of why AIPAC's lock on US foreign policy in
the Middle East must be examined.
In early March, the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its forty-seventh annual conference
in Washington. AIPAC's executive director spent twenty-seven minutes
reading the "roll call" of dignitaries present at the
gala dinner, which included a majority of the Senate and a quarter
of the House, along with dozens of Administration officials.
As this event illustrates, it's impossible
to talk about Congress's relationship to Israel without highlighting
AIPAC, the American Jewish community's most important voice on
the Hill. The Congressional reaction to Hezbollah's attack on
Israel and Israel's retaliatory bombing of Lebanon provide the
latest example of why.
On July 18, the Senate unanimously approved
a nonbinding resolution "condemning Hamas and Hezbollah and
their state sponsors and supporting Israel's exercise of its right
to self-defense." After House majority leader John Boehner
removed language from the bill urging "all sides to protect
innocent civilian life and infrastructure," the House version
passed by a landslide, 410 to 8.
AIPAC not only lobbied for the resolution;
it had written it. "They [Congress] were given a resolution
by AIPAC," said former Carter Administration National Security
Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who addressed the House Democratic
Caucus on July 19. "They didn't prepare one."
AIPAC is the leading player in what is
sometimes referred to as "The Israel Lobby" -- a coalition
that includes major Jewish groups, neoconservative intellectuals
and Christian Zionists. With its impressive contacts among Hill
staffers, influential grassroots supporters and deep connections
to wealthy donors, AIPAC is the lobby's key emissary to Congress.
But in many ways, AIPAC has become greater than just another lobby;
its work has made unconditional support for Israel an accepted
cost of doing business inside the halls of Congress. AIPAC's interest,
Israel's interest and America's interest are today perceived by
most elected leaders to be one and the same. Christian conservatives
increasingly aligned with AIPAC demand unwavering support for
Israel from their Republican leaders. (In mid-July, 3,000-plus
evangelicals came to town for the first annual "Christian
United for Israel" summit.) And Democrats are equally concerned
about alienating Jewish voters and Jewish donors -- long a cornerstone
of their party. Some in Congress are deeply uncomfortable with
AIPAC's militant worldview and heavyhanded tactics, but most dare
not say so publicly.
"The Bush Administration is bad enough
in tolerating measures they would not accept anywhere else but
Israel," says Henry Siegman, the former head of the American
Jewish Congress and a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign
Relations. "But the Congress, if anything, is urging the
Administration on and criticizing them even at their most accommodating.
When it comes to the Israeli-Arab conflict, the terms of debate
are so influenced by organized Jewish groups, like AIPAC, that
to be critical of Israel is to deny oneself the ability to succeed
in American politics."
There are a few internationalist Republicans
in the Senate and progressive Democrats in the House who occasionally
dissent. Representative Dennis Kucinich and twenty-three co-sponsors
have offered a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire
and a return to multiparty diplomacy between the United States
and regional powers, with no preconditions. But even the resolution's
supporters admit it isn't likely to go anywhere. Another bill
introduced by several Arab-American lawmakers that stressed the
need to minimize civilian casualties on both sides was "politically
swept under the rug," according to Representative Nick Rahall,
a Lebanese-American Democrat from West Virginia who voted against
the House resolution. Dovish American-Israeli groups, such as
Americans for Peace Now, have largely stayed out of the fight.
The latest hawkish Congressional activity
is primarily intended to show voters and potential donors that
elected officials are unwavering friends of Israel and enemies
of terrorism. "It's just for home consumption," said
Representative Charlie Rangel, a powerful New York Democrat who
signed on to Kucinich's resolution. "We don't have the support
of countries that support us! What the hell are we going to do,
bomb Iran? Bomb Syria?" His colleagues, said Rahall, "were
trying to out-AIPAC AIPAC."
Discussion in Congress quickly widened
beyond Israel to include a broader policy of confrontation toward
the entire Middle East. Congressmen sent a flurry of "dear
colleague" letters to one another, hoping to pressure the
Administration into tightening sanctions on Syria and Iran, Hezbollah's
two main state sponsors. Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross
addressed a packed AIPAC-sponsored luncheon on the Hill, where,
according to one aide present, Ross told the room: "This
is all about Syria and Iran ... we shouldn't be condemning Israel
now." Said Representative Robert Andrews, a Democrat from
New Jersey and co-chair of the Iran Working Group, which this
week hosted an official from the Israeli embassy: "I concur
completely with that approach."
Democrats, as they did during the Dubai
ports scandal, used the crisis to score a few cheap, easy political
points against the Bush Administration. The new prime minister
of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, found himself engulfed in a Congressional
firestorm after he denounced Israel's attacks on Lebanon as an
act of "aggression." Democratic Congressional Campaign
Committee chair Rahm Emanuel, who volunteered in Israel during
the first Gulf War, called on Maliki to cancel his planned address
before Congress. Asked Senator Chuck Schumer, who skipped Maliki's
July 26 speech: "Which side is he on when it comes to the
war on terror?" Howard Dean one upped his colleagues, labeling
Maliki an "anti-Semite" during a speech in Palm Beach,
Ironically, during the 2004 campaign Dean
called on the United States to be an "evenhanded" broker
in the Middle East. That position enraged party leaders such as
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who signed a letter attacking
his remarks. "It was designed to send a message: No one ever
does this again," says M.J. Rosenberg of the center-left
Israel Policy Forum. "And no one has. The only safe thing
to say is: I support Israel." In April a representative from
AIPAC called Congresswoman Betty McCollum's vote against a draconian
bill severely curtailing aid to the Palestinian Authority "support
Not surprisingly, most in Congress see
far more harm than reward in getting in the Israeli lobby's way.
"There remains a perception of power and fear that AIPAC
can undo you," says James Zogby, president of the Arab American
Institute. He points to the defeats of Representative Paul Findley
and Senator Charles Percy in the 1980s and Representatives Cynthia
McKinney and Earl Hilliard in 2002, when AIPAC steered large donors
to their opponents. Even if AIPAC's make-you-or-break-you reputation
is largely a myth, in an election year that perception is potent.
Thirty-six pro-Israel PACs gave $3.14 million to candidates in
the 2004 election cycle. Rahall said his opponent for re-election
issued his first press release of the campaign after Rahall voted
against the House resolution. "Everybody knew what would
happen if they didn't vote yes," he says.
AIPAC continues to enjoy deep bipartisan
backing inside Congress even after two top AIPAC officials were
indicted a year ago for allegedly accepting and passing on confidential
national security secrets from a Defense Department analyst. "The
US and Israel share a lot of basic common values. The vast majority
of the American people not only support Israel's actions against
Hezbollah but also the fundamental US-Israel relationship, and
the bipartisan support in Congress reflects that," says AIPAC
spokesman Josh Block. Rosenberg, himself a former AIPAC staffer,
puts it another way: "This is the one issue on which liberals
are permitted, even expected, by donors to be mindless hawks."
By blindly following AIPAC, Congress reinforces
a hard-line consensus: Criticizing Israeli actions, even in the
best of faith, is anti-Israel and possibly anti-Semitic; enthusiastically
backing whatever military action Israel undertakes is the only
Recent Gallup polls show that half of
Americans support Israel's military campaign, yet 65 percent believe
the United States should not take sides in the conflict. But it's
hard to imagine any Congress, or subsequent Administration, returning
to the role of honest broker. What the region needs now, according
to Brzezinski, is an American leader brave enough to say: "Either
I make policy on the Middle East or AIPAC makes policy on the
Middle East." One can always dream.
Ari Berman is a contributing writer for
The Nation and a Ralph Shikes Fellow at the Public Concern Foundation.
He's currently based in D.C.