Is It Good for the Jews?

On May 23, the House of Representatives passed Resolution 4681, the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, by a vote of 361 to 37. Nothing remarkable about that. But the passage of H.R. 4681 had all the ingredients of the worrying way in which the Israel-Palestine conflict has played out in American politics and policy for the past decade or more.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobbied enthusiastically for the bill. Many AIPAC supporters and donors, assuming that they were simply doing right by Israel, would be surprised and perhaps even shocked to learn that its provisions are significantly more draconian than Israeli policy. Israel has to live with the Palestinian reality on the ground, coordinate with whomever necessary on everything from security to avian flu, and distinguish between moderates and extremists. Congress and lobbyists do not.

Israeli officials, as had happened on numerous occasions, were concerned by this excess of zealotry, but they kept quiet for considerations of domestic politics and politesse. After the fact, while visiting Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of course welcomed H.R. 4681.


This congressional propensity to out-kosher the Israelis and even give a nudge toward escalation led three prominent American-Jewish organizations -- Israel Policy Forum (IPF), Americans for Peace Now (APN), and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom -- to campaign publicly against the bill. In private, many representatives recognized the bill's shortcomings, but a yes vote was the path of least resistance.

Some members were intimidated. Unusually, one congresswoman who voted against the measure, Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum, hit back after being accused of supporting terrorists by an AIPAC representative. In a letter to AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr, McCollum called on the organization “to immediately condemn this un-American attack and disavow any attempt to use this type of threat and intimidation to stifle legitimate policy differences … until I receive a written, formal apology … AIPAC representatives are not welcome in my offices or for meetings with my staff.”

Interestingly, the Bush administration opposed the bill, too. Presumably, the final legislation will look different and presidential waivers will be used against the more irksome provisions.

But back here in the Middle East, the damage has already been done. Moderates are undermined and critics of the United States strengthened, America is blamed for Palestinian suffering, and reformers once again lower their expectations of the United States. How such a cavalier and irresponsible approach to a central foreign-policy question became so fashionable -- and its implications for Israeli's interests, as well as future U.S. policy -- is the subject at hand.

* * *

The publication earlier this year of a Harvard University Kennedy School of Government paper by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt entitled “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” placed the issue under a magnifying glass.

It is sensitive territory. Their thesis, and the counterattacks, have been well-rehearsed elsewhere, including most recently by Michael Massing in The New York Review of Books. Establishing some benchmarks is a worthwhile exercise. The more shrill conspiracy theorists who suggest the existence of an all-powerful foreign interest occupying Washington, such as “They Dare to Speak Out” author and former Republican Congressman Paul Findley and his Council for the National Interest (a group that I had the misfortune to be quoted by in a recent New York Times ad), are wide of the mark. Conversely, those defenders of the cause whose reflexive response is to cry antisemitism can be equally misguided and also do a disservice to the struggle against contemporary manifestations of real antisemitism.

AIPAC's sheer name recognition and resources guarantees that most American Jews who care somewhat about Israel but are not policy wonks will likely choose it as their default vehicle for occasional involvement. But the so-called Israel lobby is not monolithic. Groups such as the Religious Action Committee of Reform Judaism, IPF, APN, and Brit Tzedek are probably more representative of American Jewish opinion than AIPAC (and closer to where the Israeli public and even much of government policy stands today). Polls repeatedly show that American Jews, unsurprisingly, are liberal on Israel-Palestine, just as they are across a range of issues. Paradoxically then, it could be argued that there is too little Jewish influence in Washington. If more American Jews took a keener interest in what was being advocated in their names on Israel-related matters, then things might look very different, and far more hopeful. And of course, AIPAC is not unique in being a powerful and influential lobby (as the group boasts on its own Web site) that flouts its success, or in largely representing a diaspora community on a foreign policy/homeland issue in controversial ways (just look at the role of the Cuban American National Foundation). Furthermore, AIPAC is not omnipotent, unchanging, or unchallengeable. It can also be a convenient scapegoat and excuse for failings of others or a credit-taking champion for the successes of more camera-shy actors.

So let's go back to our Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act and ask how the automatic majority for ill-conceived measures became the conventional stuff of U.S.-Israeli political relations.

Ten years ago, J.J. Goldberg, now the editor of the Forward, made the most valiant and serious effort to date to understand this phenomenon in his Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment. The book is a warm and sympathetic insider's account, brilliant in its detail and piercing in its analysis. Goldberg claims that a set of factors had emerged by the mid-1970s that were to transform organized American Jewry and its political role, developments whose consequences fully came to fruition two decades later as the late Yitzhak Rabin pushed for peace (and as Goldberg wrote his book). He traces the stratospheric rise of Jewish institutional empowerment and politicization to three ingredients: Israel's Six Day War military victory and the Jewish nationalist passions it stirred just as the U.S.-Israel Cold War alliance was being cemented; the mass campaign for Soviet Jewry and its lynchpin role in U.S.-Soviet relations; and the belated rise of Holocaust awareness (and guilt) in popular culture and its attendant “never again” maxim. The interaction among these commands -- defend Israel, save Soviet Jews, and remember the Holocaust -- created the “counterrevolution” of the “new Jews,” a passionate minority of defensive nationalists driven by a terrible vision amid an overwhelming majority of still optimistic Jewish liberals. “Their defiance was so strident, and their anger so intense, that the rest of the Jewish community respectfully stood back and let the New Jews take the lead. The minority was permitted to speak for the mass and became the dominant voice of Jewish politics,” Goldberg writes.

Donations to candidates were, of course, a big part of the rising influence. Today observers point to at least 36 PACs whose disbursements are predicated on an Israel agenda (although the PACs' names often seem unconnected). Playing internal American and Israeli politics has also become an essential part of the game. And while Israeli Labor Party politicians constantly fret at AIPAC's Likud tilt, the opposite accusation -- that the organization acts as a liberal bridgehead -- is not heard. For Israelis and Americans alike, the Rabin-Clinton Oslo years provided an opportunity to test the existence or otherwise of a hard-line ideological lobby leadership.

* * *

Rabin had an openly tempestuous relationship with AIPAC. Having witnessed the organization's closeness to Likud, Rabin demanded that he and not they be the ultimate arbiter of Israel's dialogue with the United States.

Rabin might have been able to get his way with the executive branch, but it was a different story with Congress. For the United States to play its designated role in the peace process, enabling legislation needed to be enacted. This took the form of MEPFA -- the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act of 1993. The conditionalities, certification, and reporting requirements that Congress tried and sometimes successfully built into MEPFA, were an overt attempt to sabotage the peace process.

Worse was to follow. At a particularly sensitive moment in the peace negotiations and with the 1996 presidential and congressional elections approaching, a number of AIPAC and Republican leaders moved to throw a wrench in the works -- the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. The act required the U.S. Embassy in Israel to move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a given time frame. It inflamed Arab opinion and cornered both the Clinton and Rabin governments. It had been tried before (and again since), but never had it been used as so blunt a political instrument in U.S. and Israeli domestic politics. Israel cannot publicly oppose it but has never prioritized it. Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole announced the initiative at the 1995 AIPAC Annual Conference. The Likud cheered, using it to attack Rabin precisely as the incitement that ultimately led to his assassination was reaching its peak. Itamar Rabinovich, then the Israeli ambassador in Washington, has called it the “The Jerusalem Hijack,” writing about “how embarrassing it was.”

So, the Rabin years represented a moment of truth for the American Jewish leadership -- was it in the grip of Goldberg's “new Jews,” or could it adapt to pursuing a peace strategy? The choices made then continue to cast their shadow now. Key AIPAC officeholders then who were sympathetic to the Rabin case, such as Steve Grossman and Neal Sher, were sidelined by the more hard-line, and often Republican-supporting, “old-guard leadership.”

As Goldberg concluded in his book back in 1996, “the most feared and respected pro-Israel lobbying organization can no longer be relied on to support the views of Israel, much less the views of American Jews.” In the following years, Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu, and in many ways the pro-Israel lobby, became neoconservative half a decade before the U.S. government. The luminaries of the neoconservative echo chamber and their institutional support system -- Richard Perle, Doug Feith, Michael Ledeen, the American Enterprise Institute, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and more -- had a few years' practice whispering in an Israeli leader's ear even before their Washington moment in the sun arrived.

The Netanyahu years sealed the ideological affinity of the Israeli right with the neoconservatives, and also with another influential American constituency -- the Christian right. An entire industry has arisen of Christian right affiliation with and active support for the Israeli far right and the settler movement in particular. Many evangelical mega-churches have adopted settlements in the territories, or assisted new immigrants to live in settlements. Stephen Sizer's book Christian Zionism: Roadmap to Armageddon details not only the theological sources of this relationship but also the astonishing density of this interaction.

The AIPAC relationship with the Christian Right is almost a “go ahead, test my chutzpa” moment for the descendents of Goldberg's new Jews in simultaneously speaking for mainstream Jewry while acting in ways so antithetical to its core values. It is almost as if the pro-Israel lobby inhabits the rightist planet Likud, while Israelis live on the centrist planet Labor-Kadima.

* * *

And this takes us back to the question of the Israeli interest. Understandably, the debate

usually emphasizes American interests and takes the Israeli side of the equation for granted. But is Israel being served by the current incarnation of the special relationship? Of course, such an alliance in a unipolar world is not something to be sneezed at. Israelis, public and elites alike, treasure the relationship. There is no Israeli Hugo Chávez out campaigning against the Yankee enemy in the barrios of Tel Aviv. Yet many senior Israeli figures, in and out of government, regret that the relationship is not put to more constructive use.

In researching this piece, I spoke with a number of former and serving Israeli officials, ministers, diplomats and journalists from several political parties. Many repeated the same refrain, which went something like this: “the pro-Israel lobby is an asset that can serve us and that no one will be hasty in abandoning, but our interests are not identical and we constantly have to maneuver around the obstacles they place in our path, especially when we pursue the peace option; when we ask something of the executive branch, a not unusual response is: ‘Go convince your friends in AIPAC.'”

Clearly, there is no one view as to what constitutes the Israeli interest, but the outlines of an emerging consensus are at least partially visible. Occupation is bad for Israel. When Ariel Sharon said it, the cat was well and truly out of the bag. Settlements have placed a strain on Israel's budget, defensive lines, and international reputation. They also breed an internal antidemocratic threat to the state. Peace and the territorial concessions entailed, including evacuating most of the settlements, is the best and perhaps only guarantee of Israel's future.

U.S. policy, under the influence of an unreconstructed Israel lobby of neoconservatives, fundamentalist evangelicals, and American Likudniks, is liable to follow directions that are unhelpful to this Israeli interest. Three unwelcome types of policy suggest themselves. Let's call them: initiative recoil, the obstacle course, and an addiction to misbehavior without consequence.

Initiative recoil is a form of self-censorship, as when the U.S. government preemptively holds back from making a move or seizing an opportunity based on a calculation that it is not worth the likely domestic political fallout. Israel would sometimes greatly benefit from the initiative having been taken and/or is unable to make the first move itself. For example, in 1987, then–Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres reached the London Agreement with Jordan's King Hussein for resolving the status of the Palestinian territories. Peres beseeched then–Secretary of State George Schultz to take the initiative in pursuing the plan. Schultz declined. The moment was lost. More recently, success with the road-map plan would have required American initiative and leadership, but it was unpopular in Congress and with AIPAC. The Bush administration shied away. The road map is a dead letter. Today both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, are publicly stating their preferences for a negotiated agreement. U.S. leadership is absent. Initiative recoil is the predictable and desired tribute to AIPAC's success, its effect felt in the diplomatic realm of paths not taken, something Israel has often later regretted.

The classic examples of the obstacle course are the MEPFA and Jerusalem Embassy Act stories cited above. The parties decide on a way forward and have U.S. support; lobbies then mobilize Congress to place as many obstacles as possible in their way. The process sputters, the United States loses credibility, the parties -- having made courageous choices -- take a hit in domestic popularity, and the fragile balance is made shakier. If Israelis and Palestinians attempt again to engage in a negotiated process, then H.R. 4681 has all the trappings of an obstacle course waiting to happen.

Israel's settlement policy is the textbook case of developing an addiction to bad behavior without consequences. As with many addictions that are left untreated, the temptation is to escalate -- build a separation barrier deep in Palestinian territory, expand the Jerusalem envelope of settlements -- and thereby strangle the viable, agreed-upon two-state solution to which Israel now professes to be committed and which America officially advocates. All because the best friend gave the drunk driver the keys rather than taking them away. Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. aid, $3 billion annually. Yet no serious leverage or bully pulpit is used. Instead, Israel can enjoy occupation deluxe. Israel has enjoyed wasting NIS 45 billion (more than $10 billion) on settlements since 1967, according to a special Haaretz report.

The cumulative effect of all of this on regional perceptions of and expectations from the United States, on the ability to act and build alliances regionally and multilaterally, is hardly a secret. Many of these issues exist in the margins of U.S. grand policy, but for Israel they can be defining moments and have dramatic implications. As Israeli author and commentator Tom Segev wrote in Haaretz: “Had the U.S. saved Israel from itself, life today would be better … the Israel lobby in the U.S. harms Israel's true interests.”

* * *

But initiative recoil, the obstacle course, and addiction to misbehavior without consequence, have not always carried the day or deterred executive action. Often forgotten is that American presidents over the past 30-plus years (and consistently since the end of the Cold War) have pursued initiatives seeking Middle East peace even in the face of domestic political opposition and lobbies. The current constellation of circumstances and executive branch timidity are, in key ways, the exception and not the rule. Jimmy Carter pushed hard to realize Israeli-Egyptian peace. Ronald Reagan started the U.S.-PLO dialogue. George H.W. Bush convened the Madrid Conference and linked American loan guarantees for Israel to settlement policy (remember Bush Senior's famous remark on AIPAC opposition to linking loans and settlements: “I heard today there was something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill working the other side of the question. We get one lonely little guy down here doing it.”) In addition to supporting Rabin's efforts, Clinton pushed the 1998 Wye River Agreement in the face of Netanyahu's obstructionism, presented the Clinton parameters in December 2000 and tried to broker Israeli-Syrian peace (twice!). And the current George W. Bush administration has not been immune to displaying vim -- in endorsing the Mitchell Report, calling for a Palestinian state, and presenting the road map.

As the tide turned decisively against Colin Powell during George W. Bush's first term, signs of courage waned and, since then, the United States has largely been awol. With the broader Middle East featuring so prominently in the U.S. policy debate, this absence of action is an ever more unaffordable luxury. Steve Clemons of the popular blog The Washington Note has suggested that this administration's foreign policy soul is again now up for grabs, largely in the person of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and that an Israel-Palestine moment of clarity is much needed.


So can Israeli and American interests dovetail and a push for peace be pursued without being shot down on the Potomac?

One final point may come into play that is both structural and very human. Structurally, AIPAC's stock rises when Israel is isolated and embattled -- when there is a cause. The converse is also true. During the Rabin period, as Israel flourished diplomatically, the Jewish community started to focus inward, 52 percent assimilation rates supplanted Arab threats, traditional priorities and funding patterns were challenged. I was chairman of the World Union of Jewish Students at the time and remember attending endless conferences on “Jewish Continuity,” time having been freed up from “defending Israel.” This was the time when AIPAC first started focusing seriously on Iran and the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act was passed. The connection is obvious.

At the human level, rubbing shoulders with power is exhilarating, and the access and attention can be intoxicating. Compare its glitz and fund-raising zap to dealing with the local Jewish education curriculum. It is very human. Yossi Shain, an Israeli academic, has written a great deal about diasporas and in a John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies paper argues that “once a conflict is settled, the high-level meetings and phone calls may recede, and diasporic community leaders find that both their internal communal prestige and their external levers of influence degrade as a result.”

Writing during the Rabin era in an article entitled “Foreign Affairs: Mischief Makers,” Tom Friedman argued, “It is as if these organizations can only thrive if they have an enemy, someone to fight. They have no positive vision to offer American Jews.”

It would require huge institutional and personal efforts and realignments, but it is still not too late for AIPAC to be a part of providing that positive vision. That would mean cutting the umbilical cord to the neoconservatives, the Christian right, and Israel's (now fringe) Likud party. The alternative for AIPAC would be to ultimately become a much loathed obstructionist footnote in history. The alternative for the moderate majority of Israeli and American Jews will be to forge new alliances and ensure that this time, the shared interest of peace and ending the occupation carries the day.

Daniel Levy was an adviser in the Israeli prime minister's office, a member of the official Israeli negotiating team at the Oslo B and Taba talks, and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement