OVERESTIMATING AIPAC. My friend Ari Berman's new Nation piece on AIPAC gathers some insightful quotes and makes a valid point in the last paragaph about the gap between the moderately high level of public support for Israel and the exceedingly high level of congressional support.
But his explanation, which seems to boil down entirely to AIPAC's influence (or perceived influence) intimidating congressmen and senators into obeisance to their agenda betrays the tendency of Israel's critics to buy into an overly credulous view of AIPAC's power. For example, on the July 18th congressional resolution condemning Hamas and Hezbollah, Ari asserts, as fact, "AIPAC not only lobbied for the resolution; it had written it." But the only source he provides for that claim is former Carter Administration National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, not a big fan of Israel, and not someone currently in government.
Similarly, Ari describes AIPAC as "the American Jewish community's most important voice on the Hill." The notion that AIPAC speaks for the Jewish community, rather than the pro-Israel community, seems unfair to Jews who do not agree with AIPAC -- some of whom he quotes just a few paragraphs later. For instance, he cites Henry Siegman, the former head of the American Jewish Congress, who disagrees with AIPAC.
Finally Ari seems to buy into the common overestimation of the influence of the Israel lobby as a whole when he cites the fact that "[t]hirty-six pro-Israel PACs gave $3.14 million to candidates in the 2004 election cycle" as the reason that "most in Congress see far more harm than reward in getting in the Israeli lobby's way." $3.14 million is not the enormous sum it may sound. As a point of reference, consider that in 2003-2004 real estate/construction PACs gave $17.06 million in hard money, while finance and insurance PACs gave $43.76 million. Of course this influences the way congress votes, but remarkably enough many congressmembers and senators vote against those corporate interests on occasion --certainly many more than the mere eight congressmembers who voted against the July 18th resolution.
I think Ari is addressing a real problem: the position prevalent in Washington that nothing Israel does can ever be questioned, even as a loving friend. But his diagnosis of the cause emphasizes the wrong aspects. The real shift has been the emergence of what Ari accurately describes as "Christian conservatives increasingly aligned with AIPAC [who] demand unwavering support for Israel from their Republican leaders." They may be aligned with AIPAC, but their influence over the way Republican congressmembers vote comes not from that but from their heavy representation in Republican primaries. Their approach to this issue, just like their approach to social issues, is infused with a sense that they are advocating God's position, so any compromise with benefits here on earth is untenable. They are fundamentally different than Jewish-led organizations like AIPAC that simply want the U.S. to support whatever Israel deems is its security need. Those groups, unlike the conservative Christian Zionists, will support a left-leaning government in Israel that seeks to make peace, if that's what the Israelis choose. A good recent example is the Gaza withdrawal, which all zionists except those on the extreme right supported.
A greater focus on exposing on combating the emergence of uncomprising Christianist zealotry on Israel would serve the left better than more pieces "exposing" the overestimated influence of groups like AIPAC.