The Israel lobby

America's unconditional support for Israel runs counter to the interests of the US and its allies. We need an open, unprejudiced debate about it
April 19, 2002

Until recently, America's middle east policy was a peripheral part of its global strategy, which focused on preventing the Soviet Union from intimidating US allies in western Europe and east Asia. Britain was the dominant western power in the middle east until the 1960s, and US influence was countered in much of the region by the Soviet Union until the end of the cold war. The indifference of much of the national security elite and the public to the region, in between crises, permitted US policy to be dominated by two US domestic lobbies, one ethnic and one economic-the Israel lobby and the oil industry (which occasionally clashed over issues like US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia).

Times have changed. The collapse of the Soviet empire created a power vacuum which has been filled by the US, first in the Persian Gulf following the Gulf war, and now in central Asia as a result of the Afghan war. Today the middle east is becoming the centre of US foreign policy-a fact illustrated in the most shocking way by the al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. A debate within the US over the goals and methods of American policy in the middle east is long overdue. Unfortunately, an uninhibited debate is not taking place, because of the disproportionate influence of the Israel lobby.

Today the Israel lobby distorts US foreign policy in a number of ways. Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, enabled by US weapons and money, inflames anti-American attitudes in Arab and Muslim countries. The expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land makes a mockery of the US commitment to self-determination for Kosovo, East Timor and Tibet. The US strategy of dual containment of Iraq and Iran, pleases Israel-which is most threatened by them-but violates the logic of realpolitik and alienates most of America's other allies. Beyond the region, US policy on nuclear weapons proliferation is undermined by the double standard that has led it to ignore Israel's nuclear programme while condemning those of India and Pakistan.

The debate that is missing in the US is not one between Americans who want Israel to survive and those-a marginal minority-who want Israel to be destroyed. The US should support Israel's right to exist within internationally-recognised borders and to defend itself against threats. What is needed is a debate between those who want to link US support for Israel to Israeli behaviour, in the light of America's own strategic goals and moral ideals, and those who want there to be no linkage. For the American Israel lobby, Tony Smith observes in his authoritative study, Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy (Harvard), "to be a 'friend of Israel' or 'pro-Israel' apparently means something quite simple: that Israel alone should decide the terms of its relations with its Arab neighbours and that the US should endorse these terms, whatever they may be."

The Israel lobby is one special-interest pressure group among many. It is a loose network of individuals and organisations, of which the most important are the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)-described by the Detroit Jewish News as "a veritable training camp for Capitol Hill staffers"-and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations. The Israel lobby is not identical with the diverse Jewish-American community. Many Jewish-Americans are troubled by Israeli policies and some actively campaign against them, while some non-Jewish Americans-most of them members of the Protestant right-play a significant role in the lobby. Even pro-Israel groups differ on the question of Israeli policies. According to Matthew Dorf in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: "The Zionist Organisation of America lobbies Congress to slow the peace process. Their allies are mostly Republicans. At the same time, the Israel Policy Forum and Americans for Peace Now work to move the process along. Democrats are most sympathetic to their calls."

The Israel lobby is united not by a consensus about Israeli policies but by a consensus about US policies towards Israel. Most of the disparate elements of the pro-Israel coalition support two things. The first is massive US funding for Israel. As Stephen M Walt writes in International Security (Winter 2001/02), "In 1967 Israel's defence spending was less than half the combined defence expenditures of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria; today Israel's defence expenditure is 30 per cent larger than the combined defence spending of these four Arab states." Israel receives more of America's foreign aid budget than any other country-$3 billion a year, two thirds in military grants (total aid since 1979 is over $70 billion).

Along with aid, the Israel lobby demands unconditional US diplomatic protection of Israel in the UN and other forums. To a degree, this is justified; the US has been right to denounce the ritual "Zionism-is-racism" rhetoric of various kleptocracies and police states. The US, however, has been wrong to block repeatedly efforts by its major democratic allies in the UN security council to condemn Israeli repression and colonisation in the occupied territories.

It is difficult to prove direct cause-and-effect connections between the power of a lobby and America's foreign policy positions. But, in the middle east, it is hard to explain America's failure to pressure Israel into a final land-for-peace settlement-particularly since the Oslo deal in 1993-without factoring in the Israel lobby. The influence of the lobby may be easier to detect in the way US positions have shifted on more specific totems of the conflict. For example, Israeli settlements in the occupied territories were regarded as illegal during the Carter administration. Under Reagan, they shifted to being an "obstacle" to peace and are now just a complicating factor. Similarly, East Jerusalem was considered by the US to be part of the occupied territories but recently its status has become rather more ambiguous.

Concern on the part of US citizens about the fate of members of their ethnic group or religion in foreign countries is nothing new. The Irish-American, Cuban-American and Greek-American lobbies have all significantly influenced US foreign policy. And the desire to win over Catholic voters with eastern European relatives in the 1996 election is thought to have been a factor in President Clinton's decision to expand Nato to the east. However, the Israel lobby is different in strategy and scale from other historic American ethnic lobbies.

Most ethnic lobbies-of which the German and Irish diasporas were the most influential in the past-have based their power on votes, not money. (Most immigrant groups have been relatively poor at first, and have lost their ethnic identity on becoming more prosperous.) The influence of these lobbies has usually been confined to cities and states in which particular ethnic groups have been concentrated-Irish-American Boston, German-American Milwaukee, Cuban-American Miami. The emergent Latino lobby is similar in its geographic limitation. The small US Jewish population (about 2 per cent of the total) is highly concentrated in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and a few other areas.

The Israel lobby, however, is not primarily a traditional ethnic voter machine; it is an ethnic donor machine. Unique among ethno-political machines in the US, the Israel lobby has emulated the techniques of national lobbies based on economic interests (both industry groups and unions) or social issues (the National Rifle Association, pro- and anti-abortion groups). The lobby uses nationwide campaign donations, often funnelled through local "astroturf" (phony grassroots) organisations with names like Tennesseans for Better Government and the Walters Construction Management Political Committee of Colorado, to influence members of Congress in areas where there are few Jewish voters.

Stephen Steinlight, in an essay for the Centre for Immigration Studies, describes how the Israel lobby uses donations to influence elected officials: "Unless and until the triumph of campaign finance reform is complete...the great material wealth of the Jewish community will continue to give it significant advantages. We will continue to court and be courted by key figures in Congress. That power is exerted within the political system from the local to national levels through soft money, and especially the provision of out-of-state funds to candidates sympathetic to Israel." Steinlight adds: "For perhaps another generation... the Jewish community is thus in a position to divide and conquer and enter into selective coalitions that support our agendas." Steinlight is the recently-retired director of national affairs at the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

As well as campaign contributions, the Israel lobby's power is exercised through influence on government appointments. Until recently, Democrats and Republicans differed in their attitude to the lobby but now both parties are significantly influenced by it, although in different ways.

Historically, Jewish-Americans have been part of the Democratic coalition and they remain the only white ethnic group which consistently votes overwhelmingly for Democrats. By contrast, between Eisenhower and the elder Bush, many Republicans shared the attitude attributed, perhaps apocryphally, to a former Republican secretary of state: "Fuck the Jews. They don't vote for us anyway." Influenced by big business and the oil industry in particular, Republicans often tilted towards the Arabs (Arab regimes, not voiceless Arab populations). Although Nixon, an anti-semite in his personal attitudes, rescued Israel in the 1973 war, Eisenhower infuriated the Jewish-American community by thwarting the joint seizure of Egypt's Suez Canal by Israel, Britain and France in 1956. Another Republican president, George Bush Sr, enraged the Israel lobby during the Gulf war by pressuring Israel not to respond to Iraq's missile attacks, choosing not to occupy Baghdad and promising America's Arab allies that the US would push Israel on the Palestinian issue. The elder Bush was the last president to criticise the lobby publicly, in September 1991, when he complained that "there are 1,000 lobbyists up on the Hill today lobbying Congress for loan guarantees for Israel and I'm one lonely little guy down here asking Congress to delay its consideration of loan guarantees for 120 days."

The Democrats exploited this split between the Israel lobby and the first Bush administration. In an address to AIPAC in May 2000, presidential candidate Al Gore recalled, "I remember standing up against Bush's foreign policy advisers who promoted the insulting concept of linkage, which tried to use loan guarantees as a stick to bully Israel. I stood with you, and together we defeated them." In 1997, Fran Katz, the deputy political affairs director of AIPAC, became finance director of the Democratic national committee; the previous year, the former chairman of AIPAC, Steve Grossman, had become national chairman of the Democratic party, telling the press, "My commitment to strengthening the US-Israel relationship is unwavering."

Clinton also appointed Martin Indyk, a veteran of a pro-Israel think-tank associated with AIPAC, as ambassador to Israel, only a few years after this Australian citizen received his US citizenship papers. It is true that Clinton (and Indyk) took the Palestinian cause seriously and the US administration did push Israel further than it wanted to go on some issues prior to the Wye River agreement and in the failed Barak-Arafat negotiations. But the fact that so many of the senior US administration officials involved in those failed negotiations had ties to the Israel lobby raised troubling questions about the ability of America to act as an honest broker.

Furthermore, leading members of the Israel lobby encouraged the greatest abuse of the presidential pardon power in American history-Clinton's pardon of Mark Rich, a fugitive billionaire on the FBI's Most Wanted list who had surrendered his US citizenship rather than pay the taxes he owed. A Who's Who list of the Israeli and Jewish-American establishments successfully lobbied Clinton to pardon Rich, including prime minister Ehud Barak, the former head of Mossad and the head of the US Anti-Defamation League (many of the same individuals also supported a pardon for the imprisoned American spy for Israel, Jonathan Pollard). In a New York Times piece in February 2001, Clinton claimed he had done it for Israel: "Many present and former high-ranking Israeli officials of both major political parties and leaders of Jewish communities in America and Europe urged the pardon of Mr Rich because of his contributions and services to Israeli charitable causes, to the Mossad's efforts to rescue Jews from hostile countries, and to the peace process through sponsorship of education and health programmes in Gaza and the West Bank."

Most Jewish-Americans are politically hostile to George W Bush, whose alliance with the Christian right disturbs them. Yet the younger Bush has, in practice, been influenced more by the Israel lobby than by the oil lobby. The State department of Colin Powell, who has described himself as a "Rockefeller Republican" and supports Palestinian statehood, has rapidly lost influence to the Defence department, where a cadre of pro-Israel hawks allied with Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz has seized the initiative. AIPAC's advertising for its April 2002 conference, whose keynote speaker will be Ariel Sharon, describes an invitation-only "president's cabinet brunch": "In an elegant brunch session at the St. Regis Hotel, Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz gives an insider's view of the Pentagon's efforts in the war on terrorism."

Richard Perle, chairman of Bush's quasi-official defence policy board, co-authored a 1996 paper with Douglas J Feith for the Likud prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Entitled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," it advised Netanyahu to make "a clean break from the peace process." Feith now holds one of the most important positions in the Pentagon-deputy-under-secretary of defence for policy. He argued in the National Interest in Fall 1993 that the League of Nations mandate granted Jews irrevocable settlement rights in the West Bank. In 1997, in "A Strategy for Israel," Feith called on Israel to re-occupy "the areas under Palestinian Authority control" even though "the price in blood would be high." On 13th October 1997, Feith and his father were given awards by the right-wing Zionist Organisation of America, which described the honorees as "the noted Jewish philanthropists and pro-Israel activists."

The radical Zionist right to which Perle and Feith belong is small in number but it has become a significant force in Republican policy-making circles. It is a recent phenomenon, dating back to the late 1970s and 1980s, when many formerly Democratic Jewish intellectuals joined the broad Reagan coalition. While many of these hawks speak in public about global crusades for democracy, the chief concern of many such "neo-conservatives" is the power and reputation of Israel. William Kristol, editor of the right-wing Weekly Standard, explained the reason for the rhetoric about global democracy to the Jerusalem Post (27th July 2000): "I've always thought it was best for Israel for the US to be generally engaged and generally strong, and then the commitment to Israel follows from a general foreign policy."

The liberalism and Democratic partisanship of most Jewish-Americans forces the Zionist right to find its popular constituency, not in the Jewish community itself, but in the Protestant evangelical right of Pat Robertson and others-many of whose members share the Christian Zionism of the early British patrons of Israel. In 1995, after I exposed the anti-semitic sources of Pat Robertson's theories about a two-century-old Judaeo-Masonic conspiracy in an essay in The New York Review of Books, Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, denounced me rather than Robertson. Podhoretz conceded that Robertson's statements about Jewish conspiracies were anti-semitic but argued that, in the light of Robertson's support for Israel, he should be excused according to the ancient rabbinical rule of batel b'shishim.

Like other lobbies whose power is based on campaign money and appointments, the Israel lobby has influence chiefly over elected officials and their staffs. It has little ability to influence career public servants, such as those in the military, the intelligence agencies and the foreign service. At most, it can try to de-legitimise such officials when they do not play along by, for example, vilifying members of the US foreign service as "Arabists." And the uniformed military is often attacked in the pages of pro-Israel journals whose writers (most of them armchair generals who never served in the military) denounce the alleged pusillanimity of American soldiers who are unwilling to "take out" states like Iraq and Iran that particularly threaten Israel. Even the intelligence community has been accused of anti-semitism, for its principled opposition to a pardon for the spy, Jonathan Pollard.

The aborted career of Admiral Bobby Ray Inman provides a troubling example of this dynamic at work. After Clinton nominated Inman, a career Naval officer and the former head of the national security agency, for the position of secretary of defence, Inman was savaged in the press by William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter and conservative Republican who thought George Bush Sr was insufficiently pro-Israel. In his New York Times column Safire damned Inman for having "contributed to the excessive sentencing of Jonathan Pollard," Israel's spy in the naval intelligence service (whom some Jewish-Americans treat as a martyred saint). Inman responded by charging that Safire had secretly lobbied the CIA Director, William Casey, to overrule a 1981 decision by Inman, then deputy CIA director, which limited Israel's access to US intelligence. For this reason, Safire attacked Inman in the New York Times by charging him with an "anti-Israel bias." Rather than face what he called the "new McCarthyism," Inman withdrew.

After campaign contributions and high-level appointments, media influence is the third major asset of the Israel lobby. The problem is not that Jews in the media censor the daily news; there are passionate Zionist publishers like Mort Zuckerman and Martin Peretz, but their very ardour tends to discredit them. The reporters of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the television networks are reasonably fair in their coverage of the middle east. The problem is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is presented in the absence of any historical or political context. For example, most Americans do not know that the Palestinian state offered by Barak consisted of several Bantustans, criss-crossed by Israeli roads with military checkpoints. Instead, most Americans have learned only that the Israelis made a generous offer which Arafat inexplicably rejected. To make matters worse, the conventions of reporting the Arab-Israeli conflict in the mainstream press typically portray the Palestinians as aggressors-"In response to Palestinian violence, Israel fired missiles into Gaza." No reporters ever say, "In response to Israel's three-decade occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian gunmen fought back against Israeli forces."

Still, many journalists reporting from the middle east, both Jewish and non-Jewish, try hard to be objective. It is not in the news stories, but in the opinion pages and the journals of opinion-which ought to provide the missing context-that propaganda for Israel has free reign. There are several widely-syndicated columnists and television pundits who are apologists for the Israeli right, like Safire, Cal Thomas, George Will and Charles Krauthammer. Others like Anthony Lewis, Flora Lewis and Thomas Friedman do criticise right-wing Israeli governments, but anything more than the mildest criticism of Israel is taboo in the mainstream media.

The taboo against anti-Arab bigotry, however, is weak. One of the saddest consequences of Israel's colonialism has been the moral coarsening of elements of the Jewish-American community. I grew up admiring Jewish civil rights activists for their sometimes heroic role in the fight to dismantle segregation in the US. But today I frequently hear Jewish acquaintances discuss Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, in terms as racist as those once used by southerners in public when discussing blacks. "Israel should have given the Palestinians to Jordan after 1967," a Jewish editor recently said to me, in the same tone used by an elderly white southerner who once told me, "We should have left them all in Africa." The parallel can be extended. After 1830, the defence of slavery and later segregation in the old south led white southerners to abandon the liberal idealism of the founding era in favour of harsh racism and a siege mentality. Since 1967, the need to justify the rule of Israel over a conquered helot population has produced a similar shift from humane idealism to unapologetic tribalism in parts of the diaspora, as well as in Israel. It is perhaps no coincidence that the most important non-Jewish supporters of Israel in the US today are found in the deep south among descendants of the segregationist Dixiecrats.

Within part of the Jewish-American population, the influence of Zionism appears to be increasing. This is a recent phenomenon. Traditionally, non-Orthodox Jewish-Americans have been divided among three broad traditions: universalist liberalism, Marxist radicalism and ethnic Zionism. The first tradition has been of enormous value in American history. Jewish activists and philanthropists have played an invaluable role in supporting the extension of civil rights to Americans of all races, religions, and both genders. But Jewish liberalism is a victim of its own success. Having eliminated barriers to Jewish advancement in American society, like the quotas limiting Jewish students in Ivy League universities and prestigious clubs, Jewish liberals are tending to disappear through assimilation. More than half of Jewish-Americans marry outside the Jewish community and their children tend not to be raised as Jews.

The attrition of Jewish numbers by assimilation and intermarriage is producing alarm among Jewish-Americans devoted to preserving Jewish distinctness, by means of conservative religious observance, ideological Zionism, or both. Many have given up secularism for observant religion in recent years (Joseph Lieberman, Al Gore's vice-presidential candidate, is the most famous). Ironically, many neo-traditionalist Jews now express a bitter hostility toward the very secularism and pluralism that used to be identified by anti-semites with emancipated Jews. "Most American Jews have two religions, Judaism and Americanism, and you can't have two religions any more than you can have two hearts or two heads," wrote Adam Garfinkle, editor of the National Interest, in the journal Conservative Judaism. Indeed, there is a parallel between the rise of Jewish fundamentalism in the US and Israel and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Muslim world. In both cases, reactionaries believe that their traditions are being destroyed by secular western values, including feminism, religious tolerance and natural science. In both the Jewish and Muslim cases, the antidote that is offered to "corrupting western values" is pre-modern religious law-the Jewish law or the sharia.

Ethnocentric political Zionism as the basis of Jewish identity is more appealing to many former leftist and liberal Jews in the US than the adoption of a stringent Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. But making political Zionism the basis of Jewishness imposes a stark dual loyalty, as Stephen Steinlight argues in the essay I have quoted. "I'll confess it, at least: like thousands of other typical Jewish kids of my generation, I was reared as a Jewish nationalist, even a quasi-separatist. Every summer for two months, for ten formative years during my childhood and adolescence, I attended Jewish summer camp. There, each morning, I saluted a foreign flag, dressed in a uniform reflecting its colours, sang a foreign national anthem, learned a foreign language, learned foreign folk songs and dances, and was taught that Israel was the true homeland. Emigration to Israel was considered the highest virtue... Of course we also saluted the American and Canadian flags and sang those anthems, usually with real feeling, but it was clear where our primary loyalty was meant to reside... That America has tolerated this dual loyalty-we get a free pass, I suspect, largely over Christian guilt about the Holocaust-makes it no less a reality."

The restraint on robust debate about Israel in the political centre means that the most vocal critics of Israeli policy and the US Israel lobby are found on the far left and the far right. Critics on the left, like Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, are not taken seriously outside of left-wing academic circles because their condemnations of US and Israeli policy in the middle east are part of ritualised denunciations of all US foreign policy everywhere.

On the far right, the so-called old right, represented by Patrick Buchanan, there has always been a coterie of writers who mingle their denunciations of Israel and the Israel lobby with rants against secular humanists, homosexuals, feminists, third world hordes and other alleged enemies of a white Christian America. The lunatic fringe represented by the militia movement that spawned Timothy McVeigh refers to the federal government as ZOG-the Zionist-Occupied Government. This kind of demonology is also found among black nationalists, like Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam.

It is only a small exaggeration to say that, if the far right hates Israel mainly because it hates Jews, the far left hates Israel mainly because it hates America. With critics like Chomsky, Buchanan and Farrakhan, the Israel lobby has an easy time persuading most Americans that critics of Israel are lunatic-fringe figures. Israel has also been fortunate in its Palestinian enemies. Yasser Arafat is no Gandhi or Mandela, Palestinian suicide bombers are indistinguishable from the al Qaeda fanatics in their tactics, though not their cause, and footage of Palestinians dancing in the streets on learning of the 11th September attacks appalled Americans otherwise sympathetic to the goal of Palestinian independence.

None the less, the Israel lobby's influence on US policy and public opinion is challenged by groups ranging from the increasingly vocal Arab-American lobby and black Democrats (who tend to sympathise with the Palestinians), to career military and foreign service personnel and the Republican business establishment, particularly oil executives, who are more interested in the Persian Gulf than in the West Bank. In the long run, the relative diminution of the Jewish-American population, as a result of intermarriage and immigration-led population growth, will combine to attenuate the lobby's power.

At present, however, members of Congress from all regions are still reluctant to offend a single-issue lobby that can and will subsidise their opponents; many journalists and policy experts say in private that they are afraid of being blacklisted by editors and publishers who are zealous Israel supporters; top jobs in the US national security apparatus routinely go to individuals with close personal and professional ties to Israel and its American lobby; and soldiers and career diplomats are sometimes smeared in whisper campaigns if they thwart the goals of Israeli governments. In these circumstances, how could US policy not be biased in favour of Israel?

The kind of informed, centrist criticism of Israel which can be found in Britain and the rest of Europe, a criticism that recognises Israel's right to exist and defend itself, whilst deploring its brutal occupation of Palestinian territory and discrimination against Arab Israelis, is far less visible in the US. What is needed at this moment in American and world history is a responsible criticism of the US Israel lobby which, unlike the left critique, accepts the broad outlines of US grand strategy as legitimate and which, unlike the critique of the far right, is not motivated by an animus against either Jewish-Americans or the state of Israel as such.

In the past, the Israel lobby had one feature which distinguished it from, say, the Irish lobby: the country it supported was threatened with extinction by its neighbours. That is no longer the case. Moreover, most Americans would support Israel's right to exist and to defend itself against threats even if the Israel lobby did not exist. However, in the absence of the Israel lobby, America's elected representatives would surely have made aid to Israel conditional on Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. It is this largely unconditional nature of US support for Israel that compromises its middle east policy.

In the years ahead, we Americans must reform our political system to purge it of the corrupting influence, not only of corporations and unions, but also of ethnic lobbies-all of them, the Arab-American lobby as well as the Israel lobby. As the percentage of the US population made up of recent immigrants grows, so does the danger that foreign policy will be subcontracted to this or that ethnic diaspora encouraged-by the success of the Israel lobby-to believe that deep attachment to a foreign country is a normal and acceptable part of US citizenship.

Public policy cannot prevent bias toward foreign countries among ethnic voting blocs, although assimilation can weaken it. By contrast, ethnic donor machines can be all but eliminated by the regulation of political donations. Campaign finance reforms in the US that ban out-of-state and out-of-district donations, or replace private with public funding, are desirable on their merits. Among their other benefits, reforms like these would cripple all national pressure groups that rely on donations rather than on debate, without unfairly singling out any particular special interest, like the Israel lobby. In addition to campaign finance reform, the US needs to curtail the number of appointed positions in national security agencies. Reducing the number of "in-and-outers" in the national security elite would reduce opportunities for those affiliated with ethnic lobbies and economic interests like the oil industry, to affect US foreign policy from within government. Until Americans have ended this corruption of our democratic process, our allies in Europe, Asia and the middle east will continue to view our middle east policy with trepidation.

The truth about America's Israel lobby is this: it is not all-powerful, but it is still far too powerful for the good of the US and its alliances in the middle east and elsewhere.