The Israel lobby-2: Who makes up the Israel lobby and how does it work?

In the previous post, I described the main thesis of University of Chicago professor of political science John J. Mearsheimer and Harvard University professor of international affairs Stephen M. Walt in their book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy.

So who or what constitutes the ‘Israel lobby’? Well aware that criticism of the Israel lobby will immediately result in the lobby trying to label them as being anti-Semitic, Mearsheimer and Walt go to some lengths to deflect that charge. They point out that it is wrong to identify the Israel lobby as a Jewish lobby. Not only are non-Jews key players in the lobby, the Israel lobby very often pursues policies that are not even supported by a majority of American Jews. They provide statistics and surveys that suggest that substantial majorities of American Jews disagree with many of the policies advocated by the lobby

The authors also take pains to point out that the lobby is not some secretive cabal exercising some sinister power. It functions openly within the framework of American politics, just like the National Rifle Association (NRA), the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the farm lobby, the health industry lobby, or the military lobby.

Similar groups exist to influence US policy towards other nations. In principle, the Israel lobby’s work is no different from (say) the Cuban-American lobby. In fact, American politics teems with such lobbying groups, all seeking to sway the administration or Congress to implement policies favorable to them.

The key difference is that the Israel lobby is far more successful in its efforts than these other lobbies that seek to influence US foreign policy, and attempts to highlight its activities and the negative consequences for the US of the policies it promotes are met with such strong and swift criticism that public discussion of its role is muted.

So who comprises the lobby? The authors first say what the lobby is not.

The lobby is not a single, unified movement with a central leadership, and the individuals and groups who make up this broad coalition sometimes disagree on specific policy issues. Not is it some cabal or conspiracy. On the contrary, the organization and individuals who make up the lobby operate out in the open and in the same way that other interest groups do.
. . .
[T]he lobby is not a centralized, hierarchical organization with a defined membership. . .It has a core consisting of organizations whose declared purpose is to encourage the U.S. government and the American public to provide material aid to Israel and to support its government’s policies. (p. 112-113)

The authors point out that people who are simply pro-Israel in the sense of those who “support its right to exist, admire its many achievements, want its citizens to enjoy secure and prosperous lives, and believe that the United States should come to Israel’s aid if its survival is in danger” are also not part of the Israel lobby simply by virtue of this fact. They say that most Americans, including themselves, fall into that category.

To be considered a member of the Israel lobby requires more than that kind of vague general support. It means that “one has to actively work to move American foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. For an organization, this pursuit must be an important part of its mission and consume a substantial percentage of its resources and agenda. For an individual, this means devoting some portion of one’s professional or personal life (or in some cases, substantial amounts of money) to influencing U.S. Middle East policy.” (p. 114). They argue that “it is the specific political agenda that defines the lobby, not the religious or ethnic identity of those pushing it.” (p. 115) The authors point out that while “The bulk of the lobby is comprised of Jewish Americans who are deeply committed to making sure that U.S. foreign policy advances what they believe to be Israel’s interests. . .Yet the Israel lobby is not synonymous with America Jewry.” (p. 115). They point out that some groups who are very vocal on Israel’s behalf, such as the Christian Zionists or Christians United for Israel, are not Jewish.

The authors name those whom they see as clearly part of the lobby. They point to key players in groups such as the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Christians United for Israel (CUFI), Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Middle East Forum (MEF), and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). Some well-known people in those groups are Dennis Ross of WINEP, John Hagee of CUFI, and Martin Indyck of the Brookings Institution.

The authors argue that strong support for the policies advocated by the Israel lobby also come from the group known as the neoconservatives, who have become a very influential part of the lobby because they occupy key posts in the government and the media. Some of these policy makers are named in the book: Elliott Abrams, Kenneth Adelman, William Bennett, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, James Woolsey, and David Wurmser.

The authors also name influential people and opinion shapers who are members of the lobby: journalists (the late Robert Bartley, David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Bret Stephens, and Norman Podhoretz), academics (Fouad Ajami, Eliot Cohen, Aaron Friedberg, Bernard Lewis, Ruth Wedgwood), and think tank pundits (Max Boot, David Frum, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Robert Kagan, Michael Ledeen, Joshua Muravchik, Daniel Pipes, Danielle Pletka, Michael Rubin, Meyrav Wurmser.).

Media critic Eric Alterman wrote in 2002 that the debate among Middle East pundits is “dominated by people who cannot imagine criticizing Israel.” He identified fifty-six “columnists and commentators who can be counted upon to support Israel reflexively and without qualification” while only five pundits consistently take a pro-Arab position. (p. 170)

As a result of this largely one-sided view of Middle East politics, the general public in the US has little or no idea of the appalling conditions under which Palestinians in the occupied territories live, and have no sense of the deep injustice felt by them that they have been displaced from their homes and are made to pay dearly for the injustices perpetrated on Jews by European nations. The current construction of the wall that weaves through the occupied territories cruelly splitting Palestinian communities is a shocking thing that would be strongly condemned if it were widely known but largely passes unnoticed in the US. There is little recognition in the US that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “is contrary to widely accepted human rights norms and international law, as well as the principle of national self-determination.” (p. 191) “Because most Americans are only dimly aware of the crimes committed against the Palestinians, they see their continued resistance as an irrational desire for vengeance, or as evidence of unwarranted hatred of Jews akin to the anti-Semitism that was endemic in old Europe.” (p. 351)

Perhaps the most successful element of the lobby has been its ability to influence members of Congress, by channeling funds and organizing letter-writing campaigns in favor of those who are supportive of the lobby’s agenda and against those who oppose them.

The journalist Michael Massing reports that a congressional staffer sympathetic to Israel told him, “We can count on well over half the House – 250 to 300 members – to do reflexively whatever AIPAC wants.” Similarly, Steve Rosen, the former AIPAC official who has been indicted for allegedly passing classified government documents to Israel, illustrated AIPAC’s power for the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg by putting a napkin in front of him and saying, “In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.” (p. 10)

This ability of the lobby explains its success in getting congressional policies that favor Israel passed with overwhelming majorities, even when those policies are opposed by the White House. The authors argue that the lobby played a key role in the ill-fated decision to invade Iraq, although they were not the only factor. The book’s authors are actually quite sympathetic to George W. Bush, portraying him and Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell as trying occasionally to steer a more balanced course with regard to the Middle East and Palestinian issues but being consistently outmaneuvered by the Israel lobby, whose efforts were often channeled through Dick Cheney’s office or the Congressional leadership. Bush, Rice, and Powell come across as having at least some sense that the policies urged by the lobby were harmful to America’s own national interest, but unable to change course.

But while the lobby has urged US policymakers to go to war with the enemies of Israel such as Iraq and now are urging war against their other enemies Iran and Syria, they are also wary of public perceptions that such wars are being waged on Israel’s behalf because if the wars against Iran and Syria turn out as badly as the Iraq invasion did, then there is a serious risk of a backlash against Israel. (p. 295)

The influence of the lobby was also seen in the passive response by the US government to the tremendous damage wreaked on Lebanon by Israel in 2006, which targeted civilian infrastructure. Not only did the US oppose worldwide calls for an immediate ceasefire, it gave tacit support to the invasion. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice made the extraordinary statement that the appalling destruction of Lebanon signaled the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” The US did not protest when the Israelis inexcusably dropped a million cluster bomblets in the last three days leading up to the ceasefire, knowing that the ceasefire was imminent. Such cluster bombs often fail to explode immediately and then remain as deadly traps for people long after hostilities have ended, which is why their use has been condemned. (p. 322)

AIPAC was also responsible for the abandonment of a bill requiring Bush to get Congressional approval before attacking Iran and it has thwarted attempts at dialogue with that country (p. 301)

The authors argue that Israel, as a democracy, should be held to the same standards that any other democracy is held, but in fact is not. The recent decision by the Israeli government to curtail electricity to the entire population of Gaza is an appalling act of collective punishment but has received little notice in the US and no condemnation by the US government. In fact, the conditions of the people in Gaza as a result of Israeli government policies are nothing short of a scandal.

Next: Criticism of the lobby increases

POST SCRIPT: Israeli attack on Iran?

The recent release of the US National Intelligence Estimate report that Iran had stopped any nuclear weapons related activities back in 2003 is seen by some as making it harder for the Bush administration to justify an attack on that country. The London Guardian newspaper reports that elements in the Israel government are now suggesting a Israel initiate the attack, with American approval.