How the Israel lobby works and how it might be challenged

The bombing by Israel of yet a third UN school that was being used as a shelter by people seeking refuge from Israeli bombing elsewhere has enraged even more people who normally give Israel unquestioned support. The UN Secretary General has called it a “moral outrage”, a statement signed by the EU and European commission presidents on behalf of 28 members said that Gazans were suffering “intolerable violence”, and even British prime minister David Cameron, goaded by condemnations by the Labor and Liberal party leaders for not speaking out more strongly, has said, “I’m not an international lawyer… but international law is very, very clear that use of force always has to be proportionate and civilians should not be targeted.” The French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said “How many more deaths will it take to stop what must be called the carnage in Gaza? The tradition of friendship between Israel and France is an old one and Israel’s right to security is total, but this right does not justify the killing of children and the slaughter of civilians.” Some of these statements are accompanied by calls for Hamas to stop sending missiles into Israel but these are sounding increasingly like pro-forma balancing statements.

It is in the halls of the US government that unquestioned public support for Israel still holds. This is, of course, because of the power of the Israel lobby. In response to an earlier post, a commenter asked what it is that makes the Israel lobby so powerful in controlling members of Congress. Back in 2006, in reviewing the long article that formed the basis of their book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, Michael Massing explained (paywall) how AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), the most prominent component of the Israel lobby, operates.

He says that AIPAC’s goals are clear: “What AIPAC wants can be summed up very succinctly: a powerful Israel free to occupy the territory it chooses; enfeebled Palestinians; and unquestioning support for Israel by the United States.” How does it set about doing that?

A Clinton Middle East adviser points to the embassy issue as an example of how the Israel lobby works. Like all lobbies, he says, it’s “very effective at creating background noise.” When an administration considers taking a position on some issue, it must weigh the potential gain against the “downside”—the “constant barrage” from the press, Congress, and domestic interest groups. If it’s going to require a constant, time-consuming effort, “then you ask, is it worth it?”

In late 2000, when the intifada began, the former Clinton adviser told me, there were cases in which Israel used what seemed to many to be excessive force, such as breaking the bones of young Palestinians, and exacerbated the conflict in doing so. But if administration officials had said anything “that smacked of ‘moral equivalency,’” he observed, “it would have gotten us attacks from Congress, the media, and interest groups.” After a while, he continued, officials begin to shy away from saying anything that might become controversial domestically, leading to

self-censorship in speech and action. There were many policy initiatives we were considering where we’d have to address how certain domestic constituencies would react. There was a sense of weighing what the costs would be of being viewed publicly as pressuring Israel.”

But in addition to creating this noise, there is a major element in AIPAC’s success and that is the way it influences the flow of money to candidates it supports and to the opponents of candidates it deems not supportive enough.

AIPAC itself is not a political action committee. Rather, by assessing voting records and public statements, it provides information to such committees, which donate money to candidates; AIPAC helps them to decide who Israel’s friends are according to AIPAC’s criteria. The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that analyzes political contributions, lists a total of thirty-six pro-Israel PACs, which together contributed $3.14 million to candidates in the 2004 election cycle. Pro-Israel donors give many millions more. Over the last five years, for instance, Robert Asher, together with his various relatives (a common device used to maximize contributions), has donated $148,000, mostly in sums of $1,000 or $2,000 to individual candidates.

A former AIPAC staff member described for me how the system works. A candidate will contact AIPAC and express strong sympathies with Israel. AIPAC will point out that it doesn’t endorse candidates but will offer to introduce him to people who do. Someone affiliated with AIPAC will be assigned to the candidate to act as a contact person. Checks for $500 or $1,000 from pro-Israel donors will be bundled together and provided to the candidate with a clear indication of the donors’ political views. (All of this is perfectly legal.) In addition, meetings to raise funds will be organized in various cities. Often, the candidates are from states with negligible Jewish populations.

One congressional staff member told me of the case of a Democratic candidate from a mountain state who, eager to tap into pro-Israel money, got in touch with AIPAC, which assigned him to a Manhattan software executive eager to move up in AIPAC’s organization. The executive held a fund-raising reception in his apartment on the Upper West Side, and the candidate left with $15,000. In his state’s small market for press and televised ads, that sum proved an important factor in a race he narrowly won. The congressman thus became one of hundreds of members who could be relied upon to vote AIPAC’s way. (The staffer told me the name of the congressman but asked that I withhold it in order to spare him embarrassment.)

Conversely, candidates who challenge AIPAC can find their funds suddenly dry up. Two well-publicized cases are those of Representatives Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and Earl Hilliard of Alabama, both African-Americans. In 2002, McKinney and Hilliard were alleged to have made statements or taken positions critical of Israel, and their primary opponents received large amounts of pro-Israel money. Both candidates had limited public support and ended up losing. Cases such as these occur infrequently: a candidate’s position on Israel is rarely enough by itself to cause defeat. But it can have a very large effect on fund-raising. (McKinney was reelected to Congress in 2004.)

In 1981, after leaving the Senate, Adlai Stevenson III decided to run for governor of Illinois. In the late 1970s, Stevenson had introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill in the Senate that would have cut US aid to Israel by $200 million until such time as the president could certify that Israel’s settlements policy was consistent with US policy. The amendment failed, but, as Stevenson told me, “the Israeli lobby lowered the boom. The money dried up.” The campaign, he told me, became demoralized, and his poll ratings dropped. In the end the race was so close that it was finally decided by the Illinois Supreme Court in favor of his opponent, Jim Thompson. The drop in funds, Stevenson says, “was critical.”

Cases such as this “happen almost once a year,” I was told by a Democratic congressman (who asked not to be named). Emphasizing that Israel “is never the sole thing” that causes a defeat, he proceeded to give a list of several politicians who had suffered because they had offended AIPAC.

Partly as a result of such giving, says one Hill staffer, “We can count on well over half the House—250 to 300 members—to do reflexively whatever AIPAC wants.”

The Israel lobby works like the NRA, by making a lesson of wayward congresspersons. It finds someone it can defeat and pours resources into doing so and then takes credit for that action. By that means it intimidates anyone else who might be considering opposing it because no congressperson wants to be targeted for defeat by a powerful lobby.

But while the lobby can garner public support from US congresspersons, there is considerable private criticism of Israel within the halls of government. Recently the American teenage Tariq Abu Khdeir who was brutally beaten by Israeli policemen and whose family’s home was ransacked and family members arrested went to Capitol Hill to talk about his experience and there was a large and sympathetic crowd that came to listen to him.

A lawyer representing Tariq Abu Khdeir said Friday that “there is a lot of support” from officials in Washington for the 15-year-old and his family.

“Clearly, there is not as much support as there would be had Tariq been an Israeli-American child who was attacked by Hamas,” Hassan Shibly, an attorney and executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, told me. “Nonetheless, we’re beginning to see change.”

As part of the outreach, Tariq, his mother Suha Abu Khedir, and Shibly participated in a panel for Congressional staffers held Friday at 2 p.m. in the Rayburn House Office Building. The panel, which took place in a small conference room, was so well-attended that organizers decided to repeat the hearing at 3:30. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) attended the entire panel, and was sitting on the floor.

Rep. Ellison, who also attended an event that evening featuring Tariq, Shibly, Phyllis Bennis, Noura Erakat, and Lt. Col. Ann Wright (Ret.), told me that “briefings like this are critically important.” The Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair, who recently wrote an op-ed calling on Israel to lift the siege of Gaza, said he believes more people on Capitol Hill would sympathize with Palestinians if they were aware of their treatment at the hands of the Israeli government.

Josh Ruebner, the national advocacy director for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, intoned that, increasingly, officialdom in Washington cannot claim ignorance. At the evening event on Friday – at Busboys and Poets, a restaurant chain owned by Iraqi-American artist and activist Andy Shallal – Ruebner marveled at the fact that organizers of the briefing, which he moderated, “had to turn away congressional staffers.”

“It gives me a little silver lining of hope,” he said.

Mearsheimer and Walt are tenured academics at major universities who decided that they were secure enough to publicly speak out about the negative of the Israel lobby. And they were right. Despite the extremely harsh criticisms they received, they were successful in making the existence of the Israel lobby and its operations subject to public debate.

We cannot expect individual members of Congress to challenge the lobby because they will fear retribution. What is more likely to happen is that groups of them, like members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, will take stronger and stronger stands. By flocking together, they are less likely to be targeted to be picked off individually by the lobby.


  1. aashiq says

    The irony is that AIPAC has been too successful. Israel gets whatever it wants, and is now slowly getting the rope to hang itself. Its current behavior is clearly tilting towards genocide, and ethnic cleansing.

    The term “moral hazard” applies.

  2. md says

    and if, by some small chance, it is Rand vs Hillary in 2016, would you, Mano, be willing to consider supporting Rand in this effort to change our foreign policy a bit as it regards Israel and the ME? Should that hypothetical come to pass many neoconservatives will be supporting Hillary. You wouldn’t vote with them, would you?

  3. says

    md @ 2

    and if, by some small chance, it is Rand vs Hillary in 2016, would you, Mano, be willing to consider supporting Rand in this effort to change our foreign policy a bit as it regards Israel and the ME? Should that hypothetical come to pass many neoconservatives will be supporting Hillary. You wouldn’t vote with them, would you?

    Or how about a third party? Rand Paul would be a complete disaster in too many other ways.

  4. doublereed says

    I have a hard time believing Rand Paul can get anywhere. He’s not exactly mainstream in any way. He’s tainted by his father’s legacy and neo-confederate ideology.

  5. Armored Scrum Object says

    While it’s an entrenched term by now, I’m not a fan of referring to “the Israel lobby”. That minimizes the debate and spectrum of opinion within Israel and among American Jews, implying that they’re all cut from the same ideological cloth. From what I’ve read, AIPAC and the like are more like the Likud lobby (though I gather that’s not entirely accurate either). Referring to them as though they represent Israel in general is giving them far too much credit.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Armored Scrum Object @ # 7 -- I suspect we both know gun owners with more sanity & sense than the NRA -- shall we stop talking about “the gun lobby” on those grounds?

    Getting the public and media to acknowledge the existence of the Israel Lobby has taken decades. Imagine how much work would be required to get them talking about the Zionist Lobby!

  7. Mano Singham says

    @Armored Scrum Object,

    It is interesting that you refer to it as an entrenched term. Less than a decade ago, it was a taboo term, showing how rapidly things can change.

  8. aashiq says

    The idea of getting groups (such as, a Congressional caucus) to act is interesting. It would require collective group action though, and what would catalyze it? What’s in it for them?

    Jimmy Carter has an interesting article today. His prescription? Recognize Hamas! Carter was among the first to point out that the West Bank is in a state of apartheid.

    The rest of us should boycott israeli consumer products. Without some pain (or at least, embarrassment) nothing will change.

  9. Lady Scientist says

    I wanted to thank you for your posts on Gaza. Frankly, I am so shocked and dismayed at how certain vocal, allegedly “liberal” and “atheist” members of the scientific community have seemed somewhat supportive of the latest Israeli attacks on Gaza. Israel is clearly violating international law in this case, and this is a political (colonial) conflict which one party has cast in a religious light, in hopes to gain advantage. And, now, almost 1,900 lives are extinguished in Gaza -- lives of people who were dear family members, sometimes entire families wiped out.

    A great essay from someone who lost family in this attack:

  10. Roger the Dodger says

    Pardon me, but has anyone actually found out the exact casualty breakdown? Although targeting and killing civilians is obviously immoral and illegal, there appears to be a wholehearted acceptance of the the 1,900 approx. casualties as all being civilians (in particular children). We should ask ourselves, in particular on this blog -- is this really the case? The last conflict that occurred it was known that Hamas and Fatah and even many agencies and charities deliberately falsified the casualty records (for obvious reasons of propaganda, that is not to say Israel do not do the same!) -- this should be looked into before judging surely? With regards to Lady Scientist, you refer to “almost 1,900 lives…”, even when many of those lives may well be Hamas fighters?

  11. Mano Singham says

    Roger the Dodger,

    The Washington Post has been publishing an ongoing list of casualties broken down by categories using data from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Israel Defense Forces. Currently it has 1256 civilians (of whom 380 are children), 208 militants, and 313 unknown.

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