By Ari Berman,
Nation" -- -- In early March, the American Israel
Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its forty-seventh annual
conference in Washington. AIPAC's executive director spent
twenty-seven minutes reading the "roll call" of dignitaries present
at the gala dinner, which included a majority of the Senate and a
quarter of the House, along with dozens of Administration officials.
As this event illustrates, it's impossible to talk about Congress's
relationship to Israel without highlighting AIPAC, the American
Jewish community's most important voice on the Hill. The
Congressional reaction to Hezbollah's attack on Israel and Israel's
retaliatory bombing of Lebanon provide the latest example of why.
On July 18, the Senate unanimously approved a nonbinding resolution
"condemning Hamas and Hezbollah and their state sponsors and
supporting Israel's exercise of its right to self-defense." After
House majority leader John Boehner removed language from the bill
urging "all sides to protect innocent civilian life and
infrastructure," the House version passed by a landslide, 410 to 8.
AIPAC not only lobbied for the resolution; it had written it. "They
[Congress] were given a resolution by AIPAC," said former Carter
Administration National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who
addressed the House Democratic Caucus on July 19. "They didn't
AIPAC is the leading player in what is sometimes referred to as "The
Israel Lobby" -- a coalition that includes major Jewish groups,
neoconservative intellectuals and Christian Zionists. With its
impressive contacts among Hill staffers, influential grassroots
supporters and deep connections to wealthy donors, AIPAC is the
lobby's key emissary to Congress. But in many ways, AIPAC has become
greater than just another lobby; its work has made unconditional
support for Israel an accepted cost of doing business inside the
halls of Congress. AIPAC's interest, Israel's interest and America's
interest are today perceived by most elected leaders to be one and
the same. Christian conservatives increasingly aligned with AIPAC
demand unwavering support for Israel from their Republican leaders.
(In mid-July, 3,000-plus evangelicals came to town for the first
annual "Christian United for Israel" summit.) And Democrats are
equally concerned about alienating Jewish voters and Jewish donors
-- long a cornerstone of their party. Some in Congress are deeply
uncomfortable with AIPAC's militant worldview and heavyhanded
tactics, but most dare not say so publicly.
"The Bush Administration is bad enough in tolerating measures they
would not accept anywhere else but Israel," says Henry Siegman, the
former head of the American Jewish Congress and a Middle East expert
at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But the Congress, if anything,
is urging the Administration on and criticizing them even at their
most accommodating. When it comes to the Israeli-Arab conflict, the
terms of debate are so influenced by organized Jewish groups, like
AIPAC, that to be critical of Israel is to deny oneself the ability
to succeed in American politics."
There are a few internationalist Republicans in the Senate and
progressive Democrats in the House who occasionally dissent.
Representative Dennis Kucinich and twenty-three co-sponsors have
offered a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire and a
return to multiparty diplomacy between the United States and
regional powers, with no preconditions. But even the resolution's
supporters admit it isn't likely to go anywhere. Another bill
introduced by several Arab-American lawmakers that stressed the need
to minimize civilian casualties on both sides was "politically swept
under the rug," according to Representative Nick Rahall, a
Lebanese-American Democrat from West Virginia who voted against the
House resolution. Dovish American-Israeli groups, such as Americans
for Peace Now, have largely stayed out of the fight.
The latest hawkish Congressional activity is primarily intended to
show voters and potential donors that elected officials are
unwavering friends of Israel and enemies of terrorism. "It's just
for home consumption," said Representative Charlie Rangel, a
powerful New York Democrat who signed on to Kucinich's resolution.
"We don't have the support of countries that support us! What the
hell are we going to do, bomb Iran? Bomb Syria?" His colleagues,
said Rahall, "were trying to out-AIPAC AIPAC."
Discussion in Congress quickly widened beyond Israel to include a
broader policy of confrontation toward the entire Middle East.
Congressmen sent a flurry of "dear colleague" letters to one
another, hoping to pressure the Administration into tightening
sanctions on Syria and Iran, Hezbollah's two main state sponsors.
Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross addressed a packed AIPAC-sponsored
luncheon on the Hill, where, according to one aide present, Ross
told the room: "This is all about Syria and Iran ... we shouldn't be
condemning Israel now." Said Representative Robert Andrews, a
Democrat from New Jersey and co-chair of the Iran Working Group,
which this week hosted an official from the Israeli embassy: "I
concur completely with that approach."
Democrats, as they did during the Dubai ports scandal, used the
crisis to score a few cheap, easy political points against the Bush
Administration. The new prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki,
found himself engulfed in a Congressional firestorm after he
denounced Israel's attacks on Lebanon as an act of "aggression."
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel, who
volunteered in Israel during the first Gulf War, called on Maliki to
cancel his planned address before Congress. Asked Senator Chuck
Schumer, who skipped Maliki's July 26 speech: "Which side is he on
when it comes to the war on terror?" Howard Dean one upped his
colleagues, labeling Maliki an "anti-Semite" during a speech in Palm
Ironically, during the 2004 campaign Dean called on the United
States to be an "evenhanded" broker in the Middle East. That
position enraged party leaders such as House minority leader Nancy
Pelosi, who signed a letter attacking his remarks. "It was designed
to send a message: No one ever does this again," says M.J. Rosenberg
of the center-left Israel Policy Forum. "And no one has. The only
safe thing to say is: I support Israel." In April a representative
from AIPAC called Congresswoman Betty McCollum's vote against a
draconian bill severely curtailing aid to the Palestinian Authority
"support for terrorists."
Not surprisingly, most in Congress see far more harm than reward in
getting in the Israeli lobby's way. "There remains a perception of
power and fear that AIPAC can undo you," says James Zogby, president
of the Arab American Institute. He points to the defeats of
Representative Paul Findley and Senator Charles Percy in the 1980s
and Representatives Cynthia McKinney and Earl Hilliard in 2002, when
AIPAC steered large donors to their opponents. Even if AIPAC's
make-you-or-break-you reputation is largely a myth, in an election
year that perception is potent. Thirty-six pro-Israel PACs gave
$3.14 million to candidates in the 2004 election cycle. Rahall said
his opponent for re-election issued his first press release of the
campaign after Rahall voted against the House resolution. "Everybody
knew what would happen if they didn't vote yes," he says.
AIPAC continues to enjoy deep bipartisan backing inside Congress
even after two top AIPAC officials were indicted a year ago for
allegedly accepting and passing on confidential national security
secrets from a Defense Department analyst. "The US and Israel share
a lot of basic common values. The vast majority of the American
people not only support Israel's actions against Hezbollah but also
the fundamental US-Israel relationship, and the bipartisan support
in Congress reflects that," says AIPAC spokesman Josh Block.
Rosenberg, himself a former AIPAC staffer, puts it another way:
"This is the one issue on which liberals are permitted, even
expected, by donors to be mindless hawks."
By blindly following AIPAC, Congress reinforces a hard-line
consensus: Criticizing Israeli actions, even in the best of faith,
is anti-Israel and possibly anti-Semitic; enthusiastically backing
whatever military action Israel undertakes is the only acceptable
Recent Gallup polls show that half of Americans support Israel's
military campaign, yet 65 percent believe the United States should
not take sides in the conflict. But it's hard to imagine any
Congress, or subsequent Administration, returning to the role of
honest broker. What the region needs now, according to Brzezinski,
is an American leader brave enough to say: "Either I make policy on
the Middle East or AIPAC makes policy on the Middle East." One can
Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation and a Ralph
Shikes Fellow at the Public Concern Foundation. He's currently based
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