How the Israel Lobby Set Congressman, Beto O'Rourke
What Happens When Freshman Lawmaker Misses the Memo
By Nathan Guttman
November 12, 2014 "ICH" - "The
It took only one wrong vote to teach a freshman
Democrat from Texas how sensitive, and even
wrathful, the Jewish community can be when it comes
But the real
story of what happened to Rep. Beto O’Rourke did not
stop with the angry reaction he got when he cast one
of only eight votes in Congress against special
funding for Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense system
during the recent Gaza war.
notable is how quickly the carrot followed the
almost a textbook case of how the establishment
pro-Israel lobby works its magic — and a story not
yet completed in early September, when
The New Yorker magazine took note of what had
happened to O’Rourke.
in-depth report on the work of the American Israel
Public Affairs Committee, the large Washington-based
lobby, during the Gaza war, New Yorker writer Connie
Bruck recounted the blasts that rained down on the
El Paso congressman following his vote.
reactions, as Bruck reported, included a mass email
blast labeling O’Rourke as “an anti-Israel
congressman” and denouncing his vote as “shameful.”
Critical local press coverage included a public
comment by one of his own Jewish donors to the El
Paso Times that in voting as he did, O’Rourke
“chooses to side with the rocket launchers and
terror tunnel builders” of Hamas.
then, behind the scenes, what has followed is a long
process of mutual outreach and hours of hashing out
differences, until the final act, which is now in
the works: an El Al flight to Tel Aviv on the
pro-Israel lobby’s dime.
good guy, but he didn’t know how the Jewish
community would react,” said Daniel Cheifec,
executive director of the Jewish Federation of El
Paso. “Now he knows that this community is not going
to be very happy if he screws up again.”
in fact, had no prior record of criticizing or
voting against Israel. He did not even oppose more
funding for the Iron Dome system. He only opposed
rushing through the large appropriation with no
debate as members of Congress were hurrying home for
the summer recess when a more considered vote to
boost the program was coming in October.
which receives more than $3.6 billion per year in
various forms of aid from Washington, is already the
single largest recipient of American largesse. But
the August 1 House vote appropriating $225 million
to Israel above and beyond its usual aid was meant
to allow the Jewish state to restock on Iron Dome
interceptors that had proved effective in countering
Hamas rocket attacks into the country.
Congressional leaders squeezed the vote into the
legislative schedule just as members were packing up
to leave for their summer recess. The overwhelming
support of 395 representatives with only eight
voting against was not unusual for a pro-Israel
piece of legislation, especially one that deals with
military assistance at a time of war.
don’t understand how he makes his decision,” Rabbi
Stephen Leon of Congregation B’Nai Zion, a local
synagogue, told the
El Paso Times even before The New Yorker piece
picked up on the pushback. “It’s a great, great
disappointment to the Jewish community here. We had
meetings with him prior, to talk to him about the
importance of Israel, and the way he voted makes
very little sense.”
El Paso, a
city with a 70% Hispanic majority, has a relatively
small Jewish community, estimated at 4,000, amid a
population of some 862,000. But Jews are well
represented on O’Rourke’s donor list, with local
businessman Stephen L. Feinberg among the top
contributors to his campaign.
in a Facebook posting, tried to explain his vote. “I
could not in good conscience vote for borrowing $225
million more to send to Israel, without debate and
without discussion, in the midst of a war that has
cost more than a thousand civilian lives already,
too many of them children,” he wrote. He also
stressed that with an aid package for Israel up for
a vote in two months, he felt no need to rush more
spending without adequate debate when Congress was
all but empty.
of the Jewish community who later spoke with him,
O’Rourke also explained that he was one of the last
to vote in the roll call, at a point at which it was
clear the bill was cruising toward passage. He
consequently felt free to cast a vote on principle,
knowing it would not impact the final outcome.
O’Rourke believes that every appropriation should be
Democrat Jim Moran of Virginia, who is known for
refusing to vote along the lines of the pro-Israel
lobby, tried to warn O’Rourke. “I tried to find him
on the floor, but I couldn’t,” he told The New
Yorker. “I’m afraid he may have a tough race in
O’Rourke’s office, emails flooded his inbox. The El
Paso Jewish federation sent out an alert to members,
urging them to take action. It contained O’Rourke’s
contact information and a suggested sample letter.
Another email, for which no one will now take
responsibility, circulated among Jewish activists
urging supporters not to re-elect him.
is all but empty, since O’Rourke faces no real
challenge in his strongly Democratic district.
for Robert) O’Rourke, 41, is a fourth-generation El
Paso native who started off his career in a
teenage rock band. He studied at Columbia
University and returned to his hometown, where he
ran for city council before moving on to the
national scene. His political focus has been on
immigration and veteran affairs, two key issues for
a border town that hosts a large army base. But he
won more recognition for his call to legalize
marijuana, an uncommon voice in the state of Texas.
Foreign policy has never been a top priority.
the controversial vote, O’Rourke launched a
damage-control campaign that proved to be effective.
He reached out to Jewish donors and friends who were
more than happy to start the healing process.
was arranged with a group of 10 pro-Israel local
leaders, including key members of AIPAC, along with
heads of the local synagogues and of the Jewish
federation. “We didn’t ask him to apologize for his
vote,” Stuart Schwartz, a former county commissioner
and longtime AIPAC supporter, told the Forward. “He
is a very principled man, and he believed that his
vote was justified under these circumstances.” It
was Schwartz who earlier denounced him for having
sided with “the rocket launchers and terror tunnel
explained that it was particularly painful for us,”
Schwartz added, “and he understood there is a lot of
first meeting came another and then a third one. In
between, pro-Israel activists sent O’Rourke articles
explaining Israel’s position. O’Rourke also met with
the Israeli consul general to the Southwest, Meir
Shlomo, and invited federation leaders to meet with
him in Washington when they come to the capital for
the Jewish federations’ General Assembly in
participants said, were friendly and open. O’Rourke,
they reported, took real interest and noted that his
voting record makes clear he had never opposed
American aid to Israel. He even doled out an
anecdote about some Jewish ancestry in his family.
Pro-Israel activists came out satisfied, attributing
the vote against Iron Dome to a freshman’s mistake
rather than to a pattern of anti-Israel voting. “A
bump in the road,” in the words of Schwartz.
according to Cheifec, even absorbed some of the
pro-Israel activists’ skepticism regarding talks
aimed at dismantling Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
“He told us he is a lot less optimistic about a
diplomatic solution with Iran than he was in our
first meeting, and that was only a month and half
ago,” he said. “This means he is doing his
initially agreed, but then later he declined to be
interviewed for this article.
chapter in his run-in with the pro-Israel lobby will
be written soon. In the spring, or perhaps even
sooner, O’Rourke will join a group of lawmakers
going to Israel on a trip arranged by an AIPAC-affiliated
pleased he will be setting aside time to visit
Israel,” Schwartz said.
Contact Nathan Guttman at
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Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson (Colin Powell's former
chief-of-staff) explains how the lobby's influence
affects the decision-making structure in the White