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Ari Berman: "AIPAC's Hold" (NATION)

It may be timely for the American people to ask what purpose the US
Congress actually serves

From:   John Whitbeck

TO: Distinguished Recipients

Transmitted below is a brief NATION article on how the US Congress "works".

It may be timely for the American people to ask what purpose the US
Congress actually serves. Even with an egregious executive branch, would
the country really be any worse off if the legislative branch ceased to
exist?

An argument can be made (although, assuming that the NSA reads my
e-mails, I would never dream of making it myself) that the full tragedy
of 9/11 is that the three aircraft that reached their targets did so --
and that the one that didn't didn't.


*http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060814/aipacs_hold*


   AIPAC's Hold

by ARI BERMAN

[posted online on July 29, 2006]

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 prepare
one."

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 Beach, Florida.

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 stance.

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 always dream.
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