CNI in the News
week saw yet another reminder of the awesome power of "the lobby". The
American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) brought more than 6,000
activists to Washington for its annual policy conference. And they
proceeded to live up to their critics' darkest fears.
They heard from the four most powerful people on Capitol HillNancy
Pelosi and John Boehner from the House, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell
from the Senateas well as the vice-president (who called his talk "The
United States and Israel: United We Stand") and sundry other
power-brokers. Several first-division presidential candidates held
The display of muscle was almost equalled by the display of unnerving
efficiency. There were booths for "congressional check-in", booths for
"delegate banquet troubleshooting", and booths full of helpful young
people. The only discordant note was sounded by a group of a dozen
protestersOrthodox Jews in beards, side-curls and heavy black
coatsholding up signs saying "Stop AIPAC", "Torah forbids Jews
dictating foreign policy", and "Judaism rejects the state of Israel".
The lobbyists had every reason to feel proud of their work. Congress has
more Jewish members than ever before: 30 in the House and a remarkable
13 in the Senate. (There are now more Jews in Congress than
Episcopalians.) Both parties are competing with each other to be the
"soundest" on Israel. About two-thirds of Americans hold a favourable
view of the place.
Yet they have reason to feel a bit nervous, too. The Iraq debacle has
produced a fierce backlash against pro-war hawks, of which AIPAC was
certainly one. It has also encouraged serious people to ask awkward
questions about America's alliance with Israel. And a growing number of
people want to push against AIPAC. One pressure group, the Council for
the National Interestrun by two retired congressmen, Paul Findley, a
Republican, and James Abourezk, a Democrateven bills itself as the
anti-AIPAC. The Leviathan may be mightier than ever, but there are more
and more Captain Ahabs trying to get their harpoons in.
Some of the most determined are Arab-Americans, who have been growing in
numbers and influence for yearsthere are probably about 3.5m of
themand who have been in the eye of a political storm since September
11th 2001. They are a growing political force in northern Ohio and
Michigan, and their institutions, such as the Arab American Institute
and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), have plenty of
access to Middle Eastern money.
But so far their performance has been unimpressive. James Zogby has been
promising a breakthrough for his Arab American Institute for 20 years.
CAIR remains marginal. Arab-Americans are badly split between Christians
(63%) and Muslims (24%). They have also been late in taking to politics.
Between 1990 and 2004 Arab-Americans donated $788,968 to candidates and
parties, compared with $56.8m from pro-Israeli groups.
AIPAC's ace in the hole is the idea that it represents Jewish interests
in a country that is generally philo-Semitic. But liberal Jewish groups
retort that it represents only a sliver of Jewish opinion. A number of
more liberal groups have started to use their political musclegroups
such as the Religious Action Centre of Reform Judaism, Americans for
Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum. These groups scored a significant
victory over AIPAC by persuading Congress to water down a particularly
uncompromising bit of legislation, the Palestinian Anti-terrorism Act,
which would have prevented any American contact with the Palestinian
leadership. This accomplishment led to a flurry of speculation that
George Soros might try to institutionalise this successful alliance by
creating a liberal version of AIPAC.
It has yet to materialise. And it is doubtful whether Mr Soros, a
left-wing Democrat who has little sympathy with Israel, would be the
best patron for such an organisation. But the growing activism of
liberal Jewish groups underlines a worrying fact for AIPAC: most Jews
are fairly left-wing. Fully 77% of them think that the Iraq war was a
mistake compared with 52% of all Americans. Eighty-seven per cent of
Jews voted for the Democrats in 2006, and all but four of the Jews in
Congress are Democrats.
An even bigger threat to AIPAC comes from the general climate of
opinion. It is suddenly becoming possible for serious peoplepoliticians
and policymakers as well as academicsto ask hard questions about
America's relationship with Israel. Is America pursuing its own
interests in the Middle East, or Israel's? Should America tie itself so
closely to the Israeli government's policies or should it forge other
Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser, worries that
America is seen in the Middle East as "acting increasingly on behalf of
Israel". Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, has compared the
situation in Palestine to segregation, and argued that there could "be
no greater legacy for America than to help bring into being a
Palestinian state". Philip Zelikow, her former counsellor, argues, in
diplomatic language, that the only way to create a viable coalition
against terrorists that includes Europeans, moderate Arabs and Israelis,
is a "sense that Arab-Israeli issues are being addressed".
The biggest challenge facing AIPAC is how to deal with this changing
climate. Its members have been admirably honest about their mission in
life. They boast about passing more than a hundred bits of pro-Israel
legislation a year. But they are too willing to close down the debate
with explosive charges of anti-Israel bias when people ask whether this
is a good thing. America needs an open debate about its role in the
Middle Eastand AIPAC needs to take a positive role in that debate if it
is to remain such a mighty force in American politics.
Council for the National Interest Foundation
1250 4th Street SW, Suite WG-1
Washington, District of Columbia 20024