Does Unconditional Support for Israel Endanger Israeli Voices?
by MJ Rosenberg
Moderator Janet McMahon: Hello, I’m Janet McMahon, managing editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. As Delinda [Hanley] mentioned, our first issue came out 33 years ago this month—and we’ve been tracking AIPAC and its fellow travelers ever since. In particular, we’ve been monitoring pro-Israel PAC contributions to congressional and presidential candidates since 1986. You’ll find the totals through last November’s election in our latest issue. We’ve also included in your conference bag a page of totals for all 100 U.S. senators, who only run for re-election every six years. This will allow those of you who have senators to see what they’ve been up to while you may not have been looking.
M.J. Rosenberg is a contributor to The Nation and the Huffington Post, and his writings are widely reprinted throughout the world. He has special expertise on the Israel Lobby, having been employed by several pro-Israel organizations between 1973 and 1975, and 1982 and 1986. His last post was as editor of AIPAC’s Near East Report and as senior adviser to then-Executive Director Thomas Dine.
M.J. Rosenberg: I have to say, I was struck listening to Gideon Levy from Haaretz, that he writes for a major Israeli paper, everybody reads Haaretz worldwide, but in Israel itself, and he gets away saying things that he could never say here. If Gideon Levy worked in the United States, the lobby would have him fired. There is no question about that. And that’s why when you watch MSNBC and you wait for people that you like, who are liberals and progressives, to say something good on the Palestinians, they never will. And in that regard, Israel is infinitely ahead of the United States, which means Israel has one really great thing to say about itself: there is no Israel lobby here. There’s just Israel. It just stuck me listening to him. He has no equivalent in the United States. Charles Krauthammer.
I have a somewhat unique perspective on AIPAC, owing to the fact that I was employed there for six years: as a volunteer for two years in the 70s, as a senior staffer in the ’80s. But I also did see them from Capitol Hill, where I worked for 15 years for Democratic House members and senators.
One of my tasks at AIPAC was writing its manual about Israel and the Arabs, designed to be used as a guide by students, congressional staffers, rabbis, etc. to defend Israel against the “lies” being told by the other side. It’s called “Myths & Facts,” although inside of AIPAC it was always called “Myths & Myths.”
You know, “myth.” This is standard hasbara. Myth: they say the Palestinians were driven from their homes by the Israeli army in 1948. Fact: the Palestinians actually left their homes in what became Israel in search of better lives in the West Bank and Gaza. That was part of my job, writing this stuff. But these myths have been around much longer then I’ve been.
I will use that frame “Myths & Facts” to address the most common misperceptions about AIPAC as I see them. And I want to clarify at this point, I left AIPAC in 1986 and after that, I’ve only dealt with them from the outside, from Capitol Hill, and not as a staffer. I didn’t leave them under bad terms, I wasn’t fired from AIPAC, in fact when I left in ‘86, it wasn’t as right-wing as it subsequently became. So, I’m not grinding an axe when you hear my feelings about that organization that was my employer.
But, the first myth I want to deal with is kind of a pro-AIPAC myth. It is that AIPAC’s role in intimidating members of Congress to support its demands through the use of financial pressure and intimidation is unique; that this pressure is an aberration invented by Israel’s supporters to advance the Israel’s government’s goals.
Fact: AIPAC is not an aberration. Basically every decision Congress makes is made with an eye on who has the money and how can a legislator either get some of it or avoid it being deployed against them.
No, not every decision is based on money. Issues like abortion, for instance, which is a religious kind of issue, is not based on money. But everything else is, most notably issues relating to banks, guns, Wall Street, labor, regulations to protect the consumer, health care, the environment, etc. And especially combatting any effort to prevent or reduce the effects of climate change, like when the Koch Brothers fight and lobby and use their money to prevent the development of alternative energy sources. I can hardly think of anything that AIPAC does that is less patriotic than the fact that the Koch brothers and their lobby go out there to state legislatures and city councils to make sure that they don’t authorize wind farms to allow us to be less dependant on Middle East oil. They don’t care about the Middle East oil part; they care about money in their own pocket. That’s our system today.
Yes, Middle East policy is determined by the highest bidder, which is AIPAC. But pretty much every policy discussed on Capitol Hill is determined by those with the money. If that means that democracy in America is itself a myth, so be it. Because, frankly, that is what I believe. It is not just AIPAC that is all about the money; it is everything that comes before Congress. And that’s a fact. And I say that from 15 years of being up there and watching it, and benefiting from it too, because you raise money for your bosses from the special interests that want him to do stuff for them.
The lobby’s supporters, of course, argue that it is love for Israel, the supposed fellow democracy, that is behind its support. But that was never evident to me. Yes, there are members of Congress who are true believers, who “love Israel” and are sincerely devoted to its interests as those legislators or Netanyahu sees those interests. But they are very few. In fact, of the 29 Jewish legislators currently serving, most had little or no involvement with Israel before entering politics, with most making their first visits to Israel as either candidates for office or once they were able to visit on free junkets.
Yes, they all talk about loving Israel, about having grown up on Israel, about learning about Israel in Hebrew school. But take it with a grain of salt. Barney Frank, now retired, who was a reliable AIPAC supporter, talked a good game about his love for Israel, but it wasn’t intense enough to merit more than one reference in his just-published 300-page autobiography. And he just mentions it in passing with a whole bunch of other countries. Where was Barney’s love? It’s not in his book. It’s not there.
Yes, most of the Jews in Congress care about Israel, most Jews do, but that care would likely lead them to support dovish positions and not mindless hawkishness were it not for the lobby and the financial benefits of staying in its good graces.
After all, all but one of the Jewish members of Congress are Democrats and liberals who hold dovish views on every other foreign policy issue except Israel, where for some reason they become raving hawks. Same with non-Jewish Democratic supporters of Israel. Same thing.
Honestly, can anyone believe that Bernie Sanders really believed that the Gaza war was a good idea? Or Elizabeth Warren? Or Al Franken? Or any of the other big-time progressive types who supported it, or at the very least refused to condemn it, not even expressing a word of sympathy for the killing of kids on a beach. They couldn’t say it. If you watch, there are tapes. You see them on YouTube of Bernie Sanders screaming at constituents who brought up the slaughter in Gaza, and Elizabeth Warren literally running away from a constituent who asked a question.
The same applies to the Democrats who are joining Republicans to fight the Iran agreement. These are people who always favor diplomacy over war, and certainly who support their Democratic president, especially when it comes to a diplomatic breakthrough like this. But not this time.
At this point we don’t know how many Democrats will fight Obama on lifting Iran sanctions, but it may be enough to override his veto. Just think about that: congressmen voting to override a veto by a president from their own party. Why would they do that?
The answer is that their position on this issue of war or peace is dictated by their determination to please AIPAC donors.
Chuck Schumer deserves special mention here, the next leader of Democrats in the Senate. His rise to the majority leader post, or whatever it’s going to be when he comes in, majority or minority leader, does not stem only from his charm, brilliance, or ability to place himself in front of television cameras. It comes from his ability to raise money from his base, which is viewed as, and in fact is, Wall Street and pro-Israel donors.
Schumer no more “loves” Israel than he loves Wall Street. But he loves the money that these two sources provide to his campaign coffers, and, through his efforts as chair of the Democratic Campaign Committee, to his colleagues and the Democratic Party itself. He became head of the campaign committee, would raise money from AIPAC, raise money from Wall Street, and then dole it out to all his friends in the party who are up for re-election. And then they know where it comes from.
This is important to note. Pro-Israel donors and AIPAC give so much money to candidates that the Democratic Party has, for years, been choosing only those closest to the lobby to run their campaign fund-raising operations. That is why Rahm Emanuel got to be chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, putting him both in place to block any candidate not sympathetic to AIPAC from running, which he did. He also blocked Arab Americans from running for Congress. And to grease his ascent to the top.
And that is why ambitious Democrats will do all they can to defeat Obama on Iran. It’s good for business.
As the song goes, “what’s love got to do with it?” Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Of course, there are the Christian conservatives who do love Israel or say they do. Today, a large part of that love is in fact motivated by hatred of Barack Obama. Netanyahu has made himself President Obama’s enemy, so conservative Republicans love him. And many love him and Israel for sincere reasons, religious, or because they view Israel as a bulwark against the Muslims.
Unlike legislators on the left, however, they are not hypocrites when it comes to Israel. I have nothing good to say about John McCain, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham or the rest of them, but their views on Israel fit in with their world view, which is that force works and diplomacy never does. Their support for Israel, up till now, has not been bought, because it didn’t have to be bought—although, according to this past Sunday’s New York Times, Republicans are now joining Democrats in terms of getting paid for their devotion to Israel, something Sen. Tom Cotton discovered when he wrote his letter to the president of Iran and was paid one million dollars. He probably does not need AIPAC money to win re-election in Arkansas, but the Harvard-educated veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan has his sights set higher than that. His devotion to the cause will certainly help him get there, and has already.
In general, though, the conservatives don’t matter much on matters relating to Israel. One, even for the most zealous defender of Israel in the Republican caucus, Israel is not central to them or their fund-raising. Not central to the way fighting against gays or abortions or Obama or illegal immigration. Those are all their big issues. Yes, there is Sheldon Adelson and a few others who give money to right-wing candidates, but given that 80 percent of Jews are Democrats, as are the overwhelming majority of Jewish donors, these Christian conservatives are pretty insignificant in terms of the big picture.
In all my years on Capitol Hill, I never heard a single staff member say that they had to vote for some “Palestinians don’t exist” resolution that was on the House floor because they’re afraid of the Christians. No, they’re afraid of AIPAC. And AIPAC is not a Christian organization.
The fear is awesome to behold. In 2006—this is amazing—the White House and the Israeli government agreed on an $86 million aid package for the Palestinian Authority, to strengthen the PA, to help it withstand the Hamas threat. I remember talking to the leading Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. She had heard from the Israeli government that they wanted this $86 million to go to the Palestinians and that they in fact had drawn up the package with the State Department. So, she said, that being the case, she’ll support it. Next thing I heard, she was opposing it. In fact, she said she would cut the sum in half, which she did. I paid her another call. Why had she changed her mind with the president and the Israeli prime minister in agreement behind it? She said after she spoke to me about it, she met with a senior AIPAC lobbyist who told her to cut it in half. I asked her why, and she said, “they don’t think it’s the right time.” So it’s not just the United States government that Israel is stronger than, it’s the Israeli government, too.
Now this legislator has a safe seat, but, like Schumer, she was always in the fund-raising business—for herself, for other candidates—and she also became head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Her loyalty was not to Israel but to AIPAC itself. After all, the Israeli government may be calling the shots, but it is AIPAC that is coordinating the PACs and, far more important than the PACs, the individual donors. A lot more money goes to members of Congress from individual donors than from PACs.
I saw in the news the other day that Congressman Chris Van Hollen, who is running for and likely to win the Democratic nomination for senator from Maryland, has raised a million dollars for his Senate campaign and has two million more in the bank.
That would not be the case had he not changed his tune on Israel. Back in 2006, Chris Van Hollen got into deep hot water with the lobby when he criticized Israel’s conduct of the war with Hezbollah. He expressed support for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s statement that Israel was not taking care to avoid civilian casualties.
Poor Chris. He was new then; didn’t know that such an audacious stand, expressing support for his own secretary of state, would cause the lobby to go nuts. But it did. He was summoned to explain himself to the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, the local branch of the lobby, which he did. And then he issued a statement which retracted his earlier statement, but his mea culpas were not accepted. They insisted that he go to Israel and do his repentance there. And he did.
The lobby types still didn’t trust him, but now, a decade later, with Van Hollen demonstrating his devotion, he is the lobby’s candidate, with his opponent, Rep. Donna Edwards, assigned the former Chris Van Hollen role of Israel critic. Last week, he was asked by the Baltimore Jewish paper why he had ever done that in 2006. What were you thinking? He said there was a situation where there were some differences with the community, the goals were the same, they’re always the same, which is to ensure the safety of Israel. We have shared values, shared priorities. And this issue, it’s going to be one of the biggest issues in Maryland, in the primary, that Donna Edwards is an enemy of Israel, the Jewish people. None of it’s true. And Chris Van Hollen, who has the same views as she does, he’s smartly insulated against them by making all his apologies.
That is the way it’s been for the past 30 years. That may be changing or not, something we will not know until we see how the effort to roll back the Iran agreement goes.
The Iran agreement is something the Israelis and the lobby will not tolerate, which is why they’re going to the mat to defeat this deal. If they succeed in defeating the agreement, and simultaneously President Obama, with the support of two-thirds of Congress that they induced to support Netanyahu, they will be viewed correctly as stronger than ever. They never brought down a president before. This will be a first. If, however, they lose—if, however, Obama succeeds in putting over this agreement—the lobby will be badly damaged. Not only because they lost but because, in the process, they were exposed as an ally of right-wing Republicans, not the bipartisan organization they claim to be. With the polls showing that Israel itself is increasingly out of favor with the Democratic base, they could be on the road to extinction.
But we can’t know that now. I can say, however, that I’m optimistic, but not too optimistic.
Let me conclude by congratulating American Educational Trust and the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy for convening this incredibly timely conference.
Back when I first started at AIPAC, Steve Rosen was my boss and was later indicted for espionage against the United States. (I know, he’s still around, though. You’re allowed get indicted for espionage, depends who you’re doing it for.) He sent me a now famous memo. It’s now famous because I gave it to The Washington Post. He warned me, this is my second day there, never to talk about AIPAC’s activities outside the lobby. He wrote, “A lobby is a nightflower. It thrives in the dark & shrivels up in the sunlight.”
I think that may be happening now, thanks to all our efforts. If it
does, not only the United States, but Israel, the Palestinians and
the world will be better off. This nightflower needs crushing.