My Experience With the Israel Lobby; The Use of Dark Money
by Former Rep. Nick Rahall
Moderator Janet McMahon: Thank you very much, M.J. [Rosenberg]. Our next two panelists are former members of Congress who did not stay in the good graces of the Israel Lobby. And there’s a third one here in the audience today that I’d like to recognize. It’s Representative Jim Moran of Virginia, who just retired. Thank you, sir. Thank you.
Now, our next speaker was first elected to Congress at the age of 27, becoming its youngest number. Democrat Nick Rahall, a grandson of Lebanese immigrants, represented West Virginia from 1977 until January of this year. Not only has he repeatedly expressed concern about America’s relationship with Israel, but he was one of only eight House members to vote against the authorization for use of military force in 2002 that preceded the Iraq war. Thank you for that.
Nick Rahall: Thank you very much, Janet. I appreciate that introduction. I want to thank you and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and, Andy Killgore, your publisher and founder, Delinda Hanley, Grant Smith, and also the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy, for putting together this very important conference, and for all the work that has gone into making this the success that it is.
I want to also recognize a dear friend besides my former colleague, Jim Moran, who’s already been recognized. Another dear friend of all of us that’s in the room, the Arab League Ambassador Mohammed Al-Hussaini, who’s sitting right here in the front row. Mr. ambassador, good to see you. Wow, after that previous speaker, I guess I’m going to be kind of tame. And my former colleague, Paul Findley, as well, from whom you’re going to hear, but it’s so good to see you again, Paul, and to have met your son here as well.
My first encounter with the Israeli lobby—wow, it didn’t take long to think about that, because shortly after I was elected to Congress in 1977, I, along with a couple of my colleagues, went to the Middle East, several in the delegation—Toby Moffett, Mary Rose Oakar—were of Lebanese ancestry, as I am, and we put Lebanon first on our itinerary. Word got out pretty soon that we were going to Lebanon first. The lobby swung into action: We know you’re a new member of Congress, but don’t you know nobody goes to the Middle East without going to Israel first? And then we’ll make sure you get into Lebanon or wherever else you want to go. We said no. We had made an executive decision and we decided, no, we’re going to go to Lebanon first, the land of our grandfathers, and that’s what we did. Well, that was my first encounter. Things didn’t get much better after that.
A couple of years later, 1982. Israel starts bombing Lebanon, ostensibly to rid the country of the PLO and to free its border from shelling from PLO terrorists into Israel. Okay, it went on awhile. It became pretty clear to myself that this was going a little bit beyond than just ridding southern Lebanon of the PLO when bombs started falling in Beirut. So I took the floor in the House, made the press back in my home district and everything. Pretty critical of Israel, that Ariel Sharon, the defense minister, was out of control, that Israel was acting like a monster and wanting to take over not just southern Lebanon but all of Lebanon. And my statements got press.
The Speaker of the House then, Tip O’Neill, came to me and said, “Nick, I want you to lead a congressional delegation and go to Beirut and whatever countries in the Middle East you want. I’ll give you the plane, and come back and give us all a report.” I said, “Yes, Mr. Speaker. I’m honored you invited me to do that.” So we had a CODEL that July, the end of July 1982. I was the chairman; Mary Rose Oakar a member; Mervyn Dymally, the late Mervyn Dymally from California; David Bonior, who later became majority whip of the House of Representatives; and Pete McCloskey. You’ll recall all these members, Paul. And Elliott Levitas, a Jewish member from Georgia.
We took off. We ended up our whole itinerary covered six countries, meeting with five heads of states. The only one we did not meet with was the king of Jordan. He was unavoidably out of the country at that time. But we went into Lebanon and we were able to meet with Chairman Arafat in the bowels of Beirut at the end of July, with Israeli bombs falling all over the place. Several different rendezvous during the course of a 24-hour period to escape our State Department escorts who, you know, wanted to make sure we didn’t do such silly stuff against U.S. law. They kept on warning us, you can be imprisoned for meeting with Arafat, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
And we went on with it anyway. We came out of that meeting about 4:00 AM that night, all the press of the world was there waiting for us. They’d already heard about the meeting. Chairman Arafat signed a piece of paper that we put in front of him that said he recognized all U.N. resolutions relevant to the Palestinian question. It’s debatable: it’s debatable then, it’s been debatable since, whether that really meant recognition of Israel or not. I thought, and still think, it did. Although it may have taken a couple of years later for him to formally do that, two-state solution recognized, et cetera.
But when we came back home, the speaker, of course, very much insisted on a report on our trip. We met with him. We met with officials of the White House to brief them, the National Security Council, et cetera. Well, four of my colleagues, which shall remain nameless at this point, but they introduced the resolution on the floor of the House to impeach those of us who met with Arafat for treason. For treason.
The New York Post ran our pictures front page—the most- wanted with the most ugly mug shots they could find—with the four of us who met with Arafat. Elliott Levitas, rather, did not, I must say, did not meet with Arafat. Although the next day, we had meetings scheduled with Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. When the worldwide press hit—we just met with Arafat the night before—they immediately cancelled. Elliott Levitas got on the phone to Menachem Begin’s office, he said, “Listen, Mr. Prime Minister, this is a Jewish member of Congress. I don’t care who my colleagues met with yesterday, you’re going to continue your appointment with them and you’re going to meet with them or you’ll have trouble from this Jewish member of Congress when I get back home.”
Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Sharon put us back on their schedule, we met with them. We went into Ariel Sharon’s office. It became a shouting match right off the bat. We questioned him on the use of cluster bombs, against agreements with the United States, when they were using those bombs for offensive purposes rather than defensive purposes. And one thing that struck me right off the bat was a map on the wall in Ariel Sharon’s office. There was no Lebanon. There was no Jordan. There were no boundaries at all; it was all Israel. Scary. Really scary.
So fast forward a couple of years, after we got through ‘82, I went back later that year with the late Jack Murtha to view our peacekeeping forces when we were truly peacekeeping forces at the end of ‘82, when we were there to evacuate the innocent PLO, or all the PLO, actually, from Lebanon as part of the agreement. But fast forward to the years of Oslo in ‘93, things looked pretty good. I was invited to go with President Clinton, and actually in ‘98, after Oslo, with him to Palestine, to Gaza. He was the first U.S. president to set foot on Palestinian soil. We opened the Gaza Airport, we met with Arafat. President Clinton spoke to the Palestinian National Council. Arafat spoke right after him. It was all hunky-dory, everything was great.
That evening in the suite at the King David [Hotel], when we had our nightly meeting to find out what all we did during the course of the day, President Clinton was scheduled to address the Knesset the next day. He puts his arm around me and he says, “Nick,”—and Sandy Berger is right there on one side and Madeleine Albright on the other side. He said, “I’m feeling a little bad, I’m wondering if you’ll give my address to the Knesset tomorrow.” I thought Madeleine Albright was going to have a heart attack. The president, of course, was kidding.
Then in ‘95, my experience with the Israeli lobby, I get a letter of invitation to go to Israel, May of 1995, with AIPAC. I looked at the letter, did a couple of double takes. I said, this can’t be real. I asked my staff, please verify that this letter came from AIPAC and that this individual really signed the invitation. They checked it out and came back and said, “Boss, this letter is a real invite, it’s not a hoax.” I said, “Okay, I’m going to accept. I’ll go.”
I think AIPAC was just as surprised I accepted it as I was that they had invited me. But I did go on that trip, and I said, under one condition, that is that I can sneak over to Gaza, go over to Gaza, and in any I want to, in order to meet with Chairman Arafat. They thought about it for a couple of days and came back and said, “Yes, that’s fine.” I don’t think they believed I was really going to do it.
We get in Tel Aviv the night before I was scheduled to go into Gaza and meet with Arafat. AIPAC finds out I’m serious, I’m really going over the next day and meet with Arafat. So that night, a couple members of AIPAC’s board come to me and say, “Hey, Nick. Can we go over with you? Can we go with you?” So I made some calls and, yes, it was agreed. The next day, several members of the board of directors of AIPAC went with Nick Rahall to meet with Yasser Arafat in Gaza. They were just stumbling over themselves to get their pictures taken with him after our meeting ended up.
Of course, after that it’s all history. It’s gone downhill. But the
lobby—you know, much has been said about the lobby, the Jewish
lobby. And it’s just so massive and so all-inclusive that it’s hard
to put a finger on one individual—in fact, over the previous years,
I will get to the present day in a moment—but it’s harder to find
any one group and then, of course, that’s their goal. And let me say
a word about lobbies. It’s part of our small democratic system of
government in this country. Any ethnic group—Jewish, Arab, Greek,
Italian, Spanish—has the right to organize and petition their
government for redress of their grievances. Democratic right. I have
no problem with that. Where my problem comes in is when those
lobbies put the interest of the country, a foreign country, from
which they come, ahead of the interest of the United States of
America and not register as a foreign agent, which is also required
by our laws.
So to lobby is fine. M.J.’s mentioned the many different lobbies that exist here and the way in which members of Congress react, and I don’t deny a bit of that. But I think in the case of the Israelis, the Jewish lobby, they are so many light years ahead of all the others. There may be disagreements within the various groups that comprise the Jewish lobby. There are disagreements, I’m sure, but the public image is presented as one unified voice.
The Arab lobby, light years behind. There’s many different groups
across this town, across America, that represent various Arab
groups. They have different agendas—whether it’s to fight
discrimination, whether it’s to lobby to get Americans of Arab
descendant elected, whether it’s to lobby the Congress of the United
States—whatever their goal, they’re all worthy, good goals.
But these disagreements and those disagreements between those groups often hit the press much more than disagreements within Jewish lobbying organizations. And, of course, as the ambassador knows, there are disagreements in the Arab world among Arab countries. Unfortunately, that hurts the Arab message, if there is one, when it comes to lobbying the Congress or changing American public opinion. We’re making progress? Yes, I think the more and more that the media comes around to demonstrating what’s happening on the ground in the Middle East, the more Americans and legislators travel to the Middle East—and not with AIPAC, but in an objective fashion—and see the facts on the ground, the more, at least privately, minds are changing in this city and on Capitol Hill. Note, I said the word privately.
So there are groups that lobby in this town that put America’s best interest first, and that is my biggest concern when it comes to the Jewish lobby. There are too many times, and certainly the Mearsheimer and Walt report in 2006—we all recall that report on lobbying or the lobby in this country—gives numerous examples of where American politicians’ minds have been changed when they’ve perhaps almost stepped over that line, or maybe even did step over that line, in criticizing Israel, and maybe even used the words my good friend Paul Findley has used, which is let’s have an objective American foreign policy that allows Americans to be objective so they can bring the sides together and reach a comprehensive peace. That, as we know, has been a trip word that has caused many a politician to run amok of the lobby and therefore have to retract and have to do what has been described that certain candidates for Senate in Maryland has just been doing recently.
Today, ever since 2010, in the Citizens United decision by our illustrious George Bush-appointed Supreme Court, the way lobbying is done, the way campaign expenditures are amassed, is quite different. Today we have unregulated and undisclosed humongous amounts of money being spent in political campaigns. The U.S. Supreme Court and Citizens United opened that up through the Freedom of Speech Clause. Now, I have no problem with freedom of speech. What I have a problem with is the undisclosed nature of that decision, whereby these monies can be given to these independent expenditure groups and nobody will ever know who gave the money to those groups.
Now, when we ran our personal campaigns, every penny coming in had to be reported, every payment going out had to be reported. But not so with these independent expenditures. And by the very nature of their being legal, they cannot be pro- any candidate. They have to be anti-, thereby lending so much more to negativity about campaigns today and the dysfunctionality and the polarization of Congress after the elections. This is certainly one of the biggest factors in that dysfunctionality, it’s this Citizen’s United decision. It’s anti- whether it’s the incumbent or a challenger. The person that benefits from all that negativity never has to report a penny on his or her campaign expenditure, or anything about the millions of dollars of ads ran against their opponent.
What do we know? That lends to the question, what does that person stand for? Who benefits from all the negative against the other person? We don’t know. Never does that person have to say what he or she stands for. So what we’ve seen is a hijacking of our democracy by these outside independent expenditures. There’s front groups, of course. Like in my case in this past election, the front group was Americans for Prosperity, AFP. The public name associated with AFP, the Koch brothers. Their total expenditure in my congressional race was probably $14 million by most reports. That includes all of the independent expenditures and my opponent’s spending as well.
And again, we have no idea where the money for the AFP, Americans for Prosperity or prosperous, whatever you want to call it, we have no idea who gave to them. I don’t know whether it’s my co-operator’s money. I highly suspect it. I don’t know whether Sheldon Adelson’s money was involved. I highly suspect it, although he had his own separate group that he gave to. He called it the Young Guns. That was a major part of the Republican operation last November.
So what we’ve seen now are these billionaires, whether they’re Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and others. And there’s billionaires on the Democratic side. I don’t mean to paint this all as one side, but these billionaires using these dark money expenditures have actually dwarfed AIPAC. I mean, AIPAC was like a little lamb, a pauper going around the street asking for money these days. And the perfect example of how I think they’re controlling the strings in the Congress was, first of all, this year, the invitation to the prime minister of Israel to address Congress without State Department okay, without White House okay, and two weeks before a domestic political campaign in the State of Israel. Inviting the prime minister to come and give a political speech before the Congress of the United States two weeks before his toughest re-election in his life.
What was that followed up by? A letter signed by 47 senators to Iran, not to the president of our country but to Iran, expressing their deepest problems with what even—it’s not even a deal now, of a U.S.-Iran Nuclear Arms Control Agreement. I want one as much as the Israelis, believe me, I don’t want to see Iran develop nuclear weapons. And I have the same concern that our allies in the region have. But by golly, you don’t do it, as it has been described already today, by continuing to spread fear.
We saw what happened when Ariel Sharon and George Bush’s son did that in Iraq. It’s Iraq all over again. The falsification of what the threat is, and certainly Iran is not an existential threat to the United States—and it may be to Israel, I’m not going to debate Israel politics on that—but there we find Israel and United States interest diverging. They’re not one and the same. We can deal with Iran in a little different perspective than can Israel. We should not have 47 United States senators sending a letter to Iran trying to tell them what the Congress of the United States are going to do and how they’re going to override the president, because this is just not in our best interest, in my opinion.
Now, the fact that the gentleman from Arkansas, the originator of this letter, been in the Senate, what, for 49 days? I guess he knows everything about the world. But anyway, the fact that he had to deny that this letter was cooked up in a suite of Sheldon Adelson’s in Nevada, the fact the he even had to deny that publicly, I think speaks something, too, about where the origins of this letter really came from. There, again, we see a hijacking of our democracy in this country by billionaires intent on controlling the Republican leadership of this Congress. That is so disheartening, disconcerting, disastrous, damnable to the best interest of the United States of America and to our foreign policy. It leads other countries to say, what’s going on in the United States? Are they trusting the prime minister of a foreign country before they’re trusting the word of their own president of the United States? Then how can we trust the United States? I mean, just think about what a message that is.
And getting back to the Koch brothers, and M.J. referenced this when
he talked about how they wanted to defeat everything other than, I
don’t think he quite said this but I’ll say it, other than what is
oil-based. Here they come into West Virginia. I may be the most
pro-coal Democratic member of Congress in the Congress of United
States. They ran a campaign against me being anti-coal as if they’re
pro-coal, when you know the real reason is they’re pro-oil and gas.
That’s where they made their money, so why shouldn’t they be after
the most pro-coal Democrat in the United States Congress? Their own
hidden agendas, their own profits is what’s running this and, again,
I think it’s frightening for the future of democracy in this
So let me try to say one last word about the lobby, and to say that it would appear that the mere existence of the lobby and all its ramifications in this country suggests that unconditional support for Israel—unconditional support, the blank check mentality, the Pavlovian reflex of so many in the Congress toward Israel—is not in America’s national interest. If it was, why would one need such an organized, well-organized, well-oiled special interest group to bring it about?
So I conclude by saying once again, I want to thank everybody that has put this conference together. I think you have provided a forum for some thought-provoking ideas, some debate, certainly much more debate on the question probably in this one day than I’ve seen in my 38 years on the floor of the House of Representatives, but at least the debate is there. Thank you to each of you.