By Lawrence Davidson
Two stories have recently appeared, each discussing a different approach to overcoming the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby that presently has enough clout to substitute its own parochial interests for the national interest. As John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, demonstrated there is a direct connection between AIPAC’s level of influence in Congress and the White House and the recent disasters that have befallen the U.S. in the Middle East. Indeed, the connection is one of sufficient intensity to have led to the creation in 2008 of a new “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby called J Street. J Street calls for Israel to accept, “borders based on the 1967 line with reciprocally agreed land swaps,” thus allowing for a two state formula settlement. The optimistic view here is that in the relatively near future J Street will become strong enough to displace AIPAC and its hard line “we must keep it all” stance on the Occupied Territories. While this prognosis might be a tad premature, the situation has progressed enough that folks involved in this effort are now discussing tactics and approaches that might speed up AIPAC’s demise. And so, our two stories.
The first story appeared in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on September 26, 2010 and is entitled “Billionaire George Soros Revealed as Mystery J Street Donor.” It is now public information that Mr. Soros sees AIPAC as “too hawkish” and so he and his family have thrown their weight behind the more compromising, “dovish” J Street. They have done so to the tune of 245,000 dollars a year. Soros has in fact been making these contributions since J Street’s founding in 2008. This is certainly not all the money the Washington based lobby obtains per year. J Street has about 10,000 donors and they provide about 11 million dollars annually.
What is important is that a man like George Soros, who is dedicated to using some of his fortune to move the world in what he feels is a progressive direction, has put his money behind the traditional approach to influencing American policy formulation. He appears to accept as a working assumption that interest group politics plays a central role in both domestic and foreign policy making. Thus, if you want to change policy you have to out-lobby the fellow who is helping to shape the one now in place. In the case of J Street this means the organization must not only be able to win the politicians’ allegiance through reasoned argument, but be capable of providing them with enough money to counter any AIPAC effort to unseat them in an election. Soros knows this and his aim is to help J Street achieve this status.
The second story comes in the form of a short essay by the Irish writer Maidhc O’Cathail that appeared in the Salem-News.com. It is entitled “The Truth Will Set U.S. Free: Breaking Israel’s Stranglehold over American Foreign Policy.” O’Cathail quotes Philip Giraldi, who is executive director of the Council for the National Interest (an organization critical of the American-Israel alliance), a former CIA officer and also a contributer to The American Conservative. Giraldi’s position is that overcoming AIPAC “must be done from the bottom up as Israel cannot be challenged in the mainstream media, Congress, and in the White House.” The tactic here is to convince enough American voters that “Israel is and always has been a strategic liability that has done immense damage to the United States and its worldwide interests” so they will be led to demand that the Congress and political parties abandon AIPAC. This has proven anything but easy. According to Jeff Gates, a former counsel for the Senate Committee on Finance, the present lack of transparency on the various sources of lobby money means that “the American public is ignorant of Israel’s all-pervasive influence.”
However, this opaqueness might also be slowly dissipating. A multiplicity of advocacy groups, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have grown up in the last ten years to publicize the brutal policies of the Israelis and U.S. complicity in them. Despite Giraldi’s opinion that challenge in the mainstream media is impossible, there has been movement even in this unlikely arena. For instance, consider the relatively wide coverage of Israel’s recent decision not to extend its settlement freeze and thereby threaten an end to the Obama administration’s efforts at peace talks. So, unlike ten years ago, one now can find articles and op-ed pieces critical of Israel and, by extension, AIPAC as well. And, while they do not yet appear frequently enough to create a tipping point in public awareness they are beginning to contribute to a slow but perceptible shift in public opinion. Even a recent poll conducted by the American Jewish organization, The Israel Project, suggests a steady decline in the number of American citizens who feel that the U.S. must continue to support Israel.
The truth is that the two approaches, one centered on the national capital and the other centered on main street, have to be pursued simultaneously. And, there is now movement at both levels. Yet the pace of change is agonizingly slow. And that fact raises the question of just how much of Palestine will be left when AIPAC’s influence is finally overcome? If the Israelis have their way what will be left is an emaciated Gaza and a rump area of the West Bank. Even though the Obama administration has promoted talks and called, unsuccessfully, for a continued settlement freeze, one suspects that it, and other foreseeable U.S. administrations, would be accepting of such a final outcome. It should be pretty clear to anyone who cares to see, that ruination is the preferred fate for any Middle East country that challenges either the U.S. or Israel. It is the adage “bomb them back to the stone age” made real. If you do not believe that, just ask an Iraqi refugee about what is left of their homeland now that the Americans have redone the landscape. Ask someone familiar with the present state of affairs in Gaza as well as the West Bank. Perpetual weakness and poverty is the fait accompli that Israel has in mind for Palestine on the day when AIPAC goes by the board. On that day they plan to have taken all that they desire and so even if Washington is persuaded to change its policies, it will no longer matter in Jerusalem.
What does all this mean for those involved in the fight against AIPAC’s influence in American foreign affairs? It means that the goal of displacing the Israel lobby is really not sufficient. The J Street people and those who are presently campaigning at the grass roots have argue the fate of U.S. national interests in broader terms. For instance,
1. It must be made clear that a rejuvenation of American interests in the Middle East and Muslim world is linked much more directly to the fate of Palestine than to Israel. If any final settlement fails to insure the creation of a viable Palestinian state, the U.S. will be blamed and our interests will continue to suffer whether we are still allied to Israel or not. It must be made clear that, as an advocate for the destruction of Palestine, AIPAC advocates the destruction of U.S. interests as well.
2. Why is this so? This is the way it is because the issue of justice is first and foremost in the minds of a billion Muslims and that at the core of this issue stands Palestine (and not head scarfs). If U.S. interests are to be forwarded in the lands with Muslim majorities, then the question of Palestine must be faced honestly and objectively. This simply cannot happen as long as a Zionist lobby has the power to monopolize policy formulation. The problem is not Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran. The problem is Israel and its American agents. They are the ones complicit in past disastrous policy decisions and they are the ones pushing for equally disastrous future ones.
3. In the face of these truths, J Street presently operates as if it is afraid of its own shadow. If J Street feels it cannot directly advocate for justice for Palestinians, then it should do so indirectly. That is, the organization should get specific about the fact that the Israel AIPAC so strongly defends is in the hands of leaders who represent a harshly anti-American ethic. Men like Avigdor Lieberman and the leaders of the Shas party are racists who want to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians from as much territory as they can. For these Israeli leaders this is not a matter of security, it is a matter of religious purity. This is an utterly un-American goal. This has to be said loudly to both the American public and the Congress.
So you see that as we move ahead we must meld the liberation of the United States from AIPAC’s wholly negative influence with the revival of U.S. national interests in the broader Middle East and Muslim world, and that in turn with the viable future of Palestine. All three must be promoted as an interlinked package. If they are not, Washington will certainly some day be free of AIPAC, but Palestine will left under the pernicious shadow of Israel. For this we will always be blamed and our interests will always suffer.
Lawrence Davidson is a Professor of Middle East History at West Chester University in West ChesterPennsylvania.He is the author of America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood (University Press of Florida, 2001), Islamic Fundamentalism (Greenwood Press, 2003), and, co-author with Arthur Goldschmidt of the Concise History of the Middle East, 8th and 9th Editions (Westview Press, 2006 and 2009). His latest book is entitled Foreign Policy, Inc.: Privatizing American National Interest (University of Kentucky Press, 2009). Professor Davidson travels often and widely in the Middle East. He also has taken on the role of public intellectual in order to explain to American audiences the impact of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Davidson is a regular contributor to Opinion Maker.