Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A new Israel Lobby?

Dec. 19, 2006 | This past June, on my last day working as a speechwriter for the Israeli government -- first at the United Nations and then in the prime minister's office -- I met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in his private office at the Israeli parliament to discuss a speech he had just given to the U.S. Congress. The speech, which I helped write, was largely about the future of U.S.-Israeli relations, and we discussed how it had gone over. Also at the meeting was a high-ranking official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and when we left the building together, he told me that the next day officials from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful lobbying group, would be visiting. He asked if I had any suggestions about what to tell them about how they could more effectively help Israel in Washington.

"Some people would say that maybe the best thing would be for them not to be so reflexively pro-Israel on every issue," I said.

He laughed. "Well, I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon," he said. I suggested that such a rebalancing might be beneficial for all who were interested in supporting Israel, and he conceded that, yes, "just maybe" it would.

Many American Jews, it seems, have similar feelings. Eighty-seven percent of them voted Democratic in the recent midterms -- the highest number since 1994 -- belying the oft-repeated claim that the Bush administration's staunch support for Israel would move the traditionally Democratic Jewish vote toward the Republicans. The fact is that most American Jews, and many other American supporters of Israel, do not see eye-to-eye on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the most hawkish, knee-jerk Israel supporters in the U.S. government -- even if their presumed leadership, represented by AIPAC, often appears to do so. Moreover, AIPAC's influence in Washington may soon begin to decline, as a powerful new alliance of left-leaning friends of Israel has begun to emerge, with the express aim of reshaping U.S. strategy on the region's most intractable problem.

If the Bush administration decides to seriously reevaluate its strategy in the Middle East in the wake of the Iraq Study Group's recent report -- and among its recommendations is prioritizing a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- it will have to deal with a minefield of interest groups. That will surely include AIPAC, a juggernaut that the New York Times has called the "most important organization affecting America's relationship with Israel."

In "The Israel Lobby," their highly controversial article earlier this year, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer argued that AIPAC, along with a very wide array of allies, pushes American foreign policy inflexibly in a pro-Israel direction. The article was criticized as simplistic, sloppy and above all reductive, but in its core suggestion that AIPAC often hinders the American government's ability to freely maneuver in the Middle East, it is difficult to argue with. As AIPAC itself proudly reports, the organization is "consistently ranked as the most influential foreign policy lobbying organization on Capitol Hill," and it uses this influence to very successfully push a viewpoint that its critics claim puts Israel's total military dominance above efforts to broker Middle East peace.

AIPAC suffered a relatively small but symbolic defeat this past year -- one that may prove to have been a turning point. Earlier in the year, AIPAC put all its muscle behind a congressional bill called the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which even some pro-Israel observers called "draconian." Going beyond even the Bush administration's own hard-line stance on the Hamas-led Palestinian government, it would have essentially cut off all American contact with any element of the Palestinian leadership, and hampered the U.S. government's ability to strengthen Palestinian moderates.

A group of small, left-leaning Jewish lobby groups, including the Israel Policy Forum, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, banded together to battle AIPAC on the issue, and in the end were successful. A watered-down version of the bill was passed, with what they saw as the problematic language stripped away. An AIPAC official recently told me that AIPAC was satisfied with the softer bill's passage -- but it is quite clear that the incident represented a defeat for the organization.


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