Do We Need a Pro-Israel Lobby?
Six prominent thinkers and activists make their case—and their answers may surprise you
After the fall of the pro-American Shah of Iran in 1979, the Reagan Administration sought to pivot and establish Saudi Arabia as the “pillar” of American policy in the Middle East. The AWACS, really meant originally for Iran, were the bow on top of a pile of American goodies like F-15s, refueling planes, a new navy, airbases, and more. Selling to the oil-rich kingdom meant that the Defense Department could amortize its own purchases of the high-cost gizmos and weapons systems. And Saudi oil revenue would be sent back and spent in the United States.
The case for Saudi Arabia had actually been made in the previous administration. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, had argued that Israel was not a strategic ally of the United States. AIPAC had to make the case that the autocratic, corrupt, and corrupting Saudi Arabia wasn’t either. Meantime, Saudi Prince Bandar, a racquetball partner of Colin Powell’s, was provided an office on Capitol Hill by Republican Senate leaders so that he could make his rounds with ease. One Saudi lobbyist, a longtime Washington veteran who once served in the Kennedy White House, coined the slogan “Reagan or [Menachem] Begin,” attempting to challenge the patriotism of anyone who opposed the sale. (In fact, Israeli opposition to the weapons sale was lackluster.)
AIPAC’s director and I testified in Congress that the sale—and the pro-Saudi shift in policy—was bad for the United States and bad for the Middle East.
The House initially blocked the sale, but the Senate approved it 52–48 on Oct. 28, 1981, after Reagan applied the full weight of the White House’s power, supported by the “Arab Lobby,” which included arms manufacturers, oil companies, and Arab-registered foreign agents/lobbyists. An irony of the battle: Some of those who accused AIPAC, a domestic lobby, of being Israeli agents—Democratic Sen. William Fulbright comes to mind—later registered as Saudi foreign agents when they left office.
But neither the AWACS sale nor the Hagel appointment should be placed in AIPAC’s loss column. Just days after the AWACS vote, the State Department’s legislative office called AIPAC’s lobbyists to request their assistance in gathering support for passage of the Foreign Aid Bill. It has been an axiom on Capitol Hill for decades that “Israel is the engine that pulls the Foreign Aid bill through Congress” and that AIPAC is an important ally for administrations of both parties.
After the bruising AWACS fight, it was years before an administration attempted such an unjustifiable sale again. Saudi Arabia never became the pillar of U.S. policy, and by 2001, the U.S. administration had to work overtime to shield the kingdom from the embarrassing fact that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens. Pyrrhic victories for one side—which Hagel’s nomination will turn out to be—do not always translate to a loss for the other side.
Other lessons learned: Washington campaigns should be about policies, not personalities. Congress represents the American public’s sentiment, and that sentiment is strongly pro-Israel. As AIPAC’s founder, Si Kenen, once told me decades ago, administrations come and go, but Congress is constant. He also reflected on the election cycle and cautioned that in Washington, even-numbered years (run-ups to U.S. elections) are pro-Israel; odd-numbered years (after an election, such as 2013) are pro-Arab.
Lenny Ben-David worked for AIPAC in Washington and Jerusalem from 1972–1997. He served as deputy ambassador at the Israeli Embassy in Washington from 1997–2000.
We Need Shared Values, Not Just Shared Interests
By Alan Elsner
AIPAC has earned the reputation of being one of Washington’s strongest and most effective lobbies—and all American Jews should be thankful for the work it has done over the years. There is now—and likely will always be—real value in having a lobby in this country that advocates for American support for Israel. The Jewish state depends on U.S. support that transcends political partisanship and is passed from one presidential administration to the next.
But that relationship must be based on shared principles, not merely on common strategic interests. Israel’s identity as a democracy that respects and protects the rights of all its citizens, including its Arab minority, is essential to maintaining a healthy alliance. The U.S.-Israel relationship is at its core a bond between two peoples that espouse common democratic values. That’s what we should be working to preserve and to strengthen.
Polls show a growing disconnect between Israel and some important American demographic groups, especially young people and ethnic minorities. Support for Israel has weakened among Democrats. A Pew Research Center poll last December found that only 33 percent of liberal Democrats sympathize with Israel more than the Palestinians, while 75 percent of conservative Republicans side with Israel. Another poll by The Israel Project last July found 82 percent of Republicans but only 45 percent of Democrats thought the United States should be a strong supporter of Israel. Then there’s the gender gap: Women are less supportive than men. And many Jews feel alienated from Israeli policies such as the relentless drive to build settlements in the West Bank.
Policies that are perceived as undermining or compromising Israel’s democracy and respect for human rights will inevitably eat away at the U.S.-Israel relationship at the grass roots. That’s why finding a way to finally reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is so important for Israel’s future as well as for its relations with the rest of the world, including the United States.
We should be promoting U.S. policies that help advance Israel’s security and safety in ways that don’t betray shared values. That’s where J Street plays a role, providing a home for people who want to advocate for Israel without feeling bound to also endorse policies they fundamentally disagree with.
Our two nations have a strong common interest in a two-state solution. For Israel, it is a matter of safeguarding its Jewish and democratic future. For the United States, it is a paramount foreign-policy interest. Working together to attain this goal, we can preserve a healthy and vibrant U.S.-Israeli alliance over the long term.
Alan Elsner is the vice president of communications for J Street.
Pro-Israel Liberals Need To Get Their House in Order
By Noah Pollak
The good news is that the pro-Israel lobby isn’t really partisan at all: It consists of the majority of ordinary Americans who have no trouble recognizing the difference between our friends and enemies in the Middle East.
But the bad news is that beneath the surface, especially among the activists, the ground is shifting. Over the past two decades, as poll after poll shows, the right has grown friendlier toward the Jewish state and the left has grown more hostile; the right has pushed its anti-Israel figures to the margins, while the left has often embraced and promoted theirs.
The response of pro-Israel liberals? Too often it has been to pick a fight with pro-Israel conservatives and groups like mine, the Emergency Committee for Israel, by claiming we are “politicizing” support for Israel or using it as a “wedge issue.”
They have it backwards. It is the self-styled progressives who have “politicized” support for Israel by seeking to move liberal opinion and Democratic Party policy in a hostile direction. Supporters of the alliance have struck back against these attacks, and pro-Israel liberals, caught in the crossfire, have largely but not exclusively sided with the progressives—not by defending them, but by attacking critics of progressives as themselves the danger to the U.S.-Israel alliance.
They couldn’t be more wrong about either our motives or the effect of our work.
If the pro-Israel lobby is to thrive as a bipartisan political force, liberals must get their own house in order—and those who have the best prospect of encouraging liberalism’s better instincts aren’t conservatives, but fellow liberals, inside of whose camp the battle is being fought. In the coming years, we hope pro-Israel liberals come to terms with the problems in their own ranks and take up the fight against those who would turn the United States into an adversary of Israel. Despite the fact that they have done little to support conservatives who challenge the anti-Israel left, I am sure that conservatives, should pro-Israel liberals rise to the occasion, will not be shy about supporting them.
Noah Pollak is the executive director at the Emergency Committee for Israel. Follow him on Twitter @Noah Pollak.
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With the president and the prime minister otherwise occupied, will this year’s AIPAC confab bring any results?