U.S. Policy Is Pro-Israel Because Americans Are Pro-Israel, Not Because of AIPAC
Indeed, the ‘Israel Lobby’ can only succeed because voters’ views give politicians the incentive to seek ‘pro-Israel’ bona fides
This weekend, when the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee opens, critics of the organization will inevitably bemoan its “stranglehold” on the American government and insist that if not for AIPAC’s influence and “unlimited funds,” the foreign policy of the United States in the Middle East would be dramatically different. And they will find some unlikely allies—including the organization itself.
Because to hear AIPAC tell it, their detractors are mostly right—at least about the group’s ability to get results in Washington. In a town where perception is power, AIPAC never misses an opportunity to take credit for fostering pro-Israel sentiment in Congress and across America—from Iran sanctions legislation to U.S. aid to Israel. “You see this napkin?” a foreign policy director for AIPAC once challenged a reporter. “In 24 hours, we could have the signatures of 70 senators on this napkin.” Indeed, the centerpiece of AIPAC’s annual convention is its roll call of congressional supporters—a visual demonstration of the lobby’s seemingly unparalleled clout.
These outsized portraits of AIPAC’s power serve the interests of both its supporters, who aim to reinforce the lobby’s standing in Washington, and its opponents, who seek to cast pro-Israel activists as master manipulators who lead the country astray from its national interest. For both sides, America’s persistent pro-Israel tilt is predominantly due to the indefatigable efforts of its pro-Israel lobby. This narrative is so convenient that it’s easy to overlook its fundamental flaw: It has everything backwards.
Consider this: Last March, Gallup released a remarkable poll under the headline “Americans’ Sympathies for Israel Match All-Time High.” It revealed that Americans “lean heavily toward the Israelis over the Palestinians, 64 percent vs. 12 percent” and went on to note that “Americans’ partiality for Israel has consistently exceeded 60 percent since 2010; however, today’s 64 percent ties the highest Gallup has recorded in a quarter century.” Last week, Gallup found that American favorability toward Israel had reached 72 percent, an approval rating that dwarfed all other Middle Eastern countries. These results accord with decades’ worth of similar polls taken by Pew, which found in 2012 that Americans favored Israel over the Palestinians by a 5-to-1 ratio.
The upshot of these figures is clear: Politicians tilt toward Israel because their voters do. When AIPAC lobbies Congress on the Jewish state’s behalf, it is knocking on an open door, thanks to the lopsided convictions of the American electorate. As Bard College’s Walter Russell Mead, who is writing a book on the roots of popular support for Israel, has put it, “When the House and the Senate overwhelming[ly] endorse pro-Israel resolutions, and when they tell presidents that they can’t cut Israel’s aid, those politicians are responding to the will of their constituents.” In other words, it is not the Israel lobby that creates support for Israel, it is American support for Israel that created and empowers the Israel lobby.
That backing is so robust because it has so many sources: a sense of shared democratic values between Americans and Israelis; a post-Sept. 11 affinity forged by the common threat of terrorism; deep Christian Zionism of many shades; Israel’s strategic role as an American proxy from the Cold War to the present; mutually beneficial high-level intelligence and military ties between the two countries; and historically unprecedented levels of American philo-Semitism. AIPAC’s influence is the effect of these trends, not their cause. Its success is a reflection of the will of the American people, not some external agenda foisted upon them.
Tellingly, one finds the exact opposite phenomenon in Europe, where many of the factors seen in the United States are absent. More than a decade of polling by the European Commission and the BBC has found that large majorities of EU citizens rank Israel as one of the greatest threats to world peace, often ahead of even Iran and North Korea. Unsurprisingly given these sentiments, European governments and civil society have been far more critical of Israeli policy, as evidenced by a vibrant boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, as well as the EU’s efforts to label Israeli settlement products and exclude the occupied territories from its contracts with Israel. Seen in context, these stances are decidedly not the result of a European “anti-Israel lobby,” any more than America’s policies are the result of its Israel lobby. On both continents, there is no conspiracy at work, simply democracy.
In the United States, then, AIPAC is not the source of support for Israel, but rather its conduit, channeling the groundswell of popular opinion into actionable legislation and prodigious campaign donations. Over the past 63 years, AIPAC has defined what it means to be pro-Israel, much like NARAL has defined what it means to be pro-choice, and the NRA has defined what it means to be pro-gun. But that role isn’t an inevitability—and, indeed, in recent years, both the dovish activists at J Street and hawkish ones at the Emergency Committee for Israel have worked to fracture AIPAC’s monopoly by arguing that the definition of “pro-Israel” encompasses their own more liberal and neoconservative policies. But the reason American politicians tilt “pro-Israel,” whatever the particular flavor, is that their voters tilt pro-Israel. There is simply no electoral incentive for politicians to define themselves any other way. And it’s why even Israel’s harshest American critics tend to present their case as being in the Jewish state’s “best interest.”
This understanding of AIPAC’s power doesn’t just explain why it wins. It also explains why it often doesn’t—something those who claim the group has a “stranglehold” on Congress cannot consistently account for. In fact, the defeats are just as easily explained as the victories: Because the Israel lobby depends on popular support to sway politicians, it fails when it pushes policies that the majority of Americans oppose. “When AIPAC takes positions that are contrary to public opinion, more often than not they lose,” said Dr. Michael Koplow, director of the Israel Institute in Washington, D.C., who has published qualitative analysis demonstrating this phenomenon in the peer-reviewed political science journal Security Studies. In his work, Koplow points to pro-Israel groups’ failure to free convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, as well as AIPAC’s famously unsuccessful attempt to block the sale of Airborne Warning and Control System—AWACS—surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia, among other case studies. “Those are issues where AIPAC was unquestionably on the wrong side of public opinion and they lost,” he said.
The principle, invoked on both sides of the ASA boycott debate, is unique in American law and reflects the special status of scholarship