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Do We Need a Pro-Israel Lobby?

Six prominent thinkers and activists make their case—and their answers may surprise you

The Editors
March 04, 2013
(Margarita Korol)
(Margarita Korol)

It Sustains Jewish Peoplehood

By Martin Kramer

Back in 2006, in response to the “Israel Lobby” thesis of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, I wrote this: “Israel does not need the whole array of organizations that claim to work on its behalf. The rationale for keeping Israel strong is hardwired in the realities of the Middle East. The United States does not have an alternative ally of comparable power. And if the institutions of the lobby were to disappear tomorrow, it is quite likely that American and other Western support would continue unabated.”

Mearsheimer and Walt doubted that I believed this to be true: “If he is correct, then the people who bankroll AIPAC and The Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy and other like-minded organizations are wasting their money, and Kramer himself is wasting his time. Kramer claims that all this effort is unnecessary, but his own behavior suggests otherwise.”

I never responded: I didn’t want friends to think they were “wasting their money” by supporting organizations that do fulfill a role, but that role is vastly different from the one assigned to them by Mearsheimer and Walt. They believe the “lobby” is all that prevents Israel from being exposed as a liability. The opposite is true: The “lobby” is fueled by Israel’s value as a strategic asset in an unstable region. The professors confuse cause and effect.

But if Israel doesn’t depend on pro-Israel advocacy (from which I exclude the coolly analytical Washington Institute), what purpose do such organizations serve? They energize some substantial number of American Jews to stay affiliated with the Jewish people at a time when traditional forms of affiliation are waning. Israel’s batteries charge them. Businessmen and dentists come to Washington to advocate for Israel, and they feel like players on the world stage. Those who do are far more likely to visit Israel and embrace an Israeli cause. Younger ones might even make the decision made by myself (and many of my colleagues at Shalem College) to settle in Israel. Yes, I’m a classic Zionist, who believes that the ingathering of the Jews is their preferred destiny.

So, the measure of the “lobby” isn’t its ability to change U.S. policy on Iran or stop the nomination of Chuck Hagel. The State of Israel and its resilient people will decide how and when Iran will be stopped, and Hagel’s appointment won’t stand in their way. I measure pro-Israel advocacy by the degree to which it sustains Jewish peoplehood outside Israel and draws Jews into a deeper commitment to Israel than an annual visit to Capitol Hill.

And here is a revelation for Walt and Mearsheimer. I’m not so delusional as to believe that my writing and speaking on Israel’s behalf make a difference. If Israel is strong, the United States will value it. If it is weak, nothing anyone says will redeem it. So, why do we bother? It’s something the two “experts” can’t possibly fathom: Ahavat Yisrael, love for the people of Israel. And expressions of love are their own reward.

Martin Kramer is president of Shalem College in Jerusalem.


Medicine Against a Communicable Disease

By Steven J. Rosen

The pro-Israel lobby in the United States remains a vital line of defense against the systematic campaign under way to drive a wedge between the Jewish state and its principal allies. The campaign against Israel brings together a loose coalition of Palestinian support groups, left-wing European intellectuals, veterans of the shrunken Israeli peace movement, and others who just dislike Israel. The Israel they depict is a state led by drunks at the wheel, a serial violator of human rights and international law. Their Israel is the obstacle to peace in the Middle East, a strategic liability rather than an ally, an unjust and militaristic society, and a country filled with atavistic and dislikable people.

The real Israel is a tiny state facing the largest aggregation of offensive weaponry (combat aircraft, tanks, artillery, surface-to-surface missiles and rockets, and unconventional weapons) that has ever been arrayed against a single country. Yet, to the global militant left and its American acolytes, Israel is the villain du jour. Six million Jews, in a world of one and a half billion Muslims, 400 million Arabs, and the so-called “Non-Aligned Movement” (120 states all too aligned against Israel at the United Nations General Assembly), are the new imperial Goliath against which a new generation of the righteously indignant is rising.

Most insidious inside the United States is the energetic campaign mounted by Jewish critics of Israel to kosher the key themes of the global delegitimization campaign in order to mainstream them into the left wing of the Democratic Party.

Against all this, you ask, is a pro-Israel lobby needed? Is medicine needed against communicable disease?

Steven J. Rosen was AIPAC’s director of foreign-policy issues from 1982 until 2005. He is now the director of the Washington Project of the Middle East Forum.


AIPAC Fosters Islamophobia and Elevates Power Over Justice

By Rebecca Vilkomerson

My children are Israeli citizens. As I work every day to fulfill the mission of Jewish Voice for Peace—striving for equality, human rights, and freedom for all the people of Israel and Palestine—I often think of what I do in terms of my hope that Israel will someday be a place where I’d be happy for my children to live.

Unfortunately, I see the so-called pro-Israel lobby as trying its collective best to do just the opposite—condemning the people of Israel to endless military escalation, ugly ethno-nationalism, and constant warmongering, to say nothing of the system of permanent control, oppression, and dispossession it strives to maintain over the Palestinian people—all in the name of protecting Israel.

From the perspective of my Jewish values, too, I see the pro-Israel lobby doing much more harm than good. In all its component parts, it encourages Islamophobia, fundamentalist Christian apocalyptic anti-Semitism, and the elevation of power over justice. It does tremendous harm to the Jewish community in the United States when it equates criticism of a state’s actions to anti-Semitism, thus de-valuing actual anti-Semitism. And when the lobby pushes positions, as AIPAC is planning to do this week, such as exempting Israel from cuts while all kinds of crucial domestic programs are being downsized, it potentially harms all Americans.

The pro-Israel lobby can continue to pursue its dangerous agenda, but it cannot claim to do so in our names. That’s why I am so proud to be represented in these 100 ads that will appear in Metro stations all over Washington, D.C., as of this week. They read: “Jewish and Proud and AIPAC doesn’t speak for me.”

Rebecca Vilkomerson is the executive director of the Jewish Voice for Peace.


AIPAC’s Influence Waning? That’s Bunk.

By Lenny Ben-David

Since Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as secretary of defense, some—including Tablet columnist Lee Smith—have argued that failing to prevent Hagel’s appointment was a crushing defeat for the pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill.

That’s ridiculous.

I was in charge of public relations for AIPAC during another time when the organization was accused of such a failure. Ronald Reagan was in the White House and was poised to sell AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia. AIPAC had a “4-D” strategy to “debate, delay, delink (from the sale of weapons to Israel) and, if all else failed, defeat.”

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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