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.
But one doesn’t need to thumb through the history books to find instances of the Israel lobby’s failure in the face of popular opposition. Just look at the last few months. In September, Politico reported that “some 250 Jewish leaders and AIPAC activists” would “storm the halls on Capitol Hill” to persuade Congress to authorize President Obama’s request to use military force in Syria. Polls, however, showed that “nearly sixty percent of Americans want Congress to vote no.” The vote on the resolution never even took place.
The same pattern soon repeated itself, first when the United States and the international community struck an interim deal with Iran concerning its nuclear program over the objections of the Israeli government and its supporters in Washington, and then when Congress failed to pass additional sanctions legislation. In both cases, polls showed that the public overwhelmingly favored diplomacy. Once again, the Israel lobby proved to be a paper tiger when pushing unpopular policies. As it turns out, it is not AIPAC that possesses a stranglehold over American foreign policy, but the American electorate.
Understanding that AIPAC is empowered by American public opinion is more than just an academic exercise. It is crucial for anyone who hopes to shape America’s Israel policy. This is because many critics of that policy continue to be hobbled by the erroneous assumption that its content is determined by American Jews. Thus, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman claimed this past November that congressional support for harsher Iran sanctions “comes less from any careful consideration of the facts and more from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.” And Peter Beinart, writing recently about two rabbis who signed a letter opposing AIPAC, claimed, “Were all the rabbis and Jewish professionals who privately agree with Matalon and Sol to say so publicly, the communal foundation upon which AIPAC rests would crumble.”
These arguments aren’t simply problematic because they play into dubious and dangerous tropes about Jewish power. They’re fundamentally misguided because they presume that American Jews—their votes, voices, and largesse—are the key to America’s Israel policy. Change those, the thinking goes, and you will change the policy. In truth, the Israel lobby does not depend on Jewish opinion, and it does not deliver Jewish votes. At AIPAC’s 2004 convention, President George W. Bush was greeted with a rapturous reception and chants of “four more years.” In the 2004 election, his Democratic opponent John Kerry won 76 percent of the Jewish vote. Indeed, Jews are one of the most reliably Democratic blocs in America, regardless of the individual candidates’ positions on Israel.
Rather, as the many polls above have shown, AIPAC is decidedly not a “Jewish lobby.” Thus, attempting to erode its influence by convincing American Jews to desert it is a recipe for failure. As an outgrowth of popular sentiment, AIPAC does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the 2 percent of Americans who are Jewish, but rather the 98 percent who are not—and those are the voters who matter.
For any activist seeking to shape America’s Israel policy, then, the takeaway should be clear: Changing Jewish minds may be valuable, but changing non-Jewish ones is essential. Whether one thinks President Obama is too hard on Israel or too lenient, the secret to shifting American positions lies with the American people—and the sooner American Jews and others discard their debilitating myths about AIPAC’s influence, the sooner they can start having a real impact on American foreign policy.
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Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.