Israelis Need American Civics Lesson

Most of the attention these days relating to Israel-diaspora relations is devoted to the pluralism issue, but another contentious matter has been stewing for some time now that also reflects on the level of misunderstanding that pervades the relationship. The subject I'm referring to is political rather than religious and has to do with the surprising lack of understanding Israelis have for the American political system.

Several years ago, when I was working for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Yitzhak Shamir was Israel's Prime Minister, we learned that a number of key young Labor Party officials were upset because they thought AIPAC had become stooges for the Likud. Echoing the arguments of today, the Laborites said that AIPAC was not doing enough for peace and was colluding with right-wing Israelis to sabotage negotiations with the Palestinians.

As editor of Near East Report, it was my job to express AIPAC policy, not to make it, and though people unfamiliar with my personal views often accused me of being a hardliner, the opinions expressed in the newsletter were those of the organization. As I told anyone who would listen, AIPAC's job is to represent the views of Americans who believe that a strong U.S.-Israel relationship is in the best interests of the United states. It is safe to say that 99.9 percent of the time the organization's position was also consistent with that of the Israeli government. We did not believe we had the right, or any mandate from our members, to tell Israelis how to decide issues affecting their peace and security. The fundamental tenet of AIPAC decision making, like that of every other agency in the Jewish establishment was to support the democratically elected government of Israel. That was the policy then and remains true today.

This does not necessarily make for consistency. As I told people during Shamir's term, if Rabin or Peres is elected, AIPAC's policy will shift 180 degrees, or however far their policy shifts from their predecessor. Similarly, when Netanyahu was elected and he reshifted Israeli policy, AIPAC again adjusted accordingly. Anyone who believes that AIPAC wasn't at least as supportive of Rabin as Shamir is simply wrong. Perhaps AIPAC, like most Jewish organizations, didn't seem overly enthusiastic about certain aspects of the peace process, but that was a reflection of the general unease among American Jews, AIPAC's constituents, and not some conspiracy to undermine the Labor Party or peace process.

Here's an example. When Rabin was Prime Minister, he looked the other way when it came to many Palestinian violations of the peace accords. His agenda called for moving forward with a withdrawal from the territories regardless of what Yasir Arafat said and did. If you look at Near East Report during this period you'll find that AIPAC went along and downplayed the compliance issue. Now you've got Netanyahu making compliance the prerequisite for progress and AIPAC is highlighting the Palestinian violations of the Oslo agreements.

I remember traveling to Israel with AIPAC's lobbyists and meeting with the three Labor Party leaders who were so unhappy with us. During that meeting it became clear that none of the Israelis had the slightest understanding of what AIPAC did or how the American political system operated. They just didn't get it.

The group included Yossi Beilin, most recently deputy foreign minister under Peres. Beilin apparently still doesn't get it, because he published an ad in the Washington Times during AIPAC's policy conference essentially taking the group to task for supporting the current government rather than his personal foreign policy. What he hoped to accomplish by attacking AIPAC in print is a mystery, but his choice of vehicles only reinforced the perception that he hasn't learned anything about U.S. politics. After all, the Times is noted for its conservative bent and its readers, if anything, are more likely to side with Netanyahu. Anyone who's read the local press for more than a day would probably know the Washington Post is the home of editors, reporters and columnists who agree more with Beilin.

The misunderstanding and lack of appreciation for the Israeli lobby is widespread in Israel. Yitzhak Rabin, who was very familiar with American politics from his days as ambassador, also had this problem. In his case, the issue was one of temperament as much as knowledge. He simply believed that he alone could and should handle Israel's affairs in Washington.

AIPAC and other Jewish organizations regularly meet with Israeli officials, and since there is a common language and agenda the assumption on both sides is that there is also mutual understanding. Frequently there is not. At the risk of sounding paternalistic, it is time that resources be devoted to educating Israelis, particularly the up and coming politicians, about American politics and, specifically, the motives and decision making processes of key organizations like AIPAC. This is no guarantee that disagreements won't arise — the opposition party will inevitably be unhappy — but the Israelis will at least know the differences are based on principle rather than ideology.