Discovering The Israeli Lobby

The New Yorker rarely takes much interest in Middle East affairs, but Sidney Blumenthal writes in the current issue about what he sees as shifts in the Jewish community that have resulted in the fragmentation of the Israeli lobby. Like a lot of amateur analyses of the subject, this one is so filled with errors it might be more appropriately titled, “Blumenthal Discovers the Jews.”

The author apparently has no knowledge of the Israeli lobby’s activities prior to Rabin coming to power. He says AIPAC has “applied the concentrated political force of the American Jewish community” since 1951, but it was essentially a one-man operation for almost its first two decades and influence was primarily exerted by individuals with relationships with the President and members of Congress. This really began to change in the ’70’s. Blumenthal argues that AIPAC’s current preeminence in lobbying for Israel has been undermined, but this is not true. Blumenthal had only to attend last month’s Policy Conference in Washington to see that more than half the Senate (including the majority and minority leaders), 114 members of the House (including the Speaker) and the President attended. These policymakers showed up because they believe AIPAC is powerful. Other Jewish organizations don’t get that kind of turnout.

It has always been the case that other organizations were involved in lobbying, and that fringe groups would mobilize some support for legislative initiatives contrary to AIPAC and the Jewish establishment’s wishes. These efforts often undermine the community’s unity and overall objectives, but have rarely, if ever, been adopted. In fact, all the proposals of the “anti-establishment” have failed so far, including the campaign against U.S. troops on the Golan.

It is true that divisions in the community exist. So what else is new? In case Blumenthal was asleep, a significant proportion of Jews, and a handful of organizations, were constantly criticizing the Likud governments. He is right about the hypocrisy of certain right-wingers who denounced those critics for undermining Israel and now are doing the exact same thing, but public criticism of Israeli government policies began with the left and is no longer novel.

Nor is it extraordinary that Israeli opposition figures are working to undermine the government by lobbying in the United States. In public statements, most Israelis have always been careful to espouse the government line according to the philosophy that one should not criticize one’s government from abroad. That Yossi Ben-Aharon, Yigal Carmon and Yoram Ettinger are lobbying for measures with the intent to hurt the government (though still mostly privately) is not a revelation. Labor officials were not shy about telling members of Congress, for example, how Shamir’s settlement policies were allegedly sabotaging the peace process. While most of the Israeli lobby was fighting the linkage of settlements and loan guarantees, leftist organizations and Labor politicians were encouraging it. Moshe Arens writes in his new book, Broken Covenant, about Labor’s efforts to work with the Bush Administration to bring about Shamir’s downfall. The point is not that it is good for Israelis from the opposition to lobby—it is not—but that it is not unusual.

Blumenthal suggests the legislation proposing the U.S. Embassy be moved to Jerusalem is part of a new plot by opponents of peace that highlights the Israeli lobby’s division. Where was he in 1990 when Congress passed a resolution recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (Dole also cosponsored that resolution and subsequently called for its repeal)? He and others have made an issue out of AIPAC supporting the Dole legislation despite Rabin’s tacit opposition. But how could it take a different position on an issue that has been on its agenda for years? AIPAC’s members would not accept withholding its approval. The only dispute about moving the Embassy within the Jewish community is whether the timing is prudent, but the argument that the peace process will be harmed is easily refuted. Perhaps the Likud triumvirate stirred the issue up for its own partisan reasons, but Blumenthal should have pointed out Shamir was no more supportive of the 1990 resolution than Rabin is now.

The article suggests the Republican Congress will turn against Israel, but he offers only quotes from a member who does not like foreign aid. The truth is the foreign aid bill still has $3 billion for Israel and the majority of Republicans support that level. Blumenthal is correct about the problems encountered with securing the debt relief for Jordan, but he is again ignorant of history when he suggests the Israeli lobby’s support represents something new because of a change in Israel’s image. The lobby supported aid and debt relief for Egypt because it made peace with Israel and the same arguments applied to the Jordanian case.

Some Republicans may be looking for ways to embarrass the President in the Jewish community, but Israel is not going to become a partisan issue in the way Blumenthal suggests. The GOP Presidential candidates are not going to all take a Likud position against Clinton’s pro-Labor policies. They are going to do compete to show who is more sympathetic to Israel. Jerusalem is motherhood and apple pie for Jews, it is not going to divide the community. Clinton will undoubtedly win an overwhelming majority of the Jewish vote because he is pro-Israel and liberal. Few, if any, Jews are going to vote against him because he supports the Rabin government.

Changes are taking place in the relationship between Israel and American Jewry, but Blumenthal’s knowledge of the history is too shallow for him to understand what is new and what is not. Unfortunately, the understanding of readers of The New Yorker will suffer as a result.