What Officials Really Think Of Us

Members of the pro-Israel community like to think they are powerful and imagine that decision makers see their input as valuable. While in office, officials will express their devotion to Israel and tell us our opinions are important. Occasionally, when these folks leave government and no longer need our money or support, we will find out what they really thought from their memoirs or public documents.

One document recently came to my attention that provides an insight into what at least one administration thought of the Jewish community. In a memo apparently written to Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, the unidentified author discusses how to deal with what he referred to as a “strong but paranoid lobby.”

Jordan is advised to avoid surprises, which “will trigger outrage, cries of sell-out, and the fullest use of the power of the lobby.” The memo acknowledged problems in the State and Defense Departments and said the feeling in the Jewish community that these departments were populated by anti-Semitic Arabists had to be countered.

Did the memo’s author believe there was a real problem that needed to be addressed? No, he (possibly a she, but unlikely given makeup of the Carter team) was interested only in cosmetic changes that would mollify the Jews. “A token of ‘objectivity’ must be introduced into the departments,” Jordan was advised, “even if it is the placement of one obviously sympathetic, non-career person, in each.”

Was the writer interested in bringing in people to affect policy? Again, the answer is no. His motivation was to “give the lobby someone to bitch to that they feel will at least listen.”

A similar approach was recommended to address the perception that the White House was indifferent to the lobby’s views. “Someone should be added to the staff, preferably in NSC [National Security Council]” he said, “whose primary responsibility would be the Middle East settlement, and who appears to be remotely sympathetic to the Israeli (and implicitly American Jewish) cause.”

And what is the memo’s real bottom line? It is figuring out how to get the pro-Israel community on Carter’s side and help promote the administration’s policy. “Above all,” the author concluded, “they must come to feel that their voices have been heard and that they have been part of the process. Only then could they be called on to help sell the result to their people and the Hill.”

Given Jimmy Carter’s overt hostility toward Israel since leaving office, perhaps the views expressed in this memo will come as no surprise. If you compare them, however, to those in documents that appear from other administrations, you will find that the view of the American Jewish community is often no better and sometimes worse.

Yes, the pro-Israel lobby does have some influence over some issues some of the time (primarily questions involving money and other non-peace and security matters in which the Legislative Branch has more influence than the Executive), but this is more a result of the lobby’s involvement in electoral politics (documented at great length in the memo). The truth is that legislators know they have little to gain and much to lose from being anti-Israel.

Administration officials, however, are largely insulated from lobby pressure and view it on a continuum ranging from being a nuisance to threatening national security. This is certainly the prevailing view in the State Department, which remains wedded to the bankrupt idea of the 1940s that Arab support for U.S. policies can be secured by capitulating to Arab demands regarding Palestine.

At best, the pro-Israel lobby can sometimes contain the damage by using its influence to establish boundaries for the Executive Branch. This was the case during the Carter Administration. At the time we knew that Carter wanted to pursue policies that were potentially harmful to Israel (though we didn’t know the depth of his animosity until he left office) and it was only through domestic pressure that he was constrained.

The pro-Israel community unquestionably has sincere friends and allies in the Bush Administration, as it has in past administrations, but history suggests the smiling faces presented to us by other officials often mask feelings of contempt, and an agenda aimed at minimizing our influence and/or channeling it to support administration policy.