AIPAC’s Hold

In early March, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its forty-seventh annual conference in Washington. AIPAC’s executive director spent twenty-seven minutes reading the “roll call” of dignitaries present at the gala dinner, which included a majority of the Senate and a quarter of the House, along with dozens of Administration officials.

As this event illustrates, it’s impossible to talk about Congress’s relationship to Israel without highlighting AIPAC, the American Jewish community’s most important voice on the Hill. The Congressional reaction to Hezbollah’s attack on Israel and Israel’s retaliatory bombing of Lebanon provide the latest example of why.

On July 18, the Senate unanimously approved a nonbinding resolution “condemning Hamas and Hezbollah and their state sponsors and supporting Israel’s exercise of its right to self-defense.” After House majority leader John Boehner removed language from the bill urging “all sides to protect innocent civilian life and infrastructure,” the House version passed by a landslide, 410 to 8.

AIPAC not only lobbied for the resolution; it had written it. “They [Congress] were given a resolution by AIPAC,” said former Carter Administration National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who addressed the House Democratic Caucus on July 19. “They didn’t prepare one.”

AIPAC is the leading player in what is sometimes referred to as “The Israel Lobby”–a coalition that includes major Jewish groups, neoconservative intellectuals and Christian Zionists. With its impressive contacts among Hill staffers, influential grassroots supporters and deep connections to wealthy donors, AIPAC is the lobby’s key emissary to Congress. But in many ways, AIPAC has become greater than just another lobby; its work has made unconditional support for Israel an accepted cost of doing business inside the halls of Congress. AIPAC’s interest, Israel’s interest and America’s interest are today perceived by most elected leaders to be one and the same. Christian conservatives increasingly aligned with AIPAC demand unwavering support for Israel from their Republican leaders. (In mid-July, 3,000-plus evangelicals came to town for the first annual “Christian United for Israel” summit.) And Democrats are equally concerned about alienating Jewish voters and Jewish donors–long a cornerstone of their party. Some in Congress are deeply uncomfortable with AIPAC’s militant worldview and heavyhanded tactics, but most dare not say so publicly.

“The Bush Administration is bad enough in tolerating measures they would not accept anywhere else but Israel,” says Henry Siegman, the former head of the American Jewish Congress and a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But the Congress, if anything, is urging the Administration on and criticizing them even at their most accommodating. When it comes to the Israeli-Arab conflict, the terms of debate are so influenced by organized Jewish groups, like AIPAC, that to be critical of Israel is to deny oneself the ability to succeed in American politics.”

There are a few internationalist Republicans in the Senate and progressive Democrats in the House who occasionally dissent. Representative Dennis Kucinich and twenty-three co-sponsors have offered a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire and a return to multiparty diplomacy between the United States and regional powers, with no preconditions. But even the resolution’s supporters admit it isn’t likely to go anywhere. Another bill introduced by several Arab-American lawmakers that stressed the need to minimize civilian casualties on both sides was “politically swept under the rug,” according to Representative Nick Rahall, a Lebanese-American Democrat from West Virginia who voted against the House resolution. Dovish American-Israeli groups, such as Americans for Peace Now, have largely stayed out of the fight.

The latest hawkish Congressional activity is primarily intended to show voters and potential donors that elected officials are unwavering friends of Israel and enemies of terrorism. “It’s just for home consumption,” said Representative Charlie Rangel, a powerful New York Democrat who signed on to Kucinich’s resolution. “We don’t have the support of countries that support us! What the hell are we going to do, bomb Iran? Bomb Syria?” His colleagues, said Rahall, “were trying to out-AIPAC AIPAC.”

Discussion in Congress quickly widened beyond Israel to include a broader policy of confrontation toward the entire Middle East. Congressmen sent a flurry of “dear colleague” letters to one another, hoping to pressure the Administration into tightening sanctions on Syria and Iran, Hezbollah’s two main state sponsors. Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross addressed a packed AIPAC-sponsored luncheon on the Hill, where, according to one aide present, Ross told the room: “This is all about Syria and Iran…we shouldn’t be condemning Israel now.” Said Representative Robert Andrews, a Democrat from New Jersey and co-chair of the Iran Working Group, which this week hosted an official from the Israeli embassy: “I concur completely with that approach.”

Democrats, as they did during the Dubai ports scandal, used the crisis to score a few cheap, easy political points against the Bush Administration. The new prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, found himself engulfed in a Congressional firestorm after he denounced Israel’s attacks on Lebanon as an act of “aggression.” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel, who volunteered in Israel during the first Gulf War, called on Maliki to cancel his planned address before Congress. Asked Senator Chuck Schumer, who skipped Maliki’s July 26 speech: “Which side is he on when it comes to the war on terror?” Howard Dean one upped his colleagues, labeling Maliki an “anti-Semite” during a speech in Palm Beach, Florida.

Ironically, during the 2004 campaign Dean called on the United States to be an “evenhanded” broker in the Middle East. That position enraged party leaders such as House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who signed a letter attacking his remarks. “It was designed to send a message: No one ever does this again,” says M.J. Rosenberg of the center-left Israel Policy Forum. “And no one has. The only safe thing to say is: I support Israel.” In April a representative from AIPAC called Congresswoman Betty McCollum’s vote against a draconian bill severely curtailing aid to the Palestinian Authority “support for terrorists.”

Not surprisingly, most in Congress see far more harm than reward in getting in the Israeli lobby’s way. “There remains a perception of power and fear that AIPAC can undo you,” says James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. He points to the defeats of Representative Paul Findley and Senator Charles Percy in the 1980s and Representatives Cynthia McKinney and Earl Hilliard in 2002, when AIPAC steered large donors to their opponents. Even if AIPAC’s make-you-or-break-you reputation is largely a myth, in an election year that perception is potent. Thirty-six pro-Israel PACs gave $3.14 million to candidates in the 2004 election cycle. Rahall said his opponent for re-election issued his first press release of the campaign after Rahall voted against the House resolution. “Everybody knew what would happen if they didn’t vote yes,” he says.

AIPAC continues to enjoy deep bipartisan backing inside Congress even after two top AIPAC officials were indicted a year ago for allegedly accepting and passing on confidential national security secrets from a Defense Department analyst. “The US and Israel share a lot of basic common values. The vast majority of the American people not only support Israel’s actions against Hezbollah but also the fundamental US-Israel relationship, and the bipartisan support in Congress reflects that,” says AIPAC spokesman Josh Block. Rosenberg, himself a former AIPAC staffer, puts it another way: “This is the one issue on which liberals are permitted, even expected, by donors to be mindless hawks.”

By blindly following AIPAC, Congress reinforces a hard-line consensus: Criticizing Israeli actions, even in the best of faith, is anti-Israel and possibly anti-Semitic; enthusiastically backing whatever military action Israel undertakes is the only acceptable stance.

Recent Gallup polls show that half of Americans support Israel’s military campaign, yet 65 percent believe the United States should not take sides in the conflict. But it’s hard to imagine any Congress, or subsequent Administration, returning to the role of honest broker. What the region needs now, according to Brzezinski, is an American leader brave enough to say: “Either I make policy on the Middle East or AIPAC makes policy on the Middle East.” One can always dream.