INFLUENCING U.S. POLICY TOWARDS THE PALESTINIANS
On November 17, 1992, the Village Voice published a transcript of a conversation between David Steiner, president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the all-powerful and feared pro-Israel lobbying organization, and wealthy attorney Harry Katz. The conversation, which Katz secretly recorded a few weeks before the 1992 presidential election, was a stark reminder of the influence AIPAC has in Washington.
Steiner boasted that he was "negotiating" with Mr. Clinton over who should be his Secretary of State. He also said that in a secret negotiation with James A. Baker when he was Secretary of State several months earlier, he had secured "almost a billion dollars in other goodies" for Israel that were not publicly known. Perhaps most significantly, Steiner boasted to his potential donor, “We have a dozen people in his Clinton’s headquarters… and they’re all going to get big jobs.”
In the weeks after the publication of the transcript, which forced Steiner’s resignation, President Clinton named Martin Indyk, a former deputy director of research for AIPAC and head of the pro-Israel “think tank” the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (which has close ties with AIPAC), as chief Middle East adviser on the National Security Council. He later became U.S. Ambassador to Israel and head of the Department of State's Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. Steiner’s boast had proven true. Indyk was not alone. Dennis Ross, who almost single-handedly led the American “peace process” during much of the Clinton era, was also the head of the Washington Institute.
That a special-interest lobby was given such far-reaching influence over the Clinton administration’s policy towards the Middle East should have provoked a major outcry. No one in major media blinked. As Edward Said sadly put it, “the traffic between Israeli lobbying and US Middle East policy is extremely regular, and yes, regulated.”
AIPAC was established in 1945 by the American Jewish community to increase U.S. aid to Israel, slowly expanding its role through the years to include lobbying against weapons sales to Arab nations. The organization helped U.S. aid to Israel to jump nine-fold from $71.1 million in 1970 to $600.8 million in 1971 and make Israel the largest recipient of U.S. aid of the post-World War II era. But where AIPAC’s influence is most felt is on Capitol Hill itself. As The New York Times once put it, “the lobby’s graduates are extraordinarily well connected,” including such Washington power-brokers as Steve Grossman, a former AIPAC president who is now national chairman of the Democratic National Committee; Mel Sembler, the finance chairman of the Republican National Committee; Arne L. Christenson, once AIPAC's legislative director who became chief of staff of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich; and Wolf Blitzer, the chief White House correspondent for CNN.
Fortune magazine has called AIPAC the second most influential lobby in Washington, just after the American Association of Retired Persons. The group donated $7.6 million for the 1990 Congressional elections, the largest sum contributed by any lobby. In his book They Dare to Speak Out, former Congressman Paul Findley chronicled AIPAC’s efforts to root out of Capitol Hill lawmakers who questioned the policies of the Jewish state. The group “targeted” lawmakers as diverse as Adlai Stevenson, Chuck Percy, William Fulbright, and Findley himself by pouring massive amounts of money into their opponents’ campaigns. As Findley put it, “many members of Congress place a value on AIPAC support which is beyond accounting in dollars.” Speaking out against Israel in Congress is, de facto, little less than flirting with political suicide.
A vote during the summer of 2001 regarding a modest aid package to Lebanon, which AIPAC bitterly opposed, offered a case in point. As the vote was beginning, the aid package was set to pass by six votes. By the end of the vote, it had been rejected by six votes. One observer at the House noted, “AIPAC had a guy sitting up in the front on the House floor looking over at the Congressmen going to vote. They were intimidating the younger ones. It was as though they were saying, ‘We’re watching you.’”
AIPAC’s intimidating practices aren’t limited to influencing lawmakers. The lobby has consistently recognized that Israel’s best interests could only be served by a unified voice in Washington. For AIPAC, that means silencing any liberal Jewish voices who dare to criticize the Israeli government’s policies. In August 1992, journalist Robert Friedman exposed AIPAC’s efforts to spy on and discredit any critic of Israel, including left-wing Jews. The organization maintained and distributed an “enemies list,” which was used to intimidate its opponents into silence, which, as The Economist stated at the time, “have reinforced its hard-line and conspiratorial image.”
In the winter of 1983-84, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis attacked a recently published AIPAC blacklist, and particularly its inclusion of Harvard professor Walid Khalidi. He wrote, “Some people see his very moderation as dangerous. He is a Palestinian nationalist after all and one must not allow that idea to have any legitimacy… Joe McCarthy could not have produced a nastier distortion.” As liberal intellectual Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg once put it, AIPAC is “creating more anti-Semites than it’s scaring away.”
The organization’s attacks on left-wing Jews has helped highlight the question of AIPAC’s right-wing tilt, a particularly irksome issue to the organization’s leaders. They maintain that they are first and foremost an intermediary between the Israeli and U.S. governments, regardless of their political leanings. But evidence suggests otherwise. As The Jerusalem Post once remarked, “among those with influence who traditionally have more Likud-oriented views are three top AIPAC donors on the board of directors.” AIPAC’s disfavor during the Rabin years, and its subsequent rise to prominence after Netanyahu’s re-election suggest that the organization is, in effect, still very much favored by the Likud. Rabin had, after all, vehemently and openly attacked AIPAC’s leadership and their arrogant handling of the loan guarantees problem under the Bush administration. He famously told them, “You have failed at everything. You waged lost battles. You caused damage to Israel. You created too much antagonism. You did not bring Israel even one cent.” Rabin, like Labor's Yossi Beilin, perceived AIPAC as a "right-wing" organization. The Jerusalem Post put forward its own explanation, stating that “it was during the premiership of Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir and the presidency of Republican Ronald Reagan that the lobby rose to prominence as the two countries reached a number of precedent-setting agreements in strategic and defense cooperation.”
Ariel Sharon’s rise to power in 2001 has allowed AIPAC to retrench to its old hard-line views, after a period of “playing catch-up” to a Barak government which changed the Israeli government’s position forward on a number of issues including security needs, settlements, the Golan Heights and Jerusalem which were considered sacrosanct by AIPAC’s leadership. In March Sharon addressed a jubilant audience at AIPAC. With no sick irony intended, The Jerusalem Post wrote “Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was welcomed enthusiastically by everyone but the few hundred protesters outside the Hilton who were calling for him to be tried for war crimes.”
Yet despite Sharon’s arrival, AIPAC has had several major setbacks over the last few months. For one thing, in June 2000 the State Department made clear its opposition to a blanket five-year renewal of the Iran- Libya Sanctions Act, which AIPAC had singled out as a major goal. This came on the heels of a new presidential waiver of the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which requires that the United States move its embassy to Israel's capital from Tel Aviv, another major AIPAC goal. According to a former AIPAC official, “AIPAC didn't get what they wanted, and they're not going to fight the administration on this. When Clinton issued waivers on the Jerusalem embassy move, AIPAC blasted him, but when Bush does it they were silent.” Nonetheless, AIPAC has made no secret of its opposition to certain aspects of Bush’s policies. In October 2001, shortly after the Bush administration announced a diplomatic initiative that would include United States support for the creation of a Palestinian state, AIPAC issued a statement criticizing Bush advisors who “are encouraging the president to reward, rather than punish, those that harbor and support terrorism.” Presumably, AIPAC haden’t been given the opportunity to hand-pick those advisors.
AIPAC has not been alone in pushing for extreme pro-Israel legislation. As the second Intifada has moved on, a handful of Congressmen have been coming forward to introduce absurd legislation designed to either hurt the Palestinians or alienate the Arab world. In August 2001, Congressman Eric Cantor led an effort to cut all U.S. to the Palestinians, charging that the Palestinian Authority was engaged in the destruction of the Temple Mount. Congressman Eliot Engel proposed similarly absurd legislation condemning the Palestinian Authority “for using children as soldiers and inciting children to acts of violence and war,” a racist charge reminiscent of South African apartheid-era attacks on Mandela’s ANC.
Perhaps the most scandalous of all has been Senator Hillary Clinton’s change of position regarding the question of Palestine. As First Lady, she said that a Palestinian state was “very important” to Middle East peace and kissed Arafat’s wife on a visit to Gaza, both rather courageous actions for a First Lady. Her comments in favor of a Palestinian state were vehemently attacked in New York City, despite the fact that a 1998 poll showed that 64% of American Jews supported a Palestinian state. When she decided to run for New York’s Senate seat, she radically altered her views to please New York City’s large Jewish electorate. Her shift culminated in her pitiful decision to return donations from a fundraiser organized by a Muslim organization, donations which her opponent called “blood money.”
In the face of formidable opposition that includes a lobby often more hawkish than the right wing in Israel, Arab-Americans have had a difficult time making their voices heard, even though as a voting block, they constitute a considerable force. While there are about 5 million Jewish Americans, 2 percent of the population, there are perhaps 2 million Christian Arab-Americans, another 2 million Muslim Arab-Americans, and an additional 4 to 6 million non-Arab Muslims in the U.S. – a potential combined voting bloc of 8 to 10 million people, or 3.6 to 4 percent of the U.S. population.
But the Arab-American community’s attempts at political mobilization have been disappointments. Most often, the community has suffered from its disunity, especially in the face of pro-Israeli unity (as we’ve seen, unity comes with a price). Christian Arab-Americans, and especially Syro-Lebanese Maronites, overwhelmingly dominate the Arab-American elites, and their willingness to work for the Palestinians has historically been very limited. Most come from Lebanon, where the 15-year civil war pitted at times Maronite-led militias against Palestinian-led militias. Moreover, the diversity of national backgrounds of Arabs has made it extremely difficult for any organization to consolidate the community’s interests into a force capable of influencing U.S. policy towards the Palestinians. As journalist Peter Novick has put it, “one of the things that eased the task of pro-Israel lobbyists is that unlike just about every other issue on which interest groups work to win congressional support – things like abortion, gun control, and affirmative action – there have been no significant forces in the legislative arena opposing them. The political rewards of supporting Israel have been manifest and substantial; on the other side, nothing but aggravation.”
Several Arab-American organizations have emerged to try and counter AIPAC and other pro-Israeli lobbies. The Arab American Institute (AAI), led by James Zogby, was spun off the now-defunct National Association of Arab Americans in 1985. Through voter registration drives and “Action Alerts” modeled on those put out by AIPAC, the AAI has attempted to increase Arab-American activism and, in the words of its leader, “empower Arab-Americans.” Yet the organization is faulted by many in the grassroots community for being too centered on the figure of James Zogby. He is characterized by many as a “professional Arab-American” more interested in playing ethnic politics than in helping the Palestinians. Furthermore, because he is a liberal Democrat, he is seen by many in the Arab-American community as too partisan a figure to represent all Arab-Americans. His work with Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns and the Rainbow Coalition, they contend, have contributed to infuse his organization with a rhetoric more fitting of a civil rights organization than a foreign-policy lobby. Moreover, many are irked by his close ties to Clinton and Gore – he was appointed by the Gore campaign as senior advisor on Ethnic Americans – both of whom are seen as co-opted by pro-Israeli forces (The Forward, a Jewish newspaper, has described Gore as "one who does not have to reconfigure his general foreign-policy framework to accommodate his love of Zion.”) Many yearn for the Zogby of the 1970’s, an energetic human rights activist who had founded the Palestine Human Rights Campaign.
The other important Arab-American organization is the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) which, as its name suggests, is more centered on domestic issues than on affecting foreign policy. Unlike the AAI, the ADC has a considerable grassroots following and has achieved considerable success in improving the image of Arab-Americans. The World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of September 11 have been particularly painful for members of the ADC who spent energy improving the images of Arab-Americans, although the full backlash of the attacks on the community remains to be seen. Their work on improving the portrayal of Arabs in the United States is not exclusive to work on improving U.S. relations with the Palestinians, but as one observer put it, “it’s difficult to be taken seriously as a foreign-policy lobby when you have to spend a large part of your time getting Sheikh masks off the Halloween shelves.”
Arab-American organizations may not have much influence on foreign policy in comparison with pro-Israeli organizations, yet the growing importance of the Arab-American voting bloc has changed the rules of the political game in some areas. Most notably in Michigan, which is the state with the highest concentration of Arab-Americans in the country, for the first time lawmakers (including Representatives David Bonior, Sander Levin and John Dingell and Senator Carl Levin) have been able to speak out – in relative terms – against Israel’s repressive policies towards the Palestinians, in large part thanks to the large Arab-American communities in Michigan. This is considerably impressive considering the fact that one of AIPAC’s biggest strengths historically was its ability to raise out-of-state money for candidates. As the Israeli daily Haaretz noted in November of 2000, “the force challenging the pro-Israel lobby is no longer based only in the oil industry, but also in millions of Arab-American voters in a position to influence U.S. politics.”
In the end, one could say that efforts to help the Palestinians by affecting U.S. policy from the top have not been successful, despite some localized and limited advances. The view that emerges as the most urgent here is that espoused by intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Edward Said, namely that the fight for Palestinian rights can only be fought through public opinion, that is, from the bottom up. Much like the U.S. government only altered its policy of support for apartheid-era South Africa under pressure from public indignation, it will only give up its support of Israeli policies of repression under pressure from a mass civil movement for justice in Palestine.