The July 16 Magazine cover story about U.S.-Israeli relations misstated the names of two organizations: The PAC founded by Morris Amitay is the Washington Political Action Committee, and CAMERA stands for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. The article also incorrectly said that historian Michael Oren received his PhD from Hebrew University in Jerusalem; it was actually Princeton University in New Jersey.
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A Beautiful Friendship?
essentially, and erroneously, blames the Jews for the war in Iraq. Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States, who hadn't commented publicly until our interview, called it "tainted, shallow and sloppy . . . just a compilation of old nonsense and garbage that should be rendered into oblivion, where it belongs."
Walt and Mearsheimer in response insist their facts and arguments remain valid and say the vituperative critical reaction merely affirms one of their key points: that the Israel lobby is a sacred cow and anyone who dares criticize it runs the risk of being branded an anti-Semite. "In effect, the Lobby boasts of its own power and then attacks anyone who calls attention to it," they complain in the essay.
We'll get back to the angry volleyball match between the professors and their critics a bit later. But, flaws and all, the essay has raised some compelling questions. Such as: Just how powerful is the Israel lobby? What was its role in engineering the Iraq war, and is it pushing for a repeat performance in Iran? Is it really all that nefarious? And whose lobby is it anyway?
MORRIS AMITAY IS A DAPPER MAN with a ready smile and a self-deprecatory manner. He works out of a small corner office on North Capitol Street in a building that houses lobbyists from three dozen state governments, assorted defense contractors and the American Gas Association, all of them seeking to spread knowledge and enlightenment among members of Congress and their staffs. Amitay, who operates a small lobbying law firm, blends right in. Yet even among his peers his success is something of a legend.
Educated at Columbia and Harvard Law, Amitay had spent seven years as a diplomat in the State Department and six more as a legislative aide on the Hill when friends approached him in 1974 about becoming executive director of AIPAC. The organization was founded in the early 1950s by a Canadian-born former journalist named I.L. Kenen with funding from various Jewish groups. Kenen was a tireless advocate for Israel in the 1950s and early '60s, when it had to claw for dollars and votes against a powerful and determined lobby of oil interests, Arab-oriented diplomats and lawmakers such as J. William Fulbright, the legendary chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who saw U.S. support of the fledgling Jewish state as a serious mistake that threatened regional stability.
The 1967 Six-Day War marked a turning point. Arab leaders talked confidently of driving the Jews into the sea, igniting fears of a new Holocaust, but Israel launched preemptive airstrikes on Egypt and Syria and won a smashing victory. Many American Jews rallied around their scrappy Middle Eastern cousin, as did non-Jews who saw Israel as a powerful little island of democracy in a sea of hostile Arab dictatorships.
Initially, Amitay was reluctant to take over an organization purporting to represent the forever bickering factions of organized American Jewry. "It was like herding cats," he recalls. "I took the job against my better judgment."
He eventually tripled AIPAC's staff size and budget, but his most strategic decision was to move the office from 13th and G, four blocks from the White House, to the foot of Capitol Hill. Amitay saw the State Department and the rest of the executive branch as hostile territory for Israel and Congress as a natural ally. For one thing, he could do the math: There were only two elected officials in the executive branch -- the president and vice president -- but 535 in Congress. Lots more targets and opportunities for persuasion.
Amitay had a couple of things going for him: his own experience and relationships on the Hill; a small but hard-working staff, which at one time included CNN's Wolf Blitzer; and Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute. But his biggest asset was several thousand affluent grass-roots members for whom Israel was not just a cause but a sacred mission. "The big reason why AIPAC is so effective is the enthusiasm of our people, and that's because of their affinity for Israel, the knowledge they have and the willingness to get involved politically, write a letter, send an e-mail, send a contribution and get to know their members of Congress," Amitay says.
AIPAC is the best-known of a handful of groups that have made support for Israel a centerpiece of their agendas, including the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. But when it comes to Washington, AIPAC wields the real clout.
In its early days, Israel was almost exclusively the foster child of liberal Democrats, the affiliation of most American Jews. That began to change in the late 1970s after Menachem Begin became the country's first right-of-center prime minister. He forged a practical alliance with the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other Christian conservatives who saw Jewish rule over the Holy Land as the divinely ordained prelude to the Second Coming of Christ. The Reagan administration saw in Israel a strategic Cold War ally, a balance against Soviet client-states such as Syria and Iraq. Israelis relied on the political support and financial donations that the American Jewish community provided. Still, they were ambivalent and at times contemptuous of their more affluent brethren, who were willing to give money but not willing to move to Israel or send their children there. Ben-Gurion's stated goal had been to bring Jews home from 2,000 years of exile. But the existence of Israel and its pressing needs gave American Jews a rallying cry and sense of cohesion that enhanced their political stature in American society. The late Arthur Hertzberg, a rabbi, historian and president of the American Jewish Congress, once told me that before Israel's existence Jews attended White House dinners as individuals. Afterward, they came as Jews. "In a real sense, being involved with Israel made Jewish leaders more truly American than they had ever dreamt of being," he said.
For some American Jews, the passion for Israel was born partly out of guilt: During World War II, the Jewish establishment, like the U.S. government, had been slow to respond to reports that Jews were being systematically slaughtered in Hitler's Europe. Many Jewish leaders swore they would never let such a crime happen again. They rallied around Israel, which had risen out of the ashes of the Holocaust, to protect it -- and themselves.