Correction to This Article
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.
Page 3 of 5   <       >

A Beautiful Friendship?

And that's the interesting psychological part: While American Jews may have become powerful, they don't feel powerful. A new set of pogroms or a new Holocaust? It could happen, even in America. "There's a certain dynamic to organized Jewish life as to all so-called defense organizations created to protect a supposedly vulnerable group," says Henry Siegman, who once served as executive director of the American Jewish Congress and now directs the U.S./Middle East project at the Council of Foreign Relations. "It creates a culture of victimhood, and it often attracts people who feel like they're victims as well."

AMITAY QUIT AIPAC IN 1980 TO OPEN A LAW PRACTICE that lobbies for defense contractors. But he didn't give up working for Israeli interests, forming his own pro-Israel PAC, the Washington Public Affairs Council. And AIPAC continued to grow under his successor, Thomas Dine, who presided over a massive increase in the group's size and influence during the 1980s, a decade in which the lobby claimed some significant political scalps. Pro-Israel money helped defeat Republican Reps. Paul Findley of Illinois and Pete McCloskey of California and Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois, all of whom were deemed too sympathetic to Arab causes and too critical of Israel.

Findley says he had always voted for aid to Israel even while criticizing Israeli policy. But his real sin was meeting periodically with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom he once praised as "a great champion of human rights." Findley was targeted in the election of 1982: He had served 11 terms; he didn't get a 12th. Two years after that, Percy lost to Paul Simon in a bitter contest in which supporters of Israel poured an estimated $1.8 million into direct contributions and an independent anti-Percy ad campaign. The message to incumbents was clear: Oppose Israel at your peril.

"After that," says Findley, "I really feel the cloak of intimidation was pretty secure."

Percy told colleagues he blamed Amitay personally for his defeat. "Frankly, I didn't know I was that powerful," says Amitay. "We just did what every lobbying group in this town does: It supports its friends and tries to defeat its enemies. So I don't see what the big deal was."

Nevertheless, the Israel lobby, and AIPAC in particular, gained a reputation as the National Rifle Association of foreign policy: a hard-edged, pugnacious bunch that took names and kept score. But in some ways it was even stronger. The NRA's support was largely confined to right-wing Republicans and rural Democrats. But AIPAC made inroads in both parties and both ends of the ideological spectrum.

Then one day it went too far.

THE YEAR WAS 1991, AND PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH WAS ON A ROLL. Having defeated the Iraqi army and driven it out of Kuwait, Bush and his wheeler-dealer secretary of state, James Baker, turned their attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict. They were pushing both sides toward a historic peace conference in Madrid, but first faced an issue that they feared could torpedo the session before it started.

The prime minister of Israel was a hard-liner named Yitzhak Shamir, who in pre-independence days was the gun-wielding leader of the smallest and most extreme of militant Zionist factions. Faced with a wave of Jewish immigrants from the collapsing Soviet Union, Shamir's government was throwing up new housing as fast as possible. To ease the costs of massive borrowing, it was seeking $10 billion in loan guarantees from Washington. Bush and Baker wanted Shamir's pledge that he wouldn't use the loan guarantees toward expanding controversial Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. It was a promise Shamir didn't want to make. He instructed AIPAC to get the guarantees through Congress over the administration's objections.

The crunch came one day that September when AIPAC dispatched more than 1,000 members to Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress. Bush retaliated at a news conference when he took direct aim at the Israel lobby, saying he was "up against some powerful political forces . . . I heard today there was something like 1,000 lobbyists on the Hill working on the other side of the question. We've got one lonely little guy down here doing it."

AIPAC's leaders had told Shamir they had enough votes to easily override the president in both the House and Senate, but Bush's remarks punctured their balloon like a blowtorch. Within days, leaders of both houses advised AIPAC to back down. Its support had melted away.

But what shocked Shamir even more was the rapid defection of his American Jewish allies. They didn't like being portrayed by the president as a shadowy but powerful force serving the interests of a foreign power. "It clobbered the Jewish community, left us in a state of shock," one American Jewish leader told me later.

<          3           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company