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?
Money is an important part of the equation. AIPAC is not a political action committee, and the organization itself doesn't give a dime in campaign contributions. But its Web site, which details how members of Congress voted on AIPAC's key issues, and the AIPAC Insider, a glossy periodical that handicaps close political races, are scrutinized by thousands of potential donors. Pro-Israel interests have contributed $56.8 million in individual, group and soft money donations to federal candidates and party committees since 1990, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. (By contrast, the center says, pro-Arab and pro-Muslim groups donated $297,000 during the same period.) Between the 2000 and the 2004 elections, the 50 members of AIPAC's board donated an average of $72,000 each to campaigns and political action committees. One in every five board members was a top fundraiser for President Bush or John Kerry.
AIPAC's members often overlap with those of other pro-Israel organizations, some of which are renowned for playing hardball. In 2002, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield, a military campaign that laid siege to cities in the West Bank to counter a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. Pro-Israel activists here organized letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations and boycotts against media organizations for purportedly distorted reporting of Palestinian casualties. One group, the Committee for Accurate Middle East Reporting in America, demonstrated outside National Public Radio stations in 33 cities and cost WBUR in Boston more than $1 million in contributions.
AIPAC organizes annual trips to Israel where dozens of members of Congress and their staffs often get their first taste of the Holy Land. Rep. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who is House majority whip, has taken four AIPAC-sponsored trips to Israel over the years. "The bonding that happens, the understanding of the importance of democracy, the understanding of this miracle in Israel . . . is an incredible thing to watch," he told the organization's annual conference.
The entire AIPAC package has impressed other ethnic groups. Most recently, Indian Americans have sought to forge a network of organizations, think tanks and PACs patterned after the American Jewish model. Lewis Roth of Americans for Peace Now, a left-of-center lobbying group, says, "AIPAC has a trifecta of power on the Hill -- direct lobbying, tremendous grass-roots support and money from contributors who look to them for guidance."
It also helps to have the right enemies.
BRAD GORDON RECALLS WALKING THROUGH THE CORRIDORS OF CAPITOL HILL in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. "More than one member came up to me and said, 'You know, Brad, I always understood intellectually what you were talking about, but now I really get it.'"
Since 9/11, Americans have increasingly come to accept the idea that Israel and the United States share not just values but enemies. A Gallup Poll in February reported 68 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Israel with 23 percent unfavorable, and that Americans support Israelis over Palestinians by 59 percent to 15 percent.
Recent electoral victories by Islamic radicals in Iran and the Palestinian territories have only heightened the sense of us vs. them. With his sweeping condemnations and threats against the United States and Israel, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's radical new president, has quickly joined the pantheon of bad guys, alongside Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. "Ahmadinejad is worth every penny," says Morris Amitay. "He says amazing things, and the scary part is he really means it."
This year, AIPAC's two-pronged legislative agenda focuses on these enemies. The first is the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, a bill placing tough new restrictions on aid to the Palestinian Authority since the electoral victory of the militant Islamic group Hamas. Its charter calls for Israel's destruction, and its operatives are responsible for many of the suicide bombings of Israeli civilian targets. Then there is the Iran Freedom Support Act, designed to dry up foreign funds Iran can use to develop a nuclear bomb and to supply aid to anti-government groups there. No one at AIPAC, Gordon insists, is pressing for military action against Iran. Their goal is a strong diplomatic and economic response coordinated among the United States, its European allies, Russia and China.
Nonetheless, not everyone supports AIPAC's approach. The Conference of Catholic Bishops and several other charitable groups opposed the House-sponsored version of the Hamas bill, as did three liberal pro-Israel groups -- Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum and the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. Opponents argued that the bill would isolate and punish Palestinian moderates and restrict the delivery of humanitarian aid. The Bush administration issued talking points contending that the bill would tie its hands and that, in any case, it already had all the power it needed to restrict aid that might be channeled to Hamas.
At its annual conference in March, AIPAC dispatched hundreds of activists to more than 450 congressional offices to lobby for the measure. One of those targeted was Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat with a solid pro-Israel voting record who had opposed the bill in committee, citing the Catholic bishops' concerns. McCollum took offense after an AIPAC representative from Minneapolis confronted Bill Harper, her chief of staff, over her vote. Harper said the AIPAC rep told him that "McCollum's support for terrorists would not be tolerated."
"Never has my name and reputation been maligned or smeared as it was last week by a representative of AIPAC," McCollum complained in a letter to Howard Kohr, AIPAC's executive director. She called the remarks "hateful, vile and offensive," demanded that Kohr apologize and banned AIPAC representatives from her office until he did.
Kohr requested a meeting to talk it over. The AIPAC rep denied making the remarks. No one apologized, but McCollum eventually declared the incident over.
The bill passed the House, on the day before Olmert addressed Congress, by 361 to 37. A milder version of the bill unanimously passed the Senate late last month.
Like Congress, the Bush administration has also been an easy sell. Ever since George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, took a helicopter ride over the Israeli countryside with Sharon, Bush has felt a sense of kinship and concern. When Ambassador Ayalon phones the White House, he deals with Elliott Abrams, a longtime supporter of Israel who is deputy national security adviser. Ayalon, who used to be Sharon's foreign affairs adviser, has been to dinner at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's home and is on a first-name basis with National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, presidential political strategist Karl Rove and the new White House chief of staff, Josh Bolten. Both sides say relations have never been closer.
There was a glitch in 2002 when Bush declared "enough is enough" and demanded that Sharon pull back Israeli forces from their siege of the West Bank, dispatching Colin Powell, then secretary of state, to negotiate a withdrawal. AIPAC helped organize congressional resolutions reaffirming solidarity with Israel that passed the Senate by 94 to 2 and the House by 352 to 21. Supporters organized a "Stand Up for Israel" rally in Washington in April that drew tens of thousands. The crowd booed senior Pentagon official Paul Wolfowitz, Bush's representative to the rally, when he told them "innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers." And they cheered Janet Parshall, host of an evangelical Christian talk show, who declared: "We will never limp, we will never wimp, we will never vacillate in our support of Israel."
Bush stopped making his plea for withdrawal, and four days after the rally hailed Sharon as a "man of peace." Powell came home empty-handed.
Some people are not happy about the close ties between the Israel lobby and the most conservative president since Ronald Reagan. They complain that AIPAC and its sister groups have moved too far to the right and grown overly cozy with former House majority leader Tom DeLay and a Republican leadership now mired in scandal epitomized by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, once a big donor to Jewish causes. These groups, it is said, have lost touch with a majority of American Jews, who still skew liberal, vote Democratic and view Christian conservatives with abiding suspicion.
But the real deal-breaker for many -- including a pair of respected political scientists at two leading universities -- was the war in Iraq.
STEPHEN WALT'S OFFICE IN THE KENNEDY SCHOOL OF GOVERNMENT IS COZY AND SEDATE, with a large desk and a set of sofas around a coffee table. There's even a fireplace in one wall, all rust-colored bricks and polished brass. Walt says he's never actually used it. Nowadays he wouldn't need to -- the essay he co-authored with fellow political scientist John Mearsheimer has created enough heat to keep the entire building at a swelter.
Tall, rangy and soft-spoken, Walt's the kind of multidimensional scholar who's as comfortable talking about the creative impulses of the Beatles as he is about American foreign policy. He's a man of gold-plated academic credentials: PhD in political science from the University of California at Berkeley, teaching positions at Princeton University and the University of Chicago before joining the Kennedy School at Harvard as professor in international relations and academic dean. He and Mearsheimer, who were fellow academics at Chicago, are leading members of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a Washington-based group of academics and former policymakers who believe the Bush administration's primary achievement has been to convince friend and foe alike that untrammeled American power poses one of the greatest threats to world peace and stability.
In the prelude to the invasion of Iraq, Walt and Mearsheimer published an article in Foreign Policy magazine in January 2003, titled "An Unnecessary War." It concluded that Iraqi leader Hussein was weak and eminently deterrable without resorting to force. They also organized a full-page ad in the New York Times in which they and 31 other scholars declared the impending conflict "a profound and costly mistake."
We went to war anyway, and many of Walt and Mearsheimer's most dire predictions came to pass. No one in government had listened to them. So what went wrong?
In previous works Walt had written about the role of ethnic lobbies in the making of foreign policy. His view: They tend to gum up the works. Israel and its lobby, he and Mearsheimer conclude, was the main factor that had sent American policy off the rails when it came to Iraq.
Their essay -- published in the London Review of Books and, in an extended version, on the Kennedy School's Web site -- thoroughly condemns the U.S.-Israel relationship. Since the Cold War ended, they contend, Israel has become a strategic liability that ignites terrorism against the West and serves as a rallying cry and recruitment poster for bin Laden and al-Qaeda. What's more, there's no particular moral reason for the United States to support Israel. Despite a well-cultivated myth, Israel has always been stronger militarily than neighboring Arab states, racist and discriminatory in treating its own non-Jewish citizens and brutal when it comes to the Palestinians. "The creation of Israel entailed a moral crime against the Palestinian people," the essay states baldly.
As for the United States, it is the "de facto enabler of Israeli expansion in the occupied territories, making it complicit in the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinians."
Why does Israel enjoy such uncritical American support? The lobby, say Walt and Mearsheimer. Nothing conspiratorial or improper, mind you. "For the most part, the individuals and groups that comprise the Lobby are doing what other special interest groups do, just much better."
The lobby, according to Walt and Mearsheimer, has a free run in Congress. The media also play a role because they generally demur from criticizing Israeli policy. But the essay saves its hardest shot for the neoconservatives -- that group of pro-Israel ideologues, many of them Jewish, who steered the Bush administration toward the Iraq war. The neocons sought to transform the Middle East by overthrowing Hussein and spreading their brand of democracy to the region. They may have mistakenly believed they were furthering U.S. interests, the essay contends, but they were actually implementing an Israeli agenda. "Given the neoconservatives' devotion to Israel, their obsession with Iraq, and their influence in the Bush administration, it is not surprising that many Americans suspected that the war was designed to further Israeli interest."
Listening to Walt, you get the sense that he believes there is one correct and objective foreign policy that an enlightened elite would be able to agree upon if only those grubby ethnic interest groups were not out there playing politics. When I ask him about this, he denies holding such an ivory tower view. For him it's a simple issue: "Absent the pressure from the Israel lobby, I don't think we would have gone to war with Iraq. We don't use the word 'hijack' because that's not the way policy gets done. But it wouldn't have happened without that set of institutions and individuals who had been pushing it for some time."
Still, he doesn't seem to allow for the possibility that foreign policy in a pluralistic democracy is inevitably the product of a noisy clash of interests, or that the success of Israel's supporters may stem from the country's popularity here or from American revulsion over Palestinian suicide bombings. Or for that matter that American opposition to the prospect of Iran achieving a nuclear bomb has little to do with Israel and more to do with American fears of ayatollahs with nukes.
Iran may be worrisome, says Walt, but no more so than previous threats. "My belief is we would not be contemplating preventive war if we did not have a powerful domestic interest group pushing this issue. We have lived with a number of really odious regimes having nuclear weapons, because we understood that we could deter them effectively with the weapons at our disposal."
When Walt and Mearsheimer published their essay, they were deluged with hundreds of e-mails and phone calls. Walt says the reactions he's received to the essay have been positive by a ratio of 4 to 1. Some were unwelcome: White supremacist David Duke said the essay vindicated his views, and other fringe commentators have invoked the paper to justify their claims of an American Jewish conspiracy.
Walt strongly disavows these claims. "There's a long and despicable historical tradition in the Christian West that when bad things happen, you blame the Jews, and I understand why some Jewish Americans are very sensitive on this point because I know it has a historical basis. We did our best to make it clear that is not what we were saying, that we were not accusing people of disloyalty or being part of any kind of conspiracy, that we reject those sorts of arguments and find them reprehensible.
"But I still believe that these are issues we have to be able to talk about in a calm and serious way even when there are strong passions involved. This was an issue that had been the elephant in the room for a long time, and it needed to be discussed openly."
"OKAY, SO TWO JEWS ARE ABOUT TO BE SHOT BY A NAZI SS OFFICER, and he asks if they have any final remarks. One Jew raises his hand to speak, but the other one says to him, 'Stop it -- aren't we in enough trouble already?' Well I'm not afraid of raising my hand."
The man raising his hand is Michael Oren, an American-born Israeli historian. He moved from New Jersey to Jerusalem in the late 1970s, served in the Israeli army, got his PhD from Hebrew University. He has written a bestseller, Six Days of War, is completing a history of U.S. engagement with the Holy Land and is spending the semester teaching at Harvard and Yale. He was also one of the first to condemn the Israel lobby essay in a piece published in the New Republic. Across the table at Bartley's, a Cambridge hamburger haven, is Shai Feldman, a fifth-generation Israeli who was head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, Israel's premier strategic think tank, before taking over as director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University. Feldman has known Walt and Mearsheimer for more than two decades -- Walt helped hold up the ceremonial chuppah at Feldman's wedding -- and he has shied away from publicly attacking the essay, even though he finds it misguided and misinformed.
Oren's a bit to the right of center, and Feldman's a bit to the left, but they're both snugly in the Israeli mainstream. Which means they love to argue.
Feldman says he speaks more out of sorrow than anger about where his two friends may have gone wrong in their essay.
"Look, Israel didn't mobilize anybody over Iraq, and associating Israel with the neocons on this issue is preposterous," he says, helping himself to a french fry. "Israel didn't see Iraq as a danger, and, what's more, it had no interest in pushing the Bush administration's democracy agenda." The only prominent Israeli to champion that idea, says Feldman, is former cabinet minister Natan Sharansky, author of The Case for Democracy , a book that President Bush read and honored by inviting Sharansky to the White House to talk about it. But Sharansky's a lone wolf, says Feldman. "Believe me, that book has more readers in Washington than in Jerusalem."
So if Israel wasn't pushing directly for an invasion of Iraq, what about its American lobbyists?
AIPAC took no official position on the merits of going to war in Iraq, and staff members insist they did not lobby in favor of the 2002 war resolution. But, like the Israeli government, once it was clear that the Bush administration was determined to go to war, AIPAC cheered from the sidelines, bestowing sustained ovations on an array of administration officials at its April 2003 annual conference and on Bush himself when he attended the following year.
Oren, who has studied the subject for years, believes the animosity toward the Israel lobby goes deeper than policy. He even raises the possibility that Walt and Mearsheimer are anti-Semites.
"You have to differentiate between them and their argument," Feldman replies. "They're not anti-Semites even if they have slid into an anti-Semitic argument. I think it all comes from their failure to prevent the war on Iraq."
Oren: "So they come up with this truly unique notion of blaming the Jews!"
Oren sees the essay as an evil that needs to be condemned. But Feldman argues that "the ties between Israel and the United States are so robust this essay won't damage them. And to make into martyrs a couple of academics with a lousy paper would only prove their point."
What becomes clear after a while is that the differences between Feldman and Oren aren't between left and right, but between a longtime Israeli and a newcomer. "In the '50s when Israel was precarious, things might have looked different," says Feldman. "But today Israel is strong, and people can ask questions that are considered heretical here. To portray Israel as a leaf hanging in the wind is almost to say it has not succeeded."
Oren on the other hand is a first-generation immigrant who used to get chased home from school in West Orange, N.J., because he was Jewish. His Israel is more
slender and endangered and needs to be constantly vigilant, despite having one of the world's strongest armies.
"All these tanks and planes -- you couldn't use them against suicide bombers," says Oren. "Even now the president of Iran talks about wiping Israel off the map. We're still vulnerable."
SOME OF THE ANGRIEST RESPONSES TO WALT AND MEARSHEIMER COME FROM AMERICAN JEWS who are singled out in the essay as members of the lobby. Douglas Feith, a former Pentagon official and neoconservative thinker who was a strong advocate for the Iraq war, says he's furious that the essay suggests he supported the war because it helped Israel's interests rather than those of the United States.
Then there is Dennis Ross, chief Middle East peace negotiator in the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations, an American Jew who is deeply committed to Israel's survival yet also believes in the legitimacy of a Palestinian state. Ross was the point man for the ill-fated Camp David peace summit in July 2000, in which Clinton failed to achieve a breakthrough with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Arafat. These days he's counselor and distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, one of the think tanks Walt and Mearsheimer describe as part of the Israel lobby.
Echoing Feldman and Oren, Ross insists that the essay is wrong to claim Israel had pushed for war in Iraq. If anything, the Israelis feared such a war would divert attention and resources from the Middle East's real danger -- Iran. Some Israelis even warned that toppling Hussein would lead to chaos in Iraq that would make the neighboring Iranians stronger. Which is, more or less, what has happened.
"It might have been better if they had gotten their facts straight," says Ross of Walt and Mearsheimer. "I don't say they're anti-Semitic, just that they're ignorant."
But it's more than that. Ross devoted a large chunk of his career to trying to broker peace in the Middle East. He doesn't like being branded as part of anyone's lobby and resents being lumped together with neocons like Feith, a longtime critic. "I would be dishonest if I said it didn't make me angry," Ross says. "It's so fallacious, and it will be used by those who want to say that American policy is somehow distorted and perverted."
IT'S A TUESDAY IN EARLY MARCH, and there are 5,000 people jammed at dining tables in the Washington Convention Center for AIPAC's annual gathering, including more than 50 senators and 100 House members and dozens of administration officials. Vice President Cheney gives a keynote address, as does John Bolton, the administration's fire-breathing ambassador to the United Nations. The Israeli election is coming up in a few days, and the leaders of the three major parties all appear via satellite hookup, including Ehud Olmert, who begins with a politician's prayer of thanksgiving: "Thank God we have you; thank God we have AIPAC."
The opening video montage begins with Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip; then shows angry crowds of Palestinians burning and looting the abandoned settlements; then the electoral triumph of the radical Islamist group Hamas; then mayhem in Iraq; images of bin Laden; a parade of terror bombings in London, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan and, finally, Israel; then a reference to the stroke that felled prime minister Sharon; then the harangue of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who cries that "Israel must be wiped off the map!" Violence, flames, angry dark-skinned young Muslims.
The message seems to be: A new Holocaust? It could happen.
DAVID BEN-GURION NEVER GOT TO SEE ROOSEVELT, but that didn't stop him from pressing ahead with his lifelong mission. After he left the United States in 1942, he returned to Palestine and oversaw the creation of the Jewish state. He became its first prime minister in 1948. Ben-Gurion declared Israel's independence at 6 p.m. Washington time on May 14. Eleven minutes later, the United States became the first nation to recognize the new state.
Ben-Gurion oversaw the building of Israel's powerful defense establishment, mixed economy and quarrelsome political system. But, for all his achievements, he suggested one simple way to measure a country's success that might be instructive to Walt and Mearsheimer, as well as to their critics. "The test of democracy," he wrote, "is freedom of criticism."
Or, as Morris Amitay put it when our interview ended: "It's been nice talking to you, and I look forward to sending a very critical letter to the editor after your article appears."
Glenn Frankel is a staff writer for the Magazine and The Post's former Jerusalem bureau chief. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.