Jewish Political Power and American Foreign Policy By Edward Tivnan

Simon and Schuster. 304 pp. $19.95

THAT AMERICAN Jews have tried to enlist their country's support for Israel isn't surprising. The establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 created a place on this planet that, had it been available a few years before, would have saved a third of the world's Jews from Nazi extermination. Not having had a refuge through two millennia of persecution and expulsion, defenseless against the cynicism of leaders for whom they were useful prey and the rage of populations taught to see them as guilty and dangerous outsiders, Jews finally had a place to which they could escape should murderous forces ever again be unleashed against them. That that place was also one in which they could defend themselves and that it was located in their ancestral homeland made Jewish relief in the creation of Israel logical, Jewish pride in its achievements understandable, and Jewish anxieties about its survival inevitable.

It has been precisely America's preeminent strategic and economic roles in the postwar world that have made the efforts of America's Jews on behalf of Israel especially effective. They have understood that America, and probably only America, has it in its power to ensure a secure Israel; and they have done their best to get American leaders, and through them the American goverment, to support that goal.

They have done it, primarily, in two ways. They have voted for political candidates whose policies they favor, particularly policies on Israel; and they have given copiously to the political campaigns of such candidates.

These two methods have been strengthened and focused by Jewish organizations created to articulate Jewish concerns. Individual Jews have learned from such organizations the identities of their friends as well as their enemies. Groups of Jews have established political action committees to help candidates they see as deserving. And one organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC -- not, despite its name, a political action committee that can donate funds to candidates but, rather, the official pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. -- has worked hard, in both the executive and legislative arenas of the federal government, to convince American leaders to support Israel, not only in international forums and not only by supplying it with weapons but also by taking sides with it against its enemies and by providing it with increasing amounts of financial aid. In pursuing these goals, AIPAC has argued that it is emphatically in America's interest to support Israel; but at least some of the positive response the organization has received from elected officials has been given, in addition, because those officials know that the lack of such a response would become known to America's Jews, with possible deleterious consequences to them in future campaigns and elections.

It is this organized body of Jewish interest, and especially AIPAC, that is the subject of Edward Tivnan's The Lobby: Jewish Political Power and American Foreign Policy. Given the strength and activities of organized Jewish opinion in America, and the successes that AIPAC has had in its efforts to mobilize American support for Israel, one should welcome a serious study of the nature of that strength and those activities, and of the degree to which the American support for Israel that has grown in response to them has been consistent with America's long-term international interests.

Unfortunately, Tivnan's book isn't such a study and ultimately fails as one, if it was ever meant to be one, because its author, in his effort to demonstrate that the pro-Israel lobby has undermined the integrity of American politics as well as the ultimate interests of the country, its Jews and even Israel, has turned reportage into polemic, undermining his credibility as a critic and depriving us of the opportunity to understand better, as we should, the dynamics of the struggle to influence American policy in the Middle East as well as the ways in which that struggle has affected America's interests, both domestic and international.

Not that The Lobby fails altogether to teach. It provides a reasonably good history of the attitudes of early American Jewish leaders toward the Zionist idea, the development of unified support for Israel following its creation, the attitudes toward that country held by American presidents and other elected and non-elected officials, and the growth in power and influence of AIPAC itself. Moreover, it presents in a detailed way -- sometimes in a repetitiously and numbingly detailed way -- the battles, ultimately lost, that AIPAC waged during the Carter and Reagan administrations against the sales of F-15 and AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia. In addition, it offers some insight into the workings of AIPAC, into the backgrounds of its officials, and into the bitterness of some Jewish leaders who are dismayed by the single-mindedness of AIPAC's focus as well as the need that AIPAC has, and that many other Jewish organizations have, to defend Israeli policies no matter what they may be.

THE TROUBLE is that The Lobby fails more significantly than it succeeds, and more deeply. It fails to put into sufficient perspective, for example, the phenomenon of lobbying itself -- a phenomenon that has old and established roots in the American political tradition. After all, lobbying -- the organized competition, within the country, of conflicting interests and goals -- has molded, to a very significant extent, the shape of our national policies in both the domestic and international arenas, ranging from farm subsidies to wheat sales, from abortion to arms control, and from southern Africa to the Middle East. Sometimes, senators and representatives vote against their views on the Middle East because they're afraid that doing otherwise might affect their political careers; much more often they vote against their views on many other issues, both domestic and international, for the same reason. Some of this may be seen as cynically-motivated behavior; but it's also part of the way our democracy works. In this book, Tivnan occasionally recognizes the legitimacy of the lobbying process, noting its roots in the Federalist Papers; but his argument, and particularly his failure adequately to place pro-Israeli lobbying in the context of political lobbying in general, makes that recognition seem little more than lip service.

Tivnan, a magazine writer and television producer, also fails to understand the reason so many Jewish leaders decline so often to fight with each other in public about Israeli policies even though Israelis themselves do it all the time. For Israelis, such fights are about their own fate. It's a fate that they as citizens of their country can control, and it's to grab ahold of the reigns of that control that they vie with each other both in public and in private. Most American Jewish leaders understand that they don't have the right to grab those reins or would never be successful in grabbing them if they tried. All they can do, they feel, is to watch from the sidelines and hope that whatever Israeli policy emerges from a particular internal political battle will be one they can support.

That they will, in fact, support it is, they know, likely. First of all, they believe that, as a democracy, Israel will tend to act in a way that, whenever possible, conforms to basic democratic values. Moreover, and perhaps more important, they support it because the existence of Israel itself, even when it acts in ways that make American Jews uncomfortable, is very precious to them; and they know that their power to help preserve that existence, through their advocacy of it within the United States, will be compromised if they begin to fight with each other and take sides with one or another political faction within Israel.

Another of The Lobby's shortcoming is its failure to appreciate the genuine and spontaneous centrality of Israel to the concerns of most American Jews, not just the Jewish leadership. Tivnan attributes that centrality to AIPAC's ability to set the American Jewish agenda: "Since AIPAC's only issue is Israel, Israel is bound to continue to dominate American Jewish life, if AIPAC has its way." But Israel dominates American Jewish life because its's a dominating interest, not because of AIPAC; AIPAC is influential among American Jews in large measure because, for better or worse, it champions a position that, on the whole, American Jews truly, and deeply, support.

But the book's greatest failures result from its overwhelmingly polemical tone. Tivnan's pleas that American Jews take positions that are more independent of the positions of the Israel government, and more independent of AIPAC, makes sense in many ways. But his advice is not likely to be heard as friendly in the context of his rhetoric, which is hardly that of an objective and pained observer.

In addition to the polemics, there are the mistakes -- not many, but enough to disturb. One mistake is the statement that Israel has 100,000 Arab citizens, when there are actually more than seven times that number. Another is the observation that, after the Second World War, Jews as displaced persons camps in Europe lived "in conditions little better than Hitler's death camps"; anyone who really believes that the two kinds of camps shared anything but the term "camp" knows little about recent history, and, I'm afraid, understands even less.

Finally, it can hardly leave American Jews reassured about Tivnan's appreciation of their anxieties regarding their own acceptance in America, and about his attitude toward that acceptance, when they read his reference to "U.S.-Jewish relations," as if the American Jewish community is outside the American body politic.

The problems Tivnan addresses are important, not only for the United States and not only for its Jewish community but also, as he accurately points out, for Israel as well as the goal of peace in the Middle East. Addressing them successfully requires objectivity, perspective and a sensitivity to both the American political tradition and the circumstances of Jewish life in this country and elsewhere. Whether Tivnan started out with the aim of achieving those qualities I don't know; that in the end he didn't achieve them is unfortunate, not only for the book but also for those of us who turn to it in the hope of better understanding the problems he wrote it to address.

Walter Reich, a psychiatrist and senior research associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is the author of "A Stranger in My House: Jews and Arabs in the West Bank."