Maryland Sen. Charles McC. Mathias has asserted in an article in the prestigious Foreign Affairs quarterly that the political clout of ethnic-interest groups -- including what he calls the "potent Israel lobby" -- sometimes proves "harmful to the public interest."
The article, entitled "Ethnic Groups and Foreign Policy," drew swift and angry reaction yesterday from several Jewish leaders who have long supported the Republic senator.
Pointing to supporters of Israel as the nation's strongest ethnic-interest group, Mathias urged President Reagan and Congress not to be swayed by the lobbies in shaping foreign policy. He did not mention specific decisions now facing the administration.
"The president, with his national constituency, is in a unique and powerful position not only to resist parochial pressures but to lead and educate the American people in matters of their common bonds and shared purposes," wrote Mathias, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Although taking care not to attack American support for Israel, Mathias said that the "Israel lobby" often has swayed presidents and congressmen "for reasons not always related either to personal conviction or careful reflection on the national interest." He wrote that the problem extends to lobbying by Eastern European, Greek- and Irish-American groups, but stressed that Israel's supporters are by far the most powerful.
The article was greeted with surprise in Maryland, a state known for its ethnic diversity and its large populations of Jews, Irish-Americans and Greek-Americans. Jewish voters have overwhelmingly supported Mathias, most recently in November when he was elected to a third term. He has been regarded as a supporter of Israel although many Maryland Jews protested his vote in 1978 for the sale of F15 jet fighters to Saudi Arabia.
"Why not attack all the lobbies -- the farm lobby, the oil lobby, the business lobby?" said State Sen. Rosalie Abrams of Baltimore, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "They all affect foreign policy. Lobbying is a basic part of the legislative process," said Abrams, who considered running against Mathias last year but decided against it because of his strong support from Jews around the state.
"He's thumbing his nose at the people who supported him in that segment of the population," said Barbara Hoffman, an officer of the Baltimore Jewish Council and executive director of the state Democratic Party. "The Jews were extremely upset about him supporting the sale of the F15s, but that didn't stop them from overwhelmingly supporting him last November."
Hoffman and others interpreted Mathias' article as a signal that he plans to support the proposed sale of AWACS radar planes and other enhancements for the Saudi Arabian F15s. Mathias did not join the 54 senators who wrote to Reagan last week opposing the sale as "not in the best interests of the United States." An aide said yesterday the senator will not take a stand on the issue until he has heard the full debate.
Mathias declined through his press secretary Jack Eddinger to comment on the criticism, but Eddinger said the article was not intended as a signal of any kind. "It's something he felt has developed as a historical trend and he felt it needed to be brought out," Eddinger said. Mathias sent letters to some Jewish supporters to tell them the article was comint out and was not timed to coincide with any issues.
Eddinger said Mathias expected the article to generate controversy and decided in advance not to comment on it. "He doesn't want to embroider it any further. He feels he has said his piece," Eddinger said.
The 24-page article is largely historical, tracing the right to lobby back to the Magna Carta. It hails ethnic diversity in America and some aspects of ethnic politics, while criticizing the influence of ethnic interest groups on American foreign policy.
"Ethnic politics, carried as they often have been to excess, have proven harmful to the national interest," wrote Mathias.
Among the examples, he cited the three-year Greek-American lobbying campaign against the repeal of the arms embargo against Turkey. The embargo, which was lifted with Mathias' support in 1978, eventually proved harmful to America's security interests, the Maryland senator contended.
Regarding the "Israel lobby," Mathias cited intense, ultimately unsuccessful efforts by Jewish groups to block approval of the F15 package in 1978. The lobbying created "an emotional, judgmental atmosphere," he said, citing a letter to a New York Jewish newspaper about his support for the package. "Mr Mathias values the importance of oil over the well-being of Jews and the state of Israel," the letter said.
He also cited the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment as "one of the notable successes of lobbying by Jewish-Americans," but noted that the provision, which was intended to ease the emigration of Soviet Jews, eventually backfired.
"Presidents for Wilson to Carter have confronted the dilemma (as will Reagan too, no doubt, soon enough) of citizens who couple loyalty to America with bonds of affection for one foreign country or another," Mathias wrote.
On the issue of Israel, he said: "There seems little doubt that, but for the efforts of American Jews, our military and economic aid to Israel would be less than it is, although I remain convinced that, even if there were no Israel lobby, the American people would remain solidly committed to Israel's survival."