Hawkish ‘Israel Lobby’ More Bark Than Bite?

The Nov. 25 announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a "moratorium" on settlement construction brought very different responses from the Jewish American "pro-Israel" groups J Street and the heavyweight American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), calling attention to the increasing divide within the American Jewish community.

Both AIPAC and J Street welcomed Netanyahu’s decision to halt new building projects in West Bank settlements, but the two groups had sharply contrasting messages about what the next step should be.

AIPAC pointedly called on Palestinians to make immediate concessions to move the peace process forward, stating, "the Palestinians must meet their reciprocal obligations, come to the negotiating table, and cease incitement against Israel at home and in international bodies."

J Street took a much different approach, emphasizing that U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell "is correct to note that in halting some settlement construction for a limited time, this Israeli government has taken a step forward. However, this is not the full settlement freeze called for by the United States and does not address the deteriorating situation in East Jerusalem."

The emergence of these differing viewpoints – emanating from organizations that both identify as "pro-Israel" – forms the basis of Dan Fleshler’s new book, Transforming America’s Israel Lobby: The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change.

Fleshler has worked with a number of left-of-center American Jewish groups and serves on the boards of Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now, and the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation, and he is a member of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom.

Fleshler makes the case that although Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, in their controversial 2007 book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, portray the largely right-wing and Israeli Likud Party-aligned "Israel Lobby" as an overwhelming force for any dissenting voices to go up against, this portrayal of AIPAC and its allies is largely "smoke and mirrors."

The real question, argues Fleshler, is "Why have American Jews let the lobby speak for them?" even when the money and power behind the lobby is far less than many other lobby groups in Washington and opinion polls of American Jews suggest that they are politically to the left of the stances taken by the lobby’s biggest voices.

Fleshler’s book examines the terrain of American Jewish organizations stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the "Far Left or Religious Anti-Zionist," which includes Jewish Voices for Peace; the "Pro-Israel Left," which includes J Street; the "Center Left," which includes the Union of Reform Judaism; the "Center," which includes the Anti-Defamation League; the "Center Right," which includes AIPAC; and the "Far Right," which includes American Friends of Likud and the Zionist Organization of America.

Despite the wide range of positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the American Jewish community, the "Center" of the organized American Jewish community – which also includes the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the American Zionist Movement, B’nai Brith, Hadassah, and United Jewish Communities – hold the most influence and receive the most fundraising dollars.

Notably, AIPAC, seen as the figurehead of the "Israel Lobby" by Walt and Mearsheimer, stands to the right of most of these groups.

AIPAC’s strength lies in its ability to give American Jews a link to Israel when increasing numbers of American Jews are finding themselves detached from the narrative of Israel’s founding and the Holocaust.

"Another important aspect of American Jews’ Israel narrative is that it is secondhand," writes Fleshler. AIPAC and the most mainstream American Jewish organizations give their membership an opportunity to rally around Israel but leaves them in a "rhetorical time warp" or "Diaspora lag," where controversial topics often remain verboten even when they have been publicly discussed in the Israeli media.

Such issues have included discussions of a Palestinian state, talking to the PLO, and negotiating with Hamas.

AIPAC may have a strong lobbying presence on Capitol Hill, but its greatest strength, suggests Fleshler, is the fact that with few opposing lobbies within the Jewish community, there is often no need for AIPAC to actively lobby politicians to vote in line with its positions.

Just the fact that it exists and is able to muster public support when needed is motivation enough for a large number of U.S. politicians to fall in line with AIPAC’s positions.

Fleshler extends his theory that AIPAC and the "Israel Lobby" have magnified their perceived influence through "smoke and mirrors" by leveraging long-held anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jewish control of the media and economy.

He discusses how bundled campaign contributions coming from out-of-state Jewish donors to a congressional candidate with few Jews in his or her district helps confirm the myth of Jewish money even when the total sum of money may be relatively small.

"They have an atomic bomb of fear," Jeremy Rabinowitz, former chief of staff to Rep. Lois Capps, a California Democrat, told Fleshler about AIPAC. "People think they can defeat incumbents and blow up campaigns. It’s a weapon members [of the House and Senate] think they will use. But it’s just not true that the Jewish community will sweep in and go after you if you don’t vote the way AIPAC wants you to. … That’s a myth."

Ultimately Fleshler makes a strong case for American Jewish organizations which represent constituencies who are concerned about human rights in Israel, settlement expansion, and the furthering of the peace process to make more noise and stand up to the mainstream "Israel Lobby."

Groups such as J Street (which Fleshler sits on the advisory council of) should speak up and give politicians "cover" for taking stances which pressure Israel to give up its settlements and promote the formation of a viable Palestinian state, the book argues.

While rejecting Walt and Mearsheimer’s portrayal of the "Israel Lobby" as overwhelmingly powerful, Fleshler does borrow a page from their argument in suggesting that American Jews should lobby for U.S. interests in the Middle East instead of framing their interests as "Is it good for Israel?"

Fleshler attributes this idea to Daniel Levy, the former Israeli peace negotiator.

"If you are an American Jew, your first priority should be to lobby for what makes sense for America," Levy told Fleshler. "Israel and its leaders have created conditions for a narrative that places policy within the frame of ‘Is it good for Israel?’ I don’t think that is healthy for either country."

While it’s important to hear an influential and knowledgeable Israeli speak candidly on these matters, it might have been suitable to offer Walt and Mearsheimer some credit for bringing such issues into the mainstream and working to distance an objective discussion of U.S. interests in the Middle East from the omnipresent charges of anti-Semitism when anyone tries to differentiate between U.S. and Israeli interests.

While Fleshler makes a strong case that standing up to the conventional American Jewish lobby in Washington is far less costly than both its proponents and opponents might lead the public to believe, his book offers few concrete suggestions on how a center-left coalition within the American Jewish community might gain greater influence.

J Street’s successful inaugural conference in October – the group planned for 1,000 conference delegates, but over 1,500 attended – suggests there might be both the energy and political will for a "transformation" of the "Israel Lobby" along the lines of Fleshler’s suggestion. However, it is too early to tell if such a coalition can hold together or exert the influence – be it real or imaginary – which the conventional lobby holds over U.S. Middle East policy.

Despite Fleshler’s cogent argument that the "Israel Lobby" is "smoke and mirrors" and "puffery," J Street and its center-left coalition face a difficult, expensive, and time-consuming challenge as they move to bring a "Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace" voice to the ongoing saga of U.S.-Israel relations.

(Inter Press Service)