The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has just completed its annual gala in Washington. A reported thirteen thousand AIPAC supporters reportedly cheered the latest efforts to make Israel America’s most favored nation. A small group of demonstrators was generally ignored though Scott McConnell reports that some protesters were spat upon by those filing in to celebrate Israel. It must be a habit they picked up in Jerusalem where spitting on Christian clergymen is considered de rigueur.
There has been considerable speculation that AIPAC’s power to corrupt and misdirect the American political system might be waning, that the struggle over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense revealed all the ugliness of the Israel Lobby. I have never quite bought into that argument even though it is true that the attempt to derail the nomination of a qualified former senator demonstrated clearly that U.S. foreign and defense policies are being judged by many in the media and the punditry as well as, to our shame, in congress solely in terms of how they impact on Israel. It seemed to me that the Israel Lobby is too firmly ensconced in the places that matter to be vulnerable to thirty days of scrutiny. The American public has already forgotten about Hagel, if it was ever interested at all, and there is no sign that any of the demagogic senators – Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, James Imhofe, John McCain, and Marco Rubio among others – will in any way pay a political price for their placing Israel first. Indeed, many of their evangelical constituents will inevitably applaud what they have done.
It has also been noted that the recently concluded AIPAC gathering was the first in many years where a sitting U.S. President or an Israeli Prime Minister did not speak, and this has been interpreted as a loss of influence. Last year, both President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were present but this year Netanyahu is engaged in forming a new government and could not travel while Obama is himself preparing for a trip to Israel next week. Vice President Joe Biden did yeoman’s work, however, making sure that everyone would understand that the Washington will continue to respond to Israel’s concerns, boasting how the Obama administration had successfully blocked any United Nations inquiry into Israel’s illegal settlements. So predictions that the death of AIPAC is imminent would appear to be somewhat premature.
Indeed, it would be a mistake to focus too much on AIPAC when the Israel Lobby encompasses so much more, but it is no coincidence that there has been a flurry of proposed legislation designed to coincide with the annual conference. Consider for a moment what the friends of Israel are now attempting to accomplish and how far their allies in congress are willing to go to compromise actual American interests. First there is H.R. 938 the "United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013" which was referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs last Monday. The bill is co-sponsored by Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen who heads the committee and by her Democratic colleague from Florida Ted Deutch. Ros-Lehtinen is a familiar booster for Israel and also for what she perceives to be Jewish interests. In 2011 she co-sponsored a bill that provided special medical benefits to holocaust survivors to enable them to remain in their homes and receive medical care. As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency described it "the bill would give Holocaust survivors preference in obtaining aging services," providing in this case something that is not available to normal Medicare recipients. Ros-Lehtinen has also been a co-sponsor of most of the pro-Israel, anti-Iran legislation that has surfaced in congress over the past five years.
H.R. 938 calls for strengthening "the strategic alliance between the United States and Israel." It’s declaration of policy is that "Congress declares that Israel is a major strategic partner of the United States" and it indicates that its intention is to upgrade "the framework of the United States-Israel strategic and military relationships." The text of the bill is relatively soporific but it does several things. First, it extends the time frame and scope of various assistance and information sharing programs that Washington has entered into with Tel Aviv, including its ability to help itself to equipment from U.S. military stockpiles. Second, it creates reporting requirements for the White House and various government Departments to ensure that programs relating to Israel are actually moving forward. There should be particular concern over the bill’s expanding the areas of military technology sharing between Washington and Tel Aviv as Israel has a track record of stealing the proprietary technology for use in systems that its own defense industry is marketing. Assisting in that effort, the bill also specifically gives Israel blanked authority to re-export any technology it obtains from the U.S. An additional substantive area that the bill addresses is the various missile defense systems that Israel has in place and is developing, mandating that the U.S. "should provide assistance upon request by the Government of Israel, for the…procurement and enhancement" of the systems.
The House Resolution also calls for the State Department to include Israel in the visa waiver program, which would allow Israelis to travel to the United States more-or-less freely. It will be a boon to Israeli/Russian organized crime, which has already spread throughout the United States. Interestingly, there is also a Barbara Boxer produced Senate version of the same bill (S.R. 462) that adds some interesting language, "Israel has made every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all US citizens." Normally participation in the visa waiver program absolutely requires that the arrangement be completely reciprocal, but in this case the Senate is certifying that Israel is compliant even though it is not: it regularly denies entry to American citizens of Palestinian descent, most recently to a teacher in a Christian school in Ramallah. So Congress is again rewriting its own rules on behalf of Israel.
It does not require any particular insight to note that the "major strategic alliance" suggested by the bill benefits Israel by extending various cooperation and sharing agreements while further committing to pay for enhancements of the Israeli missile defense system "upon request" by Benjamin Netanyahu or whoever winds up succeeding him as prime minister. And it might be noted in passing that no other nation, including countries like Great Britain and Canada whose soldiers have actually fought side by side with Americans in a number of twentieth century wars and also more recently, is regarded as a "major strategic ally." It is a designation that will be unique to Israel and is intended to elevate that nation above all others in terms of its relationship with Washington.
And there is nothing in the bill that actually benefits the United States. The words "alliance" and "ally" are used several times but they have no meaning as Israel is not in any traditional alliance relationship with Washington that would actually require it to do anything. In any event, it would be difficult for Washington to define what constitutes an attack on Israel as Israel has expanding borders. No reciprocity and no conditions set on possible mutual action means there is no actual alliance, unlike an organization like Cold War-era NATO which once upon a time clearly defined what member states had to do if threatened or attacked while further limiting what they could do unilaterally. The U.S. exercises no restraint on Israeli behavior and the relationship is strictly one way.
An additional bill, this time from the Senate, S.R. 65, authored by unflinchingly pro-Israel Senators Lindsey Graham and Robert Menendez, with twenty other Senatorial co-sponsors, was introduced on February 28th. There is a parallel version in the House of Representatives called H.R. 850 with 102 co-sponsors. The Senate version is called "The Iran Nuclear Prevention Act" and is described as "A resolution strongly supporting the full implementation of United States and international sanctions on Iran and urging the President to continue to strengthen enforcement of sanctions legislation." It cites the Iranian "continuing pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability" and "the policy of the United States…to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon capability" before urging that "if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense the United States government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military and economic support…"
S.R. 65 is a virtual declaration of war on a timetable to be established by Israel though the text of the resolution concludes with a disclaimer that it is not an "authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war." Disclaimer aside, the resolution basically concedes that if Israel starts a war against Iran under any pretext, the United States must automatically support it up to an including using its own military and naval forces. As Senator Graham admitted in an interview, "If Israel acts in its own defense – even preemptively – we will support Israel economically, diplomatically, and politically."
But one of the interesting things about the attack Iran resolution is that its premise is wrong: both Israeli and U.S. intelligence believe that Tehran currently has no actual weapons program though if one goes by "capability" rather than actually having or seeking a weapon, Iran is one of more than fifty nations that currently have the technical ability to construct a nuclear device. To do so, it would have to make the political decision to spend the billions of dollars required in the effort and be prepared to submit to a catastrophically damaging international response which almost certainly would lead to a war that would devastate Iran and the entire Gulf region.
Finally there is the sequester, which provides an opportunity to return again to AIPAC. Part of AIPAC’s annual routine consists of its supporters flooding Capitol Hill Senate and House offices to lobby legislators regarding key issues of concern to the pro-Israel community. This year there were a couple of hot buttons, including the perennial favorite of the alleged Iranian threat, but the issue that received the most attention was the sequester. AIPAC’s supporters fanned out in the House and Senate office buildings to tell their congressmen that under no circumstances should Israel’s $3.2 billion in aid be cut, no matter what the sequester calls for and no matter what domestic programs have to be eliminated. One has to suspect that the no-cuts in aid to Israel will somehow be tied to the bid to declare the country America’s "major strategic ally."
So are we back to square one? Not exactly. The Hagel confirmation fight revealed that U.S. interests matter not a whit for Israel’s most vocal supporters while the American media is gradually becoming more open to criticism of what is going on in Tel Aviv. But the Lobby still has the whip hand, able to manage what appears in most of the media while having a vice-like grip on congress. It is probably futile in the near term, but we the people should start to imitate AIPAC by letting congressmen know that there are a lot of us out here who vote and who are not too happy about the prospect of a third war in Asia against Iran. Indeed, the real test of the Israel Lobby’s power will be played out over the next nine months or so. If we do get a war with Iran then those of us who have opposed it might as well fold our cards on "let us reason together" and begin to think of civil disobedience on a serious level. It might be the only option we have remaining to turn the ship around.