The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy

John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt
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The explanation lies in the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby. Were it not for the Lobby’s ability to manipulate the American political system, the relationship between Israel and the United States would be far less intimate than it is today.

What Is The Lobby?

We use “the Lobby” as a convenient short-hand term for the loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to shape U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. Our use of this term is not meant to suggest that “the Lobby” is a unified movement with a central leadership, or that individuals within it do not disagree on certain issues

The core of the Lobby is comprised of American Jews who make a significant effort in their daily lives to bend U.S. foreign policy so that it advances Israel’s interests. Their activities go beyond merely voting for candidates who are pro- Israel to include letter-writing, financial contributions, and supporting pro-Israel organizations. But not all Jewish-Americans are part of the Lobby, because Israel is not a salient issue for many of them. In a 2004 survey, for example, roughly 36 percent of Jewish-Americans said they were either “not very” or “not at all” emotionally attached to Israel.60

Jewish-Americans also differ on specific Israeli policies. Many of the key organizations in the Lobby, like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (CPMJO), are run by hardliners who generally supported the expansionist policies of Israel’s Likud Party, including its hostility to the Oslo Peace Process. The bulk of U.S. Jewry, on the other hand, is more favorably disposed to making concessions to the Palestinians, and a few groups—such as Jewish Voice for Peace—strongly advocate such steps.61 Despite these differences, moderates and hardliners both support steadfast U.S. support for Israel.

Not surprisingly, American Jewish leaders often consult with Israeli officials, so that the former can maximize their influence in the United States. As one activist with a major Jewish organization wrote, “it is routine for us to say: ‘This is our policy on a certain issue, but we must check what the Israelis think.’ We as a community do it all the time.”62 There is also a strong norm against criticizing Israeli policy, and Jewish-American leaders rarely support putting pressure on Israel. Thus, Edgar Bronfman Sr., the president of the World Jewish Congress, was accused of “perfidy” when he wrote a letter to President Bush in mid-2003 urging Bush to pressure Israel to curb construction of its controversial “security fence.”63 Critics declared that, “It would be obscene at any time for the president of the World Jewish Congress to lobby the president of the United States to resist policies being promoted by the government of Israel.”

Similarly, when Israel Policy Forum president Seymour Reich advised Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to pressure Israel to reopen a critical border crossing in the Gaza Strip in November 2005, critics denounced his action as “irresponsible behavior,” and declared that, “There is absolutely no room in the Jewish mainstream for actively canvassing against the security-related policies . . . of Israel.”64 Recoiling from these attacks, Reich proclaimed that “the word pressure is not in my vocabulary when it comes to Israel.”

Jewish-Americans have formed an impressive array of organizations to influence American foreign policy, of which AIPAC is the most powerful and well-known. In 1997, Fortune magazine asked members of Congress and their staffs to list the most powerful lobbies in Washington.65 AIPAC was ranked second behind the American Association of Retired People (AARP), but ahead of heavyweight lobbies like the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association. A National Journal study in March 2005 reached a similar conclusion, placing AIPAC in second place (tied with AARP) in the Washington’s “muscle rankings.”66

The Lobby also includes prominent Christian evangelicals like Gary Bauer, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, and Pat Robertson, as well as Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, former majority leaders in the House of Representatives. They believe Israel’s rebirth is part of Biblical prophecy, support its expansionist agenda, and think pressuring Israel is contrary to God’s will.67 In addition, the Lobby’s membership includes neoconservative gentiles such as John Bolton, the late Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley, former Secretary of Education William Bennett, former U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and columnist George Will.

Sources of Power

The United States has a divided government that offers many ways to influence the policy process. As a result, interest groups can shape policy in many different ways – by lobbying elected representatives and members of the executive branch, making campaign contributions, voting in elections, molding public opinion, etc.

Furthermore, special interest groups enjoy disproportionate power when they are committed to a particular issue and the bulk of the population is indifferent. Policymakers will tend to accommodate those who care about the issue in question, even if their numbers are small, confident that the rest of the population will not penalize them.

The Israel Lobby’s power flows from its unmatched ability to play this game of interest group politics. In its basic operations, it is no different from interest groups like the Farm Lobby, steel and textile workers, and other ethnic lobbies. What sets the Israel Lobby apart is its extraordinary effectiveness. But there is nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to sway U.S. policy towards Israel. The Lobby’s activities are not the sort of conspiracy depicted in anti-Semitic tracts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. For the most part, the individuals and groups that comprise the Lobby are doing what other special interest groups do, just much better. Moreover, pro-Arab interest groups are weak to non-existent, which makes the Lobby’s task even easier.68

Strategies for Success

The Lobby pursues two broad strategies to promote U.S. support for Israel. First, it wields significant influence in Washington, pressuring both Congress and the Executive branch to support Israel down the line. Whatever an individual lawmaker or policymaker’s own views, the Lobby tries to make supporting Israel the “smart” political choice.

Second, the Lobby strives to ensure that public discourse about Israel portrays it in a positive light, by repeating myths about Israel and its founding and by publicizing Israel’s side in the policy debates of the day. The goal is to prevent critical commentary about Israel from getting a fair hearing in the political arena. Controlling the debate is essential to guaranteeing U.S. support, because candid discussion of U.S.-Israeli relations might lead Americans to favor a different policy.

Influencing Congress

A key pillar of the Lobby’s effectiveness is its influence in the U.S. Congress, where Israel is virtually immune from criticism. This is in itself a remarkable situation, because Congress almost never shies away from contentious issues. Whether the issue is abortion, affirmative action, health care, or welfare, there is certain to be a lively debate on Capitol Hill. Where Israel is concerned, however, potential critics fall silent and there is hardly any debate at all.

One reason for the Lobby’s success with Congress is that some key members are Christian Zionists like Dick Armey, who said in September 2002 that “My No. 1 priority in foreign policy is to protect Israel.”69 One would think that the number 1 priority for any congressman would be to “protect America,” but that is not what Armey said. There are also Jewish senators and congressmen who work to make U.S. foreign policy support Israel’s interests.

Pro-Israel congressional staffers are another source of the Lobby’s power. As Morris Amitay, a former head of AIPAC, once admitted, “There are a lot of guys at the working level up here [on Capitol Hill] … who happen to be Jewish, who are willing … to look at certain issues in terms of their Jewishness …. These are all guys who are in a position to make the decision in these areas for those senators …. You can get an awful lot done just at the staff level.”70

It is AIPAC itself, however, that forms the core of the Lobby’s influence in Congress. AIPAC’s success is due to its ability to reward legislators and congressional candidates who support its agenda, and to punish those who challenge it. Money is critical to U.S. elections (as the recent scandal over lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s various shady dealings reminds us), and AIPAC makes sure that its friends get strong financial support from the myriad pro-Israel political action committees. Those seen as hostile to Israel, on the other hand, can be sure that AIPAC will direct campaign contributions to their political opponents. AIPAC also organizes letter-writing campaigns and encourages newspaper editors to endorse pro-Israel candidates.

There is no doubt about the potency of these tactics. To take but one example, in 1984 AIPAC helped defeat Senator Charles Percy from Illinois, who, according to one prominent Lobby figure, had “displayed insensitivity and even hostility to concerns.” Thomas Dine, the head of AIPAC at the time, explained what happened: “All the Jews in America, from coast to coast, gathered to oust Percy. And the American politicians – those who hold public positions now, and those who aspire – got the message.”71 AIPAC prizes its reputation as a formidable adversary, of course, because it discourages anyone from questioning its agenda.

AIPAC’s influence on Capitol Hill goes even further, however. According to Douglas Bloomfield, a former AIPAC staff member, “It is common for members of Congress and their staffs to turn to AIPAC first when they need information, before calling the Library of Congress, the Congressional Research Service, committee staff or administration experts.”72 More importantly, he notes that AIPAC is “often called upon to draft speeches, work on legislation, advise on tactics, perform research, collect co-sponsors and marshal votes.”

The bottom line is that AIPAC, which is a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on the U.S. Congress.73 Open debate about U.S. policy towards Israel does not occur there, even though that policy has important consequences for the entire world. Thus, one of the three main branches of the U.S. government is firmly committed to supporting Israel. As former Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) noted as he was leaving office, “You can’t have an Israeli policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here.”74 Small wonder that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once told an American audience. “When people ask me how they can help Israel, I tell them—Help AIPAC.”75

Influencing the Executive

The Lobby also has significant leverage over the Executive branch. That power derives in part from the influence Jewish voters have on presidential elections. Despite their small numbers in the population (less than 3 percent), they make large campaign donations to candidates from both parties. The Washington Post once estimated that Democratic presidential candidates “depend on Jewish supporters to supply as much as 60 percent of the money.”76 Furthermore, Jewish voters have high turn-out rates and are concentrated in key states like California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania. Because they matter in close elections, Presidential candidates go to great lengths not to antagonize Jewish voters.

Key organizations in the Lobby also directly target the administration in power. For example, pro-Israel forces make sure that critics of the Jewish state do not get important foreign-policy appointments. Jimmy Carter wanted to make George Ball his first secretary of state, but he knew that Ball was perceived as critical of Israel and that the Lobby would oppose the appointment.77 This litmus test forces any aspiring policymaker to become an overt supporter of Israel, which is why public critics of Israeli policy have become an endangered species in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

These constraints still operate today. When 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean called for the United States to take a more “even-handed role” in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Senator Joseph Lieberman accused him of selling Israel down the river and said his statement was “irresponsible.”78 Virtually all of the top Democrats in the House signed a hard-hitting letter to Dean criticizing his comments, and the Chicago Jewish Star reported that “anonymous attackers … are clogging the e-mail inboxes of Jewish leaders around the country, warning — without much evidence — that Dean would somehow be bad for Israel.”79

This worry was absurd, however, because Dean is in fact quite hawkish on Israel.80 His campaign co-chair was a former AIPAC president, and Dean said his own views on the Middle East more closely reflected those of AIPAC than the more moderate Americans for Peace Now. Dean had merely suggested that to “bring the sides together,” Washington should act as an honest broker. This is hardly a radical idea, but it is anathema to the Lobby, which does not tolerate the idea of even-handedness when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Lobby’s goals are also served when pro-Israel individuals occupy important positions in the executive branch. During the Clinton Administration, for example, Middle East policy was largely shaped by officials with close ties to Israel or to prominent pro-Israel organizations – including Martin Indyk, the former deputy director of research at AIPAC and co-founder of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP); Dennis Ross, who joined WINEP after leaving government in 2001; and Aaron Miller, who has lived in Israel and often visits there.81

These men were among President Clinton’s closest advisors at the Camp David summit in July 2000. Although all three supported the Oslo peace process and favored creation of a Palestinian state, they did so only within the limits of what would be acceptable to Israel.82 In particular, the American delegation took its cues from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, coordinated negotiating positions in advance, and did not offer its own independent proposals for settling the conflict. Not surprisingly, Palestinian negotiators complained that they were “negotiating with two Israeli teams –one displaying an Israeli flag, and one an American flag.”83

The situation is even more pronounced in the Bush Administration, whose ranks include fervently pro-Israel individuals like Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and David Wurmser. As we shall see, these officials consistently pushed for policies favored by Israel and backed by organizations in the Lobby.

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