In his newsletter yesterday, M.J. Rosenberg succinctly described the obstacle to peace in Israel/Palestine:
Everyone knows that the only way to permanently end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is by Israel getting out of the territories occupied after the ’67 war in exchange for ironclad security arrangements guaranteed by the United States…..
So why does the conflict continue? No, not because the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel. They have, repeatedly.
It continues because the one nation in the world which can make mediate [sic] such a deal, the United States, will not do so….”
Rosenberg then goes on to explain the failure of US policy as a failure of American democracy. He sees as decisive the ability of the Israel lobby, headed by the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to mobilize big money donors on behalf of its unconditionally pro-Israel* stance. As a result, the consistent hard line that the US needs to take to break down Israeli intransigence never materializes. In this regard Rosenberg sees Middle Eastern policy as illustrative of the broader dominance of big money in American politics.
Here I reluctantly take exception to MJ’s analysis. (Reluctantly because as a longtime Congressional staffer and onetime AIPAC functionary Rosenberg has practical experience and wisdom I could never pretend to.) Not that he’s wrong—its influence with donors is certainly an important component of AIPAC’s effectiveness—but his explanation is too simple. It can’t fully account for the really extraordinary subservience of the US Congress to the AIPAC line on Israel. It can’t account for the rapturous, fawning reception Netanyahu got when he addressed a joint session of Congress a couple of years ago. (Bibi could hardly speak for two minutes without being interrupted by thunderous applause.) Jon Stewart once did a great segment on US Israel policy. He showed a succession of clips of US politicians, Democrat and Republican, avowing their unwavering, unconditional support for Israel, without a hint that Israel might deserve some criticism. Stewart then proclaimed Israel/Palestine the Mobius strip issue of American politics: “There’s only one side!”
But it’s not just money. Even though some undoubtedly know better, I think that many members of Congress—maybe most—sincerely believe the simple, one-sided story of the Israel/Palestine conflict that prevails in the United States. It is the story of a country founded as a refuge from oppression, seeking peace and acceptance but meeting unremitting, implacable hostility from its neighbors. The alternative Palestinian story—of a people first massively displaced and dispossessed by another people’s quest for land, then subjected to an exploitive and often brutal colonial occupation—doesn’t register.
The largely uncritical acceptance of the Israeli story by our political leaders reflects AIPAC’s spectacular success as a lobbying organization. It is regularly rated one of the three most powerful lobbies on Capitol Hill (alongside the NRA and the AARP). How to account for AIPAC’s success? Certainly, it has a dedicated, skillful and hard-working staff, and an extraordinarily well-organized grass-roots network. Its core support group—American Jews—cares strongly about Israel and US policy toward Israel. But they do, after all, constitute only a very small portion of the US electorate.
Part of the explanation of AIPAC’s success is that the pro-Israel policy orientation it promotes is one that comports with long-established US government policy. Around the time of the 1967 Arab-Israel war, the Johnson administration decided that Israel was a critical strategic asset to the United States in the Middle Eastern geo-political game. That determination continued to be a fundamental premise of US foreign policy. A pressure group like AIPAC has much greater chances of success if its objective is to sustain, rather than challenge, existing policy. Israel’s strategic usefulness to the US declined after the Cold War, but old habits and relationships, and the assumptions supporting them, tend to persist.
A second explanation of AIPAC’s success lies in the decentralized nature of the US political system, which makes it particularly accommodating (or, depending on your viewpoint, vulnerable) to the demands of well-organized groups who care intensely about a single issue. A prime example of this decentralization is the electoral college. Really, there is no nationwide election for the President of the United States; there are 50 statewide elections. And, because of the winner-take-all nature of the election rules, any single-issue group able to significantly influence outcomes in a few of the largest states has a good chance of framing the debate and winning the support of prospective presidents with regard to its chosen issue. The American Jewish community is relatively concentrated geographically, with numbers large enough to influence election outcomes in several large states, notably New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Florida. Presidential candidates—particularly Democratic Presidential nominees, who are particularly dependent on these states—are loath to risk writing off that many electoral votes. Unsurprisingly, no major party Presidential nominee has ever called for a “tougher” policy toward Israel.
Finally, the pro-Israel lobby draws strength from the fact that it has no significant organized opposition. Predominantly Jewish-American groups that criticize Israeli policy, like J-Street and Americans for Peace Now, are still few and small. And there is no significant pro-Palestinian lobby in the United States. Unhindered by any noteworthy opposition and fiercely dedicated to its cause, even a small minority can exert powerful influence in the policy area that it cares about.
To understand the power of the pro-Israel lobby in US politics, it’s helpful to look at the example of Cuban Americans and the influence they have wielded over US policy toward Cuba. For decades, the leaders of the Cuban-American community were spectacularly successful in blocking any softening in official US policy toward the Castro regime. Of course, their efforts benefited from the general perception of Castro as a Cold War enemy. But opponents of any opening to the regime have continued successfully to block meaningful change, even after the end of the Cold War, even as a greater diversity of opinion began to form among Cuban-Americans, and even as some organized interests—particularly business groups eying the Cuban market—have emerged in opposition to existing policy. To a remarkable extent, that success can be attributed to the importance of the Cuban-American vote in just two states—Florida and New Jersey. (Remember the Elio Gonzalez incident? It featured both presidential candidates in the 2000 election shamelessly pandering to crude anti-Castro sentiment. The objective: Florida’s electoral votes.)
If anti-Castro Cuban Americans could wield such power in the issue-area of paramount concern to them, it is hardly surprising that pro-Israel Jews could exercise even greater power with regard to their issue of choice. After all, compared to Cuban-Americans, American Jews are more numerous, longer established in this country, better educated, more affluent, and geographically better distributed for electoral college clout. And, in recent years, the Jewish constituency for the pro-Israel lobby has been joined by a politically potent ally–evangelical Christians.
The success of the pro-Israel lobby with American politicians and policymakers is reinforced by and in turn reinforces its success with the broader American public. Multi-country public opinion polls have repeatedly demonstrated that the US is the most pro-Israel country in the world. Americans by and large are far more familiar with the Israeli “story” than with the Palestinian “story.” That greater familiarity reflects the fact that the Israeli story implicitly forms the basis for most reporting on the Middle East in the US media. Why is that so? In part, it’s because media organizations care about their customers’ views, and the pro-Israel lobby targets the media as diligently as it targets politicians. News organizations that put out stories deemed unflattering to Israel or overly sympathetic to the Palestinian side can expect to be bombarded by protest letters, e-mails, and/or telephone calls, either spontaneous or organized by pro-Israel organizations like CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America). Pro-Palestinian voices of protest, by comparison, are few.
But the pro-Israel tilt of the US media also reflects the fact that our media, when it comes to foreign affairs, tend to take their cues from the political elite—principally, members of Congress and of the Administration. If there is virtual unanimity on an issue among the political elite, the media almost invariably go along with the prevailing view. (For a discussion of the research findings on this point, see Chapter 4 of Chomsky’s Challenge.) News organizations, after all, like to focus on contention; a well-established consensus isn’t news. And if there is no significant segment of our political leadership calling for a fundamental re-thinking of our Middle Eastern policies, there is no contention, no “issue” for the media to pick up on. Only one side of the story gets told.
So, as far as supporters of Israeli policies are concerned, American politics is characterized by a virtuous circle: the virtual unanimity among the US political elite on Israel is mirrored in the general acceptance and portrayal of the Israeli story in the media. The favorable media treatment of Israel results in favorable public opinion, which reinforces the elite consensus. To those who seek a more balanced stance by the U.S toward Israel/Palestine, the circle is vicious. Not only does it lead the U.S. to wink at injustices perpetrated by Israel; it cripples this country’s ability to play the role of honest broker in search of a settlement of the conflict.
* I should make clear that I use the term “pro-Israel” to mean supportive of the position of the Israeli government.