THE ISRAEL LOBBY IS RAPIDLY LOSING SUPPORT
The power of the Israel lobby in the United States is indisputable. Two decades ago, I witnessed it personally when covering an election for the Senate in South Dakota, where the Jewish population is virtually nonexistent. In this remote corner of the country, a Senator of Arab-American descent found himself under assault in television commercials because of a vote he had cast against the supply of equipment for advanced F-16 fighter aircraft to Israel. James Abourezk, now an ex-senator, learned to his peril that you take on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), one of Washington’s most effective lobby groups, at your peril.
Yet there is growing evidence that the power of Aipac which has just held its annual gathering in Washington DC may not be as overwhelming as it once was.
Criticism of Israel has become more fashionable. Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, has sold a remarkable 200,000 copies and recently won a surprisingly favourable review from Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of the New York Times, in the New York Review of Books.
An essay by American academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt claiming that the Israel lobby threatened America’s security interests caused a furor last year when it was published in the London Review of Books.
Aipac may still have political pull and financial muscle, but its overwhelming domination of the debate about the future of the Middle East seems to be fading. Even the “Lexington” column in The Economist questioned Aipac’s power.
In the Financial Times, writer Graham Bowley chose Tony Judt, a leading British-born historian of Europe, for the weekly “Lunch with the FT” feature.
Judt is increasingly lauded in the media as a dissident on the Middle East, whom the American Israel lobby failed to silence.
As the FT writer reported, Judt has drawn the ire of Jewish groups in America for unexceptional suggestions that the Jewish lobby influences US policy towards Israel and shuts down debate. But the hostility almost certainly dates back to a piece in the New York Review of Books where Judt made the case for a “one state” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the interview, Judt recounts how he and his family received death threats and how he found himself ostracised by the American Jewish establishment for allegedly seeking the abolition of the Jewish state.
But as a young man, the child of middleclass Jewish parents, he tells the FT, he volunteered to go to Israel in June 1967 to work as a translator and drive captured Syrian tanks.
He adds that “Israel exists” and the “only question is what kind of state it will be in future years, what kind of laws is it going to have for first- and second-class citizens.”
For views like these, he argues, he has lost close friends, including Leon Wieseltier, the influential literary editor of the liberal political magazine The New Republic, for which Judt used to write.
Certainly on a superficial level, the power of the pro-Israel lobby, as experienced by Judt, is as strong as ever. At the Aipac meeting, more than 6,000 enthusiastic delegates turned up to hear from the top people on Capitol Hill. The Economist notes that they could admire their work: Jewish numbers in Congress are at record levels, with 30 in the House of Representatives (out of 435 members) and 13 out of 100 members of the Senate. The magazine, which has a large readership in the US, notes there are now more Jews on Capitol Hill than Episcopalians, the American adherents to Anglicanism.
So why does the magazine claim that Jewish power is not what it once was? The association of Aipac with support for the Iraq war, which is increasingly unpopular, had encouraged critics to publicly question America’s alliance with Israel. Two retired members of Congress, Paul Findley and James Abourezk, have formed the Council for the National Interest, which bills itself as an anti-Aipac group.
Then there is the growing number of Arab- Americans in the US. Turmoil in the Middle East, since the first intifada, provoked heavy emigration from the West Bank to the rustbelt states of Ohio and Michigan, where more than 3.5 million Arabs now reside.
The Arab-Americans are creating their own pale versions of Aipac, including the Arab American Institute and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
So far, The Economist reports, they have been ineffectual, donating just $788,968 to favoured Congressional candidates against the astonishing $56.8 million raised by Aipac and other pro-Israel groups.
But an even bigger threat looms from more liberal Jewish groups, who find their voice through publications like Tikkun. The more prominent of these include the Religious Action Centre for Reform Judaism, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum. They claim responsibility, for example, for watering down Aipac legislation which would have forbidden American contact with the current Hamas-sympathising Palestinian leadership.
The majority of Americans may still be philo-Jewish. But the tide of media opinion, particularly among the intellectual chattering classes, could be turning.