The Israel lobby is a subject that has to be handled with a certain
degree of care and sensitivity. Any discussion of the lobby's
influence takes place in the shadow of centuries of
anti-Semitism-including tragic events like the Holocaust-and that
history makes people wary whenever anyone talks about political
activities of Israel's supporters in the United States or suggests
that the policies they have been advocating are misguided. In our
book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,1 we clearly state
our belief in Israel's legitimacy and its right to exist. Indeed,
we argue that the U.S. should come to Israel's aid if its survival
is ever in jeopardy. But we also maintain that the activities of
the Israel lobby and, indeed, the special relationship between the
U.S. and Israel, are topics that reasonable people ought to be able
to talk about openly and candidly. This article will examine the
influence of the Israel lobby and argue that the policies it
encourages are not in the American national interest, in Israel's
interest, or in the interests of Israel's Arab neighbors.
Why the Special Relationship?
The late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin once said that
American support for Israel is "beyond compare in modern history,"
and he was right. Israel is the largest recipient of American
economic and military aid - over $3 billion each year, or about
$500 per year for each Israeli citizen - even though Israel is now
a prosperous country with a per-capita income that is now 29th in
the world. Israel gets consistent support from the United States in
diplomatic venues such as the United Nations, and Washington almost
always takes Israel's side in regional quarrels. Israel's actions
are rarely criticized by American officials, and certainly not by
anyone running for higher office in the U.S. The question is: Why
is this the case?
Four reasons are usually given to explain this "special
relationship." The first rationale is that Israel is a vital
strategic asset. That may have been true during the Cold War, but
the Cold War is now over. Today, it is hard to argue that giving
Israel unconditional support is making the United States more
popular around the world or making Americans safer at home; if
anything, the opposite is the case. On balance, the special
relationship is now a strategic liability for the United
A second justification is that Israel is a democracy that "shares
American values." Israel is indeed a democracy, but there are many
democracies around the world and none of them get the level of
support that Israel does. Moreover, the basis for American
democracy and Israeli democracy are not identical. America is a
liberal democracy where citizens of any race or religion are
supposed to have equal rights; by contrast, Israel was founded as a
Jewish state and non-Jews are treated as second-class citizens. The
United States is not an "Anglo-Saxon state" or a "Christian state,"
but Israel was conceived and founded as a Jewish state. There is
nothing wrong with Israel being a Jewish state, of course; the
point is simply that the core values of Israeli and American
democracy are not identical. It is also worth noting that Israel's
treatment of its Arab citizens and especially its Palestinian
subjects are sharply at odds with core U.S. values and global human
rights standards. Thus, "shared values" cannot explain the "special
Third, some argue that the United States has a special relationship
with Israel because its behavior has been more moral than that of
its adversaries. But this argument does not work either. Any
reasonably fair-minded look at the history of the Arab-Israeli
conflict - including the accounts written by Israel's "new
Historians" - shows that both sides have done many cruel things to
each other and that neither owns the moral high ground. Israel has
not acted worse than other states do, but neither has it acted
substantially better. Thus, one cannot explain the special
relationship by arguing that Israel's behavior has been exemplary
and that it, therefore, deserves unconditional U.S. support.
Finally, it is sometimes argued that the United States has a
special relationship with Israel because public opinion is strongly
pro-Israel and that politicians are just doing what the American
people want. Once again, this argument is not persuasive. Americans
do have a generally favorable image of Israel (in part because
media coverage tends to favor Israel), but the general public is
not insisting that government officials give Israel unconditional
support. For example, a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation
League in 2005 found that 78% of Americans thought that the United
States should favor neither side in the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, a result reaffirmed in more recent surveys of U.S.
opinion. In fact, a poll by the University of Maryland in 2003
found that over 70% of "politically active Americans" supported
cutting aid to Israel if it refused to settle the conflict.
Americans do have a favorable image of Israel and want it to
survive and prosper, but they are not demanding that politicians
support Israel no matter what it does.
Is It the Lobby?
So the question remains: What explains Israel's privileged position
with the U.S.?
The real explanation for the special relationship is the political
influence of the "Israel lobby." The lobby is a loose coalition of
individuals and groups that works openly in the American political
system to promote the "special relationship." Interest groups are
at the center of how American politics works, and this has been
true ever since the United States was founded. Freedom of
association is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, and citizens of
all types can form groups and organizations on any issue they care
about and use those organizations to try and convince politicians
to do what they want. These interest groups include teachers,
farmers, labor unions, doctors, corporations and lawyers (and many
other interests), and these groups can do lots of different things
to influence the political process. For example, they can give
money to candidates running for office or organize letter-writing
campaigns telling politicians how to vote. They can write books and
articles advocating their point of view, in order to encourage
other people to support their cause as well. Interest groups can
also put pressure on newspapers, TV and radio stations, so that
these media organizations present information and opinion that
supports the policies these groups favor. This is completely normal
and legitimate behavior in American politics; it is how the
American political system works.
So what is the Israel lobby? Key organizations in this loose
coalition include the American Israel Public Affairs Committee
(AIPAC); the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League; Christian groups like
Christians United for Israel, and the Zionist Organization of
America. The lobby also includes pro-Israel think tanks like the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy and publications like the
Weekly Standard or the New Republic that take a consistently a
pro-Israel line. That is a broad definition of an interest group,
but interest groups in the United States often have lots of
different components. For example, the environmental movement
includes groups like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Woods Hole
Institute, and many other organizations, the same way that the
Israel lobby does.
Just Another Interest Group
The Israel lobby is not a single centralized organization, and the
groups that make up the lobby do not agree on every single issue.
For instance, some organizations in the lobby support a two-state
solution between Israel and the Palestinians while other groups are
vehemently opposed. The common position that all these groups
share, however, is a commitment to preserve that "special
relationship." Thus, even leftwing groups like Americans for Peace
Now do not call for the United States to reduce its support for
Israel, even when Israel does things that are inimical to peace,
such as building settlements in the West Bank.
The lobby is not a cabal or a conspiracy, and it does not control
U.S. foreign policy. Rather, the Israel lobby is just an interest
group-albeit a very influential one-and it operates the way that
other powerful interest groups do.
It is also important to realize that the lobby is not synonymous
with Jewish Americans. Surveys show that about 25-30% of Jewish
Americans do not care very much about Israel one way or the other,
and many others do not support the positions of the most powerful
groups in the lobby. Moreover, some of the groups that work to
promote the special relationship, such as the so-called Christian
Zionists, are not Jewish. The lobby is defined by its political
agenda, not by religion and not by ethnicity.
Playing the Political Game
So how does it work? In the U.S. small groups often wield
disproportionate influence, because they care a lot about a single
issue and politicians can win their support without losing anyone
else's backing, if they do what these small but focused groups
want. Like other interest groups, the Israel lobby works to get
people who are sympathetic to its views elected to office or
appointed to key positions in the government. Groups in the lobby
also try to persuade politicians to follow their policy agenda and
work to give them clear incentives to follow their line. AIPAC, for
example, has an annual budget of about $50,000,000 and is very
active on Capitol Hill, providing information to members of
Congress, helping them draft legislation that helps Israel;
providing them with talking points, and making it clear that
opposing them will have negative consequences for their political
careers. AIPAC is a very effective and highly professional
organization with a very energetic grassroots base in the different
parts of the United States.
Despite its name, AIPAC is not a "political action committee."
Political action committees (or "PACs") are fundraising
organizations that raise money for politicians who are running for
office. AIPAC does not give money to politicians directly, but it
does screen candidates for Congress by asking them to write a
memorandum laying out their views on Middle East policy. If they
say the right things, AIPAC will let political action committees
that support Israel know about it so these organizations - of which
there are about three dozen currently active in the U.S. - can
direct campaign contributions to people who have "the right views"
on the Middle East.
Over the last 15 years, pro-Israel political action committees have
given about $55,000,000 to people running for office in the United
States. By comparison Arab-American groups, of which there are a
handful, have given about $800,000 in that same period. (These
figures include only contributions by PACs themselves and do not
include contributions made by individual U.S. citizens.) The
balance of power is clear: $55,000,000 on one side, $800,000 on the
other, and this goes a long way to explaining AIPAC's considerable
influence on Capital Hill.
The lobby does not win every time, of course, but anyone running
for office knows it's not a good idea to criticize Israel if you
want to get elected. This is why Steven Rosen - the former AIPAC
official who is now under indictment for passing classified
information - once put a napkin in front of a journalist and said,
" In 24 hours we can have the signature of 70 U.S. senators on this
napkin." And that is also why former President Bill Clinton said
"AIPAC was better than anybody else lobbying [in Washington]."
Former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who served in Congress for 34
years, said that "there's no group that matches it; they are in a
class by themselves." Former Senator Fritz Hollings said (upon his
retirement): "You can't have an Israel policy other than what AIPAC
gives you around here." And that is why Israeli Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert said in 2006, "Thank God we have AIPAC, the greatest
supporter and friend we have in the whole world."
Shaping Public Discourse
The other strategy the Israel lobby uses is to try and shape public
discourse in the U.S. so that Israel is viewed favorably by
Americans. Mainstream media in the U.S. tend to be very pro-Israel,
especially in terms of editorial commentary and op-ed columnists.
If one compares coverage and commentary in the U.S. to Europe or
within Israel itself, views in the U.S. are much narrower. For
example, in the major newspapers in the U.S., there simply is no
equivalent to someone like an Akiva Eldar, Bradley Burston, Gideon
Levy or Amira Hass, who write for Ha'aretz in Israel and are
sometimes very critical of Israeli policy. The point is not that
critics like them are always right and that pro-Israel commentators
are always wrong; the point is that there is no one like them
writing regularly in American mainstream media. Even so, groups in
the lobby like the Anti-Defamation League organize and monitor
media coverage and organize pressure campaigns to make sure that
all publications represent a pro-Israel point of view and do not
publish or broadcast things that are critical.
For example, when former President Jimmy Carter published his book
Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, groups in the lobby took out ads in
U.S. newspapers that included the publisher's phone number and
invited people to call and complain about Carter's book. Similarly,
in the fall of 2007, after CNN broadcast a three-part series on
Christian, Muslim and Jewish fundamentalism, the Conference of
Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations urged members to
take up the issue with companies that bought advertising time for
this program on CNN. The purpose, of course, is to make sure CNN
thinks twice about doing anything like this in the future because
it might cost them advertising revenue.
Of course, these efforts to control discourse in the United States
are not 100% effective. One occasionally sees news commentary that
is critical of Israeli policy, and some books and articles do get
published that are critical of the lobby and of the "special
relationship." So it is not accurate to say that the lobby
"controls" the media in the U.S. Nonetheless, media coverage is
heavily slanted in Israel's favor, and critical voices face an
uphill battle to be heard.
Finally, efforts to stifle any criticism usually include smearing
critics by accusing them of being anti-Semitic. Martin Peretz, the
editor of the New Republic, wrote that Jimmy Carter will "go down
in history as a Jew hater," even though Carter's stewardship of the
Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty probably did more for Israel's
security than any other U.S. president had done. A hard-line
pro-Israel newspaper, the New York Sun, published an article
suggesting that Carter was sympathetic to Nazi-era war criminals.
Similarly, when the non-partisan, highly respected human rights
group Human Rights Watch criticized Israel's actions during the
2006 war in Lebanon, its director, Kenneth Roth, was repeatedly
accused of being an anti-Semite even though Roth is himself Jewish
and his father was a refugee from Nazi Germany. Human Rights Watch
also criticized Hizbullah for its own violations of the laws of
war, but this did not prevent Roth from being smeared.
The Real Question
Leveling charges of anti-Semitism has been done for three reasons:
first of all, to distract people from the real issue, which is
American policy in the region; second, to deter people - because
who wants to be labeled with an awful charge like anti-Semitism;
and finally, to marginalize people in the public debate in the U.S.
- because what political candidate would want to associate with
anyone who had even been accused of anti-Semitism? The bottom line
here is that there is, in fact, very little serious debate about
support for Israel in the U.S., even at a moment in history when it
is obvious to virtually everyone that American Middle East policy
is failing badly. And, of course, not much discussion of that has
been seen in the current presidential campaign. Instead, all the
major candidates have gone to enormous lengths to pander to the
lobby, and to convince its members that they will continue to give
Israel unconditional support.
This situation would not be a problem if these policies that the
major organizations in the lobby are pushing were the right ones.
This is the real question: are the policies that the lobby supports
in America's interest, or even in Israel's interest? As the next
article in this section will show, the answer in both cases is