The plum in the pocket of the Israel Lobby (not, one must point out, the “pro-Israel Lobby”) is its hold on Congressional Democrats. Republicans don’t have to answer to a liberal constituency that struggles to reconcile Israel’s occupation and policies with their own values. The rest of the Lobby’s influence on Capitol Hill flows from their decisive influence in Congress.
Changing that situation may well be too grandiose an ambition. While some of AIPAC’s congressional shills certainly are true believers, most would have a different position on the Middle East in general (and the Palestinians, in particular) if there were effective political pressure countering AIPAC. But there is not, and it seems very unlikely that anti-occupation forces can muster the sort of political funds and power that can create that countervailing force.
There is J Street, of course, whose political action committee, J StreetPAC, has raised substantial funds as compared to most pro-occupation PACs. However, it is one while they are many, so while it ranks at the top of the fundraising list, in total, J Street is overwhelmed. But, while a positive force in this realm, J Street is ultimately an Israel-first organization. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it doesn’t provide a counter to AIPAC in that role.
Here’s the thing: in order to keep the Democrats hostage, the pro-occupation PACs need their massive advantage in political fundraising. They have nothing else. That fact was on display this summer, at the Democratic National Convention.
At the convention, the Democrats’ leadership went into a panic at the media reaction to the Israel plank in their platform, which did not include a statement affirming Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal, undivided capital.” The omission was not accidental, but was an attempt to square the party’s platform with the Obama Administration’s own policy, the same policy which has been held by every US administration since Lyndon Johnson.
The Democratic leadership scrambled to put the statement on Jerusalem back in. In order to do that, they needed a voice vote on the floor of the convention. This is usually a rubber stamp. However, this time, the kindest interpretation of the voice vote would be that it was split, though in truth, it seemed pretty clear that the “no” votes were stronger. In any case, it was absurd for anyone to claim that there was the required two-thirds approval. Yet, that is what the convention chairman, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared. This was supported by key Democratic leader, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, an AIPAC favorite.
What this event showed was just how far the Democratic position, and the policies of President Barack Obama, has drifted away from the rank and file of the Democratic Party. That position is far from radical. In fact, it reflects official US policy. But it is far from how policy is actually enacted.
Most Americans support Israel, though their image of the country tends to be at odds with the reality of modern Israel. They see Israel as an American-style success story, overcoming odds to “make the desert bloom” despite the unrelenting hostility of its neighbors. They believe the US should help to ensure Israeli security.
But most Americans, especially Democrats, also believe the United States should be neutral in Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. They believe the US should support Israel, but few Americans believe that Israel’s needs should dictate US policy in the region. The “unshakeable bond” that Obama, Joe Biden and Mitt Romney all talk about is hardly reflective of US public opinion. How many Americans really believe that the US should support Israel right or wrong, whether or not Israel is respecting US needs in the region? Not many, at all.
This is why AIPAC, and the political money it mobilizes, are so crucial to sustaining current US policy. And while the money isn’t going to be challenged, the politics can be. That can make a difference. In any case, it’s what we have.
This is where we come back again to the letter written by fifteen leaders of major Protestant denominations last month. This was a call for Israel to be subject to the same rules as all other countries that receive US military aid. The apoplectic reaction of major Jewish organizations demonstrates just how frightening a thought it is to the pro-occupation crowd that Israel could be treated like everyone else, rather than as the eternal exception.
The unrepresentative “mainstream” Jewish institutions are giving the Protestant groups the silent treatment for now. They can afford to because the issue is playing out outside the bounds of Washington. And that is what needs to be changed.
At some point, any tactic aimed at freeing the Palestinians and saving Israelis from becoming the new Afrikaners, has to come back inside Washington, Brussels, London, Paris and Berlin. Israelis are about to re-elect Benjamin Netanyahu and raise the fascist Avigdor Lieberman to the number two spot in government. Change is not coming from there. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority cannot bring a resolution to this conflict while they are fighting each other. But, if Israelis or Palestinians, together or separately, can find a way to resolve this conflict, then they need not turn to the US and Europe. I don’t know anyone who thinks that is likely, so at some point, it is the West that has to change if there is to be a resolution short of a disaster.
In the US, we are starting at the very beginning. The actions of successive US administrations for decades have undermined the inherently flawed Oslo peace process, encouraged the spread of settlements despite rhetoric to the contrary, and made Israel feel that even if it does act contrary to US policies and interests, the US will continue to back it. Despite this, we in the US have watched as our two presidential candidates offered no road to peace, even an imaginary one, but instead grappled with each other to establish which of them loved Israel with a greater passion.
The $3 billion in annual aid the US gives to Israel is the lynchpin here. The Protestant letter opens a conversation. But it needs to be expanded.
What’s needed is a campaign based on the parameters of that letter. In the public sphere, it can open discussion. That conversation will include those who believe aid to Israel should simply be ended, those who believe that aid should be unassailable, and everyone in between. That’s a conversation that Israel needs to hear, because more and more Americans are uncomfortable supporting an Israel whose face is not what they saw (however inaccurately) in Yitzhak Rabin and Golda Meir, but what they see now in Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman.
This campaign must also be pursued with great vigor in Washington. Here, it needs to have a different character. It must follow the Protestant letter much more closely. The goal should not be to end aid to Israel, but to get Israel to cooperate with US policy in order to get that aid.
What would happen if aid to Israel were honestly reviewed for compliance with US law? We’d find, as has already been well established, that Israel has violated that law by using US weapons for crowd control in the West Bank and for maintaining the occupation and protecting the settlements. We’d find that, as the State Department has reported annually, that Israel engages in systematic human rights violations in the West Bank.
Technically, the US would then have to cut off aid to Israel. But surely our Congress can make sure that doesn’t happen—as long as Israel discontinues these practices. That, folks, would be a game-changer.
This is a long-term campaign. The game in Washington is well-established. Several members of Congress have, over the years, requested State Department reviews of specific Israeli actions for compliance with US laws and policies, and the investigations have always come back squeaky clean, despite overwhelming evidence, including from the State Department itself, that there were serious problems. But if it is coupled with a public discussion, by activists keeping the issue alive in the media, this is a way to make a difference.
It wouldn’t be easy. Like many of my readers, I can think of a good number of reasons why it wouldn’t work. However, for the first time, we have a base of mainline Christian institutions to build on. That matters in US politics. We can also build momentum within the Democratic Party among the rank and file with that base, exploiting the cracks we saw at the convention this summer. That won’t, by itself, counter the money AIPAC can mobilize, but that’s not the goal. Instead, the point is to open up the political space for a safe president, or other political leaders, to stick with US policies.
Resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is never going to come from Washington. That’s just not what the US does, and that shouldn’t be our goal. All we need to do is transform our special relationship with Israel into a more normal alliance. That would change everything. Most significantly, it would open up many possibilities for Israelis and Palestinians to move towards an actual endgame. That task is daunting enough.
The Protestant letter, and the fiasco at the 2012 Democratic convention, give us a small starting point. That’s the best we’re ever likely to get. We’ve let too many similar opportunities slip away over the years. Let’s not let this one get away, too. There aren’t likely to be many more chances.