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Why the Israel lobby’s grip on US politics may be waning

New polls suggest a future coalition of young people and racial minorities may prove formidable

August 10, 2014 6:00AM ET

“There is nobody we hated in the White House more than Benjamin Netanyahu,” a former staffer for President Bill Clinton once told me, referring to the Israeli prime minister. The staffer then went on to explain that though this was the case, Clinton never publicly rebuked Netanyahu because he was afraid that hawkish Jewish donors to the Democratic Party would pick up the phone and give him an earful.

Perhaps more than any other issue, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, politicians rarely say what they really think and (regardless of party) are likely to align their views with a hard-line position. Notice, for example, that despite contentious negotiations in Congress over immigration, the Affordable Care Act and other hot-button issues, there has been zero debate over the latest Israeli offensive in Gaza. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously passed resolutions placing all the blame on Hamas and none on Israel.

Some observers have theorized that this lockstep support for the Israeli government is due to the pro-Israel attitude of the American public. It’s true that the majority of Americans are sympathetic to the Israelis. But public opinion polling also shows that a significant portion considers the latest Israeli assault, touched off after Netanyahu struck at Hamas officers in the West Bank, is unjustified. A Gallup poll published on July 24 found that Americans are about equally divided on Israel’s assault, with 42 percent finding it justified, 39 percent finding it unjustified and 20 percent having no opinion. It also showed that a plurality of Democrats — 47 percent — felt it was unjustified. Breaking down the results by age yields an even starker result, with Americans ages 18 to 29 finding the offensive unjustified 2 to 1 and a plurality of Americans ages 30 to 49 opposing the assault. A more detailed Pew poll released a week later found similar results, with a plurality of both Hispanics and African-Americans finding Israel more to blame in the conflict than Hamas.

Why then, given the raging debate among Americans over Israel’s actions, is Capitol Hill so unified? It goes back to the Clinton staffer’s comment: fundraising.

Behind the curtain

Take, for example, a telling memorandum prepared by Georgia Democratic Senate nominee Michelle Nunn’s consultants — and obtained by the conservative National Review — that lists possible fundraising sources. Under “Jewish community,” it notes, “Michelle’s position on Israel will largely determine the level of support here. There is tremendous financial opportunity, but the level of support will be contingent on her position. This applies not only to PACs, but individual donors as well.” The memo then lists “potential anchors,” or key fundraisers, in the Atlanta area and a goal of $250,000. Given such explicit analysis, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Jason Carter, the state’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, who as a Carter Center intern oversaw Palestinian elections in the West Bank under his grandfather Jimmy Carter, recently attended a one-sided pro-Israel rally.

The language used by U.S. campaigns looking to tap Jewish donors is remarkable for a number of reasons. It is untrue — and borders on an anti-Semitic trope to claim — that all Jewish Americans hold the same hard-line right-wing view on Israel and vote and donate only on the basis of the Israel issue. According to early 2009 polling from the centrist Israel advocacy group J Street, the majority of Jewish Americans support talking to Hamas as part of a Palestinian unity government and oppose settlement expansion, and 49 percent favor reducing military aid (now more than $3 billion a year) to Israel if it blocks an agreement. Were the anti-Semitic claim that Jews control the U.S. government true, we wouldn’t have the policy we have.

The bigger issue is a subset of powerful donors and organizations that are well to the right of average Jewish Americans (and Americans as a whole). These organizations include the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as well as lesser-known organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and NORPAC. These groups specialize in connecting donors to politicians and are very good at activating their memberships to flood Capitol Hill with phone calls, visits and other forms of grass-roots pressure. AIPAC’s robust education arm, for example, uses a legal loophole to finance a nonprofit that in 2011 alone spent $2 million to shuttle lawmakers to Israel to give them one-sided views of the conflict.

While some Jewish American organizations (from the centrist J Street to the left-wing Jewish Voices for Peace) have attempted to act as a counterweight, they, despite being closer to actual Jewish American opinion, simply do not have the financial clout to perk ears on Capitol Hill. There is no left-wing version of the GOP’s bigoted kingmaker Sheldon Adelson, who spent more money in the 2012 election cycle than any other American, or Haim Saban, the Democratic Party megadonor who contributed 7 million dollars toward a new building for the Democratic National Committee and has said, “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel.” 

The Christian right

Hawkish Jewish donors and organizations have historically exercised most of their influence in the Democratic Party. But a newly invigorated political faction is becoming perhaps even more strident in demanding no daylight between the U.S. and Israel: the Christian right.

In 2013, Pew polling found that 40 percent of Jewish Americans thought God gave the land of Israel to Jews; a full 82 percent of white Christian evangelicals felt the same way.

The primary evangelical organization advocating for support for the Israeli government is Christians United for Israel (CUFI). To understand how big CUFI is, consider its social media presence. AIPAC has more than 73,000 Facebook likes — an impressive number but slim pickings compared with the 1.2 million people who have liked CUFI’s Facebook page. As the onslaught in Gaza was heating up, Republican politicians such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., flocked to a massive CUFI event in D.C. to proclaim, “Here’s a message for America. Don’t ever turn your back on Israel, because God will turn his back on us.”

Most of the Israel lobby makes at least some attempt to be bipartisan. CUFI makes no such effort. Its event served as a clearing ground for Republican presidential candidates intent on showing fealty to Bibi. Ironically, CUFI’s leader, the pastor John Hagee, has engaged in extreme anti-Semitism, stating during the 2008 presidential election that the Holocaust may have been God’s will to establish the modern state of Israel. Although the remarks caused a political mini-firestorm at the time, they don’t seem to bother the Israeli government, which welcomes CUFI’s support. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, attended the event, where he called on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to receive a Nobel Peace Prize for its conduct during the war. (As Slate’s Dave Weigel reported, an IDF veteran later told the crowd that Israel’s forces would smash the skulls of Palestinian fighters, to huge applause.)

Ronald Reagan halted shipments of cluster bombs to Israel during its Lebanon war and told Prime Minister Menachem Begin that the U.S.-Israel relationship would be threatened if Israel continued mass bombing of civilian areas.

Domestic politics

Such aggressive fundraising and electioneering by the Israel lobby is what former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was referring to when he mentioned “domestic politics” in an interview (PDF) for the George H.W. Bush Oral History Project at the University of Virginia in July 2000:

Every president I worked for, at some point in his presidency, would get so pissed off at the Israelis that he couldn’t speak. It didn’t matter whether it was Jimmy Carter or Gerry Ford or Ronald Reagan or George Bush. Something would happen and they would just absolutely go screw themselves right into the ceiling they were so angry and they’d sort of rant and rave around the Oval Office. I think it was their frustration about knowing that there was so little they could do about it because of domestic politics and everything else that was so frustrating to them.

While Secretary of State John Kerry has been roundly lambasted in Israel for his attempts to reach a cease-fire, few American pols have had his back. A letter organized by Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., calling for a cease-fire yielded only five additional signatures out of 435 members of the House of Representatives (and one of them is retiring). Kerry, for his part, can hardly complain about politicians’ rushing to declare their pro-Israel bona fides. While running for president in 2004, he lambasted then-rival for the Democratic nomination Howard Dean for suggesting that the U.S. needed a more balanced Israel-Palestinian policy. Members of Congress are simply doing what Kerry did when he was a senator: playing it safe. And though the U.S. is ostensibly trying to broker a cease-fire, it is constrained by its own backroom allegiances. President Barack Obama’s administration did, after weeks of fighting, condemn an Israeli attack on a United Nations school sheltering families, but it also transferred arms to Israel the very same day.

This makes Obama, much maligned as anti-Israel by his Republican opponents, actually more conservative than previous Republican presidents. George H.W. Bush famously delayed loan guarantees to Israel to get it to attend peace talks. Ronald Reagan went further, halting shipments of cluster bombs to Israel during its Lebanon war and telling Prime Minister Menachem Begin that the U.S.-Israel relationship would be threatened if Israel continued mass bombing of civilian areas.

In other words, the Israel lobby didn’t always have such a tight grip on Washington. Roll back the clock a few decades and you would see significant defiance from U.S. lawmakers as well. Then-Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., no left-wing radical, dissented with many in his party in 1990 by calling for the repeal of a resolution naming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and suggested cutting aid to Israel. He openly criticized “the leaders of the pro-Israeli lobby” as “shortsighted and selfish in their zealous efforts to protect Israel’s aid levels at any cost.” He went on to become Senate majority leader and his party’s presidential nominee in 1996, so his outspokenness was far from a career killer.

This history is crucial to understanding why the Israel lobby’s current grip on American politics may be ephemeral. The Pew and Gallup polls show a large generational gap that the Israel lobby will find difficult to overcome. If young people and racial minorities are opposed to Israel’s conduct, that future coalition may be able to overcome the Adelsons of the world. 

Cracks in the ice

There is increasing evidence that key stakeholders are rejecting the U.S.’s stance on Israel. At both the elite and grass-roots levels, leading Jewish American voices are breaking with Israel. Henry Siegman — a former American Jewish Congress bigwig who was so anti-Palestinian that he attended Nelson Mandela’s first major television event in the U.S. to blame him for supporting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — now opposes Israeli policy, calling the latest offensive a “mass slaughter of innocents.” Peter Beinart, a once fervent backer of the Iraq War and Israel, wrote a book arguing there is a “crisis” in Zionism due to its policies toward the Palestinians. These changing attitudes are affecting Jewish elites in other positions as well. Randi Weingarten, the influential head of the American Federation of Teachers and a longtime Israel supporter, has called for a cease-fire after the repeated attacks on U.N. schools.

And while J Street has taken a middling stance on the Gaza conflict, several of its former staffers are part of a new campaign called If Not Now. These young Jews have engaged in civil disobedience targeting supporters of the Israeli war, such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

One of its activists, Max Berger, explained to me that the organization’s name comes from a saying ascribed to the Jewish religious leader Hillel: “If I am not for myself ,who is for me? And being for my own self, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”

“We felt there wasn’t a space for people who identified as Jewish to express their opposition to the war and the occupation ... We wanted to be a part of creating that space for people,” he told me about the growing movement. “We want Jewish American organizations to hold on to their Jewish values even when it comes to Israel. We don’t think they should just give them a blank check.”

Next generation

Media coverage of the changing status quo on Israel-Palestinian policy often focuses on Jewish Americans, but there is another large community with cultural ties to the conflict: Arab-Americans and Muslims sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. These Americans, like young Jews opposed to Israeli policy, have been growing in influence as well.

For example, noting that 15-year-old Tariq Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian-American beaten by Israeli soldiers, was given prime time interviews on U.S. television, Ron Fournier of The National Journal asks, “A decade or so ago, would the beating be covered at all? As much?”

And after NBC News reassigned Arab-American reporter Ayman Mohyeldin after his witnessing of an Israeli attack on four children playing on a beach, public outrage forced the network to return him to Gaza. Now former MSNBC contributor Rula Jebreal’s rant about the lack of Palestinian guests on cable television sparked a wealth of media coverage and robust debates about the dearth of on-air Arab voices. There is also, at long last, a prime-time television host who has openly advocated for the Palestinian cause, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.

There is movement among politicians as well. In 2012 in the Democratic primary for New Jersey’s 9th Congressional District, large Arab-American turnout and organizing helped bring Rep. Bill Pascrell, who supported humanitarian relief for Gaza, over his more stridently pro-Israel opponent, Rep. Steve Rothman. The same year, noted Islamophobe Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., lost his seat, in part because of high Muslim turnout. While Arab-Americans and Muslims are unlikely to have Adelson-level influence anytime soon, they are a potent and growing force in U.S. politics.

Finally, although leading progressive organizations have largely been silent on the Palestinian issue, there are signals that they are getting fed up with AIPAC’s outsize influence. When Congress, driven by the Israel lobby, was moving to pass an Iran sanctions bill that would have scuttled nuclear talks, organizations such as MoveOn and Credo launched campaigns against even Democratic senators and successfully beat back the bill. Congress was shaken by the progressive backlash to what would ordinarily have been an easy vote on pro-Israel legislation. When one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., visited Syracuse University, where I was a graduate student at the time, her chief of staff sought me out to plead her case that she did not want war with Iran (starting with the exclamation “I saw your tweets!”).

What would happen if these disparate activists — moderate and centrist Jewish Americans, young people, Arab-Americans, Muslims and progressives — turned their eyes toward a concerted and aggressive campaign to get Israel to end its occupation and establish a just peace with the Palestinians? Maybe otherwise progressive senators, such as Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., would stop running away from questions about Gaza and instead rise to challenge the status quo. The argument is simple: Unlimited military, financial and diplomatic support for an Israeli government that has made clear it has no intention of granting Palestinians rights is a losing proposition. Israel-Palestinian politics may be moribund today, but recent history shows that Israel’s blank check from the U.S. could easily be taken away in the near future.

Zaid Jilani is a former senior reporter and blogger at ThinkProgress and a freelance journalist. He is a Syracuse University graduate student seeking his MPA.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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