By: Dr. Aref Assaf
Has President Obama has sold his soul? Otherwise, why would he agree to appear before this year’s AIPAC annual conference? Having listened to his much-awaited speech on the Middle East, I came away with two possible headliners: that the US will not recognize a Palestine State when the resolution is voted on in September. Secondly, the 1967 borders shall constitute the demarcations of the two states minus some alterations. Many pundits will be harping on the implications of these statements but I find the first totally offensive and the second totally impractical. But I am more focused here on the elephant in the room, the one factor that I am sure is on the mind of our president. And that is AIPAC.
Why would our president need to appear before AIPAC when he is set to meet with Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister? I have a personal grudge against AIPAC as you will find below. So Mr. President, if you still feel the urge to go to AIPAC, Mr. President, at least let me warn you about the sinister nature of this most unAmerican organization.
AIPAC, The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is the one issue foreign lobby that has and for decades distorted America’s foreign policy. Our president must know that pro-Israel lobbies, headed by AIPAC, exist for the sole purpose of diverting precious American military, financial and political support to Israel and to maintain a status quo contrary to American policies and ideals. The cost of such support has even cost American lives and earned us the enmity of the Arab and Muslim world. This must change. It’s time for AIPAC to Move Over.
As the Arab Spring portends fundamental social, political and economic changes, a debate within the US over the goals and methods of American policy in the Middle East is long overdue. Unfortunately, an uninhibited debate is not taking place, because of the disproportionate influence of the Israel lobby.
The Israel lobby distorts US foreign policy in a number of ways. Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, enabled by US weapons and money, inflames anti-American attitudes in Arab and Muslim countries. The expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land makes a mockery of the US commitment to self-determination in other places. The US strategy of containment of Iran pleases Israel – which violates the logic of realpolitik and alienates most of America’s other friends. Beyond the region, the US policy on nuclear weapons proliferation is discredited by the double standard that has led it to overlook Israel’s nuclear program while condemning those of India and Pakistan and Iran above all.
Most Americans (Arabs and Jews included) do want the US to support Israel’s right to exist within internationally-recognized borders and to defend itself against threats. What is most lacking in the US is a debate between those who want to condition US support for Israel on Israeli behavior, taken into account America’s own strategic goals and moral principles and those who object to having any such linkage. The Israel lobby does not represent the diverse Jewish-American community. Many Jewish-Americans such as the Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now, JStreet, and Code Pink, among others, are deeply troubled by Israeli policies and some active campaign against them.
Most striking about the Israel lobby is that they are united not by a platform about Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, but by a consensus about US policies towards Israel. The pro-Israel lobby supports two core demands. The first is massive and unhindered US financial aid for Israel. In their book, The Israel Lobby, Stephen M Walt, and John Mearsheimer write that Israel receives more of America’s foreign aid budget than any other country – $3 billion a year, two thirds in military grants. Total aid from1949 to 2008: over $114 billion.
Second, along with aid, the Israel lobby demands unconditional US diplomatic protection of Israel in the UN and other world venues. As a result, the US has blocked repeated efforts by its major democratic allies in the UN Security Council to condemn Israeli repression and colonization in the occupied territories.
Admittedly, it is difficult to prove direct cause-and-effect connections between the power of a lobby and America’s foreign policy positions. But, in the Middle East, it is unexplainable why the US failed to pressure Israel into a final land-for-peace settlement-particularly since the Oslo deal in 1993-without factoring in the Israel lobby. The influence of the lobby may be easier to decipher in the manner US attitudes have shifted on more specific totems of the conflict. For example, Israeli settlements in the occupied territories were regarded as illegal during the Carter administration. Since then, they shifted to being an “obstacle” to peace and are now just a complicating factor. Similarly, East Jerusalem was considered by the US to be part of the occupied territories but recently its status has, at best, become rather more ambiguous.
In attempting to quantify the impact of the Israel lobby, three spheres of influence stand out: political donations, government appointments, and media control. While the Israel lobby is not primarily a traditional ethnic voter machine; it is a distinctly powerful ethnic donor machine. The Israel lobby has emulated the techniques of other national lobbies based on economic interests. The lobby uses nationwide campaign donations, often funneled through local phony grassroots organizations to influence members of Congress in areas where there are few Jewish voters. Numbers do not lie: AIPAC looms large and wide in the political life of American elected officials. In The Israel Lobby, the authors contend that: AIPAC’s success is due in large part to its ability to reward legislators and congressional candidates who support its agenda and to punish those who do not, based mainly on its capacity to influence campaign contributions. Money is critical to U.S. elections . . . and AIPAC makes sure that its friends get financial support so long as they do not stray from AIPAC’s line (154).
But as important as campaign contributions are, the Israel lobby’s power is exercised through influence on government appointments. Until recently, Democrats and Republicans differed in their attitude to the lobby but now both parties have caved into the lobby, albeit in different ways. Historically, Jewish-Americans have been part of the Democratic coalition and they remain the only white ethnic group which consistently votes overwhelmingly for Democrats. By contrast, many Republicans, influenced by big business and the oil industry in particular, often tilt towards the Arabs (Arab regimes, not -and until recently-voiceless Arab populations).
Finally, like other lobbies whose power is based on campaign money and appointments, the Israel lobby has influence chiefly over elected officials and their staff. The aborted career of Charles Freeman provides a troubling example of this weapon at work. After Obama nominated Freeman to head the National Intelligence Council, a top intelligence post, he was savagely attacked by AIPAC and their loudmouths in the right-wing media. He was forced to withdraw his nomination. The New York Times has chronicled the political obituary of Freeman.
Media influence tops the chart of the tools of the Israel lobby. The problem is not that Jews in the media censor the daily news; there are passionate Zionist publishers, but their very ardour tends to discredit them. The reporters of the major US newspapers and the television networks are reasonably fair in their coverage of the Middle East. However, the problem is that the Palestine-Israeli conflict is presented absent any historical or political context.
As alternatives groups emerge to oppose AIPAC’s hegemony, we hope this fact should resonate with candidates for public offices who thus far have been afraid to criticize AIPAC. I single out here NJ Senator Robert Menendez who not long ago celebrated the fact that his Arab constituency, while large in numbers, lack the political weight to influence his decisions. As I wrote recently, the Arab American community in New Jersey has matured and will be watching Menendez’s words with respect to AIPAC.
I pray that Obama will not go to AIPAC’s event now set for Sunday, May 22, 2011. But if he insists, then he should also speak at next month’s gathering of Arab Americans in Washington, DC. Such an appearance will partially diffuse the doubts we have about his political allegiances. Our president should be thinking of how history will look back at his legacy. A legacy, we hope, will proclaim the supremacy of US ideals and international law over the myopic and self-serving interests of the un-American pro Israel lobbies.
The only message that you need to tell AIPAC is that the US demands the end of Israel’s occupation from all the occupied Palestinian areas and the immediate cessation of settlement expansion. Anything less and you will disappoint not only this writer but millions of people around the world, many of whom are your citizens. If I see my President showering accolades on AIPAC’s work, I will be most disillusioned by the man I once heard will bring change to America. History and future children of the world will condemn our President for sleeping with the enemy of our democratic ideals, with our promise of promoting justice everywhere, with our rejection of inhumane treatment of our fellow men.
But Mr. President, if you fail us, we, the American people, will lead. Starting on May 21-24, we will, in the nation’s capital, declare loudly to you, to our Senators and our Congressmen, that AIPAC is toppled. A national grassroots organization of patriotic Americans, under the umbrella of Move Over AIPAC, will bring in the thousands of concerned citizens who want our elected leaders to represent our American interests and not those of any other country, including Israel. I will be there to turn the page on AIPAC.