October 31, 2013 § 10 Comments
The all-powerful and nefarious Israel lobby is in the news again. On Tuesday, the White House briefed officials from the Israel lobby Legion of Doom – AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations – on efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program, with the real aim being to get pro-Israel groups on board with the effort not to impose new sanctions on Iran. In the administration’s view, the tough sanctions that have been imposed accomplished the task of getting Iran to the negotiating table, and now that Iran appears ready to talk, even more sanctions will be counterproductive by spurring Iran to make a reinforced push to go nuclear. On the other side is Congress, where the overwhelming view is that biting sanctions are the only reason that Iran agreed to negotiate at all, and now is the time to ramp up pressure in order to force Iran into a deal rather than allowing the Iranian government to use negotiations as a mechanism for running out the clock. So far, pro-Israel groups appear to be leaning toward Congress’s view of things, and Tuesday’s meeting was part of the White House’s strategy for getting Congress to hold off.
Naturally, the fact that Jewish and pro-Israel groups received a private NSC briefing on Iran has a bunch of people up in arms about the Israel lobby wielding inappropriately outsized power, and a bunch of more unreasonable people raging about Jews controlling U.S. foreign policy. For Mondoweiss, the meeting is the latest datapoint for the proposition that Jews and the Israel lobby are the groups that count the most in foreign policy and that pro-Israel rightwing hawks drive U.S. policy in the Middle East. There is little question that pro-Israel groups are influential and that AIPAC is extremely successful, but where the argument breaks down is when it gets taken to Walt and Mearsheimer proportions, i.e. that pro-Israel groups are able to push the U.S. government into doing things it would not otherwise do or that pro-Israel groups are able to control outcomes in Congress. Max Fisher yesterday compared the lobbying efforts to strike Syria and the lobbying efforts to capture African warlord Joseph Kony and noted that the “all-powerful lobby narrative” does not stand up to the evidence at hand. I’ll quote Fisher directly on the section on AIPAC:
If the conventional wisdom about lobbying and U.S. foreign policy were true, we would expect Obama to have received wide support for his Syria plan and basically zero support for the Central African hunt for Kony. But that’s the opposite of how it turned out.
In mid-September, as President Obama pushed to get Congress’s support for Syria strikes, his administration turned to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. If you’ve spent any time at all working on Israeli issues, Palestinian issues or MidEast issues generally, you’ve heard people on all ideological ends of the spectrum speak in hushed tones about the awesome power of AIPAC. Critics of the right-leaning, pro-Israel group often refer to it simply as “The Lobby,” as if it were so powerful that other lobbyist organizations hardly even mattered. It’s not considered especially controversial to suggest that the group plays a major role in shaping U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
AIPAC’s influence is thought to be strongest in Congress, where support for pro-Israeli policies is indeed bipartisan and passionately held. Its membership is thought to include lots of Washington power-brokers and heavy-hitters, the types who, in the common telling, pull all the hidden levers of American governance and foreign policy. So when AIPAC began lobbying on behalf of Obama’s Syria strike plan, many assumed it was a done deal, particularly since the administration most needed help in Congress, turf AIPAC knows well.
There is every indication that AIPAC threw its full weight into generating support for Obama’s Syria plan, both in Congress and among its own constituency. But the group failed utterly to even move the needle on the policy: Congress only strengthened its opposition to Obama’s Syria strikes. It was a rare public test of AIPAC’s ability to shape U.S. foreign policy and it flunked.
As Fisher then goes on to explain, the lobbying campaign to go after Kony was carried out by underfunded, inexperienced, not well connected lobbyists who targeted high school and college students, a group not exactly known for its power and influence. Yet the Kony campaign succeeded to the point where the U.S. military is currently engaged in what has been a fruitless search to locate Kony, backed by Congressional support that has not wavered. How to explain this conundrum? Fisher suggests that public opinion may be the answer, but I’ll take it one step further: public opinion is absolutely the answer, particularly when it comes to AIPAC. Pro-Israel groups succeed when the cause they are championing is already popular, and they fail when it isn’t. Yes, AIPAC is very-well connected, pro-Israel groups get courted, and even get benefits – such as private briefings – that other groups do not get. But let’s take a look at why support for increased sanctions are running so high in Congress and why the White House campaign to keep them steady is going to fail (hint: it has nothing to do with what AIPAC does or does not want).
In mid-September, Gallup did a poll asking whether Americans consider Iran to be an ally, friendly, unfriendly, or an enemy. 45% of respondents categorized Iran as an enemy and 38% said Iran is unfriendly. In early June, a CBS/NYT poll found that 58% of respondents favored military action against Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon while 37% opposed it. In March, Pew asked people which was more important: preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if it means taking military action, or avoiding military conflict with Iran even if it means that Iran develops a nuclear weapon, and 64% favored military action vs. 25% who wanted to avoid military conflict. Finally, in the most recent poll that asked about sanctions, which was from March 2012 (after the first round of sanctions had already been put in place), 74% were in favor of increasing sanctions against Iran while 21% were not. (All of the polls can be found here). Given Iran’s recent outreach efforts following Rouhani’s election, it is very possible that a poll taken today would find that support for increasing sanctions is below that 74% number, but I doubt it’s down in a significant way given the current numbers viewing Iran as hostile. The point here is that AIPAC does not need to do much lobbying of Congress to get it to support increased sanctions, because this is a policy that is overwhelmingly popular. The idea that Congress would be marching in lockstep with the White House’s foreign policy preferences on this issue were it not for the covert whisperings of Howard Kohr and Abe Foxman is simply nonsense and intellectual laziness. When AIPAC’s preferences align with public opinion, it is successful; when its preferences go against public opinion, it’s not. It is really that simple, and if you want a lot more on this, go read my (unfortunately paywalled) peer-reviewed article in Security Studies on this very subject, complete with case studies and everything (link is here).
The irony of this is that Walt and Mearsheimer’s book and the loud insistence of Israel lobby truthers that AIPAC controls U.S. policy in the Middle East has, more than anything else, enhanced the power of pro-Israel groups by convincing a growing number of people that the mistaken perception is actually true. This in turn leads to government officials believing the hype, and thus you get the ADL and AJC invited to a private briefing at the White House out of a belief that these groups have far more power than they actually do. The bottom line is that Congress in this instance is going to do what public opinion tells it to do, and the Israel lobby’s preference that Iran sanctions be increased is not what is driving policy here in any real way.
April 16, 2013 § 8 Comments
Back when I was a college senior majoring in history with a concentration in medieval Europe, I decided to write my honors thesis on William the Conqueror’s claim to the throne of England. My argument was that contrary to the universally accepted view among historians of that era, William did not actually have a legitimate legal claim to the throne and that Norman historiography was concocted ex-post facto to make it seem as if he did in order to justify the Norman invasion in 1066. Given that the House of Windsor and all of their forebears trace their lineage back to William, in making this argument I was casting aspersions on the legitimacy of the English royal house, and yet nobody ever asked or cared to know whether or not I was pro-England. Such a question would have seemed ridiculous and would have carried no resonance, as nobody thinks of themselves in such binary Manichean terms when it comes to our former colonial overlords. Whether one enjoys vacationing in historic Albion or detests England for its damp weather and the English insistence on referring to potato chips as crisps, people simply do not divide themselves into pro-England and anti-England camps, and neither do they feel the need to loudly declare their proclivities as a way of staking out political and ideological territory. Despite the close connections between the U.S. and Britain at all levels of state and society, whether or not someone supports Britain is not a political issue.
I now spend much of my time writing and thinking about Turkey. Sometimes I write things about Turkey that are complimentary and sometimes I write things about Turkey that take its government to task, and yet not once has anyone queried whether I am pro-Turkey or anti-Turkey, nor have I ever felt pressured to mark myself as one or the other. I am vociferous about my love of the country, its people, its culture, its food, but I can’t imagine ever describing myself as “pro-Turkey” only because it would seem like a ridiculous category in which to place oneself. If I walked around proudly tying my identity to this notion of being pro-Turkey, what would it even signify? Would it mean that I approve of everything the Turkish government does? That there is something about the metaphysical properties of Anatolia that I favor? That I just happen to like baklava and su boreği? I can tell you which academics and policy folks are hawkish on China and which ones are not, or which prominent DC thinktankers believe that the U.S. has been too tough on Russia since the end of the Cold War and which advocate for an even tougher approach, but I have never heard them labeled as pro-China and anti-China, or pro-Russia and anti-Russia. There is a reason when it comes to states, we generally do not define ourselves in relation to them as pro or anti.
That is, of course, unless we are talking about Israel. Everyone by now is familiar with the way that anyone with an opinion about anything having to do with Israel is immediately placed into one of two categories out of which it is increasingly difficult to escape. You are either pro-Israel or anti-Israel, and rarely is there room for a gray area. This relentless push to categorize comes from both sides, but in many ways it is actually driven by the pro-Israel camp. The stridently anti-Israel camp plays its role in this – and a quick perusal of the comments section of any foreign policy magazine article on Israel will quickly reveal the way the terms “pro-Israel” and “Zionist” are hurled as epithets – but it is the pro-Israel side that does a more thorough job of drawing boundaries. Politicians, pundits, journalists, and others are dubbed with the pro-Israel seal of approval, and those who are critical are dismissed as anti-Israel. While this is generally seen as a winning strategy, in many ways it actually does Israel more harm than good. As someone who firmly and unabashedly identifies with the pro-Israel camp, this 65th Yom Ha’atzmaut provides an occasion to reassess whether this marking of territory is actually productive.
The rush to proudly declare people and groups as pro-Israel harms Israel in two ways. The first is that it perpetuates a view of Israel as somehow different and as a country apart, and not in the sense of being a shining city on the hill but as a constant outsider. Israel is virtually the only country in the world in which its supporters press people to loudly declare this support, whether it be through large displays of strength in numbers like the annual AIPAC Policy Conference or through the omnipresent and explicit pro-Israel branding of Jewish groups and organizations. It reinforces a notion of Israel as an oddity and conveys a sense of insecurity among its supporters, as if without these constant reminders Israel would wither away. This is in no way to minimize the enormous security challenges that Israel faces, as the challenges facing Israelis are both real and constant. Nevertheless, as long as the world is forcefully divided into supporters and detractors, the normalcy that Israel craves will forever be elusive. Israel is not viewed as a normal state because its supporters do not allow it to be viewed as such. It is one thing to personally identify with Israel, and another to work to bring as many people into that same fold who have no real reason to identify with Israel any more than they would other Western democracies. The grassroots effort to get politicians to declare their undying love and support for Israel strikes an odd note to my ears, as I am unaware of any similar move by supporters of other countries. It creates a certain mystique surrounding the Jewish state that has some benefits but also some significant negative externalities. As someone who first visited Israel as a two year old, has been back nearly twenty times, and has spent a year living there, I know why I strongly identify with Israel and feel a deep personal connection to the country. Less clear to me is why it makes sense to encourage politicians with no real personal connection to Israel to express the same sentiment. The perception of strength that it creates is a false one that actually ends up backfiring.
Second, the pro-Israel delineation unnecessarily defines support for Israel according to an extremely high standard and creates a threshold that keeps people out who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily be so situated. For instance, if someone supports a strong relationship between the U.S. and Portugal, believes that the two should have tight military and diplomatic ties, would like to see visits by each country’s leader to the other’s country, but does not think that the U.S. should use its Security Council veto on Portugal’s behalf every time there is a resolution that unfavorably targets Portugal, we would say that this is a person who is favorably disposed toward Portugal. But because being “pro-Israel” implies a certain set of stances, including that the U.S. wield its veto in the Security Council to protect Israel from unfair treatment, someone who argues that Israel should have to fend for itself in the United Nations would find it difficult to gain the pro-Israel label. Similarly, someone who supports every public position advanced by AIPAC but also thinks that the U.S. should press Israel to return to the 1967 borders is guaranteed to be viewed as squishy when it comes to being pro-Israel because this position is seen as being outside the mainstream boundaries of what it means to be “pro-Israel.” The problem with this is that it consigns people who are sympathetic to Israel in most, but not all, situations to the outside of the club looking in, and in doing so alienates plenty of people who are inclined to give Israel more leeway than your average person. Marking boundaries strengthens in-group cohesion, but also makes your group smaller than it needs to be. It reminds me of the debate over whether having enumerated rights in the Constitution ends up being a good thing by clearly laying out lines that the government cannot cross, or actually unnecessarily limits the rights that citizens enjoy by implying that any rights not explicitly laid out do not exist.
If Israel is to ever be seen as just another country – and this would unmistakably be a good thing – the pro-Israel label needs to be left behind. When people no longer feel the need to shout their pro-Israel bonafides from the rooftops, it will be the proof that Israel has finally achieved normalcy, and that will do more for Israel’s security than a host of policy conferences will ever do. Let’s take the occasion of Israel’s Independence Day to rethink whether the term “pro-Israel” makes sense, and let people who are inclined to support Israel do it however they see fit.
December 27, 2012 § 11 Comments
I really didn’t want to write about Chuck Hagel since I don’t think there is much to say that hasn’t already been said (although for the record, I have no problem with him as defense secretary based on what he has said about Israel, and in over an hour with him last September at the Atlantic Council he didn’t say one thing about Israel that raised a red flag), but reading James Besser’s op-ed in today’s New York Times compels me to weigh in. Besser’s thesis is that mainstream American Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee are either silent on Hagel or complicit in trying to torpedo his nomination because they are afraid of extremist voices on the pro-Israel right such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, and that this radical fringe is setting the pro-Israel agenda and pushing more mainstream voices to adopt extreme positions. He says American Jewish leaders “increasingly tremble in the face of a small minority of zealots, whose vision of Israel’s future diverges from that of the majority of American Jews and clashes with core American values of freedom and democracy,” and he compares them to the leaders of the Republican Party in warning that a movement driven by extremists is bound to fail since it will run afoul of public opinion. Besser is basically arguing that the institutional pro-Israel movement is headed toward irrelevance because it is adopting positions that do not line up with the bulk of American Jewry, and he uses the Hagel nomination as his hook to make that argument.
I agree with Besser that more extremist voices such as the ECI are driving the conversation on Hagel, and that this is not a good trend, although I am not as confident as he is that American Jewish leaders don’t themselves hold the same convictions and are rather being prodded along into taking positions with which they don’t agree. That aside though, there are two major problems with his argument, one specific to the Hagel issue and one general one. First, Besser is assuming that opposition to Hagel is going to provoke some sort of popular backlash because the anti-Hagel position is so extreme, but this seems to me to be a stretch. To begin with, while there is lots of support for Hagel within the foreign policy community, opposition to Hagel is emanating from too many quarters to make the anti-Hagel position the equivalent of denying evolution. I also don’t think this fight is really registering much among the general public, as Hagel’s name recognition is pretty low and this is the kind of Beltway fight to which most people pay little or no attention. As far as I can tell from a quick search, Hagel’s name recognition is actually so low that nobody has even bothered to do any polling on his potential nomination. The idea that opposing Hagel is so extreme and will provoke such outrage that it will cause the pro-Israel community to go into a death spiral is pretty far-fetched at best.
The bigger issue though is with Besser’s argument that it is the views of American Jews that empower pro-Israel groups and will ultimately determine their success or failure. This betrays a lack of understanding of what makes AIPAC and other similar groups successful, which is not that Jews support them, but that the majority of the overall population supports them. Aaron David Miller pointed this out earlier this week and Walter Russell Mead does it all the time as well, but when the former Washington correspondent for The Jewish Week still doesn’t get how things work, it bears some repeating. American public opinion has been favorable toward Israel since its founding, and support for Israel is relatively constant within a set range. This works to create pressure on politicians to espouse a pro-Israel view. In the years spanning the George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations, Israel’s favorability ratings as measured by Gallup ranged from 45 percent to 71 percent, and in only in four out of twenty-one instances did less than 50 percent of the public indicate holding a very favorable or mostly favorable view of Israel. When asked to rate countries as close allies, Israel consistently ranks behind only the Anglosphere countries of Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, with those describing Israel as a close ally ranging from 26 percent to 47 percent from 1982 through 2008.
Furthermore, when looking at the preferences of the issue public – citizens who have strong feelings on the issue of the U.S. relationship with Israel and Israeli behavior generally – people in this category are even more supportive of Israel and Israeli policies than the general public by more than twice as much. A pluralist model of politics predicts a correlation between the views of citizens who have a strongly held view on an issue and public policy, since ignoring strong or intense preferences will erode democratic legitimacy over time, so it makes sense that politicians respond to the pro-Israel wishes of the most vocal subset of citizens. Support for Israel among the U.S. populace is both broad and deep, which means that the pro-Israel sympathies of the general public are reinforced by the more intense feelings of support expressed by a vocal minority of both Jewish and non-Jewish voters. When taking into account the importance that Jewish and Christian voters assign to Israel, combined with the public’s affinity and support for Israel in general, the pluralist model that equates strong public opinion with corresponding policy explains why AIPAC and other groups are successful.
None of this means that this situation is static. Support for Israel is driven by a sense of shared values, and so if that perception erodes, Israel is going to be in trouble. One of the reasons I pound away at Israel’s myopia in hanging on to the West Bank – aside from the fact that I find it morally questionable, to say the least – is because I am pretty sure that it is going to spell doom for Israel long term as it relates to U.S. support. However, focusing on the opinion of just American Jews is going to tell you very little about whether mainstream American Jewish organizations are going to remain strong or not. American Jews are probably the most liberal group of Americans that exist, so if the rest of the country ever catches up to them, then the ADL and the AJC are going to have something to worry about. Putting up a fight over Chuck Hagel though is just not going to be the issue that relegates mainstream Jewish organizations to obsolescence.
April 10, 2012 § 5 Comments
In the latest Israeli attempt to get the convicted spy Jonathan Pollard clemency which he does not deserve, Israeli president Shimon Peres has appealed to the White House to release Pollard because Pollard’s health is deteriorating and Pollard’s wife, whom he married after being convicted, does not want to become a widow while he is in prison. As expected, the Obama administration turned down Peres’s request to release Pollard. I wholeheartedly support this decision – Pollard is an unrepentant spy who stole massive amounts of classified intelligence, disgustingly attempted to drag the American Jewish community into his case by turning himself into a cause celebre, and has done an incalculable amount of damage to American Jews by raising concerns about dual loyalty, particularly for those who have deep connections to Israel and want to work for the government in a position that requires security clearance. The entire U.S. security and intelligence establishment is unanimous in its position that Pollard should remain where he is, so much so that George Tenet threatened to resign as CIA director if Pollard was released, and no matter what Pollard’s supporters may claim, this universal hardline position is not motivated by anti-Semitism but by the fact that what Pollard did was unforgivable.
The point of this post is not to go on a rant about Pollard, which I have been known to do at the drop of a hat. Rather, it is to explain why it is that despite the mythical power attributed by some to the pro-Israel lobby, which has made Pollard’s release a priority, there has been and will be no change in Pollard’s status. It is a curious problem for the John Mearsheimers of the world, since if Israel and groups such as AIPAC are able to push the U.S. to take all sorts of actions contrary to its own interests in the Middle East, securing clemency for Pollard should be a relative breeze. Pollard’s cause is not by any means a fringe issue. A list of groups and individuals calling at some point for Pollard’s release includes the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith International, the World Zionist Congress, the state assemblies of New York and New Jersey, Arlen Spector, Rudy Giuliani, numerous congressmen and local officials, and both Jewish and Christian religious leaders. It is also notable that despite the high priority assigned by pro-Israel groups to the Pollard case, Congress has never passed a resolution calling for his release, or even calling for his case to be reexamined. Given the conventional wisdom in some quarters that Congress in particular is owned by the pro-Israel lobby, one would at least expect to see Congress pressing for Pollard’s release while successive administrations stand firm on keeping him behind bars.
As I have pointed out in a different venue, the failure of pro-Israel groups to sway politicians in this case is because support for Israel is highly dependent on public opinion rather than on the Israel lobby, and the American public takes a strong position against Pollard and his release. In January 1986, in the aftermath of the Pollard case and a number of other cases involving foreign spies, 75 percent of Americans favored mandatory polygraph tests for government employees handling secret information, 63 percent supported firing any managers who turned out to have spies working under them, and 62 percent were in favor of a mandatory death penalty for anyone caught passing secrets to a foreign government. Clearly, the public was not in a forgiving mood when it came to leniency or clemency for spies, making no distinction between spies for hostile governments or spies for allies.
In addition, the Pollard case affected the way the public viewed Israel in particular. A Harris poll in March 1987 found that while 68 percent of the American people viewed Israel as either a close ally or a friendly nation, versus only 18 percent that considered it to be hostile, it was the second lowest positive score for Israel in the history of the Harris poll to date, and it had dropped 13 points from 1984. There is no public polling data available on the Pollard issue specifically, which is unfortunate because it would make this argument even stronger. It can be assumed though that the general views of the public on how to treat spies are unlikely to have changed, and the sharp dip in positive views of Israel in the aftermath of Pollard’s exposure as a foreign agent is a good indicator that even today Pollard is unlikely to be viewed as a sympathetic figure deserving of clemency. This is a clear case where the weight of pro-Israel groups’ lobbying efforts has run into the wall of public opinion, and politicians have demonstrated that their desire to please voters and guard American national security interests trumps the wishes of the pro-Israel community, no matter how well-organized and well-funded it is.
Keep this in mind the next time you come across the argument that AIPAC controls American foreign policy in the Middle East, or that Netanyahu and other Israeli prime ministers are able to get whatever they want from whichever president occupies the White House at any given point in time. Pollard is a high priority issue, yet there has literally been zero movement on the part of the U.S. to release him despite official requests from respected Israeli leaders such as Peres and Yitzchak Rabin and efforts on Netanyahu’s part to tie peace agreements with the Palestinians to Pollard’s release. Yes, AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups have a lot of sway, but it is because they are pushing on an open door. When public opinion goes the other way on issues of national security, no amount of lobbying, public haranguing, or campaign donations is going to make a difference. What this means is that Jonathan Pollard is going to die in prison, despite the best efforts of many influential and well-connected organizations and individuals to change that basic reality.