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.
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.
July 31, 2012 § 5 Comments
When John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published their controversial article on the “Israel Lobby” in the London Review of Books in March 2006, they defined the lobby as follows:
We use ‘the Lobby’ as shorthand for the loose coalition of individuals and organisations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. This is not meant to suggest that ‘the Lobby’ is a unified movement with a central leadership, or that individuals within it do not disagree on certain issues. Not all Jewish Americans are part of the Lobby, because Israel is not a salient issue for many of them…
Jewish Americans have set up an impressive array of organisations to influence American foreign policy, of which AIPAC is the most powerful and best known. In 1997,Fortune magazine asked members of Congress and their staffs to list the most powerful lobbies in Washington. AIPAC was ranked second behind the American Association of Retired People, but ahead of the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association. ANational Journal study in March 2005 reached a similar conclusion, placing AIPAC in second place (tied with AARP) in the Washington ‘muscle rankings’.
When their argument was published in book form one year later, the definition remained the same, although “Lobby” was switched to the less conspiratorial looking “lobby” and “steer” was changed to “shape.” The point was clear though; the Israel lobby is made up of groups and empowered individuals who seek to influence the foreign policy process. Mearsheimer and Walt swore up and down that they were not indicting Jews or Jewish voters wholesale, but were seeking to expose the activities of a select “loose coalition.”
With that background information in mind, Walt wrote a blog post yesterday purporting to put Mitt Romney’s various remarks over the weekend while in Israel into context. According to Walt, Romney was engaging in a time honored bipartisan tradition of pandering to the Israel lobby, but -
The good news, such as it is, is that both Romney and Obama are probably lying. No matter how many times each of them talks about the “unshakeable commitment” to Israel, or even of their “love” for the country, they don’t really mean it. They are simply pandering to domestic politics, which is something that all American politicians do on a host of different issues. Of course, they will still have to shape their policies with the lobby’s clout in mind (as Obama’s humiliating retreat on the settlement issue demonstrates), but nobody should be under the illusion that they genuinely believe all the flattering stuff that they are forced to say.
None of this is new or surprising, since Walt writes variations on this theme regularly. What is noteworthy about this particular Walt missive is that his definition of the lobby is far more expansive than usual. He opens by saying, “Pandering to special interest groups is a time-honored American political tradition, especially in an election year…Whether we are talking about the farm lobby, the NRA, the AARP, Big Pharma, Wall Street, or various ethnic lobbies, it’s inevitable that politicians running for office will say and do lots of stupid things to try to win influential groups over.” So the expectation is that what will follow is an exegesis about how Romney has been trying to win over the groups, or even people, that Walt has previously identified as making up the Israel lobby.
That is not, however, what Walt does. Instead, Walt explicitly states that he is talking about Jewish voters. In the second paragraph, right after the sentences about lobbies that I quoted above, he states about Romney, “He wasn’t trying to win over Israelis or make up for his various gaffes in London; his goal was to convince Israel’s supporters in America to vote for him and not for Barack Obama. Most American Jews lean left and will vote for Obama, but Romney would like to keep the percentage as low as he can, because it just might tip the balance in a critical swing state like Florida.” Lest there be any confusion that Walt is conflating the Israel lobby with American Jews, after referring to Obama and Romney tailoring their policies “with the lobby’s clout in mind,” he spends the rest of the piece talking not about ways in which “the lobby” punishes politicians who deviate from the party line by raising money for their opponents or running ads in their districts, but about how presidents Carter and Bush 41 saw their percentages of Jewish votes drop after pressuring or confronting Israel. He is not telling a story about what he has previously defined as the Israel lobby, but is telling a story about American Jews that he is calling a story about the Israel lobby.
Remember this next time someone claims that Mearsheimer and Walt are not indicting all American Jews with their theory, or are only focusing on a finite and defined set of groups. Walt’s defenders here will claim that because he and Mearsheimer argue that the Israel lobby influences public opinion, this is an extension of that argument, and that by pandering to the Israel lobby Romney and Obama know that they will affect how American Jews vote. Unfortunately, that argument won’t fly in this case. There is simply no way around the fact that Walt defines all American Jewish voters as “the Israel lobby” in his latest piece, and when he indicts Romney for pandering to the Israel lobby he means that Romney is pandering to Jewish voters. There is nothing wrong with pointing out what Romney is doing, but Walt is going to have a difficult time going forward explaining that when he references the Israel lobby, he is talking about “Zionists” or “pro-Israel groups” rather than Jews.
June 1, 2012 § Leave a comment
Since there isn’t any one particular subject that I feel compelled to write about today, I thought I’d pay tribute to my all-time favorite website and share some brief thoughts on a bunch of interesting items in the news.
Israeli politicians this week can’t seem to keep their feet out of their mouths. First Kadima MK Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich called for “all human rights activists” to be arrested, imprisoned, and then “transported to camps we are building.” The camps she is referring to are detention centers the government is building for migrants who are entering Israel illegally, but Shamalov-Berkovich apparently thinks they can be put to better use for people whose views she simply doesn’t like. Not to be outdone, Shas MK and Interior Minister Eli Yishai called South Tel Aviv – which has become an African immigrant stronghold – the garbage can of the country and claimed that many Israeli women have been raped by African migrants but are not coming forward and reporting it because they are afraid of the stigma of AIDS. He did not provide any evidence for this assertion, and was immediately rebutted by those who would know better. Somehow I get the feeling that Eli Yishai might be an Antoine Dodson fan.
The New York Times has a long report on President Obama’s efforts to launch an all-out cyber war against Iran’s nuclear program, detailing his decision to accelerate the cyber attacks in order to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. I look forward to the spin from the usual quarters explaining how this demonstrates that Obama hates Israel, has no desire to prevent a nuclear Iran, and is selling out Israel’s security in order to curry favor with Muslims.
Also in the NYT today is a story about the Russian Orthodox Church’s opposition to intervention in Syria and how this in some ways guides Russian policy. Vladimir Putin has turned to the church for political support, and the church’s mission of protecting Christian minorities in the Middle East is bumping up against any Russian will to get rid of Assad (to the extent that any really exists at all). This is a useful reminder of what an immensely powerful religious lobby actually looks like and how it affects a state’s foreign policy, as opposed to an intellectually lazy and factually questionable argument along the same lines.
Finally, this op-ed by New York-based Turkish reporter Aydoğan Vatandaş on how U.S.-Israeli relations and its impact on American Jews affects the U.S. presidential race was interesting for a bunch of reasons. First, the reasons that Vatandaş lists for why the Israeli government is disappointed with the Obama administration includes the U.S. relationship with Turkey and focuses on Turkey’s request for Predator drones. I don’t think that Israel expects the U.S. to ditch Turkey, and I also don’t think that Israel is overly concerned about the U.S. selling Predators to Ankara for strategic reasons, since if Turkey and Israel ever actually exchanged hostilities, drones would not play a role. Israel does not, however, want the U.S. to sell Predators to Turkey simply as a way of pressuring Turkey to reconcile, and Vatandaş is strangely optimistic that the sale will occur, which has almost no chance of getting through Congress at the moment. The other thing that jumped out at me was some of the questionable or overly simplistic analysis, capped off by the conclusion, which reads, “It may sound strange, but what I have observed in America is that most American Jews today define themselves as Jews but also tend to be very secular. And, in terms of politics, they tend to be very liberal.” This is a fairly obvious point to any American who follows politics, but to a Turkish audience it might not be, and it got me wondering about whether my own analysis of Turkey reads as simplistically (or perhaps wrongly) to a Turkish audience. Something to think about…
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.