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The pro-Isarael lobby

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Edward S. Herman

The previous two articles in this series pointed up the extremely racist and abusive character of Israeli policy toward Arabs, and the simultaneous virtually unconditional U.S. support for Israel and enormous pro-Israel (and anti-Arab) bias of the mainstream media and intelligentsia. There is considerable dispute over the reasons for this bias and policy tilt. The two most prominent explanations are Israel’s strategic value to the U.S. and the power of the pro-Israel lobby; others include western guilt and sympathy for the Jewish people as a result of the holocaust, and anti-Arab racism. I will review briefly these alternative explanations, but will devote most attention to the power of the lobby, which I consider of primary importance.

Western Guilt

As an explanation of western support for Israel, guilt over the holocaust and sympathy with the victim people is a non-starter. Guilt rarely if ever affects national policy, which is almost always grounded in more earthy considerations. Concern over the holocaust victims never extended so far as to allow significant numbers of Jewish survivors to emigrate to the U.S. after World War II, nor did it lead to extensive prosecutions of the holocaust managers and beneficiaries. Large numbers of these, including major death merchants, were protected and put to use in the Cold War. The question may also be raised, why should there be such guilt related to the holocaust and neither to black slavery and subsequent discrimination against blacks, nor to the destruction of the indigenous Indians? And why shouldn’t there be guilt over western connivance in the expulsion of Palestinians from their homelands and victimization in 27 years of occupation?

Guilt, in short, is easily managed, and can be brought into play effectively by those powerful enough to mobilize it for their own purposes.

Anti-Arab Racism

Another possible source of the bias against the Palestinians is racism. This factor is more important than “guilt,” but I don’t think it deserves heavy weight either. Palestinian racial types are variable and overlap with those of Jews. There is also great variability in Palestinian culture, much of it overlapping with that of the West. If Palestinians and Arabs are looked down upon today, and if racist stereotypes are expounded with impunity by Martin Peretz, Fouad Ajami, Hollywood, and the culture at large, this racism is mainly an effect and reflection of interest and policy rather than a causal factor.

Arabs who cooperate with the West, like the Saudis, Mubarak, and Fouad Ajami are not subject to racial epithets and stereotypes. This suggests that if other Arabs were more tractable and responsive to western demands they would cease to be negatively stereotyped. Scapegoating is a function of power and interest. Unfortunately for the Palestinians and many other Arabs, they have little economic or military muscle and stand in the way of powerful interests. It is still ironic and horrifying that Jews like Podhoretz, Peretz, and Kissinger, and the organized Jewish establishment, should be in the forefront of racist derogation and dehumanization of Arabs: doing to others what was done, with such terrible consequences, to their own in-group.

Israel As Strategic Asset

A more compelling analysis explains the policy tilt and bias in terms of Israel’s value to the U.S. as a strategic asset. Most important in this view, Israel serves U.S. interests as a western-oriented enclave and proxy military and political force in the Middle East. It has also made itself available as a surrogate in covertly supporting regimes difficult for the United States to support directly and openly (Duvalier’s Haiti, Guatemala in the years of mass murder, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Zaire, etc.)

There is an important truth in this line of argument. If Israel’s interests were in real conflict with that of core U.S. power interests, or could not be reconciled with them, there is little doubt that support for Israel would be weaker. But conflict may be pasted over by an artificial and strained reconciliation, that employs an inferior political strategy based on a pre-ordained priority accorded one party. If core U.S. interests call for access to and control over Middle East oil, has the pro-Israel policy served this end well? Israel has no oil, and is disliked and feared by the oil rich Arab states. Support for Israel has brought not peace and stability to the region, but polarization and a string of wars. The U.S. policy led to the organization of an Arab-centered oil producers cartel and the embargo and damaging price increases of 1973. There is no reason to believe that a more even-handed U.S. policy that forced a peace settlement wouldn’t have been equally or more effective than the one followed. Arguably, the U.S. was lucky to maintain hegemony through the turmoil that resulted from a policy of aggressive support for the Arab states’ enemy.

It is true that Israel and the pro-Israeli lobby geared well into the demands and policies of U.S. militarists and the Reagan administration in the 1970s and 1980s. Israel did serve the surrogate function, and it and the lobby supported aggressive strategies and the arms race, and shared common interests with the military-industrial-complex and were warmly admired by ideological hard-liners. This was, I believe, of greater importance in generating support for Israel in dominant U.S. circles than their supposed service in Middle East policy.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the downturn in the arms budget, the compatibility of interests of Israel and the domestic MIC has become more problematic. Competition between U.S. and Israeli arms manufacturers is tending to replace joint efforts to enlarge and share the pie. Elements of the Pentagon and contractors resent Israel’s power over U.S. political life, and this has manifested itself in the treatment of Pollard, the recent controversy over claims of illegal Israeli transfers of Patriot technology to China, and other cases. This growing conflict of interest may eventually reduce the power of the camp urging generous support for the “strategic asset.”

The Pro-Israel Lobby

Another important reason to doubt the importance of Israel’s strategic asset role in explaining the pro-Israel policy and intellectual bias is the character and evident impact of the pro-Israel lobby. If scores of Democratic politicians take large sums from the lobby, and speak and vote in ways consistent with its demands, we may reasonably doubt whether this political behavior results from a considered judgment of Middle East issues. Long-time Democratic congressman (and economist!) Clarence Long acknowledged to Paul Findley that “Long ago I decided that I’d vote for anything that AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] wants. I didn’t want them on my back….I made up my mind I would get and keep their support.” Long, of course, rationalized his submission and could not comprehend why David Obey would raise questions about the level of Israel’s aid. A colleague chided Long: “Maybe he’s thinking about our own national interest.”

The lobby’s power is manifested, first, then, in the virtually open submissiveness of a large number of legislators. The lobby can muster remarkable numbers in support of Israeli interests in general or on any specific issue: in 1989, after Secretary of State Baker at an AIPAC convention, called upon Israel to awaken from its dream of the Greater Land of Israel, “the Israeli lobby showed who rules the town by making 95 Senators and 235 congressmen sign a declaration of support of Israel” (in the words of Alon Pinkas, in the Israeli publication Davar[June 28, 1991]).

Second, the lobby’s power is shown by its ability to maintain Israel’s huge claim on the foreign aid budget, which remains at approximately $4 billion a year–untouchable and undebatable–even in a period of serious budgetary pressures and neglect of large domestic constituencies. Even Israeli commentators wonder at the phenomenon and ask whether this may not eventually backfire: speaking of the pressures on U.S. politicians in 1991 to provide a $10 billion guarantee to help absorb immigrants to Israel, Ben-Dror Yemini noted in the journal Al-Hamishmar, that “the U.S. is full of poverty-stricken and downtrodden people who don’t have an AIPAC, but still want to obtain something for themselves.” They may be legitimately angry at the ability of the lobby to obtain generous benefits for relatively affluent foreign refugees, “which they may or may not interpret in their own minds in the light of some tenets of malignant anti-Semitic nonsense.”
Third, George Bush greatly antagonized the Israeli lobby and its media spokespersons by trying to tie the $10 billion loan guarantee to Israeli restraint on further settlements in the occupied territories. The resultant reaction was, I believe, an important factor in his defeat, second only to the economic stagnation. Clinton, by contrast, promised Rabin there would be no cuts in the Israeli grants, and redefined the “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza as merely a matter of “disputed territory.” As with Clarence Long, the Clinton administration finds it the better part of valor to give the lobby whatever it wants.

A fourth manifestation of lobby power is its ability to keep a lid on public discussion and exposure of Israeli abuses (e.g., torture, aid to terrorist states, cross-border terrorism of its own in Lebanon, illegal buildup of a nuclear arsenal). This even extends to covering up the massacre of U.S. military personnel. In 1976, following careful surveillance of the plainly marked U.S. intelligence vessel the USS Liberty, the Israelis attacked the ship repeatedly, killing 34 U.S. sailors and wounding 171. The Israelis aimed to sink the ship, apparently to prevent its intelligence gathering and reporting of an Israeli invasion of the Golan heights which took place the next day. Following the attack, there were delays in coming to the stricken vessel’s aid, based on orders from Washington. Subsequent investigations involved a steady cover-up of the unquestionable fact of the deliberateness of the attack; the official and public line was “tragic error.” The captain of the ship was eventually given a congressional medal of honor, but quietly, and only after it had been established that Israeli officials would not object. Admiral Thomas Moorer claimed that the Johnson administration covered up this crime strictly “for domestic political reasons. I don’t think there is any question about it.”
The basis of the lobby’s power is political resources, intelligently and aggressively deployed, strong media and pundit representation and support, a well developed and powerful system of grassroots activism, and the absence of any seriously contesting opposition.

Affluent Jews have responded generously in support of pro-Israel lobbying groups, especially in times of perceived threats to Israel. The leading U.S. lobbying group, AIPAC, with an annual budget of some $15 million in the early 1990s, is widely thought to be the most influential lobbying body in the country. There are more than 60 pro-Israel PACs, most of them closely linked to AIPAC, whose resources (supplemented by individual contributions) has made this collective the largest dispenser of single-issue money in U.S. politics. It is deployed aggressively and with sophistication, and its threat terrifies politicians, especially Democrats. They have seen what happens to a Charles Percy or Paul Findley, among many others. According to political analyst Stephen Isaacs, the Democratic National Committee gets about half of its money from Jewish sources, and he reports one non-Jewish strategist as saying: “You can’t hope to go anywhere in national politics, if you’re a Democrat, without Jewish money.” Republicans have been less dependent on this source, but many of them (and their Christian right supporters) have been keen on Israel because of its harsh policies and support of U.S. militarism.

The lobby has benefited greatly from the sizable contingent of mass media pundits who aggressively push the Israeli foreign office and AIPAC line–George Will, William Safire, Charles Krauthammer, A. M. Rosenthal, and others. The rest of the mainstream media only rarely depart from the official U.S. line, which is basically strongly supportive of Israel, even if occasionally calling for small changes and symbolic gestures. Media adherence to the line is reinforced by the strength of the lobby’s grass roots base and its activism. AIPAC has an estimated 50-60,000 active supporters, and the Jewish communities nationally have several hundred thousand more who follow the news, write letters and make phone calls to editors and reporters, and attend meetings where Middle East issues are addressed. They constitute a tremendous and effective flak machine that greatly constrains free speech and the scope of debate in this country.

As one illustration, when one of the officers injured in the Israeli attack on the Liberty, James Ennes, published a book on the case in 1980– The Assault on the Liberty –he was under immediate and steady attack from Israeli officials, AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, and the grass roots activists, who would not tolerate a challenge to the official lie that the Liberty attack had been a mere unfortunate “error” and that there had been a major cover-up. Hecklers at his speeches called him a liar and anti-Semite, and when Ennes was announced as a guest on a talk show in San Francisco, the station got 500 protesting letters, and the show was inundated by hostile phone calls, including threats of physical harm to the author. His book became hard to get as his publisher, Random House, backed away from it.

The Lobby in Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, the grass roots activists of the lobby, including members of CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy [sic] in Middle East Affairs), the Zionist Organization of America, and others, monitor, protest, and threaten those with different viewpoints, and have greatly affected coverage of Middle East issues. At Penn, no posted signs for “hostile” speakers can stay intact for an hour, and speakers like Israel Shahak are treated to disruptions and extremely hostile questions. On local talk shows, speakers on the lobby hit list, or otherwise perceived as threatening, are subject to organized call-ins that include personal insults, invective, and bullying attempts to monopolize the discussion. All TV programs or Op Ed or news articles that depart from the lobby party line elicit a strong response.

The pressure is incessant: there is a steady stream of letters, visits to editors to complain about unfairness, and sometimes threats. An insider at the Philadelphia Inquirer told one local academic that during the Senate campaign between Arlen Specter and Lynne Yeakel–the lobby strongly favoring Specter–the leading lobby spokesperson in the Philadelphia area faxed his comments and criticisms to the paper daily. With negligible responses from local Arabs, and episodic and unorganized responses from others, it is the pro-Israel lobby that the media most fear and to which they must and do adapt.

During the Specter-Yeakel campaign, the Inquirer ‘s reporter assigned to it repeatedly pointed out that Yeakel was wealthy and was putting money into the campaign, but never mentioned that Jewish PACs were pouring money into the Specter camp, although this information was publicly available. Yeakel’s church had sponsored a Middle East program in which several of the speakers had criticized Israel. The Specter campaign took this up as showing “anti-Semitism,” calling on Yeakel to dissociate herself from the program. The Inquirer played this up as real, never mentioning that Specter himself had been one of the speakers on the program. The paper published a series of letters by lobby members denouncing the church, and with ad hominem attacks on some of the church leaders, and blatantly false statements, such as “No Jewish leader has attempted to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.”

The lobby leader who engaged in the daily faxing of criticisms had seven letters and four Op Ed columns published in the paper during 1991-92. A letter by this writer criticizing the Inquirer ‘s news coverage of the Senate campaign elicited a 5-single spaced page letter of reply from the Executive Editor, but the critical letter was not published. And replies from Yeakel’s church group, even by individuals personally attacked, were refused publication by the paper. This cave-in and one sided policy on the editorial page paralleled serious bias in the news department. It is not clear that bias would not have been present without the incessant lobby pressure, but that surely took its toll.