Osama vs. D.C. Lobbyists?

In a new audiotape that surfaced on Monday, Osama bin Laden proves not just that he’s still alive—but that he’s paying attention. Reza Aslan on Osama’s surprisingly savvy take on DC’s “pressure groups.”

09.14.09 6:29 PM ET

Osama bin Laden’s latest audio message is not only a reminder to the world that he is very much alive. It is a sign of just how tuned in the most wanted man on the planet is to the shifting winds of America’s political dialogue.

The audiotape, which surfaced on a jihadist Web site Monday, is, by all accounts, authentic and up to date. In it, bin Laden refers (derisively) to President Obama’s historic “speech to the Muslim world” at Cairo University in June. He also alludes (obliquely) to the president’s plans for a troop surge in Afghanistan.

“The White House is occupied by pressure groups,” bin Laden says. “The time has come for you to liberate yourselves from fear and the ideological terrorism of neo-conservatives and the Israeli lobby.”

But the core of bin Laden’s message is a warning to Americans to take note, not of an impending attack by some outside force, but of what bin Laden seems to suggest is a grave threat posed by an “enemy within”: the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

“The White House is occupied by pressure groups,” bin Laden says. “The time has come for you to liberate yourselves from fear and the ideological terrorism of neo-conservatives and the Israeli lobby.”

Bin Laden, of course, is referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Council, an umbrella group for a number of prominent pro-Israel organizations, which, as every politically conscious American knows, has long been the most powerful lobbying organization in Washington, D.C. (with the possible exception of the National Rifle Association). AIPAC regularly doles out tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions to both Republicans and Democrats to ensure that its agenda is part of every discussion of foreign policy that takes place in Congress or the White House. The organization’s annual three-day conference draws hundreds of politicians from both the right and left of the political spectrum—including presidents and vice presidents—each of whom patiently takes a turn at the podium to reaffirm his or her allegiance to the sacred covenant that has formed over the decades between the United States and Israel.

None of this is meant as criticism of AIPAC. Despite the cries of some liberal and anti-Israel groups in the U.S. and abroad, AIPAC’s role in Washington is not a matter of intrigue or conspiracy. On the contrary, AIPAC should be praised, not condemned, for recognizing how the U.S. government functions and playing the system to its own advantage with both skill and ruthlessness. Put simply, AIPAC deserves the enormous influence it has over American politics.

Yet as Robert Dreyfus outlines in a brilliant article in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine, some of that political clout now appears to be deteriorating as public scrutiny of AIPAC and its activities on behalf of an increasingly hard-line Israeli government has risen, even among the staunchest of Israel supporters.

There are many reasons for AIPAC’s declining influence in Washington, not least of which is the spate of recent controversies surrounding the organization, including a much-publicized trial of two former AIPAC officials accused of spying for Israel, as well as a scandal involving Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), who was caught on tape promising to help reduce charges for another suspected Israeli spy. Moreover, AIPAC’s public image has been irrevocably tainted by the decision to align itself so fully with America’s right-wing Evangelical movement, a group that has fallen out of favor among American voters since reaching a zenith of political influence under the Bush administration. A great many of these evangelical groups (especially the “Christian Zionists,” who believe that the politics of the Middle East are being orchestrated by God in order to usher in the second coming of Christ) have been actively engaged in working against Middle East peace, which, according to Evangelical writer Mike Evans, is in reality “an international plot to steal Jerusalem from the Jews … [controlled by] a master collaborator [Satan] who is directing the play.”

However, the most obvious reason for the decline in AIPAC’s fortunes may be the election of Barack Obama, the first president in recent memory who seems, at least on the surface, to not be beholden to the interests of the pro-Israel lobby.

First let’s get one thing straight: Obama is a staunch supporter of Israel. His administration has in no way diminished the “special relationship” that Israel enjoys with the United States. Despite being the first American president to have ever used the word “occupation” when speaking of the deplorable situation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, America under Barack Obama is as pro-Israel as it has ever been.

Nevertheless, it is a fact that Obama’s foreign-policy agenda, particularly when it comes to the Israeli/Palestinian peace process and U.S. relations with Iran, openly conflicts with AIPAC’s more hard-line policies. Obama has repeatedly clashed with the current Israeli government on the issue of freezing all settlement activity, including what Israel euphemistically calls “natural growth”—a term the Israeli government uses to justify an increase of settlements in the Occupied Territories of nearly 40 percent over the last six years. (Just last week, the government approved the construction of more than 450 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, a direct violation of the so-called Road Map to Peace.)

Yet polls in the U.S. have consistently shown that the outlook of the new president is merely a reflection of the change in Americans’ attitudes toward both Israel and the Middle East conflict. A recent survey conducted by  found that nearly 75 percent of Americans believe that Israel should halt its settlement activities in the Occupied Territories, an increase of 23 percentage points since 2002. More than half of all Americans now express equal levels of sympathy for both the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the conflict, a rise of 10 percentage points from 2002 (among those under the age of 45—arguably the bulk of Obama’s political supporters—that number is even higher).

These polls may explain why Obama remains enormously popular even among American Jews, who voted overwhelming for his presidency and who remain one of his most loyal blocs of support. The truth is that the vast majority of America’s Jewish population consists of liberal or moderate Democrats who have long chafed at the premise that AIPAC represents their view on Israel. Indeed, a 2008 survey of Jewish public opinion found that 60 percent of American Jews opposed the construction of further Israeli settlements.

Riding this wave of Jewish support for a more progressive and even-handed approach to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a new lobbying organization called J Street, founded by Jeremy Ben-Ami in 2008. The purpose of J Street, as Ben-Ami explained to James Traub in a recent profile of the group in New York Times Magazine, is to “redefine what it means to be pro-Israel. You don’t have to be noncritical. You don’t have to adopt the party line. It’s not, ‘Israel, right or wrong.’ ”

According to Traub, there seems to be increasing support for J Street’s approach. In just one year, the organization’s budget has doubled to $3 million. While J Street’s budget is, frankly, a joke when compared to AIPAC’s estimated budget of $40 million to $60 million, it is not a bad start for an organization that is less than a year old.

The point is that the gradual rise of organizations like J Street, and the slow decline in political influence of groups like AIPAC, have reinvigorated the debate in the United States over America’s relationship with Israel. It is this emerging debate that Osama bin Laden has trounced upon with his new audio message.

To be sure, bin Laden does not really care about Palestinian self-determination. He certainly does not support the creation of a Palestinian state; as a fervent transnationalist, bin Laden does not abide the existence of any nation-state—Muslim or not. No member of al Qaeda has ever traveled to Palestine to fight alongside Hamas (they would not be welcomed if they did). As I outline in my new book How to Win a Cosmic War, for bin Laden, the problem of Palestine is not an issue to be addressed or a problem to be solved but an abstract symbol to rally around. So when bin Laden claims that “the reason for our dispute with you is your support for your ally Israel, occupying our land in Palestine,” he is merely pandering to the public opinions cited above, just as he perfectly gauged American sentiment when he raged against the United States’ campaign-finance laws, which, he argues, “favor the rich and wealthy, who hold sway in their political parties, and fund their election campaigns with their gifts,” or when he deplored America’s role in global warming (“You have destroyed nature with your industrial waste and gases, more than any other country. Despite this, you refuse to sign the Kyoto agreement so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and industries”), or even when he protested the election dispute during the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential elections between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

These are not real grievances for bin Laden. (It does not bear mentioning that bin Laden is probably not concerned with campaign-finance reform in the United States.) They are, rather, a means of weaving American resentments into as wide a net as possible. Thus, when bin Laden quips that “rather than fighting to liberate Iraq,” Americans should have “liberated the White House,” he is tapping into an increasingly prevalent sentiment among the public that the pro-Israel lobby in Washington may have far too much political influence in driving American foreign policy.

Of course, as was the case with his previous attempts to curry favor with American public opinion, bin Laden’s “advice” to Americans will be ignored. More likely, it will be used by AIPAC and its pro-Israel allies to argue more forcefully for their continued relevance in defining global affairs (and to raise more money from donors).

But I for one am glad for the reminder to keep debating the issue of U.S.–Israel relations, even if it is coming from someone as utterly loathsome as Osama bin Laden. Now if he can only get booked on Hardball.

Reza Aslan, a contributor to The Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War.