Myths

09.19.12

Even Real Lobbies Fail Sometimes

Why does writing about the Israel lobby make people stupid? By people, I mean both anti-Semites obsessed with Jewish control of the government and smart foreign policy commentators like David Rothkopf, who believes that because pro-Israel Jews don't control the United States government, the Israel lobby is a myth.

Yesterday in Foreign Policy, Rothkopf started with the accurate observation that Benjamin Netanyahu's recent efforts to force the Obama administration into a more specific commitment to military action against Iran have failed. As Rothkopf notes, they've failed because few voters—Jewish or non-Jewish—will vote against Obama because he's too slow in bombing Tehran. And they've failed because the Obama administration rightly wants to keep its Iran options as open as possible, something that setting deadlines for military action would undermine.

But from this, Rothkopf deduces that "the notion of some dark Jewish conspiracy of super-K Streeters" is "laughable. Jews are just as divided, just as sometimes impotent and sometimes successful as anyone else."

Whoa there. First, the Israel lobby doesn't have to be a "dark Jewish conspiracy" to wield power over American foreign policy. The Israel lobby, in fact, is neither exclusively Jewish nor particularly dark. It consists of a group of organizations that, as I recently detailed in an article about the Democrats' platform fight, sometimes disagree on policy and tactics—but generally agree that the U.S. should not pressure the Israeli government to change its behavior. (It's commonplace to use the term "lobby" to describe organizations that share some overriding perspective even though they disagree on certain specifics. For instance: "pharmaceutical lobby," "gun lobby," "Cuba lobby," etc). One of the most powerful organizations in the Israel lobby, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), is, as the name suggests, not Jewish at all. CUFI, like AIPAC, wields substantial influence in Congress not because it does anything particularly dark or clandestine, but because it represents a significant number of politically motivated Americans, some of whom have the capacity to help members of Congress in their endless quest to raise money.

If Rothkopf is wrong to suggest that discussing the Israel lobby requires imagining shadowy figures hatching conspiracy theories, he's also wrong to say that "Jews are just as divided, just as sometimes impotent and sometimes successful as anyone else." Actually, when it comes to electoral politics, Jews are less divided than, say, white Christians. White Christians are split close to fifty-fifty in American presidential elections; Jews usually vote roughly 75 percent for the Democrats. Yes, of course, Jews are divided in their views about Israel, but when it comes to Jewish lobbying organizations in Washington, that divide is not equal. The organizations, like AIPAC, which generally support Israeli government policy, are significantly stronger than those, like J Street, which more often oppose it.

Finally, it's simply not true that when it comes to influencing Israel policy, American Jews as just as "sometimes impotent and sometimes successful as anyone else." The Israel lobby is broader than just Jews, but even if you isolate the Jewish-dominated organizations within it, like AIPAC, it's clear that Jews are far more successful in influencing American policy towards Israel than, say, Palestinian or Arab Americans. Again, there's nothing particularly nefarious or surprising about this. Jews are an affluent, politically engaged group that has been in the United States in large numbers for roughly a hundred years. Arab Americans, like other more recent immigrant groups, have not (yet) built the cultural comfort and institutional capacity that would allow them to influence Washington in the same way. As one prominent Palestinian-American once told me, "You wield political influence in America once you've been here long enough to produce lawyers. We haven't reached our lawyer stage yet."

So, yes, Bibi failed to push Obama closer to war with Iran. That's no surprise. Despite the claims of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, the Israel lobby was marginal to America's war with Iraq too, because wars aren't particularly conducive to outside lobbying (Halliburton didn't get us into Iraq either). The stakes are simply too high for a president to back down from what he believes is right because even the strongest lobby is pushing in a certain direction. But on other issues—for instance, U.S. policy on settlement growth—where the stakes for America, and the president, are lower, the Israel lobby does indeed wield substantial power. In the course of reporting "The Crisis of Zionism," I had that power attested to me by dozens of people who work, or used to work, in the Obama administration, Congress and Israel policy organizations themselves. Those people—most of whom are also Jewish—weren't hallucinating, no matter how ineffective Bibi's pressure campaign proved last week.