Open Zion

01.29.13

For ECI, Language Is Power

In an appropriately satirical post, Dan Drezner wonders whether the Emergency Committee for Israel is undermining its own goal—stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon—by expending resources trying to convince Barack Obama, Chuck Hagel, Rand Paul, and other Americans of their hawkish point of view. His tongue-in-cheek suggestion is, rather, that ECI should try to convince Jerusalem to go harder on Iran. He asks, “if groups like ECI care only about eliminating the Iranian threat as soon as possible, is this their best expenditure of resources?”

But Drezner’s take on ECI does raise an important question about its goals, which in turn matters for understanding (or combating, depending on your position) its activities. ECI “wins” when it controls the language used to describe American politics and policy. In this way its priorities and preferences are integrated into the discussion.

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ECI does want to influence American policy toward Iran and the Middle East more broadly. But legislators and foreign policy decision-makers aren’t its only audience—the organized pro-Israel Jewish community is, too. Its “victories” can be particularly big when it brings the organized Jewish community along with it. Hagel, for example, has been forced to publicly take positions that could well have been written out for him by ECI.

The U.S. Jewish community has been undergoing religious, cultural, social, and political changes. Jews aren’t disconnecting from Israel, but this fragmentation has opened up space for new advocacy groups to insert themselves into the public discourse.

Supported by individual Jewish hawks like Josh Block and Jennifer Rubin, media like the Weekly Standard, and veteran groups like the Zionist Organization of America and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the far-right ECI has taken on an overtly-partisan agenda, casting any dispute over policy as one between those who are true friends of Israel (normally conservatives and Republicans) and those who aren’t (normally liberals and Democrats).

This is in direct contrast to the longstanding policy of major and much stronger national organizations like AIPAC, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (and sometimes the American Jewish Committee). Their practice is to avoid partisan rhetoric and fights, because their mandate is to ensure broad American support for Israel, including across parties.

ECI is well-funded, but it understands it’s competing against the well-established groups mentioned above as well as new advocacy groups on the left like J Street and others. Sure, it can make things difficult for its opponents, but it can’t hope to change policy on its own. The key is understanding ECI’s definition of winning: to shape the public discourse on issues, policies, and candidates related to Israel.

Sometimes it has the field to itself. The centrist organizations normally don’t engage on presidential nominations. This makes it seem like ECI and its ilk represent what it means to be Jewish and pro-Israel. On specific policies and issues, when ECI loudly proclaims that American policy is endangering Israel, the centrist groups can’t allow themselves to be out-flanked by ECI. They are pulled in ECI’s direction.

The battle isn’t, then, about policy so much as it is about how that policy is discussed. ECI is like a paramilitary or guerilla group: it can’t win the war, at least not yet, and so it must harry its enemies and force them into positions that concede little bits of ground here and there.

ECI is playing the long-game, and it doesn’t make sense to classify its defeats and victories according to a few public advertisements or specific policies, or even by whether its preferred candidates win their campaigns. Its purpose is to change the entire discourse on Israel.

When Hagel is confirmed as Secretary of Defense, ECI won’t concede or stop to reassess its tactics; look for it to do the opposite.