The nature of the pro-Israel lobby’s influence on the American political system has been raised again this year by senatorial confirmation hearings, policy conferences, sequestration, and White House initiatives. This influence is typically attributed to campaign contributions, but this view is unsophisticated. The power of the pro-Israel lobby is, in fact, defined by the dominance of various pro-Israel narratives in American culture.
The standard line that pro-Israel sentiment is defined by dollar signs is easily refuted. The two largest pro-Israel contributors—the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and J-Street—together approximated $3.25 million in lobbying in 2012. While this sounds substantial, it’s a meager .09 percent of the total $3.28 billion spent on overall political lobbying that year.
America’s most tangible contribution to Israel is the annual $3 billion dollars in military aid that Israel subsequently spends, largely in the American defense sector. The biggest vested interests in these expenditures are well-known, and their lobbying contributions many times over exceed that of pro-Israel organizations. Boeing and Lockheed Martin spent $15 million each on lobbying in 2012.
Israel receives more aid per capita than any other country, but this cannot be accounted for by the relatively small amount of money its advocates inject into the American political system. The power of the various pro-Israel narratives in the American political discourse is a far more compelling explanation.
The “pro-Israel lobby” isn’t a monolith; various groups have very different views and interact with widely divergent constituencies.
Beginning with the extreme right wing of the Jewish political spectrum, the president of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Morton Klein, categorically opposes a two-state solution and maintains that Israel is not occupying any territory. Klein implicitly questions the existence of Palestinians by insisting on reducing their identity to Arabs only and suggesting they relocate to “Arab States.” Because of their extreme views, the ZOA’s influence is very limited with respect to the White House and the Senate; however they do have friends in the House of Representatives.
Another narrative propelling right-wing American support for Israel is promoted by some evangelical Christian groups. Commonly referred to as “Christian Zionism,” this perspective emphasizes a prophetic role attributed to Israel. This might seem friendly on the surface, but it derives from evangelical eschatology best demonstrated by the wildly popular Left Behind novels. As the Anti-Defamation League notes, this narrative entails “the annihilation of Jews…who refuse to convert at Armageddon.” Evangelicals use Israel to promote their yearning for Armageddon rather than for a safe and prosperous Jewish state. Many Israelis and Jewish-American groups prefer to overlook these problematic beliefs as these Evangelicals have huge constituencies in the American electorate.
Mainstream Jewish proponents of Israel such as AIPAC tend to stress alliance and solidarity with the United States. First, these groups argue that Israel is the only democracy in an autocratic Middle East, despite Israel’s decades-long military occupation and the regional developments of the Arab Spring. Second, they argue Israel has shared values with the United States in terms of women’s rights, gay rights, and minority rights, without acknowledging discrimination against Palestinians. While they admit Israel must make concessions to achieve peace, they argue that Israel has already made many concessions and Palestinian intransigence is the main obstacle to peace. Moreover these groups are typically uncritical of Israeli policies, and generally support Israel’s leadership.
Further to the left are the self-defined “pro-Israel, pro-peace” groups like Americans for Peace Now and J-Street. These groups argue on Israel’s behalf, but assert that given the history and current state of the conflict, being pro-Israel also inherently means being pro-Palestinian and supporting the creation of a Palestinian state. While these groups have certainly experienced growth in recent years, their efforts to transform American conceptions of the conflict remain a work in progress.
Most importantly, there are deeply ingrained aspects of mainstream American culture into which pro-Israel narratives can, and do, tap. Consider AIPAC's presentation of Israel’s "Quest for Statehood": A religious minority facing European persecution believing “that they would only escape discrimination… in a state of their own” resolves to take up an arduous journey to a faraway, allegedly “sparsely populated” land. For many Americans this account of Israel’s national mythology is deeply reminiscent of their own. There is an unmistakable kinship between the Israeli and American national narratives that combine pioneer spirit with spiritual redemption of sanctified land.
From its outset, the American national consciousness drew extensively on Biblical analogies for legitimation. Americans conceptualized Manifest Destiny with images of rugged adventurers claiming a divine heritage from one ocean to the other. African-Americans relied on Biblical imagery and analogies in their own quest for emancipation and then for civil rights. Israel and its supporters are keenly aware of this cultural legacy and seldom miss an opportunity to reinforce the deeply rooted parallels in the mythologies informing the American and Israeli national projects.
However there is no shortage of legitimate narratives to be found in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. A more informed and constructive American national conversation about the Middle East will remain impossible so long as only one set of narratives is available.