It is difficult to identify all the pro-Israel PACs because they fly under the radar with innocuous sounding names such as Metro PAC, Badger PAC, Pacific PAC, etc.

By Ron Forthofer, Ph.D
Special to

In March 2006, two respected academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt from the University of Chicago and Harvard University, respectively, wrote a paper that shook up the academic and foreign policy communities. These authors broke the taboo among the elite and openly discussed the Israel lobby.

One might wonder what the big deal is about discussing yet another lobby. After all, numerous groups such as big oil, real estate, banks, pharmaceutical companies and weapons producers lobby Congress, the White House and the media to gain favorable treatment for their interests. However, a key distinction between most groups that lobby within the U.S. and the Israel lobby is that the Israel lobby works on behalf of a foreign country. One reason people have been reluctant to discuss the Israel lobby is the threat of being labeled anti-Semites (or self-hating Jews if they are Jewish). However, criticizing Israel’s policies or discussing the Israel lobby does not make a person anti-Semitic.

Power of the Lobby

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), dozens and dozens of other pro-Israel political action committees (PACs), and groups such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) that work on Israel’s behalf, are known simply as ‘the Lobby’, reflecting their clout. Senator William Fulbright, then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, conducted hearings on foreign influence-buying in Congress in the 1960s. He later said: “I hadn’t realized before the hearings that the Jewish lobby was so powerful. … I didn’t know they were subverting the Congress.” He also said: “The lobby can just about tell the President what to do when it comes to Israel. Its influence in Congress is pervasive and, I think, profoundly harmful…to us and ultimately to Israel itself.” These comments came from one of the most influential U.S. senators of the twentieth century. Senator Fulbright was known for his courage – for example, in 1954 he challenged Senator Joseph McCarthy, then at the height of his powers. Senator Fulbright also raised strong objections to President Kennedy about the impending Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion. In 1966, Fulbright published “The Arrogance of Power” in which he attacked the justification for the Vietnam War and Congress’ failure to set limits on it. In 1974, Senator Fulbright lost in the Democratic primary to a candidate that received lots of support from the Lobby. Although that support certainly played a role in Fulbright’s defeat, it is hard to say whether or not it was the decisive factor.

The Lobby indeed has tremendous influence on U.S. Middle East policy. For example, during the two-year 1988 election cycle, pro-Israel PACs spent over $5.4 million on Congressional campaigns and Israel received well over $6 billion in direct taxpayer grants, a return of roughly $1000 for every dollar spent lobbying Congress. (“Stealth PACs: Lobbying Congress for Control of U.S. Middle East Policy” by Richard H. Curtiss, 1996).

It is difficult to identify all the pro-Israel PACs because they fly under the radar with innocuous sounding names such as Metro PAC, Badger PAC, Pacific PAC, etc. that don’t say anything about Israel or the Middle East. By using many dozens of PACs, the Lobby defeats the purpose of campaign finance laws and is thus able to invest large amounts of money in a favorite candidate or in someone serving on an important congressional committee. Money can also be used in campaigns to defeat politicians who are not sufficiently subservient to Israeli interests. The Lobby takes credit for defeating a number of well-respected politicians such as Senator Charles Percy and Representative Pete McCloskey, people who thought that they were in Congress to represent U.S. interests, not those of Israel. Because of its record, few in Congress are willing to stand up to the Lobby. This situation is reflected in the appalling vote on House Resolution 921 in which only eight members of the House of Representatives voted against the one-sided resolution that included support for the Israeli attack on Lebanon last year.

Although the Lobby has helped to sway the outcome of some crucial elections, it is important not to overestimate its power. The Lobby has also supported numerous candidates who have been defeated in elections although these defeats are little noted. Typically the Lobby heavily invests in only a small number of races every few years. Given this limited number of races, the Lobby can pour a large amount of resources into these elections and have its desired impact. If the Lobby were constantly heavily involved in a large number of races, people would begin to realize that the Lobby is not all powerful.

Media Intimidation

The media is also a target of the Lobby. Two media attack dogs are the misnamed Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) and Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME). They sprung up after Israel’s brutal assault and invasion of Lebanon in 1982 that did major damage to Israel’s already tarnished image. These groups have been very successful in intimidating the media, for example, NPR, PBS and CNN, and their coverage of the issues. For more information, see the article in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs from the July/August 1993 issue. Newspapers also have not been exempt from these organized intimidation campaigns and their biased coverage of the Middle East is partially a reflection of the success of these campaigns.

Intimidation of Activists

The ADL is an organization that defends civil rights, and it has a long and proud record of important work. However, on the Israeli/Palestinian issue, the ADL has a dark side that is little known. For example, the ADL was implicated in a vast spying operation against U.S. citizens opposed to Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza and to apartheid in South Africa. Some of the information was shared with the Israeli and South African governments. The ADL finally agreed to pay a significant amount to settle the resultant lawsuit against it.

Another example of the ADL attempting to intimidate human rights activists occurred last August. The ADL attacked Amnesty International for its report on the Israel-Hezbollah war. The ADL called the report “bigoted, biased and borderline anti-Semitic.” The misuse of the anti-Semitism claim by ADL and other groups devalues the term and makes it more difficult for people to recognize real anti-Semitism when it occurs.

Limited Coverage of the Lobby

There has been little coverage of the Lobby in the mainstream media and, as a result, most people in the U.S. don’t know of its existence. There was a “Sixty Minutes” segment on AIPAC back in October 1988. During that segment, former Under Secretary of State George Ball said: “Practically every congressman and senator says his prayers to the AIPAC lobby. They’ve done an enormous job of corrupting the American democratic process.” However, since then, the Lobby has generally flown under the radar until the latest Israeli spy scandal involving two AIPAC employees and a Pentagon official, Larry Franklin. Franklin was charged with passing secrets to Israel through AIPAC employees and directly to an Israeli official. Franklin was since sentenced to almost 13 years in prison. Franklin admitted he knew he was passing along information that could be used to the detriment of U.S. national security interests. The two AIPAC employees, since fired, have seen their trial date moved back until perhaps next January.

Mearsheimer and Walt’s (M-W) Paper

Then in March 2006, the M-W paper was published. The paper titled “The Israel Lobby” was originally commissioned by the Atlantic Monthly, but was subsequently rejected. In an interview with the Jewish newspaper Forward, Mearsheimer said: “I do not believe that we could have gotten it published in the United States.” Mearsheimer opined that people involved in scholarship, media, and politics know that “the whole subject of the Israel lobby and American foreign policy is a third-rail issue.” Also, “publishers understand that if they publish a piece like ours it would cause them all sorts of problems.” The London Review of Books published an abbreviated version of the 82-page article. The appearance of this article represented a major breakthrough – two respected establishment figures were willing to risk their reputations and positions to break the taboo about discussing the issue.

The gist of their article is briefly captured by their following paragraph: “the overall thrust of U.S. policy in the region is due almost entirely to U.S. domestic politics, and especially to the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby.’ Other special interest groups have managed to skew U.S. foreign policy in directions they favored, but no lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially identical.”

Critics of the Paper

Unfortunately, there has been little acknowledgement of this article by the mainstream media. This lack of coverage further reinforces the idea of the ability of the Lobby to squelch dissenting opinion. Despite the failure of the mainstream media to cover the article, the M-W paper generated a cottage industry of folks writing critiques of the paper. Writers ranged from those who support Israel right or wrong to some of the leading lights in the progressive community. These efforts were then followed by others writing critiques of the critiques. The critiques from the Israeli right-or-wrong camp did not present cogent arguments. However, the progressive authors critiquing the paper were much more thoughtful. Unfortunately, many of the authors, including M-W, took an either-or position about whether or not Israel or the U.S. is steering the ship.

Of all the material written about the M-W paper and the Lobby, perhaps Norman Finkelstein said it best: “In the current fractious debate over the role of the Israel Lobby in the formulation and execution of US policies in the Middle East, the “either-or” framework — giving primacy to either the Israel Lobby or to U.S. strategic interests – isn’t, in my opinion, very useful.”

Finkelstein concluded his piece with: “Unlike elsewhere in the Middle East, U.S. elite policy in the Israel-Palestine conflict would almost certainly not be the same without the Lobby. What does the U.S.A. gain from the Israeli settlements and occupation? In terms of alienating the Arab world, it’s had something to lose. The Lobby probably can’t muster sufficient power to jeopardize a fundamental American interest, but it can significantly raise the threshold before U.S. elites are prepared to act, i.e., order Israel out of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as the U.S. finally pressured the Indonesians out of Occupied East Timor. Whereas Israel doesn’t have many options if the U.S. does finally give the order to pack up, the U.S. won’t do so until and unless the Israeli occupation becomes a major liability for it: on account of the Lobby the point at which “until and unless” is reached significantly differs. Without the Lobby and in the face of widespread Arab resentment, the U.S. would perhaps have ordered Israel to end the occupation by now, sparing Palestinians much suffering;

“In the current “either-or” debate on whether the Lobby affects U.S. Middle East policy at the elite level, it’s been lost on many of the interlocutors that a crucial dimension of this debate should be the extent to which the Lobby stifles free and open public discussion on the subject. For in terms of trying to broaden public discussion here on the Israel-Palestine conflict the Lobby makes a huge and baneful difference. Especially since U.S. elites have no entrenched interest in the Israeli occupation, the mobilization of public opinion can have a real impact on policy-making which is why the Lobby invests so much energy in suppressing discussion.”

I agree with these comments from Finkelstein. Focusing on the power of the Lobby distracts attention from the results of Israeli and U.S. policies. These policies deny human rights to Palestinians and other Arabs, have caused incredible hardships and devastation on these peoples, and have also increased hatred towards Israelis. These policies work against Israel’s long-term best interests, and U.S. support for these policies has further harmed U.S. interests.

The Attack on Iraq

Finkelstein didn’t directly address the U.S. attack on and occupation of Iraq in his article. Did the U.S. attack on account of Israeli and Lobby pressure or were other factors the determining considerations? It is almost impossible for someone outside the group making the decision to say with certainty why the U.S. attacked Iraq. We do know that it had been planned from the early days of the Bush administration. The neo-cons, strong supporters of Israel, within and outside the Bush administration and the Lobby were out front in pushing for the attack. But there were definitely other factors including oil and logistics. Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst with 27 years of experience, coined the term OIL as the reason for the attack. O stands for oil – the U.S. wanted control of Iraqi oil to use as a lever with Japan and Western Europe among other countries; U.S. oil companies would also be delighted to have access to the Iraqi oil, something that they would not have had if Saddam remained in power; I stands for Israel – Israel wanted to see Saddam Hussein and Iraq eliminated as a possible threat to Israeli interests; and L stands for logistics – the U.S. wanted bases for its troops in the Middle East, the area with the largest supply of easily extracted oil. Is McGovern right? I don’t know. Would the U.S. have attacked Iraq without pressure from the Lobby? Again I don’t know.

Recent Events

The situation has changed in the last 10 to 15 years with Christian Zionists adding their own powerful lobby and reinforcing the Lobby in advocating for Israeli government policies. Moreover, the appointments of numerous presidential advisors who are strong supporters of Israeli occupation and expansion make it more difficult in identifying and analyzing the real differences between U.S. and Israeli strategic interests. These changes do not bode well for achieving a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

A much more positive change is the appearance of progressive Jewish groups all around the country that are calling for a just settlement of the Israeli/Palestinian issue. One of the leading groups is the Jewish Voice for Peace and the Colorado Jews for a Just Peace is a local example of this phenomenon. These groups are trying to make it clear that the Lobby does not speak for all Jews.

-Ron Forthofer ran for Colorado 2nd Congressional District in the Nov 2000 election.

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