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Taking aim at Goliath
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Joseph Lieberman addresses the audience at "A Night to Honor Israel", the capstone event of the Third Annual Washington-Israel Summit. Courtesy 5W Public Relations
A new ‘pro-peace’ group hopes to break the monopoly within Washington’s powerful Israel lobby. But do they stand a chance? Justin Vogt reports.
One evening late last month, in a cavernous banquet hall in downtown Washington’s convention centre, the words of the prophet Isaiah graced every available surface. Printed on leaflets, emblazoned on banners, projected onto the walls: “For Zion’s sake I will not remain silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet.”
From the prodigious cheering, whooping, and Lord-praising that filled the air, it was plain to see that a customarily literal understanding of those lines had taken hold of the five thousand evangelical Christians who had travelled to attend “A Night to Honor Israel”, the capstone gala of the Third Annual Washington-Israel Summit.
The summit is the work of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), an organisation founded in 2006 and led by Pastor John Hagee of San Antonio, Texas. CUFI’s mission is to ensure that Congress and the executive branch reject any peace agreement that involves Israeli territorial concessions. According to Hagee, a Biblical literalist, “any nation that divides the land of Israel will come under the severe judgment of God.” In Hagee’s view, “God has promised to bless the man or nation that blesses the Chosen People,” and Hagee has blessed the chosen people with millions of dollars in donations to aliyah organisations that encourage and assist Jewish immigration to Israel.
Though its supporters may be more Bible Belt than Beltway, CUFI’s zealous advocacy of Israel’s cause is hardly unique in Washington. CUFI has become just one more participant in a loose coalition of pro-Israel organisations that together constitute one of the most influential actors in American foreign policy. For decades, these organisations have pushed for nearly unconditional support for the Jewish state, an embrace that critics deride as “Israel, right or wrong”. This has generally translated into an effort to dissuade the US from applying pressure on Israel to make concessions on the three most nettlesome aspects of its conflict with the Palestinians: the occupation and settlement of the Palestinian Territories, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared at the AIPAC policy conference on the same day as Obama: "I feel like this is a giant family reunion." AP
In the past this approach has gone virtually unchallenged. But a new group called J Street has defined itself as a “pro-Israel” lobby operation that will nevertheless push against the tide of the establishment and agitate for the concessions required to conclude a peace agreement. But can a tiny group – with a budget 25 times smaller than that of its largest rival – hope to shift the terms of America’s “special relationship” with Israel?
In Washington DC’s alphabetic street-grid, there is a curious absence between I St and K St (famous as the address of DC’s powerful lobbying firms). There is no J St – just as, the new group’s founders say, there is no “political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement”.
The groups that form the pro-Israel establishment – led, in chief, by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations – do not explicitly oppose a negotiated solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Officially, they support the “peace process”, but their engagement with it has been tepid at best, focused mostly on limiting any agreement’s impact on Israel’s power and territory. Their obstructionism has sometimes even put the group at odds with the government of Israel; prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in a private meeting in 1992, delivered a stern rebuke to AIPAC’s leadership, reportedly saying “You have failed at everything. You waged lost battles. You caused damage to Israel. You created too much antagonism.”
By and large, American policy on Israel has conformed to the wishes of AIPAC and its allies. But the degree to which this is actually the result of their influence has always been a contentious issue, and never more so than in the aftermath of the 2006 publication of a controversial essay by political scientists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. They argued that America’s unwavering support for the Jewish state can not be explained by any strategic advantage provided by the alliance, nor by any moral imperative to support Israel (whose misdeeds they conscientiously tallied), but rather stems from the enormous political power of the pro-Israel lobby.
Unsurprisingly, the essay – later expanded into a book – was met by unremitting hostility from the organisations that were its primary subject. (The Anti-Defamation League called it “a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control.”) And even commentators sympathetic to Walt and Mearsheimer’s work found much to criticise, especially its lack of empirical research and its blurring of an objective analysis of the lobby’s power with a subjective argument about American policy towards Israel.
Whatever its merits and flaws, Walt and Mearsheimer’s argument ignited a debate about pro-Israel lobbying during an already challenging period for AIPAC. The group is widely regarded to be one of the most powerful lobbying organisations in Washington, claiming a membership of 100,000 in addition to a budget that most estimates place at upwards of $40 million (Dh147m). It has always cast itself as bipartisan, but beginning in the mid-1990s, a core group of conservative on the group’s ruling body – known as the “Gang of Four” – began to push AIPAC closer to the Likud party in Israel and its hawkish allies in Washington, including Christian Zionists like Pastor Hagee.
AIPAC was well positioned in the aftermath of the second intifada and the attacks of September 11, 2001. With the launch of the “war on terror”, American policy in the Middle East adopted an evermore confrontational and aggressive posture, in sync with the Likud line that AIPAC had increasingly come to embrace.
But a series of developments soon put the group in a more precarious position. In August 2005, Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, two senior AIPAC officials, were indicted on charges of violating the Espionage Act by conspiring to receive classified information from a Pentagon employee. Put on the defensive, AIPAC co-operated with the investigation and fired both men. (The case has not yet gone to trial, and both men have pled not guilty.) The resulting attention was not helpful; after all, as Rosen himself once told The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg, “A lobby is like a night flower: it thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.”
In 2006, Democrats won control of Congress, weakening the position of the hardline conservatives with whom the group had become increasingly allied. And the continuing fallout from the Iraq fiasco led many Jewish Americans – a community that is distinctly liberal on most issues – to question the wisdom of backing Bush’s approach to the region. “When you’re pushing for America to be more aggressive in the Middle East, more aggressive against Arab and Islamic enemies, it’s just not as popular anymore,” said JJ Goldberg, editorial director of the Jewish newspaper The Forward and author of Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment. “When Bush spoke to AIPAC in 2004, there was a lot of press coverage of the standing ovation he got,” recalled Goldberg, who was in attendance that night. “But of the 6,000 people in the audience, half were sitting with their arms crossed.”
Most Americans probably imagine that despite whatever differences of opinion their Jewish neighbours might have on domestic politics, the issue of Israel surely unites them. This is a perception that AIPAC has gone to great lengths to foster. Constructing an image of a unified bloc of American Jews who favour uncritical support for Israel – who can in turn be represented by a single organisation – has been one of AIPAC’s greatest accomplishments, and one of its most effective tools; its brand, so to speak. Indeed, in the American media, the imprimatur of AIPAC – for a candidate or policy – is widely taken to equal widespread approval by all Jewish voters.
“AIPAC represents the organised Jewish community,” argued Robert Asher, a former AIPAC president and a member of the “Gang of Four”. “And we are the only organisation that is recognised that way.”
Whatever its other ambitions, J Street’s principal task may be to disprove this notion – by demonstrating what Jeremy Ben-Ami, a policy adviser during the Clinton administration who serves as the group’s executive director, calls “the multiplicity of views” on Israel that actually exist within the Jewish community.
To that end, J Street recently released the results of a poll of American Jewish attitudes on Israel, which indicated that more than 80 per cent of American Jews support an active US role in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, even if it requires public disagreement with – and pressure on – Israel. The poll also found that only 38 per cent of American Jews have a favourable view of AIPAC; tellingly, 35 per cent could not even identify the group.
The poll also detected widespread negative views of Christian Zionists like Pastor Hagee. That explains why J Street chose as one of its inaugural actions a concerted effort to drive a wedge between Hagee and his Jewish American supporters. As one member of J Street’s advisory council told Salon, Hagee would be “a very useful stick to beat the bastards with.”
Hagee’s critics in the Jewish community have been quick to point out that Hagee’s love for Israel is complicated by his belief in a divine final judgment that most Jews would find less than appealing. Hagee did himself no favours by writing that Israelis “have everything but spiritual life” and that Israel found itself confronted with enemies because God “dragged these anti-Semitic nations to the nations of Israel to crush them so that the Jews of Israel as a whole will confess that He is the Lord.”
But AIPAC was quick to embrace Hagee – and the tens of thousands of evangelicals he represents – as an ally. In 2007, he was invited to deliver a keynote address at AIPAC’s annual policy conference. “Ladies and gentlemen of AIPAC, it’s a new day in America,” Hagee proclaimed. “The sleeping giant of Christian Zionism has awakened.”
Hagee’s Cornerstone megachurch in San Antonio is home to 19,000 worshippers, and his sermons are delivered via satellite television to tens of millions of homes all over the world. His success as an evangelist is built upon the marriage of Texas moral values and Broadway production values, and he brings the same approach to his particular brand of Zionist political activism.
At this year’s CUFI gala, beneath a stage framed by massive American and Israeli flags, the country-music star Randy Travis belted out The Star-Spangled Banner. Cornerstone’s choir performed a Dixiefied version of Hava Nagila, the celebratory Hebrew folk-song (“Chicken in the barn, pickin’ up grain/ It don’t matter if it’s sunny or rain / Next year in Jerusalem! / Ve nis’mecha!”) And a jumbo-sized cinema screen bombarded the audience with an infomercial touting the work of the evening’s proud corporate sponsor, Zion Oil & Gas, a company founded by a Hagee supporter who believes that the Bible contains clues that point the way to plentiful deposits of oil in Israel. (“The geology has confirmed the theology,” explained one executive.)
CUFI’s members had spent two days attending seminars and round-table discussions on such topics as “How To Stop Funding The Enemy: Divestment, Sanctions And Boycotts” and “Radical Islam: In Their Own Words”. The following day, they would flood offices on Capitol Hill, pressing members of Congress to vote in a “pro-Israel” direction. At the gala, a parade of speakers – clergymen, politicians, diplomats – sought to stiffen their resolve and frequently brought the crowd to its feet, waving thousands of the miniature American and Israeli flags that had been placed on each table.
“At this very moment,” declared the conservative activist and CUFI board member Gary Bauer, “somewhere in the bowels of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ahmadinejad has aimed his satellite dish towards Washington DC, in the event that he might want to watch the great Zionist-Christian conspirary in action. So will you grab your Israeli and American flags let him know his days are numbered!” Beaming broadly at the sea of stars (of David) and stripes surging below him, Bauer indulged in a bit of wishful thinking: “I suspect just about now he’s changing his underwear!”
But beneath the chest thumping and rallying cries, there was a palpable sense of anxiety. A series of embarrassing revelations had threatened Hagee’s position in the pantheon of evangelical power brokers. In mid-May, an audio recording emerged in which Hagee described Adolf Hitler as a “hunter” sent by God and suggested the Nazi Holocaust had been God’s method for returning the Jews to the Holy Land.
John McCain, who had received Hagee’s endorsement after spending months practically begging for it, promptly jettisoned him. Worse still, some of Hagee’s Jewish allies expressed dismay at his ramblings. But Hagee was hoping he could still count on at least one prominent Jewish ally. Senator Joseph Lieberman – who, by 2006, had been essentially disowned by the Democratic Party after his energetic embrace of President Bush – spoke to CUFI in 2007, showering the pastor and his followers with praise, even comparing Hagee to Moses.
Lieberman was scheduled to deliver the keynote address at this year’s gala. But pressure mounted on the Jewish senator to follow his friend McCain and repudiate Hagee. J Street joined with a team of progressive activists to launch an online petition drive. The campaign – dubbed “Don’t Go, Joe!” – sought to shame Lieberman into cancelling his CUFI address.
J Street claimed that more than 40,000 Americans had signed the petition. In a bit of old-school agitprop, the group hand-delivered dozens of boxes filled with signed petitions to the Senator’s Capitol Hill office – making sure to bring along a cameraman.
Ethnic politics in America – whether among Jews, Cubans, or Greeks – have always tended toward maximalist positions; the voices of moderates within any community are easily drowned out by the cries of a passionate few. AIPAC has not been shy about impugning the motives of its critics – and the flag of betrayal is quickly raised against those who counsel moderation.
This spectre of ethnic disloyalty has an unusually personal resonance for Jeremy Ben-Ami. Though he was born and raised in the US, Ben-Ami’s grandparents were part of the group of Jewish settlers who founded Tel Aviv in 1909. According to family lore, Ben-Ami’s father, Yitshaq, was the first boy born in the city.
Yitshaq grew up to become a high-level operative in the Irgun, the Jewish militant group formed in 1931, which advocated the use of force to eject the British from Palestine. The Irgun’s violent resistance culminated in the 1946 bombing of the British headquarters in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, an act of terrorism that killed 91 people.
The Irgun was also instrumental in arranging the immigration of Jews from Europe to Palestine – immigration that at the time was generally forbidden by the British.
Yitshaq Ben-Ami headed these efforts from Vienna, where his bedfellows could not have been any stranger. For radically different reasons, the idea of a Europe free of Jews appealed to both the Nazis and the Irgun. After Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Ben-Ami worked closely with First Lieutenant Adolf Eichmann – later dubbed “the architect of the Holocaust” – to facilitate the emigration of the entire Jewish population of Austria. When the war began, this uneasy partnership was terminated, and Ben-Ami was sent to the US to raise money for the Irgun.
In his autobiography, Ben-Ami wrote that the Jews had “failed to learn one cruel truth, that physical strength is a condition for survival and that survival is a prerequisite to a just society.” In his view, modern-day Israel had rightly come to the conclusion that “though no nation can live by the sword alone, woe unto it if it does not have one."
Jeremy Ben-Ami knows his father would have found it extremely difficult to accept his son’s leadership of J Street. But the younger Ben-Ami believes his work represents a kind of enlightened extension of his father’s dreams. “If you want to have a home for the Jewish people in the general vicinity of what is now Israel, it’s going to have to reach an agreement with its neighbours about where its borders are and reach acceptance from its neighbours,” he said. “That’s the realist view of how to fulfil what my father wanted: a safe place to live for the Jewish people.”
In Congress, where the influence of AIPAC and its allies is most visible, the absence of a viable challenge to the pro-Israel establishment has engendered some resentment. “Many of the people lobbying the AIPAC line have become entrenched and very powerful,” said one former Capitol Hill staffer. “It’s the schmoozing that they love – the game, the access. And members of Congress are tired of it. They can’t stand this game, and they don’t like getting pushed around.”
“There’s been a welling-up for a long time, and J Street’s an expression of that,” said another former Congressional aide who worked on Middle East issues.
Some on Capitol Hill express frustration at the fact that existing moderate groups – like the Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now, and Brit Tzedek – have been unable to challenge AIPAC. According to the former Congressional aide, a perception exists that those groups “don’t have the political skills to get their message across.”
In Washington parlance, “political skills” may simply mean “money.” Although AIPAC itself does not provide endorsements or campaign contributions, the group acts as an intermediary between potential donors and candidates it considers sufficiently pro-Israel. These donors often operate through political action committees, legal entities that can aggregate small donations into the vast sums required to finance American-style electioneering. AIPAC’s approval is a valuable commodity – in the 2006 election cycle, pro-Israel PACs donated more than $3m (Dh11m) to Republican and Democratic campaigns.
J Street has formed its own PAC to raise campaign funds for candidates supportive of its positions – a vital political function that its dovish allies have not been capable of fulfilling. The group plans to back 30 to 40 candidates in November’s election. (Like AIPAC, J Street claims to be bipartisan. But thus far, only one Republican congressman, Charles Boustany of Louisiana, has accepted an endorsement from the group.)
The endorsements and fund-raising are the crux of J Street’s political effort. With its meagre budget and a staff of six, the group cannot hope to compete with AIPAC for many years – if ever. But the group hopes that by providing targeted support to a small number of candidates, it can achieve discrete but meaningful results.
“Right now, there is a small number of members of Congress who are influential on these issues and are seen as being safe to follow, and they tend to be on the right,” said MJ Rosenberg, a former Congressional aide who worked for AIPAC in the 1980s before moving to the dovish Israel Policy Forum. “Not many members challenge that small group. J Street is trying to make it possible for other people to come out, to provide cover for them.”
But the amount of protection J Street can offer will ultimately be a function of the funds it can direct towards endorsees, and so far, those amounts have been exceedingly modest. J Street has donated about $75,000 (Dh 275,475) to the thirteen Congressional candidates it has endorsed. (Ben-Ami wanted me to know that J Street plans to donate at least another $75,000 next month.)
“You can’t just endorse people and not give them real money,” said one Middle East analyst at a liberal think tank, who is sympathetic to J Street’s goals but sceptical of their approach. “They don’t get the financial benefit, and you put a target on their heads for AIPAC.” Indeed, in June, Morris Amitay, a former president of AIPAC and the head of one of the largest PACs affiliated with it, told The Jerusalem Post that J Street’s endorsements “give us a good indication of who not to support.”
At the same time, some of the group’s putative opponents have been at pains to paint it as a radical organisation. “There is no question that J Street is pro-Palestinian, but it remains to be seen if it’s pro-Israel,” said Jeff Ballabon, a New York lawyer and lobbyist who acts as an intermediary between conservative Republican candidates, Orthodox Jewish donors and Christian activists.
But such complaints illuminate the tilted state of debate more than anything else: J Street, like its rivals, acknowledges the reality of Palestinian violence, but unlike them, it also seeks to draw attention to the plight of the Palestinian people. “As long as Palestinians despair of a decent and dignified life, Israel will be at war,” Ben-Ami wrote in a Washington Post op-ed earlier this year. “Helping the Palestinians achieve a viable, prosperous state is one of the most pro-Israel things an American politician can do.”
In reality, this rhetoric may be the most radical thing J Street has to offer. The group’s policy proposals are decidedly uncontroversial, and do not go beyond prior American proposals: a two-state solution with borders based roughly on the 1967 lines that does not dismantle the majority of existing Israeli settlements; a divided Jerusalem serving as the capital of both states; and a resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue that focuses on “resettlement in the new state of Palestine, financial compensation and assistance” rather than the right of return.
In keeping with their cautious approach, J Street officials are unwilling to discuss the issue of US aid to Israel in any detail. In May, Ben-Ami told Newsweek that it was time for the US to “act like the big brother or the parent and to say ‘enough is enough and we’re going to take the car keys if you don’t stop driving drunk.’”
But when I asked him whether that might mean, for example, making some part of American aid conditional on Israeli actions and policies, he demurred. “I don’t think it’s helpful to get into any further detail than that,” Ben-Ami told me. “We will just create the political space for them to make those decisions.”
It is still too early to tell whether J Street will meet the challenge it has set for itself. But a revealing range of opinions about its prospects emerged from conversations about the group with observers, allies and foes.
Robert Asher expressed doubt that J Street could compete, given its modest size. “Influencing policy is very serious business,” he remarked. “It takes a very long time to develop relationships. I liken what we do to trying to turn the Queen Mary around. It’s not an easy job for small groups.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents, was more aggressively dismissive. “They have to decide what they want to be when they grow up, and then be that,” he sneered. “They can make all sorts of claims, but let’s see what they produce.”
But a few knowledgeable observers suggested that the aura of invincibility that surrounds AIPAC might work to J Street’s advantage – that even minor victories would be seen as triumphs. Perhaps even a small organisation could reduce AIPAC’s influence simply by reducing the perception of that influence. M.J. Rosenberg refers to the “the myth of AIPAC’s power,” and argues that while it is a powerful tool, it also creates vulnerability.
But JJ Goldberg isn’t so sure that this “smoke and mirrors” influence will prove sufficient. “I’m sceptical about whether it will work,” he said. “The problem is, J Street wants to raise money to support candidates who will take the nuanced positions that they favour. But, as Malcolm Hoenlein once told me, it’s hard to get people marching in the streets chanting ‘Life is complicated! There are shades of grey!’ That just doesn’t mobilise people.”
The “Don’t Go, Joe!” campaign was a test case of sorts for this “smoke and mirrors” approach. In the end, it hardly mattered to J Street whether Lieberman chose to address the CUFI gala or not – the point was simply to issue the challenge.
But instead of backing off, Lieberman doubled down. “The bond I feel with Pastor Hagee and each and every one of you,” he told the audience, referring to the campaign to pressure him, “is much stronger than that, and so I am proud to stand with you tonight!”
Noting that he didn’t agree with some of the statements that had been “attributed to” Hagee, Lieberman delivered a speech laden with Biblical references about the “mortal danger” to Israel’s existence posed by Iran. “History warns us what can happen when we don’t take the threats of such tyrants and terrorists seriously,” Lieberman said.
Though careful to say he hoped war with Iran could be avoided, the senator ended his address with a Biblically-coded call for military action against the Islamic Republic. According to the Book of Exodus, when faced with Pharaoh’s army behind them and the Red Sea in front of them, the Israelites panicked, crying out to God and rebuking Moses.
“But God did something unexpected at that moment,” Lieberman recounted. “He said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to go forward.’ In other words, God was saying to Moses and the Israelites, ‘The time for prayer is over. It’s time for Israel to act.’”
According to Jewish lore, a tribal leader called Nachshon took the initiative and leapt into the Red Sea. “Nachshon understood that there comes a moment when faith and prayer must be followed by action right here on Earth,” Lieberman concluded. Coming on the heels of his dark warnings about Iran, there was no mistaking the kind of Israeli action Lieberman had in mind.
J Street is not going to have much success in moderating Lieberman’s views on Iran or weakening his heartfelt bond with Pastor Hagee. But that, of course, is not their goal. Rather, they too are hoping to claim the mantle of Nachshon – pushing against the tide and hoping that others will follow.
Justin Vogt is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker. He last wrote for The Review on Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century.
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