Special report: Inside the Israeli lobby
By Huma Imtiaz
The Israeli Lobby. It is a term that brings up images of an entity of near-mythic strength that seems to influence all branches of US policy and has an inside track to prominent US politicians, whether Republican or Democrat. It is credited with the power to make or break Presidents and dictate US foreign policy. Unaccountable and impossible to fight, it is seen in Pakistan and in large parts of the Muslim world as the driving force behind the United States’ pro-Israel stance.
It is in fact not a monolithic entity, and comprises of many separate lobbies, the most powerful of which is the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is considered to be the most powerful lobbying group in the United States (see The Lobby List).
From 1982 to 1986, MJ Rosenburg was editor of the AIPAC’s Near East Report, a biweekly publication on Middle East Policy. Since then, he has held the position of Director of Policy Analysis for Israel Policy Forum, a non-partisan group that lobbies for a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue and has also worked as a fellow for Media Matters for America, a media watchdog group.
Once a supporter of Israel’s policies, Rosenburg is now a staunch supporter of peace between Palestine and Israel and holds AIPAC and the right-wing Israeli lobby responsible for not only distorting American policy, but also plunging Israel and Palestinians into a seemingly never-ending conflict.
In an exclusive interview, The Express Tribune Magazine spoke to him about the role of AIPAC, and how left-wing Jews like him believe that AIPAC has harmed US politics. The interview was conducted in two parts — as the November war between Gaza and Hamas in November took place, and a few days after the ceasefire agreement was agreed to.
For Rosenberg, there were two defining moments that led to his split with AIPAC. The first came when he witnessed the then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin shake hands with Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat on the grounds of the White House in 1993.
“I was at the White House lawn and [the handshake] indicated to me that the conflict was over,” says Rosenberg in a telephonic interview. Two years later, Rabin was assassinated by the Jewish extremist Yigal Amir at a rally held in support of the Oslo accords and it seemed as if the peace process died with him.
“The final breaking point was when the Camp David negotiations of 2000 collapsed,” says Rosenberg, adding that “the nature of Ehud Barak’s statements made after the collapse of the talks between him and Arafat,” made it clear that Rabin’s dream of peace did not outlive him.
ET: What makes AIPAC so influential in US politics?
Rosenberg: It is important to understand that American politics is entirely governed by money. Presidential campaigns cost billions of dollars and its primarily the Democrats who rely on the Jewish donors for the money to run their campaigns. Republicans can afford to rely on big business, and have all kinds of billionaires making sizable campaign contributions. They don’t need the pro-Israel crowd as much as the Democrats do. And what the Democrats seem to believe is that every Jew who gives money to President Obama is giving it to support Netanyahu — that’s not true. Jews are liberals, and always have been, even before there was an Israel. What AIPAC has done is to convince the Democrats and Obama that the reason he got 72 per cent of the Jewish vote is because he supports Netanyahu. Now if the US had public financing, and if political campaigns were paid for by taxpayers, you would see Congress and Obama taking a different position. It’s all about the money.
ET: How do you think AIPAC viewed this current conflict? There are reports coming out that the US will block the UN resolution on Gaza?
Rosenberg: I think AIPAC, and more importantly rich donors associated with AIPAC, are on the phone with the State Department and the National Security Council and with members of Congress to make sure the US blocks the resolution.
I think that this war, is going to help convince the people of Israel to think that this [approach by Israel] is only going to lead to the next war, and the yet another war. And in every encounter, the Palestinians are getting stronger. Who would be believed they had rockets that could reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem? Next time they’ll have guided missiles. This is not what the Israeli people want. Netanyahu is desperate to get a ceasefire because the Israeli people are going to start turning on him. Within the next few years, Israel is going to have to deal with whomever the Palestinians choose as their representative. Public opinion polls say that the number of people supporting Israel in this war is much lower than before. Less than half of the Democrat voters supported Israel this time around.
Unfortunately, many innocent people are going to die before this realisation takes hold. There has to be some kind of arrangement before the round of conflict. I don’t know what that’s going to be but ultimately Israelis and Palestinians will have to live together, and I think that can be done. Sadly, the leadership to advance that idea is not there, and certainly not on the Israeli side. Hamas would like to achieve a long-term ceasefire, but Israel may not want that. If the Gaza blockade is ended, if Israel stops its targeted assassinations in Gaza, and Hamas stops shooting rockets into southern Israel you will have a true and total ceasefire. I think that’s a good enough situation for now. But anything less than that, and especially if Israel is going to maintain its blockade of Gaza all it will get in return is missiles.
Rosenberg: AIPAC will push for a war with Iran, it is obsessed with the idea. In light of the Gaza attack, it can go one of two ways: One is that they’ll look at how different this (the Gaza conflict) was and think: “We’ve used up all the goodwill, and we can’t do another war”. Or, it’ll be: “Look at how President Obama backed us 100 per cent without any criticism; we can get away with anything.” At this point I think Obama’s view on Israel is: “I’m giving you Gaza, so don’t attack Iran.” I thought he knew what side he was on, that he stood for peace and security. I may have been wrong.
ET: Why haven’t other people like yourself been able to be an effective opposing voice to AIPAC?
Rosenberg: There aren’t so many of us. You have a situation whenever people like me, whenever there’s a war, they line up behind Israel with very few exceptions. The lobby group J Street is for peace, but they go to solidarity rallies for Israel as well. It’s a fallcy to think that Congress listens to Jews, because many Jews don’t support Netanyahu. The only people Congressmen really listen to are wealthy AIPAC donors. All that really counts in money, and not just in this issue. Every issue is determined by which side has how much money.
ET: Then how does J Street differ from AIPAC?
Rosenberg: It differs in the fact that J Street prefers a two-state solution and is pushing Israel for a negotiation. The difference between J Street and AIPAC is that J Street prefers pushing both sides towards a two-state solution. AIPAC favours the status quo, AIPAC and the Israeli right feels that the last war wasn’t won, and that there are ways to win it this time. So there is a significant difference. In J Street’s heart it wants peace from the conflict, and AIPAC doesn’t. But they can only be effective if President Obama is interested in what they have to say. It’s possible that Obama has come to his senses on this.
ET: Since we last spoke, there has been a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas. What do you think about the agreement?
Rosenberg: First of all it is a bit ambiguous as to how it was achieved. It appears that President Obama and Secretary Clinton joined with President Morsi and put pressure on the Israelis. If that narrative is true and it holds, it’s a significant shift in the US. Also, this was a recognition of Hamas. I don’t want to be overly optimistic as to whether this indicates a shift in American policy as it’s too early to know for sure.
We have to see what happens at the United Nations when the Palestinian Authority asks on November 29 for observer status. If the US says it’ll cut off aid if it asks for observer status then nothing has changed. We’ll know over the course of this week — it could be a significant shift.
One thing that is clear is that the Israeli right-wing and Jewish right in the US are very unhappy about the ceasefire in general. An indication of this is the contrast between the cheering and dancing in Gaza City, and the quiet in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
This is not what [the Israeli right] wanted. Israel initiated this war, when you initiate a war, you want a victory. Instead what they got is this. All along, they could’ve had a deal with Hamas: end the blockage and target assassinations, and in exchange Hamas would stop shelling Israel — they could’ve had all of that without this war.
And this is going to hurt Netanyahu, but it remains to be seen to what extent. The main thing is that the AIPAC crowd is miserable, and Jews like me are very happy about the ceasefire, even though we are sad about the loss of life.
Rosenberg: Well, they do in fact damage the US, but they claim to believe and they have made most of Congress believe that whatever Israel benefits from, benefits the US. To wit: if it’s good for Israel, it’s good for the US. And it’s very cynical, but that’s the line that they sold Congress. As far as members of Congress are concerned, they are less concerned about national security and more about campaign financing.
ET: If the status quo continues, where do you see Israel in five years?
Rosenberg: If this continues I see Israel engulfed in Intifada in five years time. It would not just be a war with Gaza, but with the West Bank as well. And if it continues for five years, the Palestinians with Israeli citizenship will join in as well and it just won’t be sustainable for Israel. For many years Palestine expected nothing, but that has now changed.
Israelis won’t put up with it for five years despite their hawkishness and even now certain Israelis may have started seriously thinking about an Israeli initiative in exchange for peace. I don’t see a viable peace anytime soon, but it could happen. Rockets landing on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv changed a lot, and the next time will be worse. Hizbullah has tens of thousands of missiles and there could be one gigantic Intifida that involves all Palestinians and Hezbollah as well. What I pray for is that Israelis come to their senses, like Yitzak Rabin did.
Israel lobbies and activist groups
The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is a powerful lobbying organisation that exerts considerable influence in the legislative and executive branches of the American Federal Government.
Supported by an estimated 100,000 supporters from all political parties, AIPAC aims to improve relations between America and Israel, and since its founding in 1953 has grown to become one of the most powerful and controversial lobbyist groups in the United States.
It frequently urges sanctions against countries seen to be actively anti-Israel and also works to secure foreign aid to Israel.
Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) was formed in September, 1996 by Julia Caplan, Julie Iny and Rachel Eisner.
It is a United States Jewish organisation which describes itself as “a diverse and democratic community of activists inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace, social justice, and human rights to support the aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians for security and self-determination.”
JVP seeks “an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem” and opposes Israel Defence Forces operations in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and supports Israeli refuseniks.
Historically, the ADL has opposed groups and individuals it considered to be anti-Semitic and/or racist, including: Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, Henry Ford, Father Charles Coughlin(leader of the Christian Front), the Christian Identity movement, the German-American Bund, neo-Nazis, the American militia movement and white power skinheads (although the ADL acknowledges that there are also non-racist skinheads). The ADL publishes reports on a variety of countries, regarding alleged incidents of anti-Jewish attacks and propaganda.
J Street is a nonprofit liberal advocacy group based in the United States whose stated aim is to promote American leadership to end the Arab–Israeli and Israel–Palestinian conflicts peacefully and diplomatically. It was founded in April 2008.
J Street describes itself as a pro-Israel organisation, which supports peace between Israel and its neighbors. Some Israelis, including several public figures, have said that J-Street is anti-Israel, particularly in relation to key challenges facing the Jewish state. Several US Jewish leaders have expressed reservations about J Street’s position on Israel, and some have publicly disassociated themselves from the organisation.
J Street states that it “supports a new direction for American policy in the Middle East — diplomatic solutions over military ones”, “multilateral over unilateral approaches to conflict resolution”; and “dialogue over confrontation” with wider international support.
The American Jewish Committee (AJC) was established in 1906 by a small group of American Jews concerned with pogroms aimed at Russian Jews.
The organisation’s mission statement is “to safeguard the welfare and security of Jews in the United States, in Israel, and throughout the world; to strengthen the basic principles of pluralism around the world, as the best defense against anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry; to enhance the quality of American Jewish life by helping to ensure Jewish continuity and deepen the ties between American and Israeli Jews.”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 2nd, 2012.