How powerful is the Israel lobby?

Originally published: Mondoweiss on September 27, 2022 (more by Mondoweiss)  |

The ritualized character-assassination of Rashida Tlaib for daring to say what countless human rights groups have said–Israel is an apartheid state–was a dramatic demonstration of the power of the Israel lobby. Tlaib was denounced by establishment Jewish organizations that back Israel, from right wing ADL to left wing J Street, and leading Democratic politicians all got to work turning on a member of their own party.

The simple explanation for the power of the lobby is money. This past summer, rightwing pro-Israel groups spent more money than anyone else in the primary season to defeat progressive Democratic candidates—$26 million and more. Nina Turner, Yuh-Line Niou, Marie Newman are gone. And yes, Andy Levin in Michigan. All for being too nice to Palestinians, or a wee bit critical of Israel.

Politicians notice campaign contributions. Joe Biden needs that money, the Democratic Party needs that money for coming campaigns.

And guess what, all that money was not a political scandal! No, the mainstream press largely avoids that story. Huffington Post and the Intercept can be counted on to criticize the spending, and Palestinian solidarity news sites like ours make a running story of the corruption, but the New York Times and the networks give the story wide berth. No wonder the lobby doesn’t become a political issue.

That’s because the lobby has deemed it antisemitic to write about the “Israel lobby” and its money. As Ilhan Omar discovered in 2019 when she said Congress’s blind support for AIPAC’s line on Israel was “all about the Benjamins,” and the heavens collapsed on her.

Now that the lobby has successfully blacklisted a simple factual assertion—the “apartheid” finding of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, New England Methodists and Desmond Tutu–as “antisemitism” and “dangerous,” it’s a good time to take up the question, Just how powerful is the Israel lobby?

My answer is that the lobby controls U.S. policy with respect to Israeli persecution of Palestinians. The U.S. never lifts a finger for Palestinians even when journalists are slain, or when Palestinians tell us they’re experiencing apartheid, or when Israel shuts down human rights organizations. The Biden administration has lain down for all of that crap.

And the lobby strongly influences wider U.S. policy in the Middle East. The Abraham Accords are pure Israel lobby realignment to serve Israel. Before that, the Iraq war was dreamed up and pushed by neoconservative Zionists. And though Joe Biden clearly wants to restore the Iran deal, he is paying a giant price to the lobby: keeping quiet about Israeli settlements and putting off any deal till after the midterm elections. Or as Yair Lapid said on September 13, Israel’s campaign to stop the renewal of the Iran deal was “successful.” A tiny apartheid state telling us how to run our foreign policy!

I say the lobby is the power here because most of these policies are against the American people’s interest. It serves no public interest for the Palestinians to be oppressed for decade upon decade and U.S. human rights policy to become a mockery. It serves no public interest for us to be on one side of a regional power-struggle forever and Iran to be isolated and the U.S. murdering Iranian officials across international borders. In fact, it was just this fierce bias toward Israel that was a large factor in causing 9/11. We should not be playing sides. But the political power of the Israel lobby compels those stances on the part of our leaders.

Here’s the evidence for my beliefs.

The U.S. failure to do anything for Palestinians is so obvious it doesn’t need itemization, —but let’s review the overall pattern because it is so damning. For 75 years the U.S. has said it is for the partition of historical Palestine to make a Jewish state and a Palestinian one, and it has never done one thing to stop the Israeli colonization of the “Palestinian” lands or allow the return of Palestinian refugees. That process continues unabated as Palestinians are today ethnically cleansed from lands for Jewish settlement, with crazed settlers beating Palestinians and soldiers looking on, and activists filming.

This process is so far afoot that messianic Jewish zealots are now taking over the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, and even rightwing Israel lobbyists are speaking out for fear of the violence that this oppression will generate.

The Israel lobby made this mess. Since at least 1967 the policy of the Israel lobby is that there must be “no daylight” between the U.S. government and Israeli government; and it got its wish. The U.S. presidents who criticized Israeli policy were only one term presidents, Carter and Bush 1, a lesson Bush 2 took to heart, saying he’d never be out-Israel’d, as even Tom Friedman tells us. Barack Obama vowed at the beginning of his presidency that the settlements must stop, but he swallowed his words in 2011 when Netanyahu came down on him, and his top aide was handed a list of “Jewish donors” to call to assure them that Obama liked Israel. Obama made a feeble effort to criticize settlements at the U.N. Security Council at the end of his presidency, but even John Kerry said then that Israeli settlements were destroying the two-state solution.

That was six years ago, and there was then and is today only one state in Israel and Palestine. “Let the one state era begin,” establishment herald Tom Friedman declared in 2016, long after it was obvious to those visiting the West Bank. And today just about all Jewish Israel is behind the single sovereignty. A Palestinian state is not even an issue in the political campaign in Israel now.

But it remains verboten in the U.S. to suggest that there won’t be a two-state solution. No, that is “dangerous” talk, says lobby attack dog Josh Gottheimer. So the Israel lobby from J Street to the American Jewish Committee celebrates Yair Lapid’s empty words in favor of a two-state solution at the United Nations General Assembly last week when we all know that he just said that to cover Biden’s behind, and he will do absolutely nothing to bring that about. The State Department is in on the farce.

The only natural political response to the unending illegal colonization of Palestinian land–boycott, divestment, sanctions–is ruled out as antisemitic by even J Street. So when a J Street student leader came out for BDS, she was promptly crushed by the organization’s Washington leadership.

It is simply impossible to take a hard line against settlements in Washington. That would mean countering the Israeli government and bumping up against “the Jewish establishment.” Our discourse is utterly beholden to the lobby; nearly 30 states are taking action against BDS. So Biden stripped the words settlements and occupation out of the Democratic Party platform to please the lobby in 2020. Raphael Warnock and Jamaal Bowman walked back sharp criticisms of Israel before their elections. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dithers about the “occupation,” saying she’s not an “expert” (when AOC is expert on everything). New Dem political star Max Frost strips out the Palestine line from his messaging. NY State assemblyperson Yuh-Line Niou walks back support for BDS in a run for Congress, and still the lobby unloads on her.

And a point person for the lobby, Rep. Ritchie Torres blames the one-state reality on anti-Zionists–not on the country that has taken Palestinian land since before it was even created, Israel.

Mainstream Democrats can’t take on Israel because they are afraid that even the slightest criticism will send money pouring into the other party. Like when George H.W. Bush criticized settlements, and the lobby went over to Bill Clinton in 1992.

As for Middle East policy generally–the Abraham Accords are an extension of the “no daylight” policy across the Middle East. They are an effort to use American power to bribe Arab monarchies to support Israel despite the oppression of Palestinians. They are a continuation of the many-billion-dollar deals that Jordan and Egypt got to be America’s close friends and overlook the Palestinian question, the deal that Saudi Arabia is quietly effecting today because it sees that the lobby is the gatekeeper in Washington. There is arguably an American “national interest” in these deals, for stability and oil prices; but they come at a huge cost in human rights, and they are cheered by the Israel lobby because they are a means of crushing Palestinian hopes and allowing Israeli colonization and slaughter of Palestinian resisters with no consequences.

Barack Obama said in 2015 in a speech appealing for the Iran deal that there was only one country that opposed the Iran deal, Israel, and it would be an “abrogation of my constitutional duty” to take Israel’s side; but Israel has been incredibly effective in that opposition. Obama had to spend a ton of political capital in the Jewish community to get the deal. He passed it with Chuck Schumer voting against him; and Schumer later told a Brooklyn Jewish audience he voted that way because of the “threat to Israel.” But of course, Schumer faced no penalty for going against Obama on his signature foreign policy achievement. No, the lobby is bigger than Democratic Party politics; and Schumer got promoted! Then three years later Donald Trump trashed the Iran deal in obvious deference to the demands of megadonor Sheldon Adelson and Benjamin Netanyahu. “There was no one who did more for Netanyahu than me. There was no one who did for Israel more than I did,” Trump said in rage when Netanyahu acknowledged Biden’s victory. And Biden is struggling to reinstate the deal, and unable to overcome the lobby’s opposition. (J Street being the great exception, though they always cite Israeli security experts, as if we should be swayed by them.)

There are some things the Israel lobby has not gotten out of the White House. It didn’t get an outright attack on Iran–even with Jeffrey Goldberg cheerleading that from 2010 on. It didn’t get annexation of the West Bank. No, J Street opposed that, and so surely did other more rightwing Israel lobby groups that worry about having to fight the apartheid label.

But the lobby is a constant force in Washington on Middle East issues and really the first group that gets consulted. Netanyahu was able “to mobilize opposition to Obama among the leadership of the American Jewish community, which had internalized the vision of Israel constantly under attack,” Obama aide Ben Rhodes wrote. He had to meet with a small group of leaders from the Jewish community more than all other groups combined on any issue. (Because he had to, because of the “donors.”) Obama hired Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State by reaching out to the rightwing Zionist who headed the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to feel Clinton out on the job for him. A form of obeisance that’s unimaginable really in any other area of our policy-making.

There are some signs that the lobby is weakening. J Street helped divide the lobby into right and leftwing branches since its creation in 2008, a healthy process, but it still redlines any discussion of apartheid and BDS. Now there is a progressive wing of the Democratic Party that is determined to talk about apartheid, including many progressive Jews; and of course Israel is aiding that opening by killing a prominent Palestinian American journalist and sweeping the case under the rug (not to mention all the young Palestinians it kills). “More Democrats Than Ever Support The Palestinian Cause, And That’s Dividing The Party,” 538.com reports today. One day those Dems will take over the Democratic Party.

But surely the biggest sign of the lobby’s power is that it is not scrutinized in the press. Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer did expose it in 2006 but they both paid a heavy price for doing so, including being smeared as antisemites, and reporters are reluctant to take the lobby on to this day. You’d think that the press would go after organizations that destroy Palestinian hopes day after day after day and force American politicians to toe the line. But the press doesn’t want to be called antisemites for questioning what is actually a reflection of Jewish sociological power (the political contributions reflect Jewish wealth, as even the New York Times has acknowledged deep in an article). 538’s piece on the growing presence of pro-Palestinian Democrats all but left out AIPAC’s money.

If you can’t name the bad guy, you can’t take him on. It’s as simple as that. And very few press outlets will name the Israel lobby. I guess the lobby is going to be powerful for a long time!

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