The warp factor of the Israeli lobby

Salim Muwakkil. Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times

July 1, 2002

President Bush's recent speech outlining his plan for Middle East peace provided the latest example of how U.S. policy has been warped by Israel's powerful American lobby.

The speech, which seemed to blame the problems of the Middle East on Palestinians and their need for "new leaders not compromised by terror," was totally bereft of historical context.

Certainly, terrorism must be condemned. But like the terrorism used by Israel's renegade Irgun, or South Africans resisting apartheid, the French fighting Nazi occupation, or Nicaragua's contras, it also must be framed by history.

Bush did none of that.

He barely mentioned Israel's illegal, 35-year occupation of Palestinian land, or its violations of UN resolutions and Geneva Convention protocols. Nor did Bush note the evidence of Israeli human-rights violations (including the targeting of civilians) consistently reported by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights and several other humanitarian groups.

How can a president who claims to be a force for freedom in the world ignore such flagrant flouting of human-rights standards? How, you ask? Six words: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

This group, widely known by the acronym AIPAC, is a major lobbying group for Israeli interests in Congress. But its influence goes way beyond Congress. A May 28 story on the Fox News Web site traces much of American's support for Israel "to the power of the collective Jewish, or pro-Israeli lobby, a well-organized, well-funded, extremely active and extraordinarily connected group . . . " The powerhouse lobby, which boasts more than 65,000 Jewish and non-Jewish members, has mastered the process of persuasion like few other groups. America's pro-Israel foreign policy is one function of its success; approximately $3 billion in annual U.S. aid to Israel is another.

But in recent months--particularly since Sept. 11--a powerful coalition of right-wing Christians and neo-conservative activists have augmented the group's traditional base and magnified its influence.

We got a taste of that clout in May when an AIPAC-crafted resolution, applauding Ariel Sharon's military incursions into Palestinian lands (and providing an additional $200 million for Israeli defense activities), passed the House and Senate by overwhelming votes.

In addition to its national presence, AIPAC is exercising its clout in individual states as well. Here in Illinois, for example, Gov. George Ryan recently signed a House bill that would allow the state treasurer to invest non-obligated state funds into Israeli bonds. Currently, 15 other states also invest in Israeli bonds.

The group also knows how to throw its weight around in the electoral realm.

One recent victim of that power was five-term Rep. Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.), who last Tuesday lost a primary runoff against an opponent heavily supported by members of AIPAC.

Hilliard had expressed support for a Palestinian state and he was one of the few Congress members who voted in opposition to the pro-Israeli resolution in May.

The Alabama contest already had raised a ruckus in Congress. Last month, some members of the Congressional Black Caucus accused the Democratic leadership of failing to back Hilliard, as it routinely does other incumbents, because of AIPAC intimidation.

Artur Davis, Hilliard's successful challenger, is an avid supporter of Israel. According to the June 21 Forward, a publication that focuses on the concerns of Jews, "Davis has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from out-of-state Jews, including many prominent members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee."

Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), another one of those rare congressional members who occasionally criticizes Israel, also is on AIPAC's hit list. In her Aug. 20 primary, she is facing Denise Majette, an African-American who has been doing a lot of campaigning at Israel fundraisers.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with supporting Israel. There isn't. And, in truth, there is something heartening about growing support for the Jewish state in the Bible-Belt South--once a bastion of crude anti-Semitism.

But Middle East allegiances should not be the sole litmus test of political fitness in this country.

What's more, Sharon's right-wing regime is not Israel. The Israeli prime minister has deftly used "war on terrorism" rhetoric to lead Israelis (and Americans) further into the turbulent cycle of occupation-resistance-revenge, and growing global enmity--of war without end.

By conflating Israel's interest with Sharon's policies, AIPAC is dragging the U.S. deeper into this quagmire.


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