Inside America’s powerful Israel lobby

AIPAC's three-day summit included fiery evangelical oratory, adoration for Dick Cheney -- and new plans for going after Iran.

Topics: 2008 Elections, Hillary Rodham Clinton, George W. Bush, Iran, Terrorism, Barack Obama, United Nations, Joe Biden, Iraq, Middle East,

Inside America's powerful Israel lobby

At the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee this week in Washington, a conservative Christian couple from eastern Tennessee told me that their son had decided to join the Israeli army. It was one of many surreal moments during the three-day gathering hosted by AIPAC, the lobbying group devoted to ensuring close U.S.-Israel ties that remains extraordinarily influential in Washington. “We just love God, and we just love Israel,” the couple beamed, when I asked why they had come to the conference.

Amid an energized and at times almost circuslike atmosphere, just about everyone in attendance shared two main preoccupations: the 2008 U.S. presidential election and confronting Iran. And this year’s conference saw record attendance: more than 6,000 people, coming from every state in the country and exceeding last year’s crowd of around 5,000. Many of them were American Jews, of course, but the evangelical Christian community also made a strong showing. For those feeling apocalyptic about the turmoil in the Middle East, pastor John Hagee was there to greet them. Of the many prominent speakers at the conference, Hagee got one of the most enthusiastic receptions.

“The sleeping giant of Christian Zionism has awoken!” Hagee proclaimed, taking the microphone at the opening dinner reception on Sunday. The electrified crowd — most of it Jewish — roared in support, pounding on the tables. Hagee went on to declare the United Nations a “political brothel” and asserted that Israel must never give up land. He agreed with Israeli writer Dore Gold that granting part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians would be “tantamount to turning it over to the Taliban.” And, after rebuking Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he led the crowd in a chant of “Israel lives!” urging them to “shout it from the mountaintops!”

During Hagee’s oratory, an AIPAC delegate sitting near me said, “I’m going to vote for him instead of McCain.”



AIPAC, whose own literature notes that it has been described by the New York Times as “the most important organization affecting America’s relationship with Israel,” has been highly successful in building strong relationships with both U.S. political parties. This year’s conference was attended by everyone from Vice President Dick Cheney to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (and other 2008 presidential contenders), as well as former CIA director James Woolsey. Leaders from Congress were there, as were numerous officials from the State Department and White House.

On Monday morning, Cheney got a warm reception and forceful applause for familiar speech lines, such as his assertion that the “only option” against terrorists is to “go on the offensive.” Many rank-and-file members of AIPAC seemed to be spoiling for military action against Iran — “We have to do to them what we did to Saddam,” one delegate told me — but AIPAC’s leadership remained strikingly circumspect about it. No AIPAC leaders mentioned war with Iran in the speeches, receptions or panel discussions I attended, and very few of the prominent outside speakers did either. At times this put them at odds with the grass-roots delegates; Marvin Feuer, AIPAC’s director of policy and government affairs, was verbally attacked by a conference attendee as “weak” when he downplayed military options against Iran during a Q&A session.

But AIPAC leaders are pushing for a different kind of offensive against Iran: a new program of sanctions much harsher than any prior one imposed through the United Nations. The plan, which one panelist called a “quiet campaign” to strike at Iran on the financial battlefield, would include increased pressures on foreign allies who do business with Iran, a U.S.-wide campaign of divestment, and other measures intended to put crippling economic pressure on the Islamic republic. Sarah Steelman, the state treasurer of Missouri, described how she has worked to restrict the state’s investments in companies that do business with Iran, and urged AIPAC members to lobby their own state governments to institute similar policies. Steven Perles, a lawyer, explained how it was possible to tie up the assets of the Iranian government and financial institutions by engaging them in lawsuits for their funding of terrorist groups.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has for some time been pushing for such efforts, and in a closed-door briefing during the conference he said that they could prove fatal to Iran: “Fewer and fewer companies will enter Iran. More and more will leave. Investment dollars and the technology it buys will dry up. The lifeline of a hated regime will be cut, its future imperiled.”

In addition to the many panels at the conference, which often felt akin to pep rallies, delegates also attended “lobbying labs,” where AIPAC staff schooled them on how to effectively persuade their congressional representatives to follow AIPAC policies. These sessions were not open to the media, nor even mentioned on the schedule of events distributed to members of the press. But AIPAC leaders repeatedly urged delegates to attend them. And on Tuesday, the organization deployed its army of lobbyists to push for new sanctions against Iran, which are contained in a new bill called the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, introduced by Democrat Tom Lantos and Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

When the thousands of lobbyists descended on Capitol Hill, they were greeted by nearly every U.S. senator and more than half the members of the House of Representatives — approximately 500 meetings were held between AIPAC representatives and members of Congress on Tuesday alone. In addition to pushing for the sanctions plan, the goal was to showcase the strength of AIPAC and establish more ties for future communication and lobbying.

The AIPAC activists were aided in their mission by some members of Congress themselves, who advised them how to reach out to their colleagues.

“Our commitment to Israel defines us as a nation,” said Republican Norm Coleman of Minnesota, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, adding that the AIPAC lobbyists “help make sure that we don’t forget.”

Nita Lowey, a Democratic representative from New York, said the best strategy toward that goal was to keep pointing out to lawmakers that the relationship with Israel “is in the U.S. interest.”

“I don’t sit behind my desk and come up with this stuff,” Coleman said, stressing that he often consulted AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr for policy advice. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, said that she, too, often spoke to Kohr and others in the AIPAC leadership. “They’re like daily phone calls,” she said, as other Democratic and Republican members of Congress onstage nodded in agreement.

Displays of bipartisan support filled the conference. Even if Democrats and Republicans bicker on every other issue, AIPAC leaders seemed constantly eager to stress that one thing on which the parties can come together is unswerving devotion to Israel. Tuesday morning, just before the AIPAC activists got ready to descend on Capitol Hill with their talking points in hand, for example, Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Republican Minority Leader John Boehner each addressed the delegates, assuring them of a staunch commitment to Israel’s security. At one point, when Pelosi took the opportunity to criticize the Bush administration’s surge plan, she was booed by some of the assembled delegates. Boehner, meanwhile, got a standing ovation, after saying, “Who does not believe that failure in Iraq is not a direct threat to the state of Israel? The consequences of failure in Iraq are so ominous for the United States you can’t even begin to think about it.”

The closing gala dinner on Monday night was attended by a who’s who of Washington’s A-list. At that event, AIPAC’s executive members — accompanied by music that was fit for a Hollywood superhero movie — read what they excitedly referred to as “the roll call” of those in attendance. It took 13 minutes and included the bulk of Congress, as well as high-ranking officials from the White House, the State Department and the National Security Council. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — addressing the crowd via teleconference from Jerusalem — waded into America’s debate over Iraq in a manner that the Israeli leadership has avoided until now. He openly urged AIPAC delegates to push Congress to support the Bush administration’s current strategy in Iraq. In the few days since, Olmert has been sharply criticized by the Israeli press and other members of his own government. (Many in Israel believe that it is inappropriate for an Israeli head of state to try to overtly influence an American debate.)

Much focus was on who will next sit in the Oval Office. Before and after the dinner, the presidential candidates and their colleagues from Congress schmoozed with the AIPAC delegates. Circulating through the crowd, Joe Biden made sure his presence was registered. “Hi, I’m Joe Biden!” he said repeatedly, adding several times, “I’ve been hanging out with AIPAC for years!”

When one European journalist saw the throng around Biden, he ran over, asking nobody in particular, “Is that Hillary?” A few moments later, he emerged looking disappointed. “No,” he said, in all seriousness, “I don’t know who that is, but I think it might be Charlton Heston.”

Following the dinner, Clinton and Obama held competing dessert receptions in the conference center — in rooms about 25 yards apart — both eager to highlight their pro-Israel credentials. Debates ensued over which one to attend. “I can’t decide,” one AIPAC delegate said. “I’d really like to see Obama in person, but Hillary is better for Israel.”

About 1,000 people attended Obama’s event, but so many attended Clinton’s that they spilled out into the hallway.

In their effort to maintain their image of bipartisanship, AIPAC’s leadership is remaining firmly on the sidelines in looking ahead to the 2008 elections. On the surface, at least, they are maintaining the position that all the candidates will be equally good for Israel. When I inquired about Barack Obama and the oft-raised notion that he lacks foreign policy experience, AIPAC’s spokesperson, Josh Block, quickly brushed this concern aside, saying that Obama “has a strong record from his time in the Senate.” There were those at the conference, however, who had made it their mission to make sure other delegates knew that Obama had recently said, “Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people” at a recent event in Iowa — a statement that served to anger some AIPAC delegates.

Particularly striking, though, was the predominant attitude at the conference about the administration still in office. During the opening night’s events, large video screens behind the speaker’s podium showed a chronological slide show of U.S. presidents and their Israeli prime minister contemporaries, and when the display eventually reached George W. Bush, the room erupted into applause — far more applause than the crowd had given for Reagan, Kennedy or even Truman. And when Cheney first appeared on the stage on Monday morning, the crowd immediately rose to its feet and filled the room with loud applause, which continued intermittently through his predictably hawkish speech.

It seemed a remarkable contrast to the currently dismal public opinion polls regarding Bush and Cheney. As one delegate standing nearby commented during the vice president’s speech, “This has got to be the last crowd that still greets him this way.”

Salon contributor Gregory Levey is the author of the memoir, "Shut Up, I'm Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government." He is on faculty at Ryerson University, and blogs at Gregory Levey.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>