Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 1998, Pages 65-66
National Capital Insiders Vote AIPAC, Israel's American Lobby, Second Most Powerful Interest Group in Washington
By Nathan Jones
"A forthcoming edition of Fortune magazine ranks the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as the second most powerful interest group in Washington...The pro-Israel lobby, which the magazine called 'calculatedly quiet,' has for years been successful in encouraging members of Congress and the administration to support U.S. foreign aid to Israel and other issues related to the U.S.-Israel relationship."—Daniel Kurtzman, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, December 1997.
For two generations American diplomats in the Middle East have listened to the same complaint. "How is it possible for a lobby, based upon only two percent of the American population, to take over U.S. Middle East policy completely and also to have a strong and sometimes decisive influence on U.S. foreign policy in the rest of the world?"
It's not an idle question. For Middle Easterners the matter boils down to "who is the enemy?" If the pro-Israel tilt in U.S. policy is solely the result of smart politics by a well-heeled, well-organized and highly disciplined American religious or ethnic minority, presumably funded at least in part by the Israeli government, it's worthwhile to join the influence battle in Washington to persuade U.S. elected officials to support an even-handed policy in the best interests of the United States.
On the other hand, if the other 98 percent of Americans believe there is some hidden reason why a tilt in favor of the 4.5 million Jews in Israel and against the 200 million Arab Muslims and Christians in the Middle East is in the U.S. national interest, then no amount of counter-lobbying will do any good.
Informed Americans need only point to a world map, which shows that the 60 percent of the world's petroleum (and about an equal percentage of natural gas) found in the Middle East all lies under Muslim lands. So why would it be in the U.S. interest to side with the Jewish state which has fought five wars with those Muslim lands—doubling the territory it controls in the process—and which presently seems to be looking for ways to fight another one?
One reason Middle Easterners remain confused is that it's popular on U.S. university campuses to blame the U.S. for Israeli excesses. If Israelis sell arms to right-wing military dictators in Central America, or sell stolen U.S. missile defense or military aircraft technology to communist China, the reasoning goes, it must be because the U.S. wants them to.
Most of those who preach this line are Marxist-oriented Jewish faculty members, like MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, who seem to find it more bearable to blame the human rights crimes committed by successive Israeli governments on the United States than on the Jewish state itself. It's a theory that has also been picked up by at least two left-leaning Palestinian faculty members at U.S. universities. Whatever their original motives for wanting to believe this, professionally it's safer and more "politically correct" for faculty on U.S. campuses to criticize the U.S. than it is to criticize Israel. (Exactly the same caution applies to American journalism, but that's another subject.)
In any case, when Americans point out to Middle Eastern critics that if the U.S. government wants arms sold to renegade nations, there are plenty of U.S. manufacturers who would be happy to do the job, the discussion comes back to the first question. "Do you mean to say that the U.S. lets Israel do all of these things solely because of U.S. domestic politics?"
The answer, of course, is yes!
Now some corroborating evidence has come from Washington insiders as a group. In its Dec. 8 issue, the respected business magazine Fortune has published the results of a survey it commissioned among Capitol Hill insiders to rank-order the 120 most powerful interest groups in the United States.
It's possible that when the Fortune editors got the idea of having Democratic pollster Mark Mellman and Republican pollster Bill McInturff mail out 2,165 queries to members of Congress, top congressional aides, top officers of lobbying organizations and professional lobbyists, they weren't thinking about how the results might affect America's most publicity-shy special interest, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), with its $15 million budget, 150 employees, and its five or six registered lobbyists who make a personal visit to every one of 535 members of Congress at least once a year.
However, AIPAC is so well-known inside the Beltway that when anyone refers to "The Lobby," no one asks, "Which one?" In fact this highly professional organization is backed up by a group called "The Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations," which serves as the coordinating committee for efforts on behalf of Israel by 52 national U.S. Jewish organizations, several of them with budgets larger than AIPAC's.
But over the years, when AIPAC chairmen or presidents have boasted about which powerful members of Congress they have brought down, it has been only in closed membership sessions. Victims they claim include two former chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Arkansas Democrat J. William Fulbright and Illinois Republican Charles Percy, and Sen. Roger Jepsen (R-IA). Among House members they've helped defeat are Paul Findley (R-IL) and Paul N. (Pete) McCloskey (R-CA), both of whom have become prominent campaigners to curb AIPAC's power.
Named the most powerful special interest by the 329 Washington insiders who returned the polling forms was the American Association of Retired Persons. This is no surprise, given the fact that the 33-million-member organization's membership card is what most elderly Americans reach for when asked to prove their eligibility for "senior citizen" discounts on everything from medicines and museum tickets to rail and airfares.
A look at the runner-up organizations and the constituencies they represent, however, puts into perspective the incredible power of AIPAC, which claims no more than 50,000 paid-up members (at $50 a year). In numerical order these are the AFL-CIO, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Association of Trial Lawyers, the National Rifle Association, the Christian Coalition, the American Medical Association, and the National Education Association.
Next on the list are realtors (11), bankers (12), manufacturers (13), government employees (14), the National Chamber of Commerce (15), Veterans of Foreign Wars (16), farmers (17), filmmakers (18), homebuilders (19) and broadcasters (20).
In an article accompanying the list, Fortune writer Jeffrey Birnbaum notes that "the powerhouses of persuasion aren't very visible above the Washington waterline, but they are very big, and very menacing." The writer claims also that "while donations are still crucial...they aren't the only keys to the kingdom...These days interest organizations are valued more for the votes they can deliver."
Birnbaum admits, however, that "three of the top 10 organizations owe their high rankings to their substantial campaign contributions: the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Medical Association."
This puts AIPAC in the unique position of having several million dollars to spend on helping or hurting candidates in each two-year election cycle, and also of being able to mobilize a large percentage of America's 5.5 million Jews into a one-issue voting bloc in support of candidates deemed friendly to Israel.
While positioned at the top of the power structure, at present AIPAC executives are deeply worried about a legal case against their organization that has been working its way through the U.S. federal courts since January 1989. It will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 14, and a decision is expected to be announced by July 1998.
Summarized, the suit charges that although AIPAC is functioning as a "political committee" raising and spending funds to get members of Congress elected or defeated, it is not complying with the laws that require such organizations to disclose to the Federal Election Commission where they get their funds, and how they spend them.
The seven complainants in the case, all retired U.S. government officials, decline to speculate publicly on what they believe disclosure of AIPAC's finances will reveal. But many observers suspect that much of the lobbying money at the organization's disposal is raised by tax-exempt organizations in the U.S., ostensibly for other purposes such as planting trees in Israel, or may be Israeli government funding finding its way into the U.S. political system by illegal means. They point out that when several hundred thousand dollars in Chinese government money found its way into the U.S. elections in 1996, the nation was scandalized. But several million pro-Israel dollars has been available to AIPAC and to the dozens of political action committees founded and directed by members of AIPAC's board of directors and their relatives in every U.S. national cycle since the late 1970s.
Whatever the U.S. Supreme Court decides should be done about Israel's powerful U.S. lobby, the Washington insiders' verdict is in. The second most powerful lobby in America certainly is powerful enough to dominate U.S. Middle East policy. In fact, if presidents and congressmenwanted to vote unconditional military and economic support to Israel, there would be no need to create such a rich and powerful lobby to bribe or browbeat them into doing so.
And if Arabs ask what should be done about it, the answer is simple. If the U.S. remains unable to reform its own campaign finance system, six million Muslim Americans and two million Christian Arab Americans, backed by 22 Arab nations, ought to be able to "fight fire with fire."
Nathan Jones is a free-lance writer who covers U.S. and Canadian affairs.