In early March, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its forty-seventh annual conference in Washington. AIPAC’s executive director spent twenty-seven minutes reading the “roll call” of dignitaries present at the gala dinner, which included a majority of the Senate and a quarter of the House, along with dozens of Administration officials.
As this event illustrates, it’s impossible to talk about Congress’s relationship to Israel without highlighting AIPAC, the American Jewish community’s most important voice on the Hill. The Congressional reaction to Hezbollah’s attack on Israel and Israel’s retaliatory bombing of Lebanon provide the latest example of why.
On July 18, the Senate unanimously approved a nonbinding resolution “condemning Hamas and Hezbollah and their state sponsors and supporting Israel’s exercise of its right to self-defense.” After House majority leader John Boehner removed language from the bill urging “all sides to protect innocent civilian life and infrastructure,” the House version passed by a landslide, 410 to 8.
AIPAC not only lobbied for the resolution; it had written it. “They [Congress] were given a resolution by AIPAC,” said former Carter Administration National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who addressed the House Democratic Caucus on July 19. “They didn’t prepare one.”
AIPAC is the leading player in what is sometimes referred to as “The Israel Lobby”–a coalition that includes major Jewish groups, neoconservative intellectuals and Christian Zionists. With its impressive contacts among Hill staffers, influential grassroots supporters and deep connections to wealthy donors, AIPAC is the lobby’s key emissary to Congress. But in many ways, AIPAC has become greater than just another lobby; its work has made unconditional support for Israel an accepted cost of doing business inside the halls of Congress. AIPAC’s interest, Israel’s interest and America’s interest are today perceived by most elected leaders to be one and the same. Christian conservatives increasingly aligned with AIPAC demand unwavering support for Israel from their Republican leaders. (In mid-July, 3,000-plus evangelicals came to town for the first annual “Christian United for Israel” summit.) And Democrats are equally concerned about alienating Jewish voters and Jewish donors–long a cornerstone of their party. Some in Congress are deeply uncomfortable with AIPAC’s militant worldview and heavyhanded tactics, but most dare not say so publicly.
“The Bush Administration is bad enough in tolerating measures they would not accept anywhere else but Israel,” says Henry Siegman, the former head of the American Jewish Congress and a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But the Congress, if anything, is urging the Administration on and criticizing them even at their most accommodating. When it comes to the Israeli-Arab conflict, the terms of debate are so influenced by organized Jewish groups, like AIPAC, that to be critical of Israel is to deny oneself the ability to succeed in American politics.”
There are a few internationalist Republicans in the Senate and progressive Democrats in the House who occasionally dissent. Representative Dennis Kucinich and twenty-three co-sponsors have offered a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire and a return to multiparty diplomacy between the United States and regional powers, with no preconditions. But even the resolution’s supporters admit it isn’t likely to go anywhere. Another bill introduced by several Arab-American lawmakers that stressed the need to minimize civilian casualties on both sides was “politically swept under the rug,” according to Representative Nick Rahall, a Lebanese-American Democrat from West Virginia who voted against the House resolution. Dovish American-Israeli groups, such as Americans for Peace Now, have largely stayed out of the fight.