Confessions of an AIPAC Veteran | The Nation


Confessions of an AIPAC Veteran

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Helena Cobban
Helena Cobban has written about (and often from) the Middle East since 1975. She writes a column on global affairs for...

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If you walk along a certain dusty lane in the walled Old City of Damascus, you'll come to a heavy door that admits you to the tree-shaded courtyards of the Talisman Hotel. Last January I was part of a small group that stayed at the Talisman. We ate breakfast in its womblike bar/cafe, under a sixty-inch plasma screen that showed Al Jazeera's play-by-play of the ongoing destruction of Gaza. One morning my colleague Tom Dine introduced me to another guest. "And this is Helena Cobban," he said. "Back in the 1980s she caused me so many sleepless nights! But now we are working here together."

My jaw dropped. I caused sleepless nights to Tom Dine in the 1980s? How about all those sleepless nights he caused me back when I was trying to argue in Washington that Palestinians are people like everyone else and he was the much-feared executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), who took down the careers of people like me without a second thought?

Damascus, with its long tradition of conversions, seems a good place to launch this story. But step back to 1982, when Dine, figuratively speaking, picked up veteran Illinois Representative Paul Findley by the lapels and slammed him against the wall of electoral defeat--to make an example for any other members of Congress who might want to take even a half-step away from AIPAC's rigidly pro-Israel orthodoxy. (Four years earlier, Findley had met twice with PLO leader Yasir Arafat, eliciting from him a statement that offered guarded support for a two-state solution and, according to Findley, "de facto recognition" of Israel.) Dine was also the man who, as he told me recently, spent many Saturday mornings sitting with Secretary of State George Shultz, conferring closely--no aides present--on key aspects of US Middle East policy, especially arms sales.

Today AIPAC is just as much a powerhouse lobby as it was during Dine's thirteen-year reign, but it is much more pro-Likud than it was back then. And it is still working hard to drum up opposition to Syria. Dine left AIPAC in 1993 and has moved noticeably toward the peace camp since then. Recently he worked with the broadly dovish Israel Policy Forum (IPF), which advocates a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. And for the past year, Dine has been heading a small group dedicated to improving US-Syrian relations.

Dine has taken a long journey, from drinking Scotch one-on-one with Yitzhak Rabin in Jerusalem's King David Hotel--at a time when Rabin, as defense minister, was calling publicly for his soldiers to "break the bones" of unarmed Palestinians during the first intifada--to caucusing with well-connected Syrians in Damascus, two decades later.

Tom Dine was born in 1940 in Cincinnati, a city perched on the edge of the Old South. He told me he hated racial discrimination from an early age. The Dines were members of the Isaac M. Wise Temple, named for the rabbi who established the founding tenets and institutions of Reform Judaism. For young Reform Jews in 1950s Cincinnati, there were no bar or bat mitzvahs; there was "confirmation." And once Dine was confirmed, he pursued further religious studies at the city's Wise-founded Hebrew Union College (HUC).

"While I was there, the rabbinic students did a petition in support of Martin Luther King's bus boycott," he recalled. "The head of HUC, Nelson Glueck, opposed their petition--well, certainly the visibility of it; I don't know about the sentiment. But the students defied his authority and stood up for their principles.... I was 15. Those are heavy influences."

At Colgate University, Dine joined the Congress of Racial Equality. Later he served with the Peace Corps in the Philippines, got a master's degree in South Asian history at UCLA, then took a job at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington. "I got this terrible, terrible disease the moment I got off the plane there: it's called Potomac Fever. I never got over it!" he said.

In Washington he met Joan Corbett, daughter of a prominent Unitarian family in Portland, Oregon, and soon thereafter they married. They spent two years in New Delhi, where Dine was assistant to US Ambassador Chester Bowles. After returning to Washington, Dine worked five years for Senator Frank Church, four years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Edmund Muskie and one year with Ted Kennedy. "With Ted Kennedy, I was ostensibly doing defense policy, but really I was orchestrating his Jewish-vote efforts," he said.

In 1979 Kennedy launched his bid for the presidency, running in the primaries against President Jimmy Carter. Dine worked hard for Kennedy: "It was in the course of that campaign I met the organized Jewish community.... They were the kings in every city!" The campaign was troubled from the start, but in March 1980 Kennedy won a surprise victory in the New York primary. By all accounts, that win was propelled by the support he got from the Jewish community--particularly after Carter's UN ambassador failed to protect Israel from a Security Council vote denouncing its West Bank settlements. Meanwhile, in Washington, the AIPAC board offered Dine the job of executive director. "I said I would go with [Kennedy] as far as it goes," Dine recalled. "Then in July or so, Carter gets renominated.... And I said yes to AIPAC."

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