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On May 2 the Senate, in a vote of 94 to 2, and the House, 352 to 21,
expressed unqualified support for Israel in its recent military actions
against the Palestinians. The resolutions were so strong that the Bush
Administration--hardly a slouch when it comes to supporting
Israel--attempted to soften its language so as to have more room in
getting peace talks going. But its pleas were rejected, and members of
Congress from Joe Lieberman to Tom DeLay competed to heap praise on
Ariel Sharon and disdain on Yasir Arafat. Reporting on the vote, the
New York Times noted that one of the few dissenters, Senator
Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, "suggested that many senators were
after campaign contributions."
Aside from that brief reference, however, the Times made no
mention of the role that money, or lobbying in general, may have played
in the lopsided vote. More specifically, the Times made no
mention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It's a
remarkable oversight. AIPAC is widely regarded as the most powerful
foreign-policy lobby in Washington. Its 60,000 members shower millions
of dollars on hundreds of members of Congress on both sides of the
aisle. It also maintains a network of wealthy and influential citizens
around the country, whom it can regularly mobilize to support its main
goal, which is making sure there is "no daylight" between the policies
of Israel and of the United States.
So, when Congress votes so decisively in support of Israel, it's no
accident. Yet, surveying US newspaper coverage of the Middle East in
recent months, I found next to nothing about AIPAC and its influence.
The one account of any substance appeared in the Washington Post,
in late April. Reporting on AIPAC's annual conference, correspondent
Mike Allen noted that the attendees included half the Senate, ninety
members of the House and thirteen senior Administration officials,
including White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who drew a standing
ovation when he declared in Hebrew, "The people of Israel live." Showing
its "clout," Allen wrote, AIPAC held "a lively roll call of the hundreds
of dignitaries, with individual cheers for each." Even this article,
however, failed to probe beneath the surface and examine the lobbying
and fundraising techniques AIPAC uses to lock up support in Congress.
AIPAC is not the only pro-Israel organization to escape scrutiny. The
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, though
little known to the general public, has tremendous influence in
Washington, especially with the executive branch. Based in New York, the
conference is supposed to give voice to the fifty-two Jewish
organizations that sit on its board, but in reality it tends to reflect
the views of its executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein. Hoenlein has
long had close ties to Israel's Likud Party. In the 1990s he helped
raise money for settlers' groups on the West Bank, and today he
regularly refers to that region as "Judea and Samaria," a biblically
inspired catch phrase used by conservatives to justify the presence of
Jewish settlers there. A skilled and articulate operative, Hoenlein uses
his access to the State Department, Pentagon and National Security
Council to push for a strong Israel. He's so effective at it that the
Jewish newspaper the Forward, in its annual list of the fifty
most important American Jews, has ranked Hoenlein first.
Hoenlein showed his organizing skills in April, when he helped convene
the large pro-Israel rally on Capitol Hill. While the event itself was
widely covered, Hoenlein, and the conference, remained invisible. An
informal survey of recent coverage turned up not a single in-depth piece
about Hoenlein and how he has used the Presidents Conference to keep the
Bush Administration from putting too much pressure on the Sharon
Why the blackout? For one thing, reporting on these groups is not easy.
AIPAC's power makes potential sources reluctant to discuss the
organization on the record, and employees who leave it usually sign
pledges of silence. AIPAC officials themselves rarely give interviews,
and the organization even resists divulging its board of directors.
Journalists, meanwhile, are often loath to write about the influence of
organized Jewry. Throughout the Arab world, the "Jewish lobby" is seen
as the root of all evil in the Middle East, and many reporters and
editors--especially Jewish ones--worry about feeding such stereotypes.
In the end, though, the main obstacle to covering these groups is fear.
Jewish organizations are quick to detect bias in the coverage of the
Middle East, and quick to complain about it. That's especially true of
late. As the Forward observed in late April, "rooting out
perceived anti-Israel bias in the media has become for many American
Jews the most direct and emotional outlet for connecting with the
conflict 6,000 miles away." Recently, an estimated 1,000 subscribers to
the Los Angeles Times suspended home delivery for a day to
protest what they considered the paper's pro-Palestinian coverage. The
Chicago Tribune, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the
Philadelphia Inquirer and the Miami Herald have all been hit
by similar protests, and NPR has received thousands of e-mails
complaining about its reports from the Middle East.
Do such protests have an effect? Consider the recent experience of the
New York Times. On May 6 the paper ran two photographs of a
pro-Israel parade in Manhattan. Both showed the parade in the background
and anti-Israel protesters prominently in the foreground. The paper,
which for weeks has been threatened with a boycott by Jewish readers,
was deluged with protests. On May 7 the Times ran an abject
apology. That caused much consternation in the newsroom, with some
reporters and editors feeling that the paper had buckled before an
influential constituency. "It's very intimidating," said a correspondent
at another large daily who is familiar with the incident. Newspapers, he
added, are "afraid" of organizations like AIPAC and the Presidents
Conference. "The pressure from these groups is relentless. Editors would
just as soon not touch them."
Needless to say, US support for Israel is the product of many
factors--Israel's status as the sole democracy in the Middle East, its
value as a US strategic ally and widespread horror over Palestinian
suicide bombers. But the power of the pro-Israel lobby is an important
element as well. Indeed, it's impossible to understand the Bush
Administration's tender treatment of the Sharon government without
taking into account the influence of groups like AIPAC. Isn't it time
they were exposed to the daylight?