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 government.
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?