Mearsheimer and Walt write that AIPAC is a “de facto agent of the Israeli government.” In various parts of their book, they provide examples of the “Israel lobby’s” ability to promote Israel’s agenda in the halls of power.
But they do not seem to grasp a far more interesting, subtle point about AIPAC: it answers to AIPAC and supports AIPAC’s agenda, which does not always align with Israel’s. An article in this week’s Forward, Contradictory Signals From Israel and its Supporters on Saudi Arms Deal gives the latest example of conflicting legislative priorities:
As the Bush administrationâ€™s $20 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia heads for congressional debate, lawmakers are receiving contradictory signals from Israel and its supporters in the United States.
Israelâ€™s defense minister, Ehud Barak, told Congress last week that Israel does not oppose the deal and will not take a stand against it. At the same time, a letter backed by the pro-Israel lobby began circulating in the House of Representatives, demanding that the administration impose strict condition on how the Saudis will be allowed to use special bomb-guidance systems that are part of the sales deal.
…While the chief Israeli defense official was telling members of Congress that he sees no problem with the deal, Israelâ€™s supporters in the House of Representatives began gathering signatures on a letter to the president, asking him to put restrictions and limitations on the Saudi arms deal.
The letter, which is being endorsed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, focuses on the potential threat posed by the Joint Direct Attack Munitions, which is part of the deal. (emphasis added)
AIPAC, in other words, is opposing an Israeli policy. This has happened many times in the past. In Yossi Beilin’s book, “My Brother’s Keeper,” he describes AIPAC officials as acting like “frightened deer” when they were asked to support aid to the Palestinian authority in the 1990s. Several, more recent bills for Palestinian aid put much more stringent conditions on the financial assistance than the Sharon and Olmert governments wanted. In 1995, AIPAC worked closely with Bob Dole to push the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which embarassed Rabin at a time of delicate negotiations on the implementation of the Oslo accords.
AIPAC does do what Israel wants, much of the time. But it is hardly an “agent” of a foreign government. It’s more like a staunch coalition ally which sometimes goes its own way. It supports an IDEA of Israel, a set of premises about Israel, and when the Israeli government disagrees, AIPAC will do what AIPAC wants to do.
Some of that divergence has to do with the organization’s hawkish tilt. But it is also due to something deeper, something about the culture of Washington and the kinds of people who want to –and need to–spend their professional lives nudging the American government to do one thing or another.
An ex-staff member of AIPAC has told me that some of his former colleagues don’t really care very much about Israel, they never vacation there, they are consummate political players who could just as easily ply their trade on behalf of the textile industry or big Pharma. It’s the win that counts, not the cause. I think that is unfair and exaggerated, but it does help to support a related claim that Washington insiders sometimes make: AIPAC is interested in getting political victories as a means of sustaining its own power and perpetuating itself. That is priority #1, not Israel.
Larry Cohler-Esses, a veteran reporter for Jewish weeklies, once said, “The early Zionists learned that they could help Israel by winning the Washington game. In the 1970s and ’80s, the AIPAC people learned that they could win the Washington game by helping Israel.”
That should be food for thought for the dual-loyalty theorists…