Lobbies, pro and con

Over at the Realistic Peace blog, Moshe Yaroni looks at the distasteful letters AIPAC directed members of Congress to send to the President. Just more evidence that politics comes ahead of national interests, but that’s one thing most people, on the left or the right, can agree upon.

He also discusses the whole “Israel Lobby” question, which you can find a lot of my writing about on this blog.

Here we are in an election year, and once again, AIPAC is able to turn screws like crazy in Congress. Some wonder why.

The two big "lobbies"

Some wonder whether all the polls which show that most Jews welcome a robust American peace effort that includes pressure on both sides are smoke and mirrors.

Even Israelis in significant numbers recognize that their government depends on outside pressure to take the risks necessary for peace.

Let’s confront this for what it really is: a small minority in the Jewish community drives the so-called “Jewish vote.”

It’s not a vote at all, in fact. It is that small number of wealthy Jews who are willing to put up a great deal of money in campaign contributions to create a specific dynamic: ongoing American financial, military and diplomatic support that remains consistent no matter what actions Israel takes and whether or not those actions serve American interests.

One of the problems, to be sure, is the perception of “Jewish money.” There is an assumption that all Jewish donors support the sort of politics Yaroni described, which are driven by blind support for every Israeli action, no matter that we’ve already seen the dire consequences for Israel (and, obviously, the Palestinians). It may well be that a good deal of that money is not being given to Israel-centric PACs but rather to drive the much broader agenda most Jews have, which is essentially domestic and liberal.

The main issue is the same one it has always been: those who support either the status quo or a strategy of Israel gaining security by smashing “the Arabs” are willing to spend an enormous amount of time and effort in the pursuit of these goals. The moderate majority, as well as the more progressive/left-wing part of the Jewish community may feel very strongly about peace in the Middle East, but they are generally focused on other issues.

This too has been reflected in polls, especially the annual American Jewish Committee polls which consistently show the bulk of the American Jewish community to have numerous priorities above Israel. Not so the pro-settlement or religious zealot segments.

And that is what is driving the leadership of major Jewish institutions like AIPAC, the AJC, the Conference of Presidents and others.

Can this be changed? Two conditions must be created in order for this to happen.

One is that Americans who support peace must overcome the divisions between them. This happens in the status quo crowd with regularity. Orthodox Jews, radicals who believe the Netanyahu government is too conciliatory, and others come together with more mainstream figures with regularity.

But on the pro-peace side, one-staters and two-staters fight each other almost as much as they fight to change policy, and they rarely work together. Where AIPAC can make common cause with a controversial group like Christians United for Israel (CUFI), J Street cannot even work with Jewish Voice for Peace. The latter pair have far more in common than do the former, yet they repel each other as if they were like poles of magnets.

In this, both sides are to blame, as I have seen by working on both sides of that coin. Uncompromising ideological rigidity by some in the more left camp and political conservatism by some in the more moderate camp come together to keep them all apart. And this despite the fact that it is clear that J Street and JVP have an enormous amount of overlap in terms of their supporters and respective memberships.

These days, with more and more talk of targeted divestment and even the real possibility of alternatives to the two-state solution being discussed in more mainstream settings, as well as a marked increase in DC-based political activism on the left, there is even more reason and opportunity for these two camps to find common cause.

That does not entail agreeing, or even liking each other all the time (see some of the things the Zionist Organization of America has said about AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents from time to time).  But it does mean trying to bring at least their DC-directed efforts into some kind of synergy. Right now, they seem all too often to be pulling in different directions.

The other necessary condition is to convince a much broader section of Americans that this is a foreign policy issue with direct impact on their lives.

Sadly, a regional war is the most obvious way this can come about. If things continue to degenerate, that’s just what we will have and America will be in the middle of it in a way it never has before in the region. The deep US entrenchment in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as its brewing conflict with Iran will make it inevitable.

Thus, it is preferable that Americans be convinced of the importance of this issue before it comes to that. This is perhaps the most important task pro-peace forces have before them. And it’s a tough one.

Israel is a domestic issue, which is precisely the problem. It is the issue for a narrow, but very motivated sector of the American body politic. That sector is not going to back away, and it is hopeless to try and change their influence. Rather, we must endeavor to balance it.

Unless and until mainstream America, not just the concerned religious/ethnic communities, can be convinced that this is an issue they need to worry about, there is no hope of changing the political tide and any President that wants to change our policy can only do so at high political cost.

The key battle of ideas is that the Israel-Palestine conflict is connected to the rest of the Middle East tumult that America is embedded in. The argument must be taken out of the silly context that resolving this conflict will resolve all the issues in the Mideast; that’s obviously not true and no one claims that it is.

But not resolving it will end up bringing terrible consequences not only on Israelis and Palestinians, but on Americans as well. Until that case can be made, the political battle will remain an uphill one.