IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The battle of the Mideast lobbies

Capitol Hill veterans say this year’s lobbying on Mideast issues is more intense than ever.
/ Source: contributor

Far from the daily bloodletting in the Middle East, rival partisans of Israel and the Palestinians are mounting their fiercest lobbying campaigns since the birth of Israel, and the Palestinian problem, 54 years ago. Their targets: the Bush administration, Congress and the American public. The prize: the vital political and financial support that comes with those sympathies.

Both sides have jumped in the trenches for their causes before, but Capitol Hill veterans say this year’s lobbying is more intense than ever. Across a battlefield that ranges from Capitol Hill to the White House, and from the airwaves to the Op-Ed pages of the nation’s newspapers, these rival camps seek to harness to their best advantage the fears and passions stirred by the Middle East crisis.

Israel’s advocates have long enjoyed enormous influence in Congress, and since Sept. 11 their voice seems to be stronger than ever. Differences that divided American Jewish hawks and doves, like continued settlement in the Israeli-occupied territories, have been played down amid what most in the community regard as a war for Israel’s very survival. The American Jewish left complains that its calls for dialogue and peace are being ignored by politicians and the media. But Jews across the political spectrum concede that Palestinian suicide bombing attacks on Israelis have united them like never before.

“The Jewish community is now speaking with one voice,” said Rebecca Needler, a spokesperson for the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel lobby.

An uphill battle
Pro-Arab lobbyists, meanwhile, find themselves struggling to get their message out in the face of outrage over the Palestinian suicide bombings.

These lobbyists had made headway in Washington against their powerful pro-Israeli rivals in recent years. But now they complain they sometimes can’t even get their calls returned.

“There are still people on Capitol Hill who want to hear both sides,” said Edward Abington, a former U.S. diplomat in the Middle East and now a lobbyist for Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. But others no longer open their doors to him. “They basically don’t want to talk to us at all now,” he said.

Neither side appears to have prevailed so far in the fierce war of words that is raging on television talk shows and opinion pages. In Israel’s corner are influential syndicated columnists like William Safire, George Will and Charles Krauthammer, while Robert Novak, Christopher Hitchens and Pat Buchanan tend to side with the Palestinians.

But in public opinion polls, Israel’s image as an embattled ally struggling to defend itself is beginning to fray, largely because of persistent television images of the widespread destruction from the Israeli army’s latest incursion into the West Bank. Allegations of a massacre in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin, hotly denied by Israel, complicate the picture. Most polls taken earlier this month showed that Americans primarily viewed Israel as the victim of Palestinian terror. But a Washington Post-ABC poll released last week showed that a majority of Americans now fault both sides for failing to staunch the bloodshed that has drenched the region in recent months. Two other polls, one by Fox News and another by CNN, found a similar trend.

Out-gunned, out-classed
Still, the small and fractured Arab lobby in Washington finds itself without much of a natural constituency. Yet the political clout that Israel’s supporters enjoy was on display in mid-April when at least 50,000 people (the number, like everything else in the Mideast, is ) massed in front of the Capitol Building to support what they billed as an Israeli-American struggle against terrorism. A few days later, half the Senate, 90 members of the House and 13 senior administration officials, including Chief of Staff Andrew Card, attended the

American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee’s annual convention.

In one speech after another at the convention’s opening banquet, officials and lawmakers paid homage to the 3,500 committee delegates, many of whom contribute handsomely to political campaigns. Card drew a standing ovation after declaring in Hebrew, “The people of Israel live.” Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle described the U.S. commitment to Israel as “absolute” and blamed Arafat for the current violence after rejecting Israel’s peace offer at Camp David in July 2000.

The American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee’s ability to draw top administration and congressional leaders is nothing new. Building on the tightly woven web of strategic, political and cultural ties between the United States and Israel, the group’s lobbying efforts are widely regarded as unparalleled in their sophistication, organization and financing. And with a budget of $20 million, a staff of 130 at its Washington headquarters and a membership of 60,000, the lobby has demonstrated repeatedly it can organize grass-roots campaigns like last week’s demonstration to pressure both the administration and Congress. It also has shown it can punish officials who take positions considered antithetical to Israel’s interests.

Backing up their words
Many lawmakers, speaking on condition of anonymity, cite the role of pro-Israel advocacy groups in the election defeats of two former giants in the Senate, William Fullbright and Charles Percy, both of whom served as chairmen of the Foreign Relations Committee. Fullbright angered Israel’s supporters by holding hearings that examined the influence of pro-Israel lobbying groups on Congress. Percy drew Jewish ire by criticizing Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. On the advice of the Jewish lobby, pro-Israel groups poured money into the campaigns of their opponents.

President Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, also felt the political sting of the pro-Israel lobby after he threatened to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel unless Jerusalem agreed to freeze Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Savaged by Israel’s advocates, his share of the Jewish vote plummeted from 35 percent in the 1988 election to just 12 percent in his failed 1992 re-election bid. Meanwhile, millions of dollars in Jewish campaign contributions went to his challenger, Bill Clinton.

It is this political sophistication, backed by ample financial resources, that allows America’s 6 million Jews — only 2.3 percent of the population — to punch above their weight. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, pro-Israel lobbies contributed $6.5 million to candidates from both parties in 2000.

Over the years, the results have been impressive. Since the 1978 Camp David Accords, which paved the way for peace between Israel and Egypt, the United States has provided Jerusalem with $3 billion a year, along with supplemental aid for loan guarantees, immigrant absorption and a variety of weapons development programs. The largest recipient of U.S. assistance, Israel has received more than $70 billion to date, more than two-thirds of it in military assistance.

Arms and politics
That assistance has not only made Israel the strongest country in the Middle East; it also has made the American defense industry a strong lobbyist for the Jewish state.

According to the Federation of American Scientists, American defense companies have sold Israel $18.3 billion in state-of the-art weapons systems since 1990, making Israel’s defense a domestic economic priority.

Pro-Israel supporters have broadened their political base further in recent years, reaching out successfully to the Christian right.

The strength of that alliance surfaced last week when prominent religious and social conservatives teamed up with pro-Israel lawmakers to criticized the Bush administration for abandoning the “moral clarity” of its war on terror.

They specifically chastised the president for demanding Israel’s immediate withdrawal from the West Bank and Secretary of State Colin Powell to meet with Arafat at his beleaguered West Bank headquarters in an attempt to secure a cease-fire. The result: Bush backed off on his demands for a withdrawal and distanced himself from Powell.

With midterm-elections only seven months away, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle once again are emphasizing their Israeli loyalties. The House and Senate are solidly behind a proposed non-binding resolution that would support Israel’s armed incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas and question Arafat’s role as a “viable partner for peace” — in direct defiance of Bush’s renewed demands for Israel to vacate the territories.

For now, Bush has persuaded House Republican leaders to hold off on introducing the resolution, arguing it would complicate the administration’s peacemaking efforts and anger crucial Arab allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But the proposed measure, backed heavily by the pro-Israel lobby, hangs over Bush like a sword, along with several other measures that Israel’s congressional friends have prepared. These include pending legislation that could compel the United States to sever most ties to the Palestinian Authority and impose sanctions on Syria for its support of anti-Israeli terror.

Meanwhile, despite opposition by the administration, House and Senate appropriators are leaning toward giving Israel an additional infusion of $200 million in military aid to offset the costs of its anti-terror campaign.

A hint of desperation
Pro-Arab lobbyists and high-profile advocates like James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute seem overwhelmed by the strength of their rival.

“It’s very difficult, particularly in Congress,” said Hussein Ibish, spokesman for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, the largest pro-Arab lobby. “The array of powerful special interests that push with all their force for unconditional support for Israel, including its occupation, are mighty.”

Adds Abington: “It’s like a tidal wave.”

Undeterred, however, they are fighting back. A few days after the pro-Israel rally in Washington last week, an crowd that was at least as large gathered in the capital to protest U.S. support for what it called the “terror” of Israel’s 35-year military occupation of the West Bank and U.S. support for Israel’s policies. Earlier this week, the two groups angrily hurled insults at each other across police lines outside the AIPAC convention here.

Though Arab-American groups don’t enjoy the support that Israel’s friends have on Capitol Hill, they can point to a coterie of key lawmakers who are sympathetic to their cause. In the House, they include Reps. John Dingell and John Conyers, both Michigan Democrats whose districts include some of the nation’s largest concentrations of Arab Americans; and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, with whom Arab groups have built ties.

In the Senate, pro-Arab partisans look to Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, and Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who chairs that panel’s foreign operations subcommittee. Both have questioned whether the United States should continue providing Israel with military aid while its incursions into the West Bank continue.

Focus on the White House
Advocates for the Palestinians are also working hard to convince hard-liners in the administration that their one-sided support for Israel endangers America’s relations with Arab allies and the prospects for their help in confronting Iraq as part of Bush’s wider war on terror.

“Our first argument stems from American national interest — what’s in it for America,” says Khalil Jahshan, president of the National Association of Arab Americans.

Finally, borrowing a page from the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee, Arab-American groups have hired more lobbyists to make their case to lawmakers. Last month, for the first time, the Anti-Discrimination Committee formed a political action committee that will direct campaign contributions to targeted candidates like Rep. John Sununu, R-N.H., who is trying to unseat Sen. Robert Smith. If Sununu wins, he would become the only person of Arab descent in the Senate. The group says it plans to spend up to $200,000 on midterm campaigns and hopes to raise more for election campaigns in 2004.

Pro-Arab advocates say the only way their organizations will be taken seriously in Washington is by showing that they, like their pro-Israel rivals, can put someone into Congress, or take someone out. Said Ibish: “In this town, that’s how you get people’s attention.”

Jonathan Broder reports on Middle Eastern affairs for