Get the Think newsletter.
By Noah Berlatsky

Do large contributions from pro-Israeli groups determine U.S. policy in Israel?

That's not a new question, but it's surged back into the news this week following a series of tweets from Minnesota Congressional representative Ilhan Omar. Omar tweeted that her colleagues’ refusal to criticize Israel was "All about the Benjamins baby." She specifically called out AIPAC — the largest American pro-Israel lobbying group — for paying lawmakers to support Israeli policies.

The backlash to the comments was swift and intense; both Republicans and Democrats condemned them, and Omar apologized. President Donald Trump has called on her to resign — characteristically ignoring his own much worse history of anti-Semitic remarks.

SIGN UP FOR THE THINK WEEKLY NEWSLETTER HERE

But as often happens with these kinds of scuffles, all the recriminations and partisan jockeying has somewhat distracted from more substantive issues. Omar's tweets, inadvertently, referenced painful anti-Semitic tropes by framing Jewish money as a corrupting influence in politics. But she also raised real, legitimate concerns about the role of pro-Israeli lobbying influence on Congress.

Such lobbying is less nefarious, and more complicated, than Omar's tweets indicate. Understanding how it works in more detail is important if the U.S. is ever to engage more thoughtfully — and yes, critically — with Israel's current far-right, racist government, which has expanded settlements on Palestinian lands and has abandoned a commitment to Palestinian statehood.

But as often happens with these kinds of scuffles, all the recriminations and partisan jockeying has somewhat distracted from more substantive issues.

Many on the left believe that lobbying is in fact largely a bribery scheme. Thus, David Klion, a Jewish journalist, tweeted, "If the Palestinians could outbid AIPAC, then [Republican House Minority leader Kevin] McCarthy would be a BDS supporter, as would his entire caucus. This isn't complicated."

This line of reasoning suggests representatives in Congress simply sell their votes to the highest bidder. They don't support BDS (a pro-Palestinian boycott movement) because no one pays them to do so.

Political scientists, though, have been a lot more skeptical about the direct influence of money on politics. A 2003 survey of literature in the Journal of Economic Perspectives found that "Legislators' votes depend almost entirely on their own beliefs and the preferences of their voters and their party. Contributions explain a minuscule fraction of the variation in voting behavior in the U.S. Congress."

The paper was titled “Why is There so Little Money in U.S. Politics?” It pointed out that given the billions and billions of dollars at stake in public policy decisions, campaign contributions by interest groups are tiny. For instance, agribusiness gave $93 million in contributions in 2018. But ethanol subsidies alone are worth tens of billions of dollars. If money translates directly into policy, agribusiness should be paying a lot more to influence elections. It would be worth it.

Despite their reputation and conventional wisdom, campaign contributions don't generally translate directly into policy changes.

But despite their reputation and conventional wisdom, campaign contributions don't generally translate directly into policy changes, according to Clare Brock, a professor of government at Texas Woman's University who studies lobbying. "Most political scientists do not think about lobbying as vote buying, though sometimes the general public does think of it this way," she told me. "In fact, most of the time lobbying does not seem to actually change votes."

Paul Waldman at the American Prospect, for example, compared NRA spending and election results from 2004 through 2010. What he found was that "The NRA has virtually no impact on congressional elections." This is in part, he said, because the vast majority of NRA endorsements go to Republicans in deeply red regions. NRA contributions are also spread widely and are generally small per congressperson‚ only around $2,500. In short, the NRA makes small contributions to safe Republican seats — not a tactic designed to significantly change anyone's vote. The organization uses its resources as if it knows what political scientists know — which is that lobbying contributions don't really buy votes.

That doesn't mean that lobbying is worthless. Lobbying can get a member of Congress to become more vocal on an issue. Or lobbying can inform a member about what votes they can best take to advance a cause they already support. "Lobbying appears, most of the time, to act more like insurance, working at the margins, rather than setting the agenda," Clare Brock says.

And indeed, there are anecdotal accounts of instances in which money from pro-Israeli lobbying groups directly changed a vote. AIPAC in particular has a fearsome reputation for effectiveness; this reputation, as with the NRA, may be more valuable to it than money. But even so, Brock says, lobbying is in general a way to prevent a change in the status quo, rather than to push members of Congress to endorse radical new policies.

AIPAC, in particular, uses methods other than direct handouts, according to political scientist Eleanor Powell of University of Wisconsin, Madison. In fact, AIPAC, as a lobbying group, can't contribute directly to candidates.

Instead Powell says, the organization has invested in "a lot of congressional trips to Israel, to try to woo members." Those trips give the lobbyists access to make their case. Trips also make lawmakers feel directly connected to Israel, which may sway their votes in some instances.

But the main reason that AIPAC and other Israeli lobbyists are so successful, Powell says, is because of "electoral influence." AIPAC is influential because a lot of voters want to support Israel. Three-quarters of the public has a positive view of Israel, according to Gallup.

Perhaps even more importantly, strong, engaged voting blocks on the left and right support the current pro-Israel stance. "Evangelical Christians are on the right pushing pro-Israel policies," says Powell, "and then you have Jewish voters, who tend to break Democratic. Historically that's been the larger picture driving pro Israel policy, rather than any contributions."

America’s current willingness to support Israel no matter what it does to the Palestinians is based on the normal political processes of U.S. government.

America’s current willingness to support Israel no matter what it does to the Palestinians is based on the normal political processes of U.S. government. These processes often result in horrific outcomes, like mass incarceration or shooting tear gas at children. But they aren't the result of bribery.

Why is this important? First, when you argue that Jewish or pro-Israel money has undermined the political system, you're playing into anti-Semitic tropes that portray Jews as wealthy conspirators who corrupt a healthy body politic. This harms Jewish people everywhere — and the backlash to it can delegitimize necessary criticism of U.S.-Israel foreign policy.

Second, if you want to change U.S. foreign policy, it's important to understand what actually motivates it. If we think money in politics is the problem, that means activists should push for campaign finance reform or reduce the influence of lobbyists. Campaign finance reform might help a bit around the edges with a lot of issues, including foreign policy. But money is not the main driver of U.S. support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and so focusing on lobbying alone is unlikely to solve the problem.

To change U.S.-Israel policy, we will need to change public opinion. Accomplishing that change will be hard, but there are some positive signs. Netanyahu's close association with Trump and the U.S. far right has alienated many American Jews. Younger Jews are, in any case, less supportive of Zionism.

Those are flickers of hope for the long term. The short-term prospects for change are not especially optimistic. But the short-term prospects for decarceration, or a less hateful immigration policy aren't all that bright either. In some ways, the fight would be easier if it were just about raising more money than the opposition. At least the goal would be clearer then. For better or worse, though, politics is not simply "about the Benjamins."