THE ISRAEL LOBBY
The explanation lies in the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby. Were it not for
the Lobby’s ability to manipulate the American political system, the relationship
between Israel and the United States would be far less intimate than it is today.
What Is The Lobby?
We use “the Lobbyʺ as a convenient short‐hand term for the loose coalition of
individuals and organizations who actively work to shape U.S. foreign policy in
a pro‐Israel direction. Our use of this term is not meant to suggest that ʺthe
Lobbyʺ is a unified movement with a central leadership, or that individuals
within it do not disagree on certain issues
The core of the Lobby is comprised of American Jews who make a significant
effort in their daily lives to bend U.S. foreign policy so that it advances Israel’s
interests. Their activities go beyond merely voting for candidates who are pro‐
Israel to include letter‐writing, financial contributions, and supporting pro‐Israel
organizations. But not all Jewish‐Americans are part of the Lobby, because
Israel is not a salient issue for many of them. In a 2004 survey, for example,
roughly 36 percent of Jewish‐Americans said they were either “not very” or “not
at all” emotionally attached to Israel.
Jewish‐Americans also differ on specific Israeli policies. Many of the key
organizations in the Lobby, like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of
Major Jewish Organizations (CPMJO), are run by hardliners who generally
supported the expansionist policies of Israel’s Likud Party, including its hostility
to the Oslo Peace Process. The bulk of U.S. Jewry, on the other hand, is more
favorably disposed to making concessions to the Palestinians, and a few
groups—such as Jewish Voice for Peace—strongly advocate such steps.
these differences, moderates and hardliners both support steadfast U.S. support
Not surprisingly, American Jewish leaders often consult with Israeli officials, so
that the former can maximize their influence in the United States. As one activist
with a major Jewish organization wrote, “it is routine for us to say: ‘This is our
14policy on a certain issue, but we must check what the Israelis think.’ We as a
community do it all the time.”
There is also a strong norm against criticizing
Israeli policy, and Jewish‐American leaders rarely support putting pressure on
Israel. Thus, Edgar Bronfman Sr., the president of the World Jewish Congress,
was accused of “perfidy” when he wrote a letter to President Bush in mid‐2003
urging Bush to pressure Israel to curb construction of its controversial “security
Critics declared that, “It would be obscene at any time for the president
of the World Jewish Congress to lobby the president of the United States to resist
policies being promoted by the government of Israel.”
Similarly, when Israel Policy Forum president Seymour Reich advised Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice to pressure Israel to reopen a critical border crossing in
the Gaza Strip in November 2005, critics denounced his action as “irresponsible
behavior,” and declared that, “There is absolutely no room in the Jewish
mainstream for actively canvassing against the security‐related policies . . . of
Recoiling from these attacks, Reich proclaimed that “the word pressure
is not in my vocabulary when it comes to Israel.”
Jewish‐Americans have formed an impressive array of organizations to influence
American foreign policy, of which AIPAC is the most powerful and well‐known.
In 1997, Fortune magazine asked members of Congress and their staffs to list the
most powerful lobbies in Washington.
AIPAC was ranked second behind the
American Association of Retired People (AARP), but ahead of heavyweight
lobbies like the AFL‐CIO and the National Rifle Association. A National Journal
study in March 2005 reached a similar conclusion, placing AIPAC in second
place (tied with AARP) in the Washington’s “muscle rankings.”
The Lobby also includes prominent Christian evangelicals like Gary Bauer, Jerry
Falwell, Ralph Reed, and Pat Robertson, as well as Dick Armey and Tom DeLay,
former majority leaders in the House of Representatives. They believe Israel’s
rebirth is part of Biblical prophecy, support its expansionist agenda, and think
pressuring Israel is contrary to God’s will.
In addition, the Lobby’s
membership includes neoconservative gentiles such as John Bolton, the late Wall
Street Journal editor Robert Bartley, former Secretary of Education William
Bennett, former U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and columnist George
15Sources of Power
The United States has a divided government that offers many ways to influence
the policy process. As a result, interest groups can shape policy in many
different ways—by lobbying elected representatives and members of the
executive branch, making campaign contributions, voting in elections, molding
public opinion, etc.
Furthermore, special interest groups enjoy disproportionate power when they
are committed to a particular issue and the bulk of the population is indifferent.
Policymakers will tend to accommodate those who care about the issue in
question, even if their numbers are small, confident that the rest of the
population will not penalize them.
The Israel Lobby’s power flows from its unmatched ability to play this game of
interest group politics. In its basic operations, it is no different from interest
groups like the Farm Lobby, steel and textile workers, and other ethnic lobbies.
What sets the Israel Lobby apart is its extraordinary effectiveness. But there is
nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to
sway U.S. policy towards Israel. The Lobby’s activities are not the sort of
conspiracy depicted in anti‐Semitic tracts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
For the most part, the individuals and groups that comprise the Lobby are doing
what other special interest groups do, just much better. Moreover, pro‐Arab
interest groups are weak to non‐existent, which makes the Lobby’s task even
Strategies for Success
The Lobby pursues two broad strategies to promote U.S. support for Israel. First,
it wields significant influence in Washington, pressuring both Congress and the
Executive branch to support Israel down the line. Whatever an individual
lawmaker or policymaker’s own views, the Lobby tries to make supporting Israel
the “smart” political choice.
Second, the Lobby strives to ensure that public discourse about Israel portrays it
in a positive light, by repeating myths about Israel and its founding and by
publicizing Israel’s side in the policy debates of the day. The goal is to prevent
critical commentary about Israel from getting a fair hearing in the political arena.
Controlling the debate is essential to guaranteeing U.S. support, because a
16candid discussion of U.S.‐Israeli relations might lead Americans to favor a
A key pillar of the Lobby’s effectiveness is its influence in the U.S. Congress,
where Israel is virtually immune from criticism. This is in itself a remarkable
situation, because Congress almost never shies away from contentious issues.
Whether the issue is abortion, affirmative action, health care, or welfare, there is
certain to be a lively debate on Capitol Hill. Where Israel is concerned, however,
potential critics fall silent and there is hardly any debate at all.
One reason for the Lobby’s success with Congress is that some key members are
Christian Zionists like Dick Armey, who said in September 2002 that “My No. 1
priority in foreign policy is to protect Israel.”
One would think that the number
1 priority for any congressman would be to “protect America,” but that is not
what Armey said. There are also Jewish senators and congressmen who work to
make U.S. foreign policy support Israel’s interests.
Pro‐Israel congressional staffers are another source of the Lobby’s power. As
Morris Amitay, a former head of AIPAC, once admitted, “There are a lot of guys
at the working level up here [on Capitol Hill] … who happen to be Jewish, who
are willing … to look at certain issues in terms of their Jewishness …. These are
all guys who are in a position to make the decision in these areas for those
senators …. You can get an awful lot done just at the staff level.”
It is AIPAC itself, however, that forms the core of the Lobby’s influence in
Congress. AIPAC’s success is due to its ability to reward legislators and
congressional candidates who support its agenda, and to punish those who
challenge it. Money is critical to U.S. elections (as the recent scandal over
lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s various shady dealings reminds us), and AIPAC makes
sure that its friends get strong financial support from the myriad pro‐Israel
political action committees. Those seen as hostile to Israel, on the other hand,
can be sure that AIPAC will direct campaign contributions to their political
opponents. AIPAC also organizes letter‐writing campaigns and encourages
newspaper editors to endorse pro‐Israel candidates.
There is no doubt about the potency of these tactics. To take but one example, in
1984 AIPAC helped defeat Senator Charles Percy from Illinois, who, according to
one prominent Lobby figure, had “displayed insensitivity and even hostility to
17our concerns.” Thomas Dine, the head of AIPAC at the time, explained what
happened: “All the Jews in America, from coast to coast, gathered to oust Percy.
And the American politicians ‐‐ those who hold public positions now, and those
who aspire ‐‐ got the message.”
AIPAC prizes its reputation as a formidable
adversary, of course, because it discourages anyone from questioning its agenda.
AIPAC’s influence on Capitol Hill goes even further, however. According to
Douglas Bloomfield, a former AIPAC staff member, “It is common for members
of Congress and their staffs to turn to AIPAC first when they need information,
before calling the Library of Congress, the Congressional Research Service,
committee staff or administration experts.”
More importantly, he notes that
AIPAC is “often called upon to draft speeches, work on legislation, advise on
tactics, perform research, collect co‐sponsors and marshal votes.”
The bottom line is that AIPAC, which is a de facto agent for a foreign government,
has a stranglehold on the U.S. Congress.
Open debate about U.S. policy
towards Israel does not occur there, even though that policy has important
consequences for the entire world. Thus, one of the three main branches of the
U.S. government is firmly committed to supporting Israel. As former Senator
Ernest Hollings (D‐SC) noted as he was leaving office, “You can’t have an Israeli
policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here.”
Small wonder that
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once told an American audience. “When
people ask me how they can help Israel, I tell them—Help AIPAC.”
Influencing the Executive
The Lobby also has significant leverage over the Executive branch. That power
derives in part from the influence Jewish voters have on presidential elections.
Despite their small numbers in the population (less than 3 percent), they make
large campaign donations to candidates from both parties. The Washington Post
once estimated that Democratic presidential candidates “depend on Jewish
supporters to supply as much as 60 percent of the money.”
Jewish voters have high turn‐out rates and are concentrated in key states like
California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania. Because they matter in
close elections, Presidential candidates go to great lengths not to antagonize
Key organizations in the Lobby also directly target the administration in power.
For example, pro‐Israel forces make sure that critics of the Jewish state do not get
important foreign‐policy appointments. Jimmy Carter wanted to make George
18Ball his first secretary of state, but he knew that Ball was perceived as critical of
Israel and that the Lobby would oppose the appointment.
This litmus test
forces any aspiring policymaker to become an overt supporter of Israel, which is
why public critics of Israeli policy have become an endangered species in the
U.S. foreign policy establishment.
These constraints still operate today. When 2004 presidential candidate Howard
Dean called for the United States to take a more “even‐handed role” in the Arab‐
Israeli conflict, Senator Joseph Lieberman accused him of selling Israel down the
river and said his statement was “irresponsible.”
Virtually all of the top
Democrats in the House signed a hard‐hitting letter to Dean criticizing his
comments, and the Chicago Jewish Star reported that “anonymous attackers … are
clogging the e‐mail inboxes of Jewish leaders around the country, warning ‐‐
without much evidence ‐‐ that Dean would somehow be bad for Israel.”
This worry was absurd, however, because Dean is in fact quite hawkish on
His campaign co‐chair was a former AIPAC president, and Dean said
his own views on the Middle East more closely reflected those of AIPAC than the
more moderate Americans for Peace Now. Dean had merely suggested that to
“bring the sides together,” Washington should act as an honest broker. This is
hardly a radical idea, but it is anathema to the Lobby, which does not tolerate the
idea of even‐handedness when it comes to the Arab‐Israeli conflict.
The Lobby’s goals are also served when pro‐Israel individuals occupy important
positions in the executive branch. During the Clinton Administration, for
example, Middle East policy was largely shaped by officials with close ties to
Israel or to prominent pro‐Israel organizations—including Martin Indyk, the
former deputy director of research at AIPAC and co‐founder of the pro‐Israel
Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP); Dennis Ross, who joined
WINEP after leaving government in 2001; and Aaron Miller, who has lived in
Israel and often visits there.
These men were among President Clinton’s closest advisors at the Camp David
summit in July 2000. Although all three supported the Oslo peace process and
favored creation of a Palestinian state, they did so only within the limits of what
would be acceptable to Israel.
In particular, the American delegation took its
cues from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, coordinated negotiating positions
in advance, and did not offer its own independent proposals for settling the
conflict. Not surprisingly, Palestinian negotiators complained that they were
19“negotiating with two Israeli teams ‐‐ one displaying an Israeli flag, and one an
The situation is even more pronounced in the Bush Administration, whose ranks
include fervently pro‐Israel individuals like Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Douglas
Feith, I. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and David
Wurmser. As we shall see, these officials consistently pushed for policies
favored by Israel and backed by organizations in the Lobby.
Manipulating the Media
In addition to influencing government policy directly, the Lobby strives to shape
public perceptions about Israel and the Middle East. It does not want an open
debate on issues involving Israel, because an open debate might cause Americans
to question the level of support that they currently provide. Accordingly, pro‐
Israel organizations work hard to influence the media, think tanks, and
academia, because these institutions are critical in shaping popular opinion.
The Lobby’s perspective on Israel is widely reflected in the mainstream media in
good part because most American commentators are pro‐Israel. The debate
among Middle East pundits, journalist Eric Alterman writes, is “dominated by
people who cannot imagine criticizing Israel.”
He lists 61 “columnists and
commentators who can be counted upon to support Israel reflexively and
without qualification.” Conversely, Alterman found just five pundits who
consistently criticize Israeli behavior or endorse pro‐Arab positions.
Newspapers occasionally publish guest op‐eds challenging Israeli policy, but the
balance of opinion clearly favors the other side.
This pro‐Israel bias is reflected in the editorials of major newspapers. Robert
Bartley, the late editor of the Wall Street Journal, once remarked that, “Shamir,
Sharon, Bibi – whatever those guys want is pretty much fine by me.”
surprisingly, the Journal, along with other prominent newspapers like The Chicago
Sun‐Times and The Washington Times regularly run editorials that are strongly
pro‐Israel. Magazines like Commentary, the New Republic, and the Weekly
Standard also zealously defend Israel at every turn.
Editorial bias is also found in papers like the New York Times. The Times
occasionally criticizes Israeli policies and sometimes concedes that the
Palestinians have legitimate grievances, but it is not even‐handed. In his
memoirs, for example, former Times executive editor Max Frankel acknowledged
20the impact his own pro‐Israel attitude had on his editorial choices. In his words:
“I was much more deeply devoted to Israel than I dared to assert.” He goes on:
“Fortified by my knowledge of Israel and my friendships there, I myself wrote
most of our Middle East commentaries. As more Arab than Jewish readers
recognized, I wrote them from a pro‐Israel perspective.”
The media’s reporting of news events involving Israel is somewhat more even‐
handed than editorial commentary is, in part because reporters strive to be
objective, but also because it is difficult to cover events in the occupied territories
without acknowledging Israel’s actual behavior. To discourage unfavorable
reporting on Israel, the Lobby organizes letter writing campaigns,
demonstrations, and boycotts against news outlets whose content it considers
anti‐Israel. One CNN executive has said that he sometimes gets 6,000 e‐mail
messages in a single day complaining that a story is anti‐Israel.
pro‐Israel Committee for Accurate Middle East Reporting in America
(CAMERA) organized demonstrations outside National Public Radio stations in
33 cities in May 2003, and it also tried to convince contributors to withhold
support from NPR until its Middle East coverage became more sympathetic to
Boston’s NPR station, WBUR, reportedly lost more than $1 million in
contributions as a result of these efforts. Pressure on NPR has also come from
Israel’s friends in Congress, who have asked NPR for an internal audit as well as
more oversight of its Middle East coverage.
These factors help explain why the American media contains few criticisms of
Israeli policy, rarely questions Washington’s relationship with Israel, and only
occasionally discusses the Lobby’s profound influence on U.S. policy.
Think Tanks That Think One Way
Pro‐Israel forces predominate in U.S. think tanks, which play an important role
in shaping public debate as well as actual policy. The Lobby created its own
think tank in 1985, when Martin Indyk helped found WINEP.
WINEP plays down its links to Israel and claims instead that it provides a
“balanced and realistic” perspective on Middle East issues, this is not the case.
In fact, WINEP is funded and run by individuals who are deeply committed to
advancing Israel’s agenda.
The Lobby’s influence in the think tank world extends well beyond WINEP.
Over the past 25 years, pro‐Israel forces have established a commanding
presence at the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, the
21Center for Security Policy, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the Heritage
Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, and
the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). These think tanks are
decidedly pro‐Israel, and include few, if any, critics of U.S. support for the Jewish
A good indicator of the Lobby’s influence in the think tank world is the evolution
of the Brookings Institution. For many years, its senior expert on Middle East
issues was William B. Quandt, a distinguished academic and former NSC official
with a well‐deserved reputation for evenhandedness regarding the Arab‐Israeli
conflict. Today, however, Brookings’s work on these issues is conducted
through its Saban Center for Middle East Studies, which is financed by Haim
Saban, a wealthy Israeli‐American businessman and ardent Zionist.
director of the Saban Center is the ubiquitous Martin Indyk. Thus, what was
once a non‐partisan policy institute on Middle East matters is now part of the
chorus of largely pro‐Israel think tanks.
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