On Being “Pro-Israel”: US Relations with Israel Behind the Military Aid

On September 14th, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu signed a 10-year military-assistance deal containing the largest package of military aid that the US has ever given to any country. The $38 billion pledge, averaging $3.8 billion per year, constitutes a roughly 27% increase from the last such agreement in 2007 — which already made Israel the recipient of the most cumulative US foreign aid since World War II. A week after the two leaders signed the deal, they met again in New York. Obama took this opportunity to publicly reprimand Netanyahu for the ongoing construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a process that has systematically and increasingly endangered the viability of a peaceful two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “We want to make sure that we keep alive this possibility of a stable, secure Israel at peace with its neighbors, and a Palestinian homeland that meets the aspirations of the Palestinian people,” he told reporters. Netanyahu showed no interest in halting settlement expansion, and only vaguely remarked on peace as something to be desired.

From a diplomatic standpoint it might seem bizarre that the United States, which has repeatedly condemned the Israeli military and civilian occupation of the Palestinian territories, would issue yet another high-profile rebuke only after forfeiting its massive leverage in the form of military aid. For years, the State Department has released periodic statements of anxiety over the occupation’s threats to American interests, as well as to Israeli safety and to Palestinian human rights. In Washington, though, many politicians in both parties have accepted the status quo US-Israel relationship as inevitable and unchangeable. Among the greatest contributing factors undergirding this dearth of political will toward a peace process is Congress’s submission to AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group. As US demographic tides shift and younger generations of American Jews enter the political arena, AIPAC’s domination of US-Israel relations and the global damage it perpetuates may finally be facing serious political counteraction. Whether such opposition can establish itself in time to ameliorate the effects of Obama’s deal with Netanyahu, however, remains to be seen.

For decades, the startling power of AIPAC in Washington has hinged on its huge influence across the political spectrum. The lobby has more than 100,000 members and an enormous pool of donors. Between 2010 and 2015, AIPAC spent more than $14 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies to press its causes—primarily the continuation of military aid to Israel and new sanctions against Iran (before international negotiators successfully negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran). The lobby does not officially endorse congressional candidates or raise funds for them directly, but it encourages its members to do so.

For decades, the startling power of AIPAC in Washington has hinged on its huge influence across the political spectrum.

While it is not easy to track the sum of money that AIPAC members donate to candidates, congressional Democrats and Republicans are well aware of the group’s power. As Brian Baird, a former U.S. Representative from Seattle, explained: “In order to get elected to Congress, if you’re not independently wealthy, you have to raise a lot of money. And you learn pretty quickly that, if AIPAC is on your side, you can do that.” Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky said in 2014: “AIPAC clearly has a great deal of clout in the Republican conference, and many Democrats still think that they have to be responsive to it.” Yarmuth, a Jewish member of Congress, has been accused of anti-Semitism for his criticisms of AIPAC and Netanyahu. But he has insisted that placating the lobby too often obstructs real US interests: “We all took an oath of office,” he said, “and AIPAC, in many instances, is asking us to ignore it.” In 2011, when the Palestinian National Authority petitioned the UN for statehood, AIPAC played a significant role in assuring the opposition of 446 members of Congress. During this U.S. election season, aid to Israel remains one of few relatively static topics. Notwithstanding Donald Trump’s proneness to contradictory statements on Israel-Palestine, he has firmly promised a strong relationship between Israel and the United States. Hillary Clinton has long established her consistent support for Israeli administrations, while secretary of state and otherwise.

At the same time, American voters are developing increasingly mixed views on the sort of unconditional support that their government offers to Israel. Differences of opinion follow the divides of political party and age group. A 2016 Gallup poll found that over 60% of Americans identified with greater sympathy toward Israel than toward Palestinians — but nearly 80% of Republicans were sympathetic to Israel, while only 50% of Democrats said the same. Separately, a Brookings poll revealed that roughly half of surveyed Democrats saw Israel as exerting too much influence on the US government. Further, young Americans are generally far less sympathetic to Israel than older voters. In a 2014 Gallup poll, half of respondents between 18 and 34 favored support of Israel over that of Palestinians, versus 58% of 35 to 54-year-olds and 74% of those aged 55 and older. During the Democratic primary season, Bernie Sanders won praise from his distinctly young base for criticizing Israel. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement — which demands that organizations in the US and abroad sever their financial ties with Israel — has steadily gained popularity on college campuses, especially after its endorsement by the Movement for Black Lives this year.

For decades after Israel’s founding, American Jews understandably sought collective self-definition through their united, largely unconditional support for the state. But a growing portion of the community, and particularly its younger membership, chafes at the impenetrable lack of progress toward peace in the area. Many have found that AIPAC does not represent them. In 2008, Jeremy Ben-Ami consolidated a political challenge to AIPAC through his founding of J Street, an advocacy group that claimed the tagline: “pro-Israel, pro-peace.” The organization has attracted American Jews who advocate for a two-state solution and denounce the occupation as a direct impediment to both Israel’s wellbeing and its claim to democracy. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas recalled that in 2010, AIPAC’s clout was great enough to pressure Congress members into removing their names from the J Street gala’s honorary host committee. “I don’t view criticizing Netanyahu as being any more anti-Israel as criticizing Dick Cheney is anti-America,” said Doggett, and added: “J Street has given us an ability to discuss this in an organized way.” Although the group’s funding and influence in Congress are minuscule compared to AIPAC’s, it is still, as Husam Zomlot of the PLO said, “the first organized Jewish group with a different agenda in Washington since Israel was established.”

If there remains a hope for redemption in US-Israel relations, it lies in the potential for public backlash against US military aid, and the tacit support of the occupation that such packages represent. Shifting popular views on Israel among Americans, combined with a growing political space for alternative understandings of the “pro-Israel” position, may be building toward such a backlash. But the timeline for any public pressure to change the status quo grows more and more constricted, as Israeli settlement expansion continually imperils the viability of a two-state solution and the possibility of peace.

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2 comments

  • This obsession with settlements as an “obstacle to peace” is absurd.

    Israel has *twice* proven, in the 1970s with Egypt and in 2005 with Gaza, that we will never let settlements stand in the way of progress.

    In the former case, we had a real peace partner who genuinely wanted to end the conflict between us and could enforce and uphold his end of the bargain. Did we hesitate to take apart every settlement in the Sinai? No.

    In the latter case, we had no peace partner, but naively assumed that this grand gesture of taking apart a whole bunch of settlements and handing the entire territory over to the Palestinians would grant us the benefit of the doubt in the eyes of the world, and put the ball squarely in the Palestinian court. Did we hesitate to take apart every settlement in Gaza? No.

    Certainly there were many in Israel who opposed these moves at the time. But the consensus is that the former move, when we had a real peace partner, was correct. And the latter, when all we got in return was a terrorist enclave and rocket attacks over the border, was a huge mistake.

    There is nothing different, nothing special about the West Bank. Nothing that makes it unique as opposed to the Sinai or Gaza. We removed five settlements in the northern West Bank at exactly the same time as we left Gaza in 2005, as a message to the Palestinians: “We will do gladly this again, and give you the West Bank too, if you take this gift and use it for good and not for evil.”

    But they didn’t, did they? It took less than a day for terrorist groups to begin firing rockets over the border. It took Mahmoud Abbas less than a year to lose Gaza to Hamas once Israel left. Gilad Shalit, a soldier on a military base within Israel proper, was kidnapped in a cross-border raid by terrorists many many months before Israel ever put up any kind of blockade.

    So let’s pretend Israel withdrew from the West Bank tomorrow. Took apart every settlement, just like we did in Gaza and the Sinai. Handed everything over to the Palestinians and told them to do as they will.

    Does anyone have a shred of doubt that Abbas would be killed by his political rivals within a year? Does anybody think for a moment that Hamas wouldn’t take over, which they have not yet accomplished in the West Bank solely because of Israeli intervention?

    Under the right circumstances, we *can and will* take apart settlements if we genuinely believe it will achieve peace. They are no obstacle. The only obstacle is the repeated and lasting proof that, when it comes to the Palestinians – and unlike the Jordanians and the Egyptians – we will get nothing whatsoever in return.

  • Well done! What it illustrates is the power that an organization purporting to represent a foreign government has over the US political process. As a further example of that power, that organization, AIPAC, has been exempted from having to register as a foreign agent,

    Back in 1963, President Kennedy had the Justice Dept. under brother Bobby, attempt to get AIPAC’s predecessor, the American Zionist Council, to register as a foreign agent, but the AZC’s lawyers were able to delay the filing until JFK was assassinated. With the ascension of LBJ to the White House, the effort was allowed to die.

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