Election Day: The Non-Issue That Is Israel

IPF Friday
CALME Luminary MJ Rosenberg’s Weekly Column
3 November 2006

Election Day is four days off and I can’t recall a more intense campaign. Activists on both sides are eager for Tuesday night to come. It’s been a long few months.

Yesterday a reporter called me to ask if I would analyze the effect that the issue of Israel has had on the campaign. I said it had none. The Middle East in general was a huge issue but that was Iraq, not Israel. I said that there was not a single campaign for the House and Senate in which American support for Israel played a significant part.

This is not unusual. Critics of the pro-Israel lobby often accuse Jewish activists of defeating Members of Congress who deviate from the “pro-Israel line.” I know of a few Members of Congress who say that they lost because the lobby targeted them but, in every single case, there were far more significant reasons for their loss.

So why is it conventional wisdom that the pro-Israel lobby can defeat people it doesn’t like? Two reasons. One is that losing candidates like to blame someone other than themselves for their loss. And, two, certain pro-Israel activists and PAC directors claim that they defeated this or that politician as evidence of their clout.

For these activists — as well as for some anti-Israel activists and some disappointed politicians — promoting the myth that the “lobby” has the power to target candidates and drive them from office is very convenient. But it is a myth nevertheless. The case of Rep. Jim Moran of Northern Virginia (suburban Washington, DC) is a case in point. There can be no doubt that he was targeted because of a statement which was interpreted as blaming the pro-Israel lobby for the Iraq war.

An attractive Jewish candidate was enlisted to run against him in a district with a sizable Jewish population. The issue of Moran’s alleged anti-Semitism was raised over and over again. Moran, however, apologized, pointed to his long record of support for Israel and other issues of concern to Jews and won a landslide victory.

The other two cases in which pro-Israel activists are supposed to have defeated Members of Congress were those of Earl Hilliard (D-AL) and Cynthia McKinney (D-GA). Both of these Representatives were in serious political trouble long before pro-Israel PACs decided to back their opponents primarily because Congressional reapportionment had eliminated their respective bases. They were not defeated by the Jewish community, not by a long shot. They were defeated by voters who considered each to be ineffective legislators and not up to the job.

One of the reasons Israel is rarely an issue in House and Senate campaigns is that Congress only considers one significant piece of legislation relating to Israel every year. That is the Israel aid package which is itself part of the overall foreign aid bill.

The aid package is of vital importance to Israel and will be so long as Israel needs to be in a state of military preparedness. As I.L. Kenen, the founder of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), used to say: the aid package is Israel’s “lifeline.”

In his day, achieving passage of the aid bill was a very difficult undertaking. The country was far more isolationist thirty years ago than it is today and Members of Congress (particularly southerners and Midwesterners) fought hard to defeat foreign aid.

As late as 1973 (just prior to the Yom Kippur War), US aid to Israel amounted to just $481 million. Following the catastrophic Yom Kippur War, President Nixon requested $2.2 billion for Israel to cover the war’s costs.

It was a struggle convincing Congress that Israel should receive so large an amount but the pro-Israel community and its friends in Congress prevailed.

The aid package has remained the same size ever since. Actually, it has shrunk. Last year Congress supplied Israel with $2.5 billion which, inflation adjusted, is far less than in 1973.

And the aid package is no longer controversial. Last year 32 House members voted against it and just one Senator. Even those opponents voted “no” not out of anger at or disdain for Israel but because they objected to other aspects of the bill.

That is why Israel is not an issue in Congressional campaigns. Support for it is wide, deep, bipartisan and non-controversial. No one even tries to defeat the bill anymore. Its passage is essentially automatic.

Although the foreign aid vote is the only significant vote relating to Israel, there are numerous resolutions and other pieces of legislation that come up from time to time. The resolutions are invariably non-binding and are offered as a way for House and Senate members to demonstrate commitment to Israel. They usually can be summed up like this: “Israel, good. Arabs, bad.”

For the most part, these resolutions are meaningless although they do harm a President’s ability to portray America as an “honest broker” in the Middle East. Nevertheless, any President who decides to push for an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be blocked by a Congressional resolution. Nor would Congress actually try to block a US initiative.

The point of these resolutions is not to thwart peace but to score political points. Not much should be read into them. By the same token, Members of Congress who say they have to be more hawkish than the Likud party to avoid being “targeted” are exaggerating. They may choose to avoid helping Israel and the Palestinians achieve peace but they certainly won’t lose their seats if they try.

As for the 2007 Israel aid package, it will become law before this Congress adjourns without muss or fuss.

The fact that aid to Israel has become uncontroversial is a great tribute to the pro-Israel community.

We have every right to pat ourselves on the back. But we shouldn’t stop there. Now that Israel’s support in Congress is universal, and the critical aid package sails through without controversy, it is time to get Congress engaged in the battle to help Israel and the Palestinians achieve peace.

Preserving the status quo is no great accomplishment because the status quo has been a disaster for Israel and its neighbors (remember the Lebanon war and the Al Aksa intifada which took thousands of lives). Congress needs to help advance an end to the sixty year old conflict that imperils Israel’s survival and costs thousands of lives on both sides.

For Israel, that is what friends are for. The last thing Israel needs is for its supposed friends to use it as a political football, scoring partisan points while Israel’s position continues to erode.

Remember that the next time someone tells you that Senator So-and-So is a “great friend of Israel” and offers as evidence ritualistic statements of “support” that are meaningless and accomplish absolutely nothing.

Instead, ask what the Senator (or Member of Congress) has actually done to promote peace and security for Israel and its neighbors. Has he or she encouraged the President to become personally involved in the diplomatic process? Has he or she encouraged Israel and the Palestinians to come to terms on such issues as mutual recognition, ending terrorism and all forms of violence, and illegal settlement activity? Or has he or she limited their involvement to co-sponsoring one-sided and often downright silly resolutions?

If the latter is the case, as it usually is, that Senator or Representative is not helping Israel at all. It is the job of the pro-Israel community to make Congress understand that. Supporting Israel aid is essential but it is our obligation to demand more.

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Explore posts in the same categories: CALME Luminaries, U.S. Role

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