An apology to AIPAC

Michael Massing confrims Mearsheimer & Walt’s dim view of AIPAC.

In an April post on the “Israel Lobby” furore, I seriously misrepresented AIPAC:

Try this thought experiment. Peace Now comes to power in Israel – very unlikely but not impossible. AIPAC would presumably change its tune on settlements, like the Vicar of Bray.

I was wrong. AIPAC is not at all a loyal representative of the views of the elected government of Israel. It is aligned with the hardline hawkish views of an Israeli faction: more or less, of Likud and the settlers. Disowned by Yitzhak Rabin when he took office in 1992, AIPAC worked to sabotage the Oslo accords he signed in 1993. It secured the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995 that mandated moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – against the wishes not only of the American President Clinton but of Israel’s Prime Minister.

My source for this is a long follow-up piece in the NYRB by Michael Massing. The first part is a judicious summary of the “Israel Lobby” row, with a few mild criticisms of Mearsheimer and Walt’s analysis of Israel’s case for the US support in enjoys. The second part digs into their assertion about the lobby, and backs it up completely:

It is possible to show that, on their central point—the power of the Israel lobby and the negative effect it has had on US policy—Mearsheimer and Walt are entirely correct.

On his evidence, AIPAC has an eerily complete hold over the US Congress, unmatched by any other lobby. The leverage is secured by funding and its withdrawal, sustained pro-Israel “background noise”, blackballing of congressional staffers and outright smear tactics (see the protest letter of Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota). Massing quotes a congressman:

Congress would never pass a resolution that was in any way critical of anything Israel has done.

The congressman would not allow his comments to be attributed.

There is something very wrong when such influence over American democracy is exercised by a single lobby aligned with one unsavoury Middle Eastern party. The parallel trajectories of Likud and its enemy the PLO, from terrorism to corruption, bring to mind the lines of Thomas de Quincey:

For if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop.

But surely AIPAC must in the end represent the views of the American Jews who make up its membership? Massing explains why not in an interesting section on the structure of AIPAC (you won’t find anything on its website).

AIPAC claims to represent most of the Jewish community. Its executive committee has a couple of hundred members representing a wide spectrum of American Jewish opinion, from the dovish Americans for Peace Now to the militantly right-wing Zionist Organization of America. Four times a year this group meets to decide AIPAC policy. According to several former AIPAC officials I have talked to, however, the executive committee has little real power. Rather, power rests with the fifty-odd-member board of directors, which is selected not according to how well they represent AIPAC’s members but according to how much money they give and raise.

Reflecting this, the board is thick with corporate lawyers, Wall Street investors, business executives, and heirs to family fortunes. Within the board itself, power is concentrated in an extremely rich subgroup, known as the “minyan club.” And, within that group, four members are dominant: Robert Asher, … Edward Levy, … Mayer “Bubba” Mitchell, … and Larry Weinberg.

There’s a general issue here. Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are organised democratically; the leadership is accountable to the membership through elections. The Sierra Club clearly falls into this group; so, I think, do the AARP and the NRA. (I can’t find the bylaws on the NRA site , but the organisation has a history of contested elections ). The other style is oligarchic: the leadership co-opt its successors, and appeals to an amorphous base for funds and support. The only way the base can vote is with its feet. NGOs of this type include the Catholic Church, Harvard University, the International Olympic Committee, the Mafia, and Greenpeace. Whether or not they carry out their mission well, they have little claim to speak for their members.

I toyed with Menshevik and Bolshevik as the labels, which would be true, but Leninism had other characteristics; notably a messianic ruthlessness of which the Corporation of Harvard University (say) has shown little evidence. However, AIPAC’s multitier structure of token participation is indeed reminiscent of the Soviet constitution.

It’s obvious that effective NGOs can be of either sort, and there’s no reason to declare oligarchies illegitimate in general. But deviant NGOs are I think always oligarchic; democracy is an effective check on abuse. We should I suggest be suspicious of lobbying NGOs organised as oligarchies – especially when they claim to speak for a wider community, as AIPAC does. Sadly, the NRA probably does speak for the large number of American gun nuts.

To end with, two practical suggestions for the reform of lobbying:

1. Require any lobby that has a website to publish on the site its bylaws, officers, and annual reports.

2. Establish a legal distinction between membership organisations and corporate ones, give privileges to the former if they meet standards of internal democracy, and establish greater scrutiny of the latter.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

15 thoughts on “An apology to AIPAC”

  1. Is the assumption here that "AIPAC" and the "Israel lobby" are the same thing? If so, then perhaps "Israel lobby" is a very deceptive term. Criticizing AIPAC, I suspect, would have far less negative impact than implying the existence of a monolithic Israeli shadow organization, and would have the benefit of being more accurate to boot… especially if they're not representative of either American Jewry or Israeli citizens. And if it doesn't, then the problem is attributable more to the political network currently in power than to a country's "lobby."
    Let's call a spade a spade, please.

  2. Read my earlier post and Massing's piece, both of which make the necessary distinctions. In my terms, AIPAC is a lobby, a key component in a movement. Mearsheimer and Walt fail to make the distinction between the two, but it's not important to their key proposition.
    M & W state explicitly that there is nothing shadowy about the lobby or movement – it operates in plain view, indeed very noisily, according to the ground rules of American politics. Insinuations that they are suggesting a shadowy conspiracy, in the anti-Semitic tradition, are or result from disinformation.
    Some of the methods of both AIPAC and the wider movement are underhand, as the controversy has shown and Massing documents. That's quite different. The sugar lobby and the NRA also play dirty. AIPAC's structure is not transparent, but a professional journalist like Massing was readily able to decode it.

  3. "The parallel trajectories of Likud and its enemy the PLO, from terrorism to corruption"
    I find this sentence unfortunate.
    "a few mild criticisms"
    He says the essay "has some serious shortcomings", including factual errors and misuse of quotes. I happen to think he stretches to minimize the seriousness of the rebuttals to the essay, but even so I think "mild" is far off.

  4. The working paper does have serious shortcomings, but they are not central to the argument made. M & W are not really performing original research, but rather making an articulated and well-founded assertion that is conspicuously absent from the literature.
    The most problematic mistake M & W make is their failure to properly define the Israel Lobby. Their argument would hold even if they restricted their definition to AIPAC and directly affiliated organizations, but they needlessly extend their definition to include the "loose coalition of individuals and organisations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction". They even include Christian evangelicals.
    Although M & W do not mention this, I find the salient issue to be AIPAC's shift from representing the American Jewish community as it did pre-1980 to representing the interests of Israel itself, or more specifically, Likud. Prior to Reagan's election, AIPAC was the congressional lobyying arm of a broader American Jewish establishment. At the time, and to some degree today, American Jews were overwhelmingly liberal, and the national organizations represented them accordingly. Three things changed this:
    1.After Reagan's re-election,the national Jewish organizations decided they needed to be on good terms with the movement conservatives.
    2.The new executive director (I forget his name) gerrymandered the AIPAC executive committee and made AIPAC independent of the rest of the american jewish establishment.He also significantly raised AIPACs public profile and managed to bring in boatloads of cash.
    3.Israel's political situation got seriously sticky. Israel at the time had a seriously divided "Unity" government, with Labor's Rabin and Likud's Begin sharing power. Begin essentially developed and used AIPAC's lobbying power to influence the US government for domestic Israeli political purposes.
    Thus, AIPAC changed from an organization lobbying for the interests of a domestic constituency (which included many things outside of support for israel), to one lobbying for the interests of a foreign politcal party. E.g., support for congressional resolutions requiring that the US Embassy be moved to Jerusalem, opposition to Bush I's tying aid to israel to reduced settlement activity, etc..
    The reason M & W work is so remarkable is that it is so rare. For academics,writing about Israel is a risky career move (e.g. Juan Coles non-appointment to Yale) They were able to get away w/ it because they've already got it made in IR, but lesser lights dare not try.
    In the end, "The Israel Lobby" is poorly written paper that needed to be written.

  5. To see the impact of Isreal's power, just imagine if any other country was caught spying on the US as much as Isreal has been. I mean Wen Ho Lee was the impetous of entire hearings about the Chinease menace and he wasn't an actual spy.

  6. "AIPAC is not at all a loyal representative of the views of the elected government of Israel. It is aligned with the hardline hawkish views of an Israeli faction: more or less, of Likud and the settlers."
    So whom, pray tell, did AIPAC support when Sharon's Likud incurred the wrath of the settler movement by forcibly evicting all the settlers from Gaza?
    "Disowned by Yitzhak Rabin when he took office in 1992, AIPAC worked to sabotage the Oslo accords he signed in 1993."
    Funny–I seem to recall the Clinton administration making the success of the Oslo accords one of its highest foreign policy priorities. It even pulled out all the stops in support of Laborite Ehud Barak against his Likud rival in the 1999 Israeli election. What happened to AIPAC's vaunted omnipotence?
    "The leverage is secured by funding and its withdrawal, sustained pro-Israel 'background noise'"
    Uh, you mean "pro-Likud", right? After all, the two couldn't ever, ever possibly coincide–could they?
    "There is something very wrong when such influence over American democracy is exercised by a single lobby aligned with one unsavoury Middle Eastern party."
    It's nice of you to restrict yourself to demonizing your opponents based on political affiliation, rather than ethnicity, as Mearsheimer and Walt did. But at least their conspiracy theories have the bracing clarity of conspiracist paranoia. You, on the other hand, are muttering darkly about an American political lobby group successfully winning the American government over to its political position (except, of course, when it doesn't), as if it were somehow qualitatively different from every other such sometimes-successful lobby. You don't even include a Mearsheimer/Walt-caliber sloppy, cursory effort to refute the lobby's case for their view of of America's best interests.
    Then again, the idea that all politics is about the battle between one's ideological allies and the Forces of Evil is at least as popular on this blog as anywhere on the hardcore right. So I suppose I really shouldn't be surprised to see this kind of casual conflation of "espouses a policy I disagree with", "is loyal to my evil ideological opponents", and "only achieves political success by unscrupulous methods".

  7. Dab Simon wrote:
    "So whom, pray tell, did AIPAC support when Sharon's Likud incurred the wrath of the settler movement by forcibly evicting all the settlers from Gaza?"
    On that one occasion, AIPAC had to choose between Likud and a small holdout group of settlers, and chose Likud. So what?
    "The Clinton administration … pulled out all the stops in support of Laborite Ehud Barak against his Likud rival in the 1999 Israeli election. What happened to AIPAC's vaunted omnipotence?"
    Nobody used the silly word omnipotence. What Massing claims and I accept is that AIPAC enjoys an unusual veto power over the Congress. Surely congressmen sometimes go on the record opposing the NRA or the AARP?
    In dealing with the executive, the pro-Israel movement's influence is apparently counterbalanced sligtly by other forces: global diplomatic interests represented by the State Department bureaucracy, the oil lobby, defence contractors. On any sane measure, the Clinton administration's policies were still strongly pro-Israel.
    No commenter has offered any substantive defence of Likud's moral character or shown how its its policies are in US interests.

  8. Rilkefan: we agree to differ on how to characterise Massing's characterisation of alleged mistakes by M & W. It doesn't matter as readers can (are urged to) go to the piece themselves. More interesting, M & W stoutly defend themselves against the actual charges in the letters column of the LRB here: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n09/letters.html
    I think they get the better of it.

  9. iirc, M&W never discuss the Israel lobby anywhere in their paper. They discuss the "Israel Lobby," or sometimes, "the Lobby," which they describe as basically Jews "who make a significant effort in their daily lives to bend American foreign policy so it advances Israel's interests." The anti-Semitism is palpable and America's Jews are owed an apology.
    Talking about the Israel lobby, defined as AIPAC and its supporters and affiliates, is a completely different ballgame. It's not subject to reasonable dispute that AIPAC is a lobby, since they proudly describe themselves as "America's pro-Israel lobby" on their homepage.

  10. Surely congressmen sometimes go on the record opposing the NRA or the AARP?
    Congressmen go on record opposing AIPAC frequently. The article gives one example: Cynthia McKinney. There are plenty more examples to be found in the vote counts for various bills that AIPAC feels strongly about. And Israel does get punished and/or pushed around by the US on occasion, notably when they tried to sell AWACS planes to China and when they bombed Saddam's reactor at Osirak.
    Of course, it's absolutely true that Israel doesn't get much heat from the US for being nasty to the Palestinians, and they certainly get much less than many of people would like. But that's a different, more subtle issue.

  11. "On that one occasion, AIPAC had to choose between Likud and a small holdout group of settlers, and chose Likud."
    It wasn't "a small holdout group of settlers", James–the entire settler movement revolted. You know, if you're going to comment on a topic, it sometimes helps to know what you're talking about. Formulae like "AIPAC = Likud = settlers = evil", while not quite as laughable as Mearsheimer and Walt's "AIPAC = pro-Israel = evil", still only get you so far.
    "What Massing claims and I accept is that AIPAC enjoys an unusual veto power over the Congress."
    Yes, AIPAC is very good at getting pro-Israel bills through Congress. That's because there's no downside to supporting them, since they scarcely affect US foreign policy, one way or the other. (The one exception is keeping the aid flowing to Israel–something that longtime Likud leader and free-market type Binyamin Netanyahu has consistently opposed for years.)
    Consider, for instance, your one concrete example of AIPAC's great power over Congress: the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. Here's a pop quiz: where is the US embassy to Israel today?
    By the way, how, exactly, did AIPAC work to "sabotage the Oslo accords"? Did it somehow engineer Arafat's intransigence and support for terrorism?
    "On any sane measure, the Clinton administration's policies were still strongly pro-Israel."
    That's the trouble with simplistic worldviews–they're hard to fit consistently to reality.
    Remember: according to you, AIPAC isn't "pro-Israel"–it's pro-Likud/settlers. And on any sane measure, the Clinton administration's policies were strongly–even vehemently–anti-Likud/settlers.
    So what'll it be? Is AIPAC pro-Israel, and therefore successful in the sense that US policy tends to be fairly pro-Israel? Or is it pro-Likud, and much less successful at winning US policy over to its point of view?
    Or perhaps AIPAC's views, and degree of influence, reflect pretty well what it declares itself to be–a lobby group representing all those Americans who strongly support Israel in its conflicts with its neighbors and its alliance with the US?
    Or is that just too subtle a characterization for you?

  12. "No commenter has offered any substantive defence of Likud's moral character or shown how its its policies are in US interests."
    I'm not a big fan of Likud's policies, but I'm not a big fan of many many groups policies. That the US has been strongly aligned with Israel has been in my view a good thing for both democracies. If the situation in the ME had been very different – if Israel were surrounded by reasonable govts and dealing with a responsible partner in resolving the land issue – I'd feel very differently. And the fact is that mainstream American thought in both parties agrees with me entirely. M&W claim that US support for Israel has been not only bad for the US but also counter to the natural position of the country. The first is in my view wrong, the second somewhere between silly and ridiculous. That, and their unfortunate mistakes about the nature of Israel, and their awkward use of the "a few rich Jews are controlling the US to its detriment" thesis, make it difficult for me to take them seriously. No doubt there is a policy discussion to be had about the ideal level of US support for Israel, but such a discussion is not going to lead to the simplistic conclusion that the complicated relationship over the course of eventful years and many govts has been manipulated to everyone's detriment by a cabal.
    Dan Simon – while I agree with a good deal of what you say above, "Then again, the idea that all politics is about the battle between one's ideological allies and the Forces of Evil is at least as popular on this blog as anywhere on the hardcore right" is a) unsupported and b) clearly wrong.

  13. For a comments thread about Israel, this one is remarkably sane and cogent.
    I have a couple of questions–
    Now that Likud is in such bad shape, where does AIPAC stand? Are they supporting Olmert's convergence idea, or waiting for a Netanyahu comeback some day, or what? The deeper question, of course, is whether AIPAC is a pro-Likud lobby or a pro-Israel lobby.
    What does it mean that M & W failed to distinguish between AIPAC and other sources of US support for Israel? I agree with Christopher Hitchens (for once) that their piece smells bad. M & W attack AIPAC but in the guise of The Israel Lobby, as if all US support for Israel embraced a maximalist, fanatical, Likudnik attempt to hold onto all the territory west of the Jordan River.
    It's a matter of pointing to one repellent member of a group and claiming that he typifies the entire group, and it smells bad.

  14. Hal G asks a very good question: "Now that Likud is in such bad shape, where does AIPAC stand? Are they supporting Olmert's convergence idea, or waiting for a Netanyahu comeback some day, or what?"
    We have to wait and see. So far there's no apparent split with Ehud Olmert's government as there was with Rabin's. But then Kadima was Ariel Sharon's creation, so it's best characterised as a Likud breakaway; and its policies may seem moderate to Israelis, but scarcely so to Palestinians.
    May I second Hal's remark about the civilised tone of the thread and thank all commenters for keeping up a fine RBC tradition, on a post that was bound to arouse strong emotions. I hope that I too stayed within the limits.

  15. "I hope that I too stayed within the limits."
    James, I apologize for at least one misunderstanding: I had assumed that your accusation that "AIPAC worked to sabotage the Oslo accords" was simply an out-of-the-blue unfounded accusation, and that your subsequent reference to the Jerusalem Embassy Act was simply another lame attempt to impute extraordinary power to AIPAC. Only now, after reading Massing's article, do I understand that you were in fact gulled by Massing's laughable claim that the latter is proof of the former.
    Yes, Rabin privately opposed the Act. Publicly, of course, he could do no such thing–support for recognition of (at least West) Jerusalem as Israel's capital has always been overwhelming both in Israel and among its American supporters. Hence, AIPAC was simply pursuing a goal that any organization with its charter would have pursued enthusiastically under any circumstances. In fact, had AIPAC robotically fallen into line with the Israeli government of the time on this issue, in conflict with the vast majority of pro-Israel Americans–well, *that* might well have been cause to question AIPAC's loyalties.
    And far from "sabotaging" Oslo, supporters of the Act were simply seeking to strengthen Israel's bargaining position–recall that Arafat insisted at the time (and, as far as I know, continued to insist till the day of his death) that *all* of Jerusalem, East and West, was to be the capital of the new Palestine. AIPAC may have differed with Rabin on tactics, but it was on record as supporting Oslo, and–in line with most American supporters of Israel at the time–gave every indication of being at least willing to let the process play out and hope for the best.
    As for the rest of your confused, ill-informed bad-mouthing of AIPAC–"aligned with….Likud and the settlers", "deviant", "reminiscent of the Soviet constitution", etc., etc.–well, your "hope" of staying within the limits of civilized discourse wasn't even close to being fulfilled, but I suppose we can all continue to hope for future improvement.
    (Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with AIPAC, nor do I necessarily endorse any of its views. I merely know enough about it to recognize ignorant slurs against it when I see them.)

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