We hear from the anti-Israel rabble, as well as some highly placed politicians and professors that a pro-Israeli lobby is much too powerful and may even dictate things in Washington concerned with the Middle East.
It ain't that simple.
No doubt that AIPAC is one of the most prominent of the Washington lobbyists. To read some of its clippings, it might be called the NRA of American foreign policy. On the other hand, there is also J Street. It is be a little brother in comparison with AIPAC, but it's a feisty little brother and usually somewhere else on the political map.
The current activity surrounding confirmation of Chuck Hagel sheds another kind of light on the Israeli lobby. Most of the noise seems to be coming from American Jews. Ha'aretz, which arguably represents an important slice of the Israeli elite, led off one article on the confirmation with
"Republicans and Democrats, with a prominent element of Jews, have gone overboard in the struggle over the appointment to Defense. Their involvement of Israel in the discussions is exaggerated and embarrassing. If the predictions prove correct, and former Senator Chuck Hagel wins confirmation, some of the credit will be due to the extreme nature of the opposition. The loud and aggressive lobbying is part of the warfare of the Conservative Right and Jews against President Barack Obama. In such a situation, Democratic Senators have no choice but to stand with the President and his nominee."
The article goes on to comment on the disproportionate attention paid to Israel in this and other American controversies. It raises the question of the damage to Israel resulting from its prominence in yet another losing political scuffle, and notes that the Israel itself is not an active participant in regard to Hagel. The article expresses hope that Yair Lapid may become Foreign Minister, and succeed in "rescuing Israel from the danger of being at the focus of disputes in America in recent years, and return it to a more appropriate and secure level of modesty."
It should be no surprise that Israel Hayom has a different view about the Hagel nomination. It noted that the Washington Post had published an editorial indicating that "Chuck Hagel is not a good choice," and "President Obama could make a better choice." Israel Hayom termed the position of the Washington Post as "strong opposition" to the appointment. My own reading of the Washington Post editorial is that it was more nuanced, but the curious can decide for themselves.
Israel Hayom is pretty much the voice of its owner, Sheldon Adelson, known for spending $100 million in a losing campaign to defeat Barack Obama, and said to be a major source of the funding to defeat Hagel. Whether that money contributes more to Israel's defense than to anti-Semitism is a question that begs attention, even if no one may be able to answer it with certainty.
Also prominent in the anti-Hagel campaign is Christians United for Israel (CUFI), said to have a choke hold on the votes of numerous Republican Senators, and--with Adelson's help--targeting Democratic senators up for re-election in 2014.
One can hope that most decisions taken by President Obama and Defense Secretary Hagel--each working along with massive institutions--will reflect their calculations about American national interests. Here and there, however, there might be at least a marginal element of revenge for the efforts of Jews seen as speaking for Israel in the campaigns to defeat them both.
It is not my intention to endorse Hagel. The history of his comments and actions in the Senate are problematic, even leaving aside what may be viewed as an outburst against the pressure of Jewish lobbyists. His appointment should worry those concerned about Obama's naivete about Islam and its role in the larger Middle East. Even supporters criticized Hagel's performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee. One writer emphasized that he was not making a Jewish point, but said that "schlemiel" was the best word to describe him.
No less than Hagel, the Israel-centered campaign against him is also a source of worry. What goes around comes around. The response of those who already concern us may not be long in coming.
On such things, along with everything else, Jewish communities do not speak with one voice. While some view that as a weakness, the trait is well established in Jewish history, and is better viewed as a source of strength. Jewish creativity did not come from being a nation that thought or spoke in unison.
While the right wing extremism represented by the campaign against Chuck Hagel appears to be more the inclination of American Jews than Israelis, any effort to contrast American Jewish and Israeli opinions is bound to be muddy. The views and money of Sheldon Adelson are associated with Israel's Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Adelson's Israel Hayom is the country's most widely distributed newspaper, abeit helped in the competition by being a giveaway. Each can judge it on English or Hebrew websites. Critics refer to it as Pravda or Bibipress. While its politics are obvious, its quality as journalism does not fall below those of other dailies, and it is not noticeably more to the right of center than is Ha'aretz to the left of center.
The views on prominent issues by Israeli Jews and those of the United States and other centers in the Diaspora may overlap. However, the interests and inclinations of the various community are not identical. It would be a fascinating but difficult undertaking to define the political centers of gravity and the ranges of opinion expressed. Who is a Jew? would be an especially difficult puzzle in Diasporas with a high incidence of intermarriage and issues of Jewish self-identity.
Just to note a few examples of what would be described, the Israeli range between aggressively anti-Arab settlers and Peace Now seems to be about as wide than that between American Jews outspoken in their concerns about anti-Semitism and the threats to Israel represented by Barack Obama and Chuck Hagel, and those larger numbers who actually voted for Obama. The Israeli community exhibits the Adelson-Netanyahu connection, the warm reception the Israeli Prime Minister gave to a visit by Mitt Romney in the midst of the campaign, the low public opinion support for Obama shown by Israeli Jews at various points from 2009 onward, and then what may be described as a 25 percent decline in Netanyahu's support in the recent election.
Those fascinated by balance and diversity cite George Soros as a counter to Sheldon Adelson. It would take great work to produce a reckoning of which is more influential.
Another mystery concerns how much of the political and material support given to Israel by the United States comes from the weight of American Jews.
Israel's opponents and friends among Americans are more certain of the answer than is warranted.
Israel and the United States have common interests that go beyond the platitude that both are democracies. During the Cold War, Israel and the United States shared a concern, and were both active against the anti-Israel and anti-American alliances between the Soviet Union and various Arab governments and popular movements. Since the Cold War, much the same can be said about the common interests and activities of the two countries against Islamic radicalism. In neither period should one exaggerate the common interests of the United States and Israel. There were disputes as well as shared information and other forms of cooperation.
There is no obvious metric to weigh the importance of an American Jewish lobby against other factors in the cooperation between Israel and the United States, while correcting for the weight of American and Israeli leftists who have expressed themselves more or less continuously against that cooperation. Or how much damage American Jews--and right wing Christians--do to Israel while using "support Israel" as their common theme in American controversies.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem