We have been running a series of posts from an anonymous journalist that began with a previously- unpublished story about how the Israel lobby flexed its muscle to destroy the candidacy of a Lebanese-American politician in New Jersey. After that the journalist shared the story of his own awakening on Israel/Palestine and the influence of the lobby.
This morning he provided us a pseudonym--F.E. Felson--and sent us this response to questions raised in the comments section and added more thoughts about the lobby.
I wanted to add a few thoughts to my piece about Sami Merhi, the Lebanese-American businessman whose bid for public office was derailed when pro-Israel groups sounded the alarm about his apparent sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
If you need a refresher, Merhi was a respected small businessman in New Jersey who was interviewed by the New York Times in April 2002 as part of a story about Arab- and Muslim-American reaction to Israel's assault on the West Bank. During their conversation, Merhi told the reporter that he'd lost his nephew in the World Trade Center attacks and called the 9/11 terrorists "cold-blooded murderers and things I can't say to you on paper. Crazy fanatics." The reporter then asked if he felt the same about Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel, whose actions were the public justification for Israel's campaign. Merhi replied: "I just can't see the comparison."
First, I want to address one particular comment that was posted: A number of sources quoted him as publicly expressing sympathy for suicide bombers. How bleddy stupid was that? Imo, his stupidity disqualified him, not what he said.
The assertion that "a number of sources quoted him as publicly
expressing sympathy for suicide bombers" is not accurate. "A number of
sources" only reported the allegation that he'd expressed
sympathy for suicide bombers. Review the quote above. This allegation
was made by the pro-Israel side and its allies and it was based on
quotes from one single interview. But this was good enough for the
pro-Israel group: forcing a politician to deny sympathizing with
suicide bombers is the equivalent of making him answer the question,
"When did you stop beating your wife?"
As for the notion that Merhi was "bleddy stupid" – well, from the standpoint of political strategy, this in unquestionably true. For a politician in the U.S., straying from the pro-Israel party line is asking for trouble. So yeah, in terms of his dream of serving in Passaic County government, Merhi was dumb to do that.
But let's look a little closer. Suppose Merhi wasn't a Lebanese-American businessman and civic leader, but instead a Jewish businessman and civic leader – Sam Weiss, let's call him. Now suppose, for whatever reason, that Sam Weiss was interviewed one day for a story in the NYT, and at some point in that interview he railed against the old system of Apartheid in South Africa, calling the country's white leaders "cold-blooded and other things I can't say on paper. Crazy fanatics."
Hearing this, the reporter follows up by asking Weiss if he feels the
same about Israeli leaders who have imposed Apartheid-like conditions
on the Palestinian population of the West Bank. Weiss then replies: "I
just can't see the comparison." Does anyone think that if, a few years
later, Sam Weiss decided to run for office those words would come back
to haunt him? Of course not.
How do I know? Because politicians all over the United States make statements like that every day. Remember the uproar when Jimmy Carter connected the word "apartheid" to Israel's behavior? Go ahead and argue with Merhi's quote. Call it wrong, call it divisive, call it offensive (to some). But why is he forced to go through political hell for it while the equally divisive and offensive pro-Israel equivalent (example: Chuck Schumer praising how "humane" Israel had been in an assault on Gaza that killed 400 children) is held to absolutely no scrutiny by major news organizations?
I'd also like to elaborate on the conduct of Sen. Robert Menendez, who made it his mission to strip Merhi of Democratic Party backing in 2006. This was a perfect example of how the lobby works without actually having to do anything. Menendez, like most ambitious New Jersey politicians, realized long ago that it was in his interest to spout an aggressively pro-Israel line, without deviation. It's doubtful that anyone from any pro-Israel organization pressured him or even called to ask him to attack Merhi; he knew instinctively that it would be a winning move. Then, after Merhi had been forced off the Democratic ticket, pro-Israel groups were able to cite Menendez's role as proof that they hadn't played a significant role in the move to dump Merhi – see, there really is no Israel Lobby! Never mind that pro-Israel groups had been the source of the controversy that had grabbed Menendez's attention in the first place.
Remember, Menendez had just been appointed to the Senate in '06 and was running for his life that fall against Tom Kean Jr. The pro-Israel community is a huge source of campaign cash in New Jersey. Menendez seized an opportunity to bolster his standing with that community. If there was a similarly organized and funded pro-Palestinian network, his calculation might have been different.
This has national implications. The same pattern prevails with many other Democratic politicians, particularly ambitious ones. One that comes to mind is Artur Davis, a young, brilliant and savvy black congressman from Alabama, where he plans to run for governor in 2010. (He'd be the state's first black governor.) His story is worth spending a few paragraphs on.
After graduating from Harvard Law in 1993, Davis returned to Alabama, intent on breaking into politics – fast. He spent four years as an assistant U.S. attorney before challenging incumbent Earl Hilliard in a 2000 Democratic congressional primary in Alabama's majority black 7th District. Davis, who was 32 years old at the time, charged Hilliard with failing to bring home enough bacon; Hilliard beat him, 58-34 percent.
Two years later, Davis tried again. This time he had help. In the spring of 2002, as Israel laid waste the West Bank, Hilliard was one of a handful of congressmen to vote against a resolution expressing full-throated support for Israel. His view on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians: "They ought to sit down and work out their problems, and if they can't, the U.S. ought to pull out, cut off all its aid, to both sides."
Davis used this vote (and other past Hilliard comments) to court the national network of pro-Israel donors. Hilliard was on the lobby's target list, and Davis positioned himself as their vehicle. He spoke at the AIPAC conference and raised money at New York law firms. Woefully underfunded in his 2000 campaign, Davis raised more than $350,000 in the closing months of that '02 campaign; Hilliard barely cracked $150,000. The money went into negative ads that had nothing to do with Israel or the Palestinians; subjects unlikely to move many voters. Instead, the cash was poured into boilerplate attack ads, which destroyed Hilliard's incumbency advantage and kept him just under 50 percent in the preliminary election, prompting a run-off. The money continued to pour in for Davis in the run-off, during which he out-raised Hilliard by an additional $180,000. The final result was a Davis win, 56 to 44 percent. As the Almanac of American Politics put it: "One key to Davis's victory appeared to be strong financial backing from supporters of Israel."
It's a lesson Davis hasn't forgotten. Like Menendez, he has sought out opportunities to ingratiate himself with that same donor network during his congressional career, mindful of his long-term statewide (and probably national) goals. When John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published "The Israel Lobby" in 2007, Davis stepped up to write an L.A. Times op-ed (along with Virginia's Eric Cantor) accusing the authors of trying "to poison the well of American politics with their misleading depiction of an Israeli stranglehold on presidential candidates and elected officials like us."
Maybe Davis believes everything he says about Israel. Or maybe he doesn't. I don't know the answer. But the political benefits he's reaped, and continues to reap, from his ardently pro-Israel posture are obvious. Just as obvious is the heavy price Earl Hilliard paid for casting a no vote on a non-binding resolution that passed with more than 400 votes.
There are plenty of other reasons Hilliard lost to Davis in '02, but ask yourself this: If not for that massive infusion of campaign cash in the closing months of the preliminary, would Davis have been able to keep Hilliard under 50 percent and force a run-off? And if Hilliard hadn't spoken and voted against the symbolic pro-Israel resolution, would that money have ever flowed in? Both answers seem beyond dispute.
People wonder why we get near-unanimous votes in the U.S. House when pro-Israel resolutions are introduced. It's because politicians believe in self-preservation above all else, and none of them want to be the next Earl Hilliard – especially over some non-binding resolution that's going to pass anyway. Better to just go with the flow and get back to doing the really important stuff. And anyway, it's not like it's a major sacrifice on their part; the average congressman is no better informed on the details of the I/P conflict than the average American.
Just like their constituents, most congressmen's views are shaped by an American media that provides extensive coverage of Palestinian suicide and rocket attacks while (with the admirable exception of last Sunday's "60 Minutes") never detailing the human tragedy of Israel's occupation and colonization of the West Bank. So when a pro-Israel resolution comes up and a congressman is forced to say something about the subject, it's easy enough for him or her to head down to the House floor and deliver a one-minute speech condemning Palestinian terrorism and embracing Israel's right to defend itself.
I don't believe, as one skeptical commenter in another thread put it, that the Israel lobby is "a modern equivalent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion." The Israel Lobby is not a formal organization – it has no headquarters, no official staff, no committee that meets to approve or reject proposed congressional and presidential actions. Those who seek to cast aspersions on the clout (or even existence) of the lobby like to conjure this absurd image.
In reality, the structure of the lobby is more informal than formal, its influence less direct and more understood and implied. Its power can be described the same way Robert Caro, the eminent LBJ biographer, once described senatorial power: informal, vague, unspoken – and immense. Smart politicians, like Menendez and Davis, understand this and actively seek ways to harness it for their own benefit. Most politicians simply understand it, and go along with it.
Very few ever challenge it. To do so is to face the kind of financial punishment that Hilliard endured (and that was threatened against the Democrats who initially backed Sami Merhi) and to be the subject (as Merhi was) of a flood of media stories in which you are forced to defend yourself against charges of sympathizing with terrorists.
Most voters won't even read or watch these news stories, but they'll hear the noise and get the point: there's something wrong with this guy. What kind of a politician would ever bring that upon himself?
[Weiss adds a couple comments to this great, smart, generous post. First, this is all that I expected after Walt and Mearsheimer: that good journalists would add their two cents in an investigative manner. Finally, that's happening. Also, note that people bash "lobbyists" all the time in Washington, but the Israel lobby is never identified as such. That's because AIPAC doesn't give money itself; it just tells other people what to do with their money. The no-see-em network that Felson describes functions as an opaque lid on its activities. Just as AIPAC escaped registration with the Foreign Agent Registration Act.]
[AC adds: Earl Hillard tells his story in this documentary on the Israel lobby by Dutch broadcaster VPRO. The documentary features many other voices, including Tony Judt, John Mearsheimer, and Kenneth Roth.]