The good thing about Secretary of State Pompeo’s declaration that the U.S. does not regard settlements as illegal is that it is a naked expression of the power of the Israel lobby in U.S. policy making. Even the Associated Press chalked the decision up to Trump’s biggest donor, Sheldon Adelson.
For 20 years Sheldon Adelson has been pouring money into Republican politics to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and he has succeeded. Trump has proved to be Adelson’s “perfect little puppet” (to quote the president on Adelson’s former favorite in 2015), giving the casino mogul everything on his wish list, from moving the embassy to Jerusalem to recognizing the Golan annexation to tearing up the Iran deal. “A huge check from Sheldon Adelson” and winning Jewish votes in Florida, is how Thomas Friedman explained Trump’s actions a few weeks ago. Adelson has more power than the Secretary of State, writes Tim Egan of the Times.
Some say Trump does all this for the evangelical vote. “A cynical play for evangelicals,” and not Jews, David Rothkopf said of the settlements reversal. This may be comforting but it’s not true. If the settlements were such a winner for evangelicals, Trump would have announced the change two weeks earlier, before the Kentucky and Louisiana governor’s elections– when he pulled out all stops to win. Read Trump’s desperate speeches to rallies in those states to try and get Republican candidates to victory. In each speech he mentions Israel/Jerusalem once, in a boilerplate line. Compare it to adoption, abortion, health care, the military — where Trump goes on and on. The fact is that Christian evangelicals don’t really care that much about Israel, as a former Israeli consul in California, pointed out a year ago:
Yes on paper there are 70 million evangelical Christians in America. How many truly are interested in the settlements and this and that? The numbers are not very high. The number of evangelical Christians who are interested in our political conversation is very very small.
Let’s be clear, selling out US policy on Israel to donors did not start with Trump and Republicans. Hillary Clinton pandered to pro-Israel contributors in her 2016 campaign. She attacked the boycott movement so as to please Haim Saban and other donors, and promised to take the U.S.-Israel relationship to “the next level,” so as to change the script from the Obama years– when we only gave Israel 3.8 billion a year plus.
To understand Israel’s outsize place in U.S. politics, reflect that the Ukrainian assistance that is now the subject of impeachment hearings is less than one-tenth of the amount we give Israel. And that Ukraine’s President Zelensky would do anything for a White House visit so as to gain legitimacy, but rightwing strongman Benjamin Netanyahu had countless White House visits even in the Obama White House, and then Hillary Clinton promised to meet Netanyahu in her first month in office. A promise Trump fulfilled, greeting Netanyahu at the White House in February 2017.
The Israel lobby, pro-Israel influencers, mostly Jewish, have been a factor in our political life since Harry Truman folded on his own opposition to a Jewish state in part because he needed $100,000 from political backers Abe Feinberg and Ed Kaufmann – a huge sum in 1948–for a whistlestop campaign trip through the midwest when his campaign was broke. “Democrats had to worry not just about the Jewish vote, but also about fundraising from wealthy Jewish contributors,” John Judis wrote in his book “Genesis.”
Obama spoke to Netanyahu more than any other foreign leader even though he didn’t like him, surely because he was dependent on the pro-Israel Jewish community. Obama called the wealthy Chicago liberal Zionists who gave him his start “my cabal.” His foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes writes frankly about the “Jewish donors” to the Democratic Party who had Netanyahu’s back after Netanyahu lectured Obama for saying a peace deal must be based on the ’67 lines:
Netanyahu’s smack at Obama came just as the 2012 presidential campaign cycle was cranking up, and it succeeded in igniting a firestorm of criticism… A number of congressional Democrats distanced themselves from the speech. I was given a list of leading Jewish donors to call to reassure them of Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides. It was far too painful to wade into these waters with no prospect of success. Netanyahu had mastered a kind of leverage: using political pressure within the United States to demoralize any meaningful push for peace just as he used settlements as a means of demoralizing the Palestinians…”
So Obama backed down on the ’67 lines, and then Netanyahu spoke to Congress to try and stop the president’s Iran deal, the kind of access to American politics a foreign leader can only dream of, and Chuck Schumer voted against President Obama on the deal and still ascended to leadership of the Senate. Because he had the lobby on his side.
I bore myself repeating these items. (And God help the reader!) But I have to because most observers accept the antisemitism redlines echoed lately by Bernie Sanders: you are not to speak of an outsize Jewish role in politics. So few write about the Israel lobby, though they know it to be a significant force. P.S. It appears that the AP removed its reference to Sheldon Adelson’s role in the settlements decision. (Original quotation here.)
This is not just a domestic political question, it’s a foreign policy problem. The Israel lobby is the root cause of the Israel Palestine conflict.
Consider the two other main causes of the conflict. 1, Israeli settlement/colonialism (or in Zionist terms, the effort to liberate European Jewry from persecution by establishing a Jewish homeland in historical Palestine). 2, Palestinian resistance to 1. Neither of these historical forces would still be a source of serious conflict 71 years after Israel’s establishment were it not for the lobby. Without the blind support of the United States, Israel would have made a deal a long time ago. The country would have followed through on the historic Palestinian concession of 1988 followed by the Arab Peace Initiative of 2001, and accepted partition of the land on highly favorable terms (Israel gets 78 percent). Without U.S. support, Israel would have been internationally isolated and would have grabbed the deal.
The Israelis have been able to continue to devour the land only because the United States supports the occupation in international fora, and gives Israeli a diplomatic umbrella against any storm, due to blind bipartisan political backing here.
Political work in western capitals is a fundamental component of Zionism (which is a reason criticizing the lobby is redlined). Zionism began as a European lobby: Theodor Herzl’s dream was one he brought to the highest chambers in Europe, from the Pope to the Sultan to the Czar to the Kaiser, as well as to skeptical Jewish leaders in London. Israel’s establishment depended on Louis Brandeis among other Jewish leaders lobbying the British cabinet and the White House for the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
Thirty years later, Israel required western support to become a country (Eddie Jacobson famously prevailing on his old friend Harry Truman to meet Chaim Weizmann after he had shut the door to him). After the wars of 1967 and 1973, that reliance was institutionalized in American Jewish life. “We Are One!” a Zionist historian titled his book on the relationship of American and Israeli Jewry.
Zionism became the ironclad ideology of American Jewish institutions. “[Israel] is a country we send buses to and planes to, and money too, and we feel like it’s our home too,” Aibgail Pogrebin put it at Temple Emanu El in September. New York Times editorial page editor Max Frankel saw it as his duty to protect the Jewish state 40 years ago; and foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman says he still sees that as the newspaper’s duty today.
Or as Anshel Pfeffer put it in Haaretz: “the most significant joint endeavor of America’s Jews [is] six decades of unswerving support for the Israeli government of the day.”
Israel lobbyists themselves extol Jewish political power in the U.S. as Israel’s lifeline for money and arms and diplomatic protection. “I have no qualms about pointing out that the American Jewish community is almost certainly the most influential minority community in the history of the U.S., and possibly in the history of the world,” says Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum. “American Jews have worked hard to make it so, and have built a network of outward-facing institutions that protect this privileged position.” While Times opinion editor Bari Weiss warns in her new book that the left wing of the Democratic Party is “actively hostile to Jewish power.” Among progressives, she writes, “the very idea of Jewish power must be abjured.”
A core precept of the lobby is that American Jews who feel queasy about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians need to keep their mouths shut. On my first visit to Israel, my mother’s best friend told me that American Jews were yoredim, or lower, than the Jews who had like her made aliyah, going up by moving there. A refrain inside the Israel lobby, echoed even at the J Street conference this year, is that We Jews live in comfort in America, while Israeli Jews are on the front lines and their kids serve in the army. Our job is to support Israel in the most powerful country in the world.
For 40 years or so this has meant that the lobby has kept Republicans and Democrats from any criticism of the settlement project. George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter both learned that they would be foiled if they tried to make the settlements an issue, and there is evidence that both Carter and Bush ascribed their truncated leases on Pennsylvania Avenue to that political error. Bill Clinton ran to Bush’s right on settlements in ’92, and won, and all Democratic candidates for Congress learned in recent cycles that the way to raise money from the Jewish community was by getting a position paper from AIPAC, the rightwing Israel lobby.
Sheldon Adelson has plenty of counterparts in the Democratic Party. I was in the audience in Cairo in 2009 when Obama, who had not yet visited Israel, thrillingly declared to the Muslim world that the settlements must end. The president had J Street at his back. Then he and J Street folded under political pressure, including a Netanyahu speech to Congress, defying Obama on settlements, when the multiple standing ovations were “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby,” as Tom Friedman said.
So the settlements went on, and Obama broke his word and vetoed an anti-settlements resolution at the U.N. “just as the 2012 presidential campaign cycle was cranking up,” to quote Ben Rhodes.
Yes– Obama abstained on an anti-settlements resolution at the U.N. at the very end of his presidency, a move that Trump sought to thwart as president-elect by reaching out to the Russians; but Obama’s abstention was an afterthought, and it was said he wouldn’t have done it if Hillary Clinton had won– Hillary Clinton, whom Obama had hired as secretary of state by reaching out to her through a lead Israel lobbyist, the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who supports settlements night and day. Though liberal Zionist groups are hardly any better, doing all they can to block pressure on the settlement project.
This exercise of power has had real impact: Israel has acted with complete impunity with respect to world opinion on its occupation for more than 50 years, knowing that it can keep expanding illegal settlements and collect ten times what the Ukraine does in military aid from the U.S., even as it destroys the possibility of a Palestinian state, something the U.N. voted to create 72 years ago and which Oslo reaffirmed. Not surprisingly, the Israelis often sound entitled. Netanyahu says “America is a thing you can move very easily.” While his political rival Moshe Ya’alon explains that Israel is the “strongest power in the region” because of “our spirit and our knowledge” — and no mention of American support.
The importance of the lobby to Israel is why so much is at stake today in the growing American Jewish alienation from Israel. The Jewish community is small, and to maintain influence it has had to speak in one voice. So if the Jewish community splits, that’s a big deal. It is why Democratic Majority 4 Israel sprung up after the election to Congress last year of three Israel critics, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, in an effort to keep the Democrats from moving left on the issue (as Michael Fischbach reminded us). It is why Israel lobbyist Daniel Gordis lectures American Jews that we have a “responsibility” to support Israel (oh and we need Israel because it keeps us Jewish). It is why anti-Zionist Jews are completely marginalized from official Jewish life: they can undermine a crucial consensus.
It’s too late. The lobby is in its twilight. It depends on older Jews like Sheldon Adelson and Tom Friedman, who really, really love Israel. Young Jews are lukewarm/skeptical/appalled by a religious state that persecutes a minority in their name, and the Democratic base is becoming openly critical as women and people of color play a larger role in the life of the party. J Street is taking over from AIPAC in the centrist leadership of the Democratic Party, and an earnest debate over Israel is beginning at last. A democratic process will replace a corrupt/rigged one. And only then, after the lobby is broken, can the conflict end.