Remembering AIPAC’s Last Defeat
“We prefer to stay out of the public eye. We don’t want AIPAC to become the issue.”
— ROBERT ASHER, Former president and chair of AIPAC board, Oct. 1, 1988, Jerusalem Post. Int. Ed.
“A lobby is like a night flower: it thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.”
— STEVEN ROSEN, former foreign policy director, AIPAC, The New Yorker, July 4, 2005; indicted August, 2005 for alleged violations of the Espionage Act but charges were later dropped.
By a curious coincidence, as Russian president Vladimir Putin was rescuing President Obama from public humiliation last week, leaving the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to take a rare public drubbing over its failure to reverse Congressional opposition to a US attack on Syria, the 22nd anniversary of AIPAC’s last defeat went unnoticed.
On the morning of September 12, 1991, Pres. George Herbert Walker Bush awoke in frustration. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was refusing Bush’s request to delay for 120 days his country’s demand for $10 billion in US loan guarantees, ostensibly for the resettlement of Soviet Jews, and to freeze Jewish settlement construction as a condition for receiving the guarantees.
To make matters worse, the former Polish-Jewish terrorist and now Israeli prime minister, not the American president, had the backing of both houses of the US Congress.
Although the subject of the guarantees had been discussed with Israel that March, Bush feared that approving them a month before regional Middle East peace talks were scheduled to begin in Madrid would drive the Arab invitees away from the table and kill the “peace process” before it had even begun.
Aware that Congress was ready to override his threatened veto of the authorizing legislation, Bush took the unprecedented step of putting the issue before the American public, the same sleeping giant that vanquished AIPAC last week.
Congress, as usual, was ready to jump through Israel’s hoops whatever position the president took. That’s the way it was then in Washington and the way it is now when the American people have been excluded from the discussion.
On September 6th, Bush issued a statement explaining his reason for the postponement, adding, presciently, his belief that “the American people will support me in this” and that he was “going to make the position clear to every single member of Congress and to the American people.”
Ignoring the president’s appeal, Senators Robert Kasten, (R-WI) and Daniel Inouye (D-HI) introduced legislation to provide the full $10 billion without conditions.
When Bush announced he was asking for the delay, “”Inouye was not equivocal at all,” recalled Israeli Defense Minister, Moshe Arens, who was in Washington at the time. He said, ‘I am putting on my yarmulke; we’re going to war.” 
(Inouye’s first job after leaving the Army in 1947 was as a salesman for State of Israel Bonds. As chair of the Senate Select Committee investigating the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987, he was responsible for Israel’s name not being mentioned. At the time of the arrest of Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard, he was about to propose that what remained of Israel’s debt to the US be forgiven.)
By Sept. 12, Bush knew he had to act quickly as AIPAC had mobilized more than a thousand Jewish lobbyists in Washington intending for them to visit every congressional office. His solution: to hold a nationally televised press conference, and ask the public to back him up.
The impact on the Hill was immediate, as was graphically described in the Washington Jewish Week. (Sept. 19, ’91)
Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, a long time darling of the liberal Democrats, (and who last week was ready to support an attack on Syria), had just promised a group of the Jewish lobbyists her support for the guarantees when she was interrupted by an aide who handed her a note.
Mikulski’s face “went ashen,” wrote the WJW reporter, “I’ve just learned,” she told the lobbyists, “the president said he’s taking his case for a 120-day loan guarantee to the American people.” The American people? The very last folks that AIPAC and Congress wanted included in their deliberations.
Here is how Arens described the historic event:
“Bush hastily called a press conference and made an extraordinary televised appeal to the American people. Visibly angry, pounding his fist on the lectern, he made it appear that Israel’s insistence on the guarantees was a threat not only to the forthcoming conference but to peace itself.
“’A debate now could well destroy our ability to bring one or more of the parties to the peace table… If necessary I will use my veto power to keep that from happening.’
“Then the president took direct aim at the pro-Israel lobby. ‘We are up against some powerful political forces… very strong and effective groups that go up to the Hill.’
“‘We’ve only got one lonely little guy down here doing it… [but] I am going to fight for what I believe. It may be popular politically but probably not… the question isn’t whether it’s good for 1992 politics. What’s important here is that we give the [peace] process a chance. And I don’t care if I only get one vote… I believe the American people will be with me.’
“Then, his voice rising, the president said ‘ Just months ago, American men and women in uniform, risked their lives to defend Israelis in the face of Iraqi Scud missiles, and indeed Desert Storm, while winning a war against aggression, also achieved the defeat of Israel’s most dangerous adversary.’
“He also added that, during the current fiscal year, ‘despite our own economic worries,’ the United States had provided Israel with more than $4 billion worth of aid, “nearly one thousand dollars for each Israeli man, woman, and child.” 
Never before had an American president addressed the public with such frankness and none has since. Polls taken afterward indicated that Americans supported Bush by a 3-1 margin and half of those responding opposed providing any economic aid to Israel.
Two weeks later, a NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed that while by 58 to 32% voters favored aid to the new, friendlier Russia and by a margin of 55% to 29%, aid to Poland, voters opposed economic support to Israel by 46% to 44%. Moreover, 34% saw Israel as the greatest impediment to peace in the region while only 33% saw the Arab nations in that role. (Emphasis in original)
On the day after Bush’s press conference, Tom Dine, AIPAC’s executive director, declared “September 12 a day that will live in infamy,” but the lobbying organization had gotten the word as had Tel Aviv. It was not that AIPAC was afraid to challenge the president but, given the poll numbers, it knew it was no match for Bush when the American people stood behind him.
Fast forward to last week. In poll after poll, Americans across the political spectrum were rejecting Pres. Obama’s call for war, and if that did not concern AIPAC it did worry the members of Congress, particularly those facing re-election in 2014.
By Tuesday, before Obama’s speech, only a minority of both parties was ready to vote for war, a situation that would have obliged Obama to ask for a postponement of the House vote even if the Russians had not provided him with an escape hatch. In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, (D-NV) who a week earlier had scheduled a vote for Sept. 11, had already done that after taking a head count.
With a war-generated multi-trillion dollar deficit, a stagnant economy with understated unemployment figures, and nothing to show from 12 years of war but tens of thousands of American soldiers dead, permanently disabled or suffering from PTSD, and both the Middle East and Southeast Asia totally destabilized, the American people, across the entire political spectrum, have had quite enough of America’s military misadventures.
Members of Congress were made aware of that by their constituents and the polls and AIPAC could offer no counter arguments except to warn about America’s loss of “credibility” and the message of weakness it would send to Iran.
AIPAC’s humiliation was described by MJ Rosenberg, a former AIPAC staff member and now one of its sharpest critics.
“The lobby is reeling,” he wrote. “Reports from Capitol Hill reveal that AIPAC’s big lobbying day for war with Syria changed no votes. Not one. Meanwhile two of its closest allies, Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Henry Waxman changed their position on bombing from “yes” to undecided.”
AIPAC is not, of course, about to fold it tent and depart the field following this setback nor did it following its defeat in 1991 when it launched a war of attrition on President Bush, determined to undermine his popularity with the public which, like today, was experiencing hard economic times.
Rather than pressing the fight for the loan guarantees in the face of the public opposition, both Israel and AIPAC agreed to wait 120 days before again addressing the issue but Tel Aviv would make no concession on Bush’s demand for a settlement freeze. In the interim one could detect a steady increase in the media of articles critical of Bush’s handling of the presidency and, particularly, the economy, which was clearly in bad shape, but not wholly his fault.
Six months later, Bush was still unwilling to approve the loan guarantees if Israel did not agree to a settlement freeze, a position that alarmed the New York Times’ Tom Friedman. (March 22, ’92)
“The fact that an American president would reject loan guarantees for Israel—in an election year—and find overwhelming support for his position in all national polls, suggests that Israel is badly out of step with the public mood.”
Affirming Friedman’s opinion, a Wall Street Journal poll the same month found that while 73% of those responding said the loan guarantees should be linked to the ending of the settlements, approximately half said the loan guarantees should be denied under any circumstances.
Nevertheless, Israel’s supporters in Congress, some heavily dependent on pro-Israel money, began champing at the bit and in the Senate, on April 1, 1992, in order to allow senators to “get on the record for Israel,” four and a half hours were devoted to a “sense of the Senate” resolution (S. Res. 277) calling for approval of the loan guarantees.
The resolution was brought to the floor by the late Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) whose lengthy speech laid out the arguments that would be repeated by his colleagues throughout the session.
“For years, the United States fought for the right for Soviet Jews to emigrate. We put our prestige and our trade benefits on the line for that policy. For years, there was not a high-level meeting between an America and Soviet Union official that took place in which unfettered emigration was not raised…..I believe we have a moral obligation to help resettle these people from the former Soviet Union; these refugees who seek freedom….
“Mr. President, by insisting on linkage with the settlements, the administration has injected the United States into the peace negotiations….now he continues to cling to this policy.
“Now the administration reportedly is putting pressure on European allies to deny credit guarantees to Israel as long as she does not accept a settlement freeze. That is a new wrinkle that does not deserve to be there.”
It was a con job from beginning to end and Lautenberg and his fellow senators knew it. The packaging of the loan guarantees as “humanitarian assistance” was a political spin that been invented by the Jewish establishment the previous year to deflect attention and criticism from Israel’s settlement activity.
An internal memo from the Council of Presidents of the Major Jewish Organizations obtained by the Washington Jewish Week (June 6, ’91) emphasized that “stories of Soviet Jews” would be used to “help put the issue in a humanitarian rather than a political context to prevent President Bush from linking the guarantees to Israel’s settlement policy,” an effort that clearly failed.
As Lautenberg’s position was repeated throughout the day on the Senate floor, it became evident that it was the only arrow in the Lobby’s quiver.
Since Al Gore came a hanging chad or two from becoming president just eight years later and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, it is worth examining excerpts from his remarks:
“The stakes here are immense,” said Gore. “For Israel, this is nothing less than a defining moment. With the access to credit that the United States can provide, Israel can not only house its new citizens but eventually harness their skills….failure to meet this challenge means that the dream of Israel as the homeland for oppressed Jews cannot be met.
“Failure will create tens of thousands of Israeli citizens disaffected from the Israeli state; not just the immigrants,” he wailed, “but Israelis who are already in place whose lives are going to be powerfully influenced by this flood of new people.”
At the time, with the US suffering from 7.3 % unemployment, Gore seemed unconcerned with Americans who might have grown disaffected from the American state.
He went on to speak of the “bitter deadlock” between Bush and Shamir, noting that “the US Government’s position is very stark. It can be paraphrased as follows: First, if Israel agrees to completely stop any settlement activity, the administration would support loan guarantees of up to $2 billion a year for five years; however, if Israel only halts new construction, but continues to develop old construction, then the administration will support no more than $1 billion a year, with provision to deduct money spent on old construction from the $1 billion. That, in my view, is a drastic position and the administration has insisted upon it…
“I do not think the Congress supports the administration,” said Gore. “But neither does the Congress have any means to break this stalemate on its own,” a tacit acknowledgement that Bush had the American public behind him and that he and his fellow senators did not.
On the other side, in support of the president’s position, the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) stood alone.
In what may have been the most well-informed speech ever made on the floor of Congress on the subject of Israel-US relations, one that, predictably, went unreported in the national media, Byrd noted that “this proposed program would ask the American taxpayer to cosign a total of $10 billion in investment guarantees intended to prop up this unstable foreign economy at a time when we are telling the American people that we cannot afford to invest at home.
“Last week,” he continued, “the Senate failed to pass S.2399, a measure that would have allowed us to move savings from the defense budget into the domestic discretionary accounts in order to fund desperately needed investment infrastructure, housing, and job training, among other areas. These are exactly the kinds of programs that Israel will fund with this $10 billion loan that we are being asked to guarantee.”
Despite the moralizing about what Americans owed Russian Jews by supporters of the loan guarantees, Byrd saw gaping flaws in the proposal.
“The American people are apparently being asked to underwrite major new economic growth programs for Israel when we cannot develop them for our own desperate-in-need economy. We are being asked to guarantee funding for wide-ranging infrastructure projects, running far afield from anything directly connected to Soviet immigration, at a time when United States spending on its own infrastructure is far lower than that being infused by our European allies into their economies. It is no wonder that foreign aid is held in such disrepute by the American people.”
Byrd warned his fellow Senators that, according to a document provided by the Israeli Embassy, “Absorption of Soviet Jewry Immigration,” at least half of the money would not have anything to do with the immigrants “but would go to the private sector for investments and the rest would be divided equally between housing and infrastructure.” The rest of his colleagues, in thrall to AIPAC, weren’t listening.
The Senate vote on the non-binding resolution was 99 to 1. Since Byrd passed away in June, 2010, there has yet to be another senator with the guts to vote against an AIPAC supported resolution.
In Israel, it had become apparent that Shamir’s stubborn refusal to place a freeze on settlement construction had damaged its relations with Washington which the Israelis, at that time, held in higher regard than they apparently do today. In the parliamentary elections that June, Likud was swept from power and a less confrontational Yitzhak Rabin took Shamir’s place as prime minister.
In August, 1992, with his re-election chances slipping and the vote three months away, and accused in the media by fellow Republicans of taking the side of the Palestinians, Bush agreed to the loan guarantees with the proviso that the amount of money that Israel was spending in the Occupied Territories be deducted from the total.
Arens, the America-educated Likudnik, summed up Bush’s defeat by Bill Clinton from an Israeli perspective not essentially different from his American Jewish counterparts:
“His administration’s repeated attempts to interfere in Israel’s internal politics had been without precedent in the history of relations between the United States and Israel… Although in the months after the Likud defeat Bush gave Rabin everything he had withheld from Shamir, including the loan guarantees, he could not dispel the impression that his administration had been hostile to Israel.
“Bill Clinton had narrowly defeated Bush for the presidency of the United States. The vast majority of the Jewish community of America, as well as many non-Jews who were dedicated to the US-Israel alliance, could not bring themselves to vote for George Bush.
“The Bush administration’s confrontational style with Israel, especially the withholding of the loan guarantees, had contributed to the Likud’s defeat and, considering Rabin’s slim margin of victory, might well have been decisive. Now, it seemed as if the same policy had also contributed to the Bush defeat.”
“By January, 1993, Clinton was in the White House and US-Israel relations resumed their normal course. The new president was clearly well disposed towards Israel. Rabin now had a free hand and could feel sure of Washington’s support for virtually whatever policies he chose to follow.
Arens may have been correct. In 1988, Bush Sr. had received an estimated 35% of the Jewish vote. That percentage dropped to 12% in 1992 and may have spelled the difference between victory and defeat.
When Congress has had to choose between providing funds for Israel and for America’s cities, it has strictly been no contest. Whereas, by the summer of 1992, 240 members of the House had signed a letter urging Pres. Bush to quickly submit legislation authorizing the $10 billion in loan guarantees to Congress, only 35 of her House colleagues joined Los Angeles’s Maxine Waters in co-sponsoring a bill, H.R. 5747, on July 31, 1992, which would have authorized the granting of $10 billion in development loan guarantees to American cities.
Waters’ had attempted to add the domestic loan guarantees to the “Freedom Support Act,” authorizing assistance to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but was stymied when the House adopted a closure rule by a voice vote which prevented amendments from being added to the bill.
In defense of her proposal, Waters stated: “We are on the brink of funding aid to Russia and a $10 billion loan guarantee for Israel. I certainly understand the difficulties faced by Russia — their economy has collapsed — and Israel — they must absorb tens of thousands of new immigrants. However, our cities deserve preference… I would hope to see this plan adopted before we aid any foreign government.” Only AIPAC’s Near East Report, on Aug. 17, 1992, carried the story. One can imagine what might have happened had it been reported by the mainstream media.
In 1991, when Waters circulated her letter, the US economy was much like it is today. Six out of ten US cities were unable to meet their budgets and several states their payrolls. In March of that year, over the objections of President Bush, the House voted by a 397-24 margin to give Israel $650 million in cash as part of the Gulf War emergency spending bill. Bush had publicly threatened to veto the bill but backed down when he realized it would be overridden.
Another glaring example occurred in 2002 when the Senate, after defeating a bill that would have provided $150 million for inner-city schools that had been impacted by the attack on 9-11, turned around and tucked an additional $200 million for Israel into the Homeland Security Bill as if Israel had been targeted that day and not New York and Washington.
Four years later, writing in the Jerusalem Post, (2/4/96), under the headline, “So Much for Promises,” David Bedein asked, “Remember those loan guarantees to help immigrants? They have been used to further conspicuous consumption instead.”
“[N]one of the $5 billion which has already been provided to Israel under the loan guarantees packages” he wrote, “has been used by the Israeli government for direct immigrant economic development.
According to Bedein, the loan guarantees gave Israel’s banking system greater liquidity and willingness to extend credit to corporations, small businesses and private individuals.
“Thanks to the guarantees,” he pointed out, the banks have been able to provide generous loan terms, so that Israeli consumers can more easily purchase automobiles, foreign travel packages, or speculate on the stock market.
Some $800 million of the loan guarantees was used for the expansion of the Israel Electric Corporation which had been privatized, some went to the expansion of Israel’s road system and another $200 million was allocated for planning a Tel Aviv subway.
Bedein noted that in May, 1994, Natan Sharansky, the Russian Jewish émigré, who was heading a coalition of immigrant organizations, accused the Israeli government of misusing the loan guarantees, saying it would have been difficult to campaign for the loans under the slogan, “Let them build highways.”
For members of the US Congress, of course, who approved the loan guarantees, it wouldn’t have made any difference. Unless there is an aroused public that says a loud, “No!,” and is ready to hold Congress accountable, as we have seen with the opposition to launching an attack on Syria, what the Israelis want from the US, the Israelis will get. AIPAC’s existence is based on helping them get it. Ours may be determined on our willingness to expose the ways it does it.
If we want to prevent Congress from approving a US attack on Iran, which is uppermost on Israel’s agenda, last week’s victory tells us where to start. Given America’s penchant for war, it may be short lived, but its importance should not be minimized.
At the very least, it should breathe new life and hopefully stimulate a new, creative leadership in the long moribund anti-war movement.
Jeffrey Blankfort is a journalist and radio host currently living in Northern California. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Broken Covenant: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis Between the US and Israel, Simon & Shuster, NY, 1995, p. 246
3 Ibid. 246-247
4 Benjamin Ginsberg, Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State, Univ. of Chicago, 1993, p.220
5 Arens, op. cit. pp. 301-302