The power of the Israel lobby is the subject of intense dispute in the U.S. Seldom is an issue so passionately fought over, as critics of the lobby incite the furor of activists committed to protecting the U.S. and Israel’s “special relationship.” The Israel lobby includes groups such as the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, among many others.
Mainstream media commentary has seized on the dispute between President Barack Obama and Israeli settlers as evidence of the continued power of the Israel lobby in dominating U.S. foreign policy. In an August 2nd New York Times op-ed titled “Free Marriage Counseling,” Thomas Friedman claims that the current “marital spat” between the U.S. and Israel is not only based on the demand for a settlement freeze in the West Bank, although such support has “been building in America for a long time.” The inability to resolve this conflict, Friedman argues, relates to the larger issue of the Israel lobby’s power, which has “used [its] influence to mindlessly protect Israel from U.S. pressure and to dissuade American officials and diplomats from speaking out against settlements. Everyone in Washington knows this, and a lot of people – people who care about Israel – are sick of it.” Friedman’s comments are significant because they allow U.S. leaders to wash their hands of any responsibility for supporting Israel’s occupation. Friedman implies that support for Israel is the result of simple coercion exercised by the Israel lobby.
The Israel lobby has received sustained attention in other matters related to Obama. Earlier this year, a controversy erupted over Obama’s choice of Charles Freeman – a former US ambassador and critic of Israel – to chair the National Intelligence Council. Freeman eventually withdrew his nomination following what he called “a barrage of libelous distortions, undertaken by the Israel lobby” against his service record. Freeman had raised serious questions about Israel’s conduct in the West Bank, describing the occupation as a “brutal oppression of the Palestinians,” and framing Israel as working against American interests in the Middle East. In 2007 he argued that “Israel is even more despised and isolated than we are, and together with the Israelis, we are rapidly multiplying the ranks of terrorists with regional and global reach.”
Freeman’s claim that the Israel lobby hinders “serious public discussion” of U.S. policy in the Middle East is shared by many on the left. Much is made, for example, of former Republican Congressman Paul Findley’s book, They Dare to Speak Out, which chronicles the efforts of pro-Israel lobbyists to defeat those in Congress who are seen as critical of Israel. Findley chronicles his defeat in the 1982 Illinois House of Representatives race against Democratic challenger Dick Durbin. He attributes the loss in great part to his choice to “speak out in Congress” condemning U.S. “unwillingness to talk directly to the political leadership of the Palestinians.” His belief that U.S. unwillingness “handicapped our search for peace” was of little interest to the lobby, which personally claimed credit for his defeat after filtering money to Durbin.
Leftist critiques at times frame the Israel lobby as all powerful. James Petras argues in his book The Power of Israel in the United States that the Israel lobby retains a supreme position in American politics. He denigrates the U.S. media for failing to explore “the notion that the U.S. went to war against Iraq for the greater good of Israel.” Petras attacks those on the left such as Noam Chomsky for his “dubious propositions” that the “lobby’s agenda succeeds because it coincides with the interests of the dominant powers and interests of the U.S. state,” and that the lobby is “merely a tool of U.S. empire building.” In his book The Zionist Connection, Alfred Lilienthal claims the lobby is “making it virtually impossible to formulate foreign policy in the American national interest.” He sees none of the “many powerful political lobbies in Washington” as “better entrenched” or more “meticulously organized” than the Israel lobby.
Perhaps most controversial is the attack by famed Ivy Leaguers John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Their book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy concludes that “America’s uncritical and uncompromising relationship with Israel” is “undermin[ing] America’s standing with important allies around the world…U.S. support for Israel has fueled anti-American terrorism” and is “casting doubt on America’s wisdom and moral vision, helping inspire a generation of anti-American extremists, and complicating U.S. efforts to deal with a volatile but vital region.”
It seems undeniable that the Israel lobby exercises great power in the American political system, with its ability to utilize the American press to attack critics of Israel’s occupation and its conflicts with Arab neighbors. The lobby is able to discredit critics of Israel due to its widespread support from U.S. officials. However, there is a more interesting question than whether the lobby is powerful or not: what are the origins of the lobby’s power? Was the lobby instrumental in creating the special U.S.-Israeli relationship, or is its power reliant upon the strategic value of Israel to the U.S.? In addressing this question, I reject assumptions that the campaign contributions, coercion, and PR tactics used by a single lobby are able to bring U.S. leaders to their knees, forcing them to vote, often against their wishes, in favor of Israeli interests. U.S. leaders and the American public, in other words, are not pawns of the lobby.
It is difficult to argue that the Israel lobby is successful in using PR to co-opt the American public. I have documented in great detail the failure of the lobby to convince Americans of the need to uncritically support Israel’s military actions (see my 2007 CounterPunch article: “American Public Opinion and Israel” for more on this).
Much is made of the lobby’s power to mobilize voters to protect U.S.-Israeli relations, with great attention paid to the campaign contributions it gives to Congress. Evidence of the lobby’s power to coerce Congress is not very convincing. The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs estimates that pro-Israel political action committees (PACs) contributed just over $2 million to Congressional candidates in the 2000 election. Their data indicates that nearly 46 percent of the incumbents running for re-election accepted money from these groups. At first glance this may seem like a tremendous amount of money. Upon closer inspection, however, the group’s reach is relatively small when compared to that of other interest groups. The $2 million the lobby allocates is just .1 percent of all the money spent by those who ran for Congress in 2000 (which totaled $1.4 billion according to the Center for Responsive Politics). Pro-Israel groups contributed on average just $8,000 to each incumbent that accepted pro-Israel PAC money. This total is miniscule when considering the cost of the 2000 election for those who won races in the House and Senate: $840,000 and $7.2 million respectively for the average House and Senate winners. In other words, contributions from pro-Israel PACs covered on average one percent and .1 percent of the costs to win a seat in the House and Senate.
Comparing contributions from pro-Israel PACs to those of other industries demonstrates that the lobby is a minnow in a sea of more privileged actors. While total Congressional contributions from pro-Israel PACs totaled just over $2 million in 2000, health care industry PACs gave out $55.8 million to Congress; agribusiness PACs gave $31.3 million; communications and electronics PACs gave $43.9 million, transportation PACs gave $29.6 million; military contractors PACs gave $8.9 million; and energy industry PACs gave $29.7 million. After reviewing these numbers, it is clear that the Israel lobby is in no privileged position in the contributions arena.
The failure of pro-Israel PACs to provide money to a majority of Congressional representatives raises questions about its “dominance” of Congress. Although 46 percent of Congressional incumbents accepted contributions from the lobby in 2000, 54 percent accepted no money at all. If providing money to campaigns help to ensure that interest groups influence or dominate officials, than the Israel lobby does a poor job of ensuring its dominance.
Pro-Israel groups do effectively target members of Congress that are in a strong position to influence legislation. 84 percent of the money given in 2000 was allocated to incumbents, since incumbents tend to win U.S. Congressional re-election by an overwhelming rate of 90 percent. In the 2000 election, 70 percent of the top recipients of contributions from Pro-Israel PACs (those who received over $20,000 each) served on foreign affairs committees and subcommittees that write laws covering U.S. policy toward Israel. A number of points here should be clarified, however. For one, such contributions still represent a tiny amount of the total raised by these Congressmen and women, at .3 percent of the money raised by the average Senate winner and 2.3 percent of the money raised by the average House winner. Even for those committee members who accepted the most money from pro-Israel PACs, the total contributions to their campaigns were still meager. Joseph Lieberman for example, is one of the strongest allies of Israel, and he received by far the most from of any committee member in 2000: $86,000. This amount, however, constituted just 2 percent of all the money he raised for the election.
A second point of clarification is articulated in the following question: even if foreign policy committee members accept the largest amounts from pro-Israel PACs, does this mean that these contributions “buy” committee members, or that pro-Israel groups are merely rewarding those who are already sympathetic to their interests? Those who believe in the all-encompassing power of the lobby will assume the former, but there is little evidence to suggest this is the case. Recent evidence suggests that the two major determinants of organizations’ choice of which legislators to lobby include “the extent of support interest groups perceive themselves to have in a [Congress] member’s district, and their perception of a legislator’s issue position” (Hojnacki and Kimball, “Organized Interests and the Decision of Whom to Lobby in Congress,” American Political Science Review). Interest group scholars generally conclude that the most common “electoral strategy” for organized interests is to provide contributions based on a candidate’s “ideological or policy compatibility with the interest organization” in question (see Lowery and Brasher’s book Organized Interests and American Government). Jeff Berry concludes in his book The Interest Group Society that PACs “commonly donate to incumbents to enhance their relationship with them,” rather than to create a new relationship based on the “buying” of votes. In the case of the Israel lobby, anecdotal evidence verifies this view. For example, Dante Fascell, a former Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Congress, explains the Israel lobby’s power to “buy” Congress in this way: “the whole trouble with campaign finance is the hue and cry that you’ve been bought. If you need the money, are you going to get it from your enemy? No, you’re going to get it from your friend…nobody has to give me money to make me vote for aid to Israel. I’ve been doing that for 20 years, most of the time without contributions.”
A large literature has developed examining the power of organized interests to secure “distributive” benefits from Congress. Congressional leaders “bring home the bacon” in the form of “pork barrel” projects and other monetary benefits directed to their constituents. This pattern of representative-constituent service is empirically demonstrated in many studies. For example, my research shows that campaign contributions from labor and business PACs are statistically related to votes in favor of and against the minimum wage in all bills examined during the late 1990s and post-2000 period. Studies demonstrate that business and labor PAC contributions are statistically correlated with increased Congressional support and opposition to voting on NAFTA, and that contributions from business interests are positively correlated with favorable voting on establishing industry price controls, trucking deregulation, corporate tax reductions, military contracts, and favorable tobacco legislation. In other words, constituencies matter [especially privileged ones] when it comes to pressuring officials to vote on legislation.
While the distributive/pork barrel paradigm benefits from significant empirical support, there is little evidence of its relevance in the case of Israel’s lobbying of Congress. I found no statistically significant relationship between campaign contributions from Pro-Israel PACs and favorable voting on legislation supporting Israel. I examined voting on five bills in recent years in the House of Representatives, including bills that support 1. Israeli military action against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, 2. a cut off of aid to Palestinians after the Hamas electoral victory in 2005, 3. the placing of pressure on Europe to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization, 4. a demand that the U.N. “stop supporting resolutions that unfairly castigate Israel,” and 5. a declaration that Hamas is a terrorist organization and should not participate in Palestinian elections. In none of these bills is there a significant relationship between increased campaign contributions from pro-Israel PACs and favorable voting on these bills. The answer to why there’s no connection is clear. Although the overwhelming majority of the members of Congress voted in favor of the bills, campaign contributions from pro-Israel PACs were not even allocated to many of those who voted in the first place (keep in mind, again, the 54 percent of Congress that do not receive contributions). Members of Congress vote in favor of Israeli interests, not because they are “bought” by imaginary pro-Israel dollars but because they ideologically agree with the views expressed in legislation favoring Israel. Even though the Israel lobby is effective in targeting Congressional foreign relations committee members, this alone does not ensure passage of a bill. Widespread support from a majority of members of Congress is needed too. The Israel lobby is clearly effective in influencing how bills are written in committee, but there is no guarantee that bills voted upon will become law (only 6 percent of bills introduced, and 49 percent of bills voted on in the 110th Congress became law). For pro-Israel bills to succeed, the Israel lobby needs more than sympathetic committee members. It also needs the support of Congressional majorities that are monetarily independent of Israeli PACs, but ideologically supportive nonetheless.
Some scholars point to the fact that American Jews vote in large numbers as evidence of their power in influencing legislation. Janice Terry argues in U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East that although Jews account for just over 2 percent of the population, they “comprise between 4 and 5 percent of the total vote.” This is true, but it is worth remembering just how small the Jewish population is throughout much of the U.S. At 2.2 percent of the American public, the Jewish voting bloc is hardly a mass constituency that legislators can take advantage of. Furthermore, most of the Jewish population is concentrated in a small number of states. Jews constitute less than one percent of the population in 32 of the 50 U.S. states. Only 10 states have a Jewish population at or above the national average of 2.2 percent and even in highly populated states and districts, their numbers are still a very small minority. The largest Jewish concentrations are in the District of Columbia (at 5.1 percent of the population), New Jersey (5.5 percent), and New York (8.4 percent).
One could dismiss the small size of Jewish population concentrations if their votes carried disproportionate power. This, however, is not the case. In analyzing pro-Israel legislation, areas with larger Jewish populations are not more influential in increasing the probability of a bill’s success. For example, my analysis of the 2006 Congressional bill supporting Israel’s war in Lebanon finds widespread support for the initiative; 95 percent of the members of the House of Representatives voted in favor of the bill, and just 2 percent voted against. Furthermore there is little difference between states with larger and smaller Jewish concentrations in regards to voting. 97 percent of Representatives from states with a Jewish population above the national average voted yes on the bill, compared to 97 percent of Representatives from states with a Jewish population below the national average who voted for the bill. In other words, the existence of stronger and weaker Jewish voting blocs has no effect on pro-Israel voting.
The argument that the Israel lobby is the main factor driving U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is largely exaggerated. There is little evidence that support for Israel can be reduced to a simple monetary exchange whereby legislators vote for Israel due to campaign contributions, or because they are disproportionately pressured by Jewish voters across the board. The question still remains, however: what is it that drives the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel? My answer to this question will be provided in another essay, but it is worth briefly noting here that the relationship originated largely in response to perceptions among U.S. elites that Israel serves a vital strategic interest in the Middle East. It is within this strategic realm that the Israel lobby’s power to coerce and intimidate critics, and its success in passing pro-Israeli legislation must be understood. Israel’s favored position in U.S. politics arose not out of the infinite power of a small lobby, but from the support afforded to Israel by sympathetic political officials who utilize Israel’s power to further U.S. geopolitical interests.
ANTHONY DiMAGGIO teaches American and Global Politics at Illinois State University. He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008) and the forthcoming When Media Goes to War (2010). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org