Washington is filled with powerful lobbying groups of all kinds, and it is often said that these powerful groups wield an undue amount of influence over the making of American policy. This is a sample research paper that focuses on the pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States and how the American Israel Public Affairs Committee exerts a substantial amount of power over American foreign policy.
American Israel Public Affairs Committee
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the United States. Though the heyday of the AIPAC and its influence in supporting Israel took place in the 1970s and 1980s, it nonetheless remains a potent lobbying force in Washington today. The Committee is a broad extension of American Jewish interests, and represents a powerful force in ensuring continued influence over American policy with regards to Israeli-American interests.
However, despite the wealth and political influence of AIPAC, the lobbyists themselves have at best only a moderate showing for their efforts at influencing the Obama administration. In a rather surprising manner of events, President Obama has continued the American policy of promoting a strong and irrevocable alliance between Israel and the United States, while still maintaining a stern stance towards certain unpopular Israeli policies.
In particular, it is clear that efforts by the Israeli lobby to change American policy towards the issue of Iran, the problem of Israel and Palestine, and the matter of overall American backing for the state of Israel are not nearly as effective as the lobby may wish, and that, while the influence is certainly substantial, the Israeli lobby has thus far failed to fully shift President Obama’s policies to be completely in line with their own.
Historical background on AIPAC
The origins of the Israeli lobby in the United States are found in the Cold War, a time in which the state of Israel became a valuable ally and strategic asset in an otherwise hostile Middle East. As a geopolitical asset of the United States during its decades-long standoff with the Soviet Union, Israel played a useful role for the Americans, enabling them to project power and have a powerful counterweight to the Soviet-backed regimes in Syria, Jordan, and later Egypt.
Though always willing to pursue its goals without the United States, such as in 1956 with the Suez Crisis, Israel and the United States nonetheless maintained a critically strong and nigh unbreakable alliance. This alliance takes place in more than just words—over three billion dollars a year are sent to Israel in the form of military and economic aid, “which translates to nearly $500 per Israeli citizen” (Walt 140).
Moreover, the United States never hesitated to take Israel’s side on international disputes, and it is only through American backing at the United Nations that Israel avoided numerous statements of condemnation regarding its actions in the region. Thus, during the Cold War, a strong ideological and geopolitical bond existed between the United States and Israel, based on a mixture of shared ideological values, cultural preferences, geostrategic importance, and economic ties.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, formed in 1990, is the formalization of several pre-1990 Jewish American interest groups. It is important to note that AIPAC and various Jewish American lobbying groups are not necessarily attempting to dictate policy by their will alone—Tony Smith
“has convincingly shown that ethnic lobbies cannot by themselves shape American foreign policy” (Guerlain 377).
Instead, the lobbyists recognize their own limitations and the structural constraints placed upon them and rely on indirect methods more often than not. Though technically a domestic American lobbying group, the Israeli lobby and its primary agent, AIPAC, “functions more as the agent of a foreign state” than a domestic lobbying group (Guerlain 378). Moreover, there is a conflation between the nature of the Israeli lobby given the mixture of ethnic, national, and religious ties that being Israeli entails.
Separating ethnic from national statehood from religious when the state of Israel is founded as a Jewish state first and foremost creates a tension between interpretations and understanding of what the Israeli lobby is truly after. Even the simple act of conflating being Jewish with being Israeli lends itself to various interest groups framing the conflict in Palestine in terms that benefit them. The usage and accusations of anti-Semitism by the AIPAC has, in particular, been a potent way to ensure that their points are not ignored and are taken with full seriousness, as even the specter of anti-Semitic behavior is usually sufficient to hush critics of Israel (Burham 615).
However, even with this ill-defined and amorphous influence over American foreign policy, the Israeli lobby nonetheless experienced a rise to prominence over rival interest groups only after the mid-1960s.
Influence of AIPAC
The influence of AIPAC is not found in legislation or particular major acts that define presidencies, but rather in representing the attitude of Americans and those who sympathize with the Israeli position. In the fifteen years preceding 2007, Israeli political action groups have given over fifty-five million dollars in campaign contributions to candidates that AIPAC has screened and approved.
Indeed, AIPAC’s influence over ensuring candidates who have a negative stance towards Israel will have a difficult time getting elected is seen explicitly when Stephen Walt remarks that,
“anyone running for office knows it’s not a good idea to criticize Israel if you want to get elected” (Walt 144).
Indeed, it is accepted that AIPAC and the Israeli lobbies can certainly veto a candidate for political office—even offhand comments that could be considered anti-Israeli can result in a downpour of concerned voter letters and the promise of, if not getting booted from office, certainly never winning a reelection campaign.
Despite their limited ability to affect policy,
“AIPAC is still nonetheless very much a force to be reckoned with” (Waxman 18).
Thus, though no lobbyist can completely direct the conduct of American foreign policy nor can the Israeli lobby somehow create an unbreakable alliance out of thin air, the capacity to impact the atmosphere and culture on Capitol Hill is apparent. Moreover, the Israeli lobby is highly effective at influencing public opinion via the media. Mainstream media in the United States “tends to be very pro-Israel” and obtaining a balanced debate between criticism and defense of Israeli policy is a rare occurrence (Walt 145) .
Efforts of the Anti-Defamation League, which searches out material hostile to Israeli interests and attempts to remove it from mainstream media, indicate the extent to which the Israeli lobby can effectively help how Israeli policies are portrayed in the media.
Obama and international reconciliation
It is into this political environment that the election of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race afforded the United States a rare opportunity to offer the world a clean slate—a new President and a nation tired of wars that had dragged on for far too long for the general public to continue to stomach. Aiming his foreign policy directives at a “general reconciliation between the United States and the world’s Muslims” as well as the rest of the world, Obama received much criticism for even agreeing to meet with the leaders of Iran, North Korea, and Cuba with no preconditions (Allin, Simon 24).
Shortly after his election, the ill-fated Green Movement erupted following the Iranian elections. Accused of fraud and defrauding the election, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran brutally suppressed the nascent peaceful revolution and solidified his rule for another term. Terrorism, Several deaths, thousands of arrests, and numerous tortures resulted in Ahmadinejad restoring the cohesion of his state and left the world wondering if Obama’s vague promise to engage with Iran had inspired Iranian youth to leap for the chance to try to create a major political shift in their nation.
Though Obama did not choose to engage or act in any significant way to help the Green Movement, actors on the international stage soon began to move in response to his diplomatic overtures.
Despite the failure of the Green Movement, those “nascent democratic forces” nonetheless showed that anti-Americanism in Iran was drastically shifting downwards (Pilkington 27). Thus, Obama’s diplomatic maneuvers by even vague promises of engagement with Iran, though protested by AIPAC and the Israeli lobby, proved to be significant in showing the internal turmoil Iran faces.
Israel, Iran, and the United States policy
Approaching the peace process in Israel and Palestine with open arms, Obama’s overtures were met with “yet more settlement building on the West Bank” (Pilkington 26). Strangely enough, the power of the Israeli lobby as seen in the United States can also be inverted and used to analyzed the importance of the American lobby in Israel. Here, Obama had made a clear indication that he wished to attempt to achieve a peaceful conclusion to the Israel-Palestine conflict, only to have the Israeli government willingly engage in the one activity that would most assuredly delay the peace process.
Though “pro-Israel lobbying and pro-Israel sentiment certainly influences and constrains US diplomacy”, it is clear that even the most ardent lobbying on behalf of the Israeli lobby would be insufficient to prevent the President and his advisors from pursuing another attempt at peace, a situation that would likely result in uncomfortable demands of the Israelis at the very least (Rynhold 43). Indeed, Obama’s statement that the United States would not recognize the legitimacy of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories received only the building plans of new settlements in the West Bank as a response.
“while firmly maintaining an Israel-first approach, the U.S. president on a number of occasions has reiterated his commitment to a Palestinian state” (Rynhold 45).
However, when Vice President Joe Biden, during his 2010 trip to Israel and it’s settlements, declared his support for the state of Israel and undying commitment of the United States to the safety and security of Israel, only to be faced with an Israeli government authorizing another 1,600 settlements (Allin, Simon 34). If anything, it seems that the unbreakable alliance between the United States and Israel is more of a function of formality than a two-way street or a give and take.
If the Israeli lobby, which acts as an agent of the Israeli state, “can not be said to have played a decisive role” in American foreign policy, it is clear that the inverse is also true and that American wishes and desires had little sway in Israel’s internal decision to build more settlements.
Iranian nuclear program
Perhaps the most significant way in which the Israeli lobby has attempted to influence American policy is with regards to the Iranian nuclear program. Israel, surrounded by hostile states, is unwilling to let Iran obtain nuclear weapons. Though the likelihood that Iran would actually use a nuclear weapon against Israel is realistically quite remote, the Israeli leadership simply cannot afford to take that risk.
Thus, the alliance between the United States and Israel becomes of paramount importance—risking armed conflict would mean American support would be invaluable, but it begs the question of whether American support is guaranteed if Israel strikes first in an effort to prevent the weapon from being created. Obama, however, is constrained heavily by the AIPAC lobby in Congress—unwilling to deal with moderate Arab states in an open fashion with regards to the nuclear question, Obama would face much criticism and attacks if he attempted to negotiate with Egypt or Saudi Arabia openly regarding stopping the continuation of the Iranian nuclear program.
For Israel, the risk of “exposing Israel to a permanent situation of life under an Iranian nuclear threat” is untenable (Eiland 127). Thus, the issue of how Obama can effectively address the Iranian threat when the AIPAC-led lobby at home uses its influence and power to strive for a hardline solution and the Israeli government is reticent to consider implementing policy changes that would alleviate tension in the region is troubling.
President Obama and the AIPAC often maintain different and ideologically opposed viewpoints on particular issues. Though the Israeli lobby in the United States is powerful, one cannot say it wields any deciding power when it comes to determining actual American foreign policy. Instead, the influence of AIPAC and the Israeli lobby in general is to affect the atmosphere of Capitol Hill via voting in and supporting approved candidates and to blacklist those whom they feel do not represent the best interests of the American Israeli lobby.
On the other hand, while the influence is powerful to be sure, it lacks the strong controlling aspect that is often misattributed to it. Indeed, President Obama’s diplomacy seems constrained and conflicted by the necessity of appeasing the hardline AIPAC and Israeli leaders and conservative American right wing when it can be argued that such a hardline approach is, in fact, contrary to the goal of peace. Regardless of the motives of AIPAC and the lobby, it is clear that they lack the capacity to affect policy directly and are instead merely a powerful lobbying group, albeit one with an external foreign focus and not aimed inwards at domestic issues.
AIPAC In the Future
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee remains a strong, but faltering lobbying force in Washington. Despite the continued influence being exerted by AIPAC, President Obama and his administration do not have any noticeable policy changes directly impacted by the lobbying powers and instead we see that the conduct of American foreign policy is based on far more factors than the machinations of another Washington lobbying group. American policy towards Iran, Palestine, and Israel are not a result of lobbying influence, but rather historical, cultural, geopolitical, and economic ties that go far beyond the power of AIPAC to influence completely.
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