Mondoweiss / September 24, 2023
In the 1980s, AIPAC tried to weaken U.S. policy toward an African dictator. Is the pro-Israel warhorse deploying the same maneuver again today ?
You might think that AIPAC, the flagship of the Israel lobby, has over the years damaged and distorted U.S. foreign policy only in the Middle East. You would be wrong.
A remarkable new memoir by Stephen R. Weissman, an academic and Congressional staffer who specialized in Africa, is a rare and depressing look at how U.S. foreign policy is made. His insider account includes a brief but revealing description of how and why back in the 1980s AIPAC lobbied to weaken U.S. pressure against an African dictator named Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled Zaire, later renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Little has apparently changed. Felix Tshisekedi, the current Congolese leader, is suspected of planning to steal the next election this December, and he also has continued connections to AIPAC. The pro-Israel organization could conceivably still be trying to steer U.S. policy in the wrong, undemocratic direction.
Weissman is an expert on DR Congo. In his memoir, From the Congo to Capitol Hill, he explains how he taught at a university there from 1969-1971, when he and and his family were deported after a trumped up charge that he had been promoting student unrest. Mobutu, the U.S.-backed dictator, was consolidating power, and was probably personally behind his expulsion.
Then, from 1979-1991, Weissman worked as a senior staffer for the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa. His book describes in fascinating detail how he and others fought hard (with limited success) to reduce U.S. military aid to Mobutu, arguing (correctly) that on top of being repressive the dictator did not represent “stability,” but had lost popularity and was likely to be toppled.
Then, surprisingly, on page 147 of the memoir, AIPAC makes a sudden appearance — in a book that has been exclusively about Africa. In 1981, Mobutu, cunning as always, had responded to the threatened U.S. aid cuts by … recognizing Israel. (Zaire/Congo, like most African nations, had cut diplomatic ties with Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.) Weissman points out that AIPAC was “a powerful pro-Israel group with 50,000 members, contacts in every congressional district, and influence with key campaign donors.” He goes on: “AIPAC proceeded with low-key lobbying to persuade members of Congress to soften their stances on Zaire aid.”
Strenuous efforts by Weissman and his allies on the Africa Subcommittee helped stop AIPAC’s lobbying efforts from succeeding. But the pro-Israel warhorse is not giving up on the DR Congo. Back in 2020, AIPAC invited Felix Tshisekedi, who lost the 2018 election decisively but was installed as president after the vote count was corrupted, to speak to its annual conference. Tshisekedi flew all the way to Washington to give a 9-minute speech, at which he promised to send a Congolese ambassador to Israel after a 20-year absence and to otherwise strengthen ties.
This December, Tshisekedi faces a huge challenge in scheduled elections. Popular candidates are campaigning against him, and he’s already responding to the threat by arresting opponents, including a respected, prominent journalist named Stanis Bujakera. One former government minister, Cherubin Okende, was mysteriously murdered in July. Weissman, who has maintained his interest in the Congo, just published a valuable article in Foreign Policy warning the U.S. not to ignore another stolen election.
So Tshisekedi is apparently playing the Israel card again. He just met Benjamin Netanyahu in New York at the U.N. General Assembly, and on September 22 it was announced that the DR Congo will move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Tshisekedi is sending the same signal to AIPAC and the U.S. Israel lobby that his predecessor Mobutu did 40 years ago. Let’s see how they respond.
James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large