Middle East Monitor / March 5, 2021
As a working journalist who reports frequently on the machinations of the pro-Israel lobby, one of the most common claims I come across is that it doesn’t actually exist. Almost uniquely among Middle Eastern regimes allied to Britain and the US, we are told, Israel has no lobby which advocates for Western policies to support it.
Such denial is to be expected, though. Lobbies that work mostly behind closed doors and within the corridors of power do not like their shady activities to be exposed to public scrutiny.
The pro-Israel lobby has a unique strategy, in that it accuses its enemies of anti-Semitism. Israel’s critics, we are told, are not motivated by concern over the country’s blatant human rights violations and war crimes; they only oppose Israel’s Jewishness. Human rights concerns, we are told, are just a cover.
It’s all a tall tale, of course, and it’s not actually unique. Defenders of the brutal monarchy in Saudi Arabia have been known to claim that the regime’s critics are motivated by Islamophobia. However, the anti-Semitism smear deployed against Palestinians and their supporters is of a much greater magnitude.
The first targets of this smear were Palestinians and other Arabs. The Palestinians, we were told, were anti-Semites who didn’t really care that they were being ethnically cleansed by a violent European colonial project based on Zionism; they only cared that the project characterised itself as Jewish. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was “Hitler on the Nile”. Again, tall tales.
You’d expect the pro-Israel lobby itself to act in such a way, since it has done so for decades. But what about those who are ostensibly liberal, progressive or on the left who also try to mask the crimes of Israel and its lobby? They can be even more frustrating. Some of them go to extraordinary lengths to deny that the Israel lobby exists and claim that it has no, or a very minimal effect, on US policy.
One such person is David Wearing, a lecturer at SOAS, University of London. In a woefully misleading piece that he wrote for Novara Media in 2019, he claimed that the role of the main pro-Israel lobby group in the United States, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is “marginal”. In a childish affectation used quite commonly by liberal-leftish know-it-alls like Wearing, throughout the piece he refuses to even use the term Israel lobby without scare quotes to denounce “the ‘Israel lobby’ thesis”.
It doesn’t take a PhD or a thesis to recognise the fact that the pro-Israel lobby exists and has a large degree of influence. Last month an interview with a former top Obama-era official demonstrated this once again. Ben Rhodes was a deputy national security adviser under Obama, and spoke to journalist Peter Beinart. He pointed out that, as a White House official, he had to meet with Israel lobby groups more than any other lobby or interest group. In fact, he said, the number of meetings he had with the pro-Israel lobby was equal to those he’d had with all other lobby groups combined.
How can that equate to just being a “marginal” factor?
“You meet more with outside, organised constituency groups on Israel than any other foreign policy issue,” said Rhodes. This had been the situation for decades, under both Democrat and Republican presidents: “I’m pretty confident that’s consistent across [presidential] administrations… You just have this incredibly organised pro-Israel community that is very accustomed to having access in the White House, in Congress, at the State Department. It’s taken for granted, as given, that that’s the way things are going to be done.”
He said that other lobbies “do the same thing on their issues, but not as effectively frankly.”
By way of example, Rhodes cited the fight between the lobby and the Obama administration over the 2015 nuclear energy deal with Iran. Members of Congress would feel pressure from the pro-Israel to fall into line with the colonial state on the issue. This was not just political pressure or persuasion: it was real financial muscle.
Many US politicians have their electoral fund-raisings events organised by the pro-Israel lobby. According to Rhodes, members of Congress would call him “and be like, AIPAC put out a press release saying they’re going to spend $40 million on ads on this. The money issue became acute.” They added that, “AIPAC told me they’d cancel my fund-raisers if I vote [in favour of the Iran deal and with Obama].”
And these were the Democrats. Very few Republicans had to be pressured, since they were already “in total lockstep, total hawks — total wherever Netanyahu was.”
The former Obama official noted that “we’re never supposed to name the issue of money.” This is probably because the pro-Israel lobby makes it a habit to accuse its critics of “anti-Semitism”, and which politician or government official wants that?
However, the claim that opposing Israel or its lobby equates to anti-Jewish prejudice is, ironically, in itself anti-Semitic. This false claim aligns all Jews with Israel by definition, which is an anti-Semitic smear. British or American Jews as a whole, for example, are not responsible for the crimes committed by the Zionist state of Israel.
Moreover, Israel and its lobby do not care about real anti-Semitism; they only care about defending the apartheid state at all costs, and fabricated “anti-Semitism” allegations can be a very useful form of attack, although this ruse is increasingly being debunked. As one Israel lobbyist put it: “Anti-Semitism as a smear is not what it used to be.”
The American journalist Andrew Cockburn responded to the Rhodes interview wryly. He tweeted that it was “officially confirmed: It is all about the Benjamins.”
This was a reference to the 2019 furore over comments on Twitter by progressive Democrat Ilhan Omar. Journalist Glenn Greenwald had tweeted that, “It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation [Israel] even if it means attacking [the] free speech rights of Americans.” Omar retweeted his comment, adding that “…it’s all about the Benjamins baby”, using a slang term for $100 bills, which have the image of Benjamin Franklin on them.
What Omar was saying — and was subsequently smeared relentlessly for — was that pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC uses money to push its pro-apartheid agenda in the world of US politics. She was right: Rhodes’ interview confirms that it really is all about the Benjamins.
This much was obvious from the pro-Israel lobby campaign against the Iran deal. For many members of Congress, “When it became very acute and AIPAC is spending money and threatening people that they’re going to cancel fund-raisers, suddenly you’re having that conversation in a way where you’re not even allowed to allude to it [money].”
Rhodes was adamant on this point: “In all those ways, the outside pressure, the Congressional interest, the media interest, there’s just a much greater spotlight on anything with a nexus to Israel than on anything else. And inevitably that weighs on the minds of politicians and policymakers. You can’t act like it doesn’t.”
Not only that, but he also said that top US officials must actually attend the annual AIPAC policy conference: “You are expected — every senior US government official in national security — is almost expected to turn up at AIPAC. You are not expected to turn up at [Iranian American group] NIAC.”
It’s important to note that the Iran deal went through in the end, so Israel doesn’t have absolute control over US foreign policy. It does, though, have effective hegemony over US policy on Palestine and the Israelis. This is changing, however.
The pro-Israel lobby’s influence is in long term decline. As another Israel lobbyist put it: “The foundation that AIPAC sat on is rotting… There used to be actual widespread public support for Israel in the United States… I don’t think that AIPAC is going to remain as influential as it is.”
The Benjamins may be losing their ability to persuade US politicians to toe the Israeli line without question. Anyone who claims to care for the soul of US democracy must surely hope that this is the case.
Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist living in London who writes about Palestine and the Middle East