Taming Leviathan

This week saw yet another reminder of the awesome power of “the lobby”. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) brought more than 6,000 activists to Washington for its annual policy conference. And they proceeded to live up to their critics’ darkest fears.

They heard from the four most powerful people on Capitol Hill—Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner from the House, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell from the Senate—as well as the vice-president (who called his talk “The United States and Israel: United We Stand”) and sundry other power-brokers. Several first-division presidential candidates held receptions.

The display of muscle was almost equalled by the display of unnerving efficiency. There were booths for “congressional check-in”, booths for “delegate banquet troubleshooting”, and booths full of helpful young people. The only discordant note was sounded by a group of a dozen protesters—Orthodox Jews in beards, side-curls and heavy black coats—holding up signs saying “Stop AIPAC”, “Torah forbids Jews dictating foreign policy”, and “Judaism rejects the state of Israel”.

The lobbyists had every reason to feel proud of their work. Congress has more Jewish members than ever before: 30 in the House and a remarkable 13 in the Senate. (There are now more Jews in Congress than Episcopalians.) Both parties are competing with each other to be the “soundest” on Israel. About two-thirds of Americans hold a favourable view of the place.

Yet they have reason to feel a bit nervous, too. The Iraq debacle has produced a fierce backlash against pro-war hawks, of which AIPAC was certainly one. It has also encouraged serious people to ask awkward questions about America’s alliance with Israel. And a growing number of people want to push against AIPAC. One pressure group, the Council for the National Interest—run by two retired congressmen, Paul Findley, a Republican, and James Abourezk, a Democrat—even bills itself as the anti-AIPAC. The Leviathan may be mightier than ever, but there are more and more Captain Ahabs trying to get their harpoons in.

Some of the most determined are Arab-Americans, who have been growing in numbers and influence for years—there are probably about 3.5m of them—and who have been in the eye of a political storm since September 11th 2001. They are a growing political force in northern Ohio and Michigan, and their institutions, such as the Arab American Institute and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), have plenty of access to Middle Eastern money.

But so far their performance has been unimpressive. James Zogby has been promising a breakthrough for his Arab American Institute for 20 years. CAIR remains marginal. Arab-Americans are badly split between Christians (63%) and Muslims (24%). They have also been late in taking to politics. Between 1990 and 2004 Arab-Americans donated $788,968 to candidates and parties, compared with $56.8m from pro-Israeli groups.

AIPAC’s ace in the hole is the idea that it represents Jewish interests in a country that is generally philo-Semitic. But liberal Jewish groups retort that it represents only a sliver of Jewish opinion. A number of more liberal groups have started to use their political muscle—groups such as the Religious Action Centre of Reform Judaism, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum. These groups scored a significant victory over AIPAC by persuading Congress to water down a particularly uncompromising bit of legislation, the Palestinian Anti-terrorism Act, which would have prevented any American contact with the Palestinian leadership. This accomplishment led to a flurry of speculation that George Soros might try to institutionalise this successful alliance by creating a liberal version of AIPAC.

It has yet to materialise. And it is doubtful whether Mr Soros, a left-wing Democrat who has little sympathy with Israel, would be the best patron for such an organisation. But the growing activism of liberal Jewish groups underlines a worrying fact for AIPAC: most Jews are fairly left-wing. Fully 77% of them think that the Iraq war was a mistake compared with 52% of all Americans. Eighty-seven per cent of Jews voted for the Democrats in 2006, and all but four of the Jews in Congress are Democrats.

Dissenting voices

An even bigger threat to AIPAC comes from the general climate of opinion. It is suddenly becoming possible for serious people—politicians and policymakers as well as academics—to ask hard questions about America’s relationship with Israel. Is America pursuing its own interests in the Middle East, or Israel’s? Should America tie itself so closely to the Israeli government’s policies or should it forge other alliances?

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser, worries that America is seen in the Middle East as “acting increasingly on behalf of Israel”. Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, has compared the situation in Palestine to segregation, and argued that there could “be no greater legacy for America than to help bring into being a Palestinian state”. Philip Zelikow, her former counsellor, argues, in diplomatic language, that the only way to create a viable coalition against terrorists that includes Europeans, moderate Arabs and Israelis, is a “sense that Arab-Israeli issues are being addressed”.

The biggest challenge facing AIPAC is how to deal with this changing climate. Its members have been admirably honest about their mission in life. They boast about passing more than a hundred bits of pro-Israel legislation a year. But they are too willing to close down the debate with explosive charges of anti-Israel bias when people ask whether this is a good thing. America needs an open debate about its role in the Middle East—and AIPAC needs to take a positive role in that debate if it is to remain such a mighty force in American politics.