How Important Is the Israel Lobby?

Reference: Middle East Quarterly

Fall 2006

By David Verbeeten

Two well-known academics, Stephen Walt of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, published a working paper in March 2006 arguing that “the Israel lobby” wields a disproportionate and detrimental influence on U.S. foreign policy.[1] They defined the lobby as mysteriously large, including everything from Washington think-tanks, New York newspapers, and websites, to traditional lobby groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Their study, however flawed, lent an air of academic respectability to a viewpoint of pervasive Israel lobby influence and power that has long preoccupied polemicists and a radical fringe.

The record does not support such a thesis, however. Pro-Israel lobby groups such as AIPAC are far more self-contained and transparent in their approach. And while AIPAC is an effective advocate of strong U.S.-Israel ties, the evolution of the U.S.-Israeli relationship suggests that the bilateral partnership grew as successive administrations concluded that Israel was a truer friend to U.S. interests than various Arab countries.

The Birth of an Israel Lobby

The U.S. Israel lobby can trace its roots to a Canadian. In 1926, 21-year-old Isaiah L. Kenen left Toronto for Cleveland where he worked as a journalist and became increasingly active in promoting Zionism. By 1941, he was president of the Cleveland Zionist District. He served throughout the 1940s as information director of the Jewish Agency and later on the Israeli delegation to the United Nations. In 1951, Kenen traveled to Washington to help lobby for the Jewish state in its efforts to win U.S. economic and military assistance.[2]

Between 1951 and 1953, Kenen served as the Washington representative of the American Zionist Council, a tax-exempt umbrella organization of American Jewish groups which focused on Israel. In the early 1950s, an unsubstantiated rumor circulated that President Dwight D. Eisenhower, at loggerheads with U.S. supporters of Israel, sought to investigate the American Zionist Council on the basis that it had used tax-exempt funds to lobby. Though false, the rumors persisted and tarnished the council.

Consequently, Kenen organized the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs (AZPAC) in 1954 to act as a pro-Israel lobby with control and financing independent of the American Zionist Council. Its early years were fraught with bureaucratic struggle. Its 1959 name change to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee alienated the Zionist Organization of America, one of the first official Zionist organizations in the United States and an important representative to the World Zionist Organization,[3] which felt that AIPAC risked surrendering control to Jews who were willing to help fund Jewish charities, schools, and kibbutzim but were less dedicated to the traditional Zionist idea of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state. The two organizations refused to cooperate for several years. Competitive strains also existed between AZPAC/AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, also founded in 1954, yet considered by Kenen as irresolute on matters of vital importance to Israel “because it could not move on any issue unless it had a consensus.” They would only begin to cooperate regularly after 1967, when the Six-Day war changed U.S. perceptions of Israel’s strength and importance.[4]

AIPAC grew from a one-man show at its start into an organization with several dozen staff, a budget of over $60 million, and more than 100,000 members.[5] Since Kenen’s 1974 retirement, four men—all leaders of AIPAC at one point or another—influenced the organization’s growth: Robert H. Asher, a Chicago manufacturer; Lawrence Weinberg, a Los Angeles real-estate developer; Edward Levy, a Detroit construction-materials executive; and Mayer Mitchell, a builder from Mobile, Alabama. AIPAC is far from monolithic. While the “Gang of Four” staked out hawkish positions on Israel policy, many in AIPAC’s leadership were liberal democrats more inclined to compromise.[6] Internal friction continues. Beginning in the 1990s, liberal Jewish organizations voiced concerns that AIPAC, officially nonpartisan, leaned right and was unrepresentative of the dovish views of most American Jews vis-à-vis Israeli policies.[7] They also said that AIPAC favored Republican over Democratic candidates for electoral office.[8]

Such internal divisions have not diluted AIPAC’s reputation as an influential and effective lobby group, nor has the FBI sting against two AIPAC employees, Steven Rosen and Keith Weismann. Federal charges so far have enmeshed only those two and Lawrence Franklin, a Pentagon staffer, but have not extended to other AIPAC employees or the organization itself.[9]

Has AIPAC Changed U.S. Policy?

While AIPAC has articulated the benefits of strong U.S.-Israel ties, Washington has determined its policy toward Jerusalem based on U.S. national interests. President Harry S Truman supported Israel’s independence—as did a majority of states in the United Nations—but it was only during the Eisenhower administration that a warm bilateral relationship began to develop. While AIPAC may have applauded the result, its influence on the initial development of U.S.-Israeli ties was limited.

During Eisenhower’s administration, the American Jewish community had little access to the White House. His administration considered pro-Israel pressure as, in the words of University of California political historian Steven L. Spiegel, “obstacles to be overcome rather than as factors in formulating policy.”[10] Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, in particular, was determined to ignore “the pressure exercised by Jewish groups.”[11]

Between 1953 and 1956, the Eisenhower administration viewed Israel negatively, despite the efforts of the Jewish state’s sympathizers. In memos, debates, conversations, and reports, U.S. officials depicted Jerusalem and not Arab states as the primary impediment to peace in the Middle East. U.S.-Israeli relations were tense and fraught with disagreement. Both U.S. and Israeli officials felt their national interests diverging. Washington expected Jerusalem to concede territory in the Negev unilaterally, cease retaliatory raids against Egypt and Jordan, restrict Jewish immigration, and accept return of an unspecified number of Palestinian refugees. But Israelis refused to comply with all these demands.[12]

The Eisenhower administration knew its posture toward Israel was unbalanced, but it justified its position by arguing that its broader interests in the Middle East mandated closer ties with Arab states. The president and his close associates viewed the world in terms of a Cold War dichotomy between non-communist and communist antagonists. Alarmed by Soviet consolidation of influence in eastern Europe and Moscow’s attempts to move into the Mediterranean, the Eisenhower administration sought to encircle the Soviet Union with states allied to and supported by the West. The British decision to disengage from the region and the subsequent risk of a vacuum heightened Washington’s desire to rally and unify the Arab world around its standard. As Eisenhower sought to bolster Greece, Turkey, and Iran against Soviet pressure through regional alliances with Arab countries, he left Israel out of the mix.

The Eisenhower administration bent over backwards to avoid any policy that might vindicate the Arabs’ almost paranoid perception of U.S. favoritism toward Israel. Washington denied Israel arms and threatened the Jewish state with economic sanctions in 1953 because of its water crisis with Syria and its military reprisals in Sinai against Egyptian raids. The State Department expected Israel to make sweeping border adjustments in the framework of the Alpha and Gamma plans, which called for Israel to cede Negev territory in order to enable a land bridge between Egypt and Jordan. Further, the White House condemned Israel in 1956 for participating in the Anglo-French Suez campaign and forced it to retreat from the Sinai in 1957.[13] Kenen’s objections to Eisenhower administration policies fell on deaf ears.[14] More often, AIPAC was unable to influence the general orientation of Eisenhower’s policy.[15]

Why, then, did an exclusive U.S.-Arab alliance not solidify into a permanent fixture of U.S. policy? Simply put, reality intervened. Arab priorities were not those of Washington. While U.S. officials saw resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a precondition for a U.S.-Arab alliance against the Soviet Union, such a grouping was not to be. Arab leaders were unreliable and did not share the U.S. vision of international, let alone regional, security. Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad grew closer to Moscow. These Arab nationalist and revolutionary regimes sought to undermine pro-Western governments in Lebanon and Jordan. The Middle East operated—and continues to operate—according to internal dynamics that are not easily channeled by external forces. Inter-Arab rivalries surfaced.

The State Department was not alone in its faulty analysis. The pan-Arab myth has plagued the perceptions and policies of, among others, Britain, France, and the Arab states themselves.[16]The Arab-Israeli conflict was, it turned out, only one of many cleavages and clashes in the region. Arab-Israeli peace would not be either a panacea or a catalyst for greater U.S. influence. Despite an initial reluctance to embrace the Jewish state, U.S. policymakers came to recognize that Israel stood firm in its Western, pro-American orientation and would support U.S. strategic goals. As Jordan faced revolution as well as Syrian and Palestinian subversion in 1957 and 1958, it was Israel which proved willing to help reinforce the Hashemite kingdom. King Saud ibn Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, in contrast, provided little assistance.[17] The result was that, between 1957 and 1960, the Eisenhower administration reassessed its approach to the Middle East, not as a consequence of domestic lobbying but because of foreign realities. Washington did not abandon its outreach to Arab states but rather, discarded multilateralism for bilateralism. The White House gave up its impractical design for a broad inter-Arab coalition and instead sought to cooperate individually with those regional powers predisposed to oppose Soviet penetration. In this new paradigm, Israel was an ally, not a liability, even as the Arab-Israeli conflict continued. The Eisenhower administration may not have offered overt support for the Jewish state—there were no security guarantees or arms deals—but there was a softening of attitudes toward Israeli concerns regarding borders, refugees, and water flow.[18]

Upon taking office in 1961, John F. Kennedy, perhaps encouraged by mainstream Jewish support for the Democratic Party, further thawed the ice between Washington and Jerusalem.[19] In contrast to Eisenhower, Kennedy spoke openly of his empathy for Israel and the causes of American Jewry. While France remained Israel’s chief arms supplier until 1967, despite a cooling of relations throughout the 1960s, the Kennedy administration began to break the U.S. taboo on selling sophisticated weaponry to Jerusalem.[20] The Kennedy administration set a new U.S. precedent, however, when it sold Hawk antiaircraft missiles to the Jewish state in 1962 following Soviet delivery of long-range bombers to Egypt. Nevertheless, Kennedy’s overall Middle East strategy was neutral with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict.[21] His warmth toward Israel was less a reversal of Eisenhower policy than a continuing recognition that U.S. national security did not lie with Arab nationalism. AIPAC lobbying may have reinforced such conclusions but did not shape White House policy.[22]

With time, the strategic tilt toward the Jewish state intensified. The Lyndon B. Johnson administration also concluded an arms deal with Jerusalem. Throughout the 1960s, the White House came increasingly to regard Israel as a reliable strategic asset able to assist Washington in its quest to reduce Soviet influence in the region.[23] The major breakthroughs in U.S.-Israeli relations occurred after the 1967 Six-Day war. With its victory against multiple Arab states equipped with Soviet arms and its subsequent willingness to support the Hashemite kingdom during and after the 1970 Black September crisis, Israel established itself as a credible deterrent against the expansion of Soviet influence in the Middle East. It was the Israeli military that achieved what AIPAC had not: a general acceptance among U.S. policymakers that close relations with Israel was an asset to U.S. national security and regional interests.

AIPAC Takes Off

During President Richard Nixon’s first term (1969-72), U.S. assistance to Israel became a salient feature of bilateral relations even though Nixon, like Eisenhower, was indifferent if not antagonistic to Jewish voters and their causes. As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger noted in his memoirs:

The President was convinced that most leaders of the Jewish community had opposed him throughout his political career. The small percentage of Jews who voted for him, he would joke, had to be so crazy that they would probably stick with him even if he turned on Israel. He delighted in telling associates and visitors that the “Jewish lobby” had no effect on him.[24]

In The $36 Billion Bargain, political scientist Abramo F.K. Organski argued that the growth of U.S.-Israeli ties under Nixon, despite his personal ambivalence toward Israel and American Jewry, was proof that the Israel lobby and the American Jewish community did not determine the shape of relations. Indeed, AIPAC grew in pace with U.S.-Israeli relations, not vice versa. Until 1967, AIPAC was in debt and received little financial support from either Jewish or Christian Americans.[25]

U.S. aid to Israel (See Table 1) shows both the slow development of the bilateral relationship and its growth under the Nixon administration.

Table 1

The representation of and the data for this graph are found in Abramo F.K. Organski, The $36 Billion Dollar Bargain (New York and Oxford: Columbia University Press, 1990) pp. 16, 142.

Analyzing such data, Organski argued that should analysts accept that American Jewish support was responsible for augmented aid to Israel after 1970, then “one is duty-bound to explain why before 1970 equally high support had the opposite effect.”[26] So how then does the myth of the Israel lobby arise? Organski suggests the image of an all-powerful Israel lobby survives scrutiny because it is a useful illusion. For pro-Israel lobbyists, the belief that they have tremendous clout is a political resource: perception sometimes transforms reality. Other U.S. political operatives can deflect criticism of policies unpopular among some constituents or in the Arab world by raising the bogey of Jewish pressure and domestic politics. The Israeli elite, meanwhile, may find faith in an effective American Jewish lobby reassuring in a hostile region. And Arab leaders may find U.S. conduct easier to swallow if they can blame Jewish lobbying. And for both opponents of U.S. policy at home and abroad, the Jewish scapegoat is useful propaganda to delegitimize disliked policies.[27]

But, whatever its utility, the myth does not stand up to inspection: the power of the Israel lobby has never been what both supporters and detractors thought or hoped it to be. It is not all-encompassing and does not hold an all powerful sway over U.S. policy as Walt and Mearsheimer assert. As Table 2 (see below) indicates, AIPAC’s ability to affect the substance of the U.S. approach to the Middle East remained ambiguous throughout the 1970s and 1980s despite closer U.S.-Israeli ties.

Table 2

Event Degree of Influence/Congruence
5 (high) 4 3 2 1 (low)
1973 Yom Kippur War
Kissinger Shuttle Diplomacy
Post-War Arab Boycott
1978 Camp David Diplomacy
1978 F-15s Arms Deal
1981 AWACS Arms Deal
1982 Lebanon War
1987 Palestinian Intifida

Source: David Howard Goldberg, Foreign Policy and Ethnic Interest Groups: American and Canadian Jews Lobby for Israel (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), pp. 97, 160.

Between 1973 and 1987, AIPAC knew more failure than success in influencing key U.S. decisions which had an impact on Israeli security. AIPAC achieves influence—or protects congruence—in Washington by enunciating Israel’s general importance and by promoting positions in line with existing White House perceptions of U.S. national interests. The Nixon administration supported Israel with an airlift during the 1973 Yom Kippur war—to the satisfaction of AIPAC—for the White House was loathe to see a pro-Western democracy succumb to the military onslaught of well-supplied Soviet client states such as Egypt and Syria. Yet, in 1981, the Reagan administration sold sophisticated airborne warning and command system (AWACS) aircraft to Saudi Arabia—in the face of great opposition from AIPAC—for the White House felt doing so would improve relations with moderate Arab states without unduly compromising Israel’s security or the regional balance of power.

 A Special Relationship

There have been proponents of the special relationship paradigm between Israel and the United States since the time of Harry S. Truman. Truman’s presidential counsel Clark Clifford argued that a democratic state in the Middle East would be in “the long-range security of our country, and indeed the world.”[28] To Clifford and like-minded persons, U.S. national interest in the Middle East and the special relationship with Israel were one and the same.

When Ronald Reagan became president in the aftermath of the Iranian shah’s fall, he regarded Israel as the U.S. government’s only truly dependable asset in the region. He maintained that “Israel has the democratic will, national cohesion, technological capability, and military fiber to stand forth as America’s trusted ally.”[29] The 9-11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent war on terror have reinforced such sentiments.

Although the Israel lobby’s reach and influence is not as great as some conspiracy theorists and political critics of Israel argue, the limitations of pro-Israel lobbyists do not equate to irrelevance. Groups such as AIPAC may not be able to determine executive policy, but they are at times able to constrain or modify it, especially through those institutions sensitive to the pulse of the American people—such as the U.S. Congress, which controls federal allocations. Knowing that for four decades, a plurality if not majority of Americans sympathized with Israel (Table 3), congressmen and senators are inclined to back the Jewish state.

Table 3

Source: “Gallup Polls on American Sympathy toward Israel and the Arabs/Palestinians,” Jewish Virtual Library website, accessed on May 10, 2006. After 1993, the question refers to the Palestinians rather than the Arab nations.

AIPAC and other lobby groups have channeled this support in Congress but did not create it. Indeed, support for the State of Israel is articulated forcefully by demographic sectors such as evangelical Christians and Republican hawks which are otherwise not in line with the mainstream Jewish community on domestic political issues. Support for Israel is the expression of an emotional and ideological attachment to the Jewish state on the part of diverse segments of the American people. It is a reflection of “a widespread fund of goodwill toward Israel that is not restricted to the Jewish community.”[30] In the words of scholar William Quandt:

The bond between the United States and Israel is unquestionably strengthened because of the congruence of values between the two nations. Americans can identify with Israel’s national style … in a way that has no parallel on the Arab side. Neither the ideal of the well-ordered Muslim community nor that of a modernizing autocracy evokes much sympathy among Americans. Consequently, a predisposition no doubt exists in American political culture that works to the advantage of the Israelis.[31]

Quandt is not alone in this observation. Countless commentators, politicians, and analysts—whether for or against—acknowledge a “special relationship” between the United States and Israel which transcends diplomacy and geostrategy to encompass an exceptional range of cultural, religious, and intellectual affinities.[32] “From a comparative perspective,” historians Mitchell G. Bard and Daniel Pipes assert, “the United States and Israel may well be the most extraordinary tie in international politics.”[33] To a large extent, this “extraordinary tie” developed regardless of the lobby’s wishes or design.

Indeed, repeated U.S. administrations came to power predisposed to associate with the Arab world and to disassociate from Israel. In the end, they all recognized that relations with the Arab states were not the inverse of those with Israel. Most came to acknowledge the worth of Israel as a steadfast ally in a volatile region. The irony is that Israel was and is such a reliable ally because of shared cultural, religious, and intellectual affinities, the very qualities that so many “realist” officials in Washington downplay with pride and on principle when making decisions and devising policy on the Middle East.

Both supporters and detractors present the role of the Israel lobby in the evolution of U.S.-Israeli relations as salient, decisive, and unique, but this exaggerates. To be sure, AIPAC has become a well-organized and well-funded expression of the American Jewish community, part of the broader phenomenon of ethnic participation in contemporary U.S. politics. It has known both success and failure in seeing Washington adopt its preferred policies vis-à-vis the Middle East. Its impact upon foreign policy decision-making, however, is not out of the ordinary. Indeed, the importance of U.S.-Israeli relations is not the consequence of the strength of the Israel lobby, but rather the strength of the Israel lobby is a consequence of the importance of U.S.-Israeli relations.

David Verbeeten is a doctoral candidate in Mediterranean studies at King’s College, University of London.

[1] Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer, “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy,”Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government, Faculty Research Working Paper Series no. RWP06-011, Mar. 13, 2006, p. 6.
[2] Isaiah L. Kenen, Israel’s Defense Line: Her Friends and Foes in Washington (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1982), p. 68.
[3] Melvin I. Urofsky, American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), pp. 88, 158-61.
[4] Kenen, Israel’s Defense Line, pp. 106-11.
[5] “Who We Are,” AIPAC website, accessed May 10, 2006; conversation with an AIPAC staffer.
[6] Jonathan Jeremy Goldberg, Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment (Don Mills, Ont.: Addison-Wesley, 1996), pp. 225-6.
[7] The Jerusalem Post, May 11, 2006; The New York Times, Oct. 18, 1998; Michael Massing, “Deal Breakers,” The American Prospect, Mar. 11, 2002.
[8] Neve Campbell, “The Jewish Lobby,” Z Magazine, Oct. 1998; Jeffrey Goldberg, “Real Insiders: A Pro-Israel Lobby and an FBI Sting,” The New Yorker, Aug. 4, 2005.
[9] Jewish Telegraph Agency, Mar. 27, 2006.
[10] Steven L. Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict: Making America’s Middle East Policy, from Truman to Reagan (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 54.
[11] Memorandum of conversation between John Foster Dulles and David Ben-Gurion, May 14, 1953, in Foreign Relations of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, vol. 9, The Near and Middle East (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1986), p. 39.
[12] Abraham Ben-Zvi, Decade of Transition: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Origins of the American-Israel Alliance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 20.
[13] Ibid., pp. 38-57.
[14] Kenen, Israel’s Defense Line, p. 122.
[15] Ibid., pp. 122-53.
[16] Efraim and Inari Karsh, Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 2.
[17] Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict, pp. 87-9.
[18] Douglas Little, “The Making of a Special Relationship: The United States and Israel, 1957-68,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Nov. 1993, p. 564.
[19] Goldberg, Jewish Power, p. 158.
[20] Howard M. Sachar, Israel and Europe: An Appraisal in History (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), pp. 77-86, 178-93.
[21] Kenen, Israel’s Defense Line, p. 166.
[22] Ben-Zvi, Decade of Transition, p. 3.
[23] Ibid., p. 134.
[24] Henry Kissinger, Years of Upheaval (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), p. 564.
[25] Kenen, Israel’s Defense Line, p. 107.
[26] Abramo F.K. Organski, The $36 Billion Dollar Bargain (New York and Oxford: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 16.
[27] Ibid., pp. 27-31.
[28] Clark Clifford with Richard Holbrooke, Counsel to the President: A Memoir (New York: Random House, 1991), pp. 11-2.
[29] Ronald Reagan, “Recognizing the Israeli Asset,” The Washington Post, Aug. 15, 1979.
[30] Bernard Reich, Quest for Peace: United States-Israel Relations and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1977), p. 365.
[31] William Quandt, Decade of Decisions: American Policy toward the Arab-Israel Conflict, 1967-1976 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), p. 14.
[32] Bernard Reich, “The United States and Israel: The Nature of a Special Relationship,” in David W. Lesch, ed., The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Assessment (Boulder: Westview, 1996), pp. 233, 248.
[33] Mitchell G. Bard and Daniel Pipes, “How Special Is the U.S.-Israel Relationship?” Middle East Quarterly, June 1997, p. 41.