Hands down, the most fascinating thing about this piece in The Economist about the so-called Israel Lobby is the argument “that America’s mighty pro-Israel lobby may be less durable than it looks.”
On the one hand, the author argues that there’s a very powerful Israel Lobby that influences American politicians in such a way that they must express their support for Israel:
What explains this enduring support? The “lobby”, for a start. This week, as more than 10,000 supporters flooded Washington for the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the lobby strutted its stuff. Mr Obama spoke on the first day of the meeting, before flying off to Europe. On the second day, 67 senators and 286 members of the House joined the 10,000 at the gala dinner—perhaps the biggest kosher nosh in history. On the third, after Mr Netanyahu’s triumph on the House floor, delegates ascended the Hill to conduct more than 500 separate lobbying meetings. Behold, the congressman that keepeth an eye on his Jewish vote shall neither slumber nor sleep.
And, on the other hand, that the incredibly powerful Israel Lobby isn’t really speaking for very many people in this country, if we stick to the common presumption that the Israel Lobby is expressing the will of American Jews:
Frank Luntz, another pollster, says that most American Jews oppose Mr Obama’s positions on Israel. Nonetheless, he predicts that an overwhelming majority of Jews will vote to re-elect the president in 2012. The explanation for this apparent paradox is simple. Most American Jews support Israel, but most do not care about it enough for it to affect the way they vote. Like other Americans, they are likelier to be influenced by past voting habits—and how they think the economy is faring.
In 2008, 78% of American Jews voted for Mr Obama, mostly because he was the Democrat. That proportion, cautions Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution, “is not Planck’s Constant”. Republicans are tantalised by Florida, a swing state with many older Jewish voters. Yet even there it is hard to see Israel as a decisive issue. Jews may not like Mr Obama’s stance on Israel, but Mr Luntz says that they are also unhappy about the influence of the tea-party movement on Republicans. Sam Abrams, a political scientist at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, cannot see any Republican being capable both of winning the nomination of the party in its current mood and appealing to Jewish voters.
Given all of this interesting information, my sense is that all of the (overwhelmingly negative) talk about this Israel Lobby is really missing the central point. As I argued in response to a tweet from Glenn Greenwald in a post earlier this week:
[W]hat Greenwald — and all those who think the so-called “Israel Lobby” has some sort of controlling influence on America — would need to demonstrate is that politicians want to do something, namely better support Palestinians or stop supporting Israel, but feel themselves unable to do so because doing so would mean running afoul of the “Israel Lobby.” The article to which Greenwald links does not demonstrate that conclusion and, I think, seems to support a very different conclusion, namely that politicians understand American voters and donors to be supportive of Israel and thus attempt to make a case to these voters and donors that they share this position.
At bottom, then, the reason the so-called Israel Lobby is so powerful is because politicians perceive it to be powerful. AIPAC works, in other words, because voters hold the position that AIPAC promotes. Surely we all recognize that, for example, Arab states have lobbying groups in the U.S. and that these states have the capacity to spend a great deal of money. Why don’t they have greater influence? The inverse of my above answer: politicians aren’t convinced that voters hold the position that these groups promote.
It’s easiest to be a powerful lobbyist, to my mind, if you’re lobbying for a position that — in poll after poll — the majority of Americans hold. If the majority of Americans changed their minds on Israel, there’s not much that AIPAC could do … especially if we understand AIPAC as representing the position of American Jews. After all, the position held by roughly 2% of the population doesn’t really hold a great deal of weight when it’s time to cast ballots.