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The ‘War for Washington’

The Lobby: Jewish Political Power and American Foreign Policy

by Edward Tivnan
Simon and Schuster, 304 pp., $19.95


The Israeli connection remains one of the mysteries of the Iran-contra affair. The Tower Commission report mentioned the importance of Israeli initiatives aimed at pushing the American government, by means of arms sales, toward a better relationship with Iran. The report said that David Kimche, the director-general of Israel’s Foreign Office, had first suggested such an approach to Iran to administration officials in Washington; but the report drew no lessons from this.1 Israelis, if one believes some of the witnesses at the Congressional hearings, may also have suggested the diversion of funds from these arms sales to the contras—whom Israel itself had been helping for years. But again, the members of the House and Senate committees showed little curiosity. The issue of Israel’s influence on American foreign policy and of the extent of cooperation between the two countries’ secret services was avoided.

The Pollard spy case had already cast a shadow on the idyllic picture of US-Israeli relations so often painted by those, on both sides, who describe Israel as a “major asset” and key ally of the US. In this instance, understandably enough, it was the Israeli government that showed no enthusiasm for revelations and attributions of responsibility. A subcommittee of the Knesset, headed by Abba Eban, ended its investigation with a report that put much of the blame for hiring Pollard on Shimon Peres, the prime minister at the time; but it avoided specifics, and thus pleased nobody. The affair caused turmoil among prominent American Jews, some of whom spoke out strongly against Israel’s use of an American official to spy on the US, and provoked angry charges from Israeli public figures (such as the political philosopher and former high official Shlomo Avineri), who rebuked American Jewish critics as if they were letting Israel down. The relation of American Jews to Israel was called into question more acutely than it had been for some years.

Two recent books examine, respectively, Israel’s arms dealings throughout the world and the domestic political activities of American Jewish pressure groups on behalf of Israel. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, in The Israeli Connection, makes a survey of “who Israel arms and why”; he is a clinical psychologist and teaches at Haifa University. Edward Tivnan, a journalist, discusses in The Lobby “Jewish political power and American foreign policy.”

Beit-Hallahmi’s account of the scope and variety of Israeli military dealings in such countries as Iran, Taiwan, Marcos’s Philippines, Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, Morocco, Liberia, Zaire, Somoza’s Nicaragua, Chile, and Argentina under military rule—and with Edén Pastora’s contras—is derived from many sources, and even if some of the newspaper and other reports he has used may be challenged, the picture is, on the whole, convincing. It is, indeed, confirmed by the narrower, and meticulous, work of a young Palestinian scholar, Bishara Bahbah, in Israel and Latin America: The Military Connection,2 which shows that Israel for years sold arms to the dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, among other countries.

The most valuable part of Beit-Hallahmi’s book is a detailed account of Israel’s extensive relations with South Africa, which the Israeli decision of March 1987 not to sign new contracts for military cooperation is unlikely to affect much. Israel not only has sold arms to South Africa. It has engaged in joint ventures to produce arms there, as well as engaged in joint research on nuclear weapons and development. Israel has also invested heavily in the “Bantustans,” and arranged exchanges of visits between the two countries.

The problem with Beit-Hallahmi’s book is the simplistic arguments that he presents to explain the diverse activities it describes. Beit-Hallahmi sees Israel as a surrogate of the US, serving American goals in order to raise its value as a “strategic asset” of Washington. He describes both Israel and the US as countries at war with “the Third World” (a term he never stops to examine). He suggests, at one point, that Israel’s support for so many right-wing, dictatorial, or corrupt regimes is linked to the fact that the regimes that support self-determination or revolution are generally on the side of the Palestinians. This is largely true, but his main thesis—that Israel is opposed to true decolonization because Zionism is a colonialist movement, not a liberal one, and has an ideology not of victims but of tough conquerors—is far too sweeping and too simple. Most Zionists, unlike colonialists, did not aim at dominating the “natives”—in this instance, the Arabs. Zionism’s flaw was its ignorance or neglect of the effects its own brand of nationalism was bound to have on displaced Palestinian Arabs or on Arab residents subjected to Jewish rule. As for the “ideal of being tough,” it can only be understood, at least in part, as a fierce rejection of centuries of weakness and victimization, as a determination not to expose the Jewish people to one more Holocaust.

Tivnan’s book is at its best whenever he describes the “war for Washington” waged by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in its efforts to get Congress to vote against proposed arms sales to Arab countries, the ways by which “the lobby” punishes defectors, or adversaries, in the House and Senate by mobilizing Jewish votes against them, and the degree to which it succeeds in affecting American policy toward Israel and in limiting American initiatives in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some of these stories, such as the successful campaign of the Israeli lobby against Charles Percy in 1984, because of his support of arms sales to Arab countries, are familiar, however. Others, such as the lobby’s campaign in 1977 against the US-USSR joint communiqué on a comprehensive settlement, including Palestinians, were widely reported at the time and Tivnan adds little to them. He deals with the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and of American foreign policy in the Middle East, but far too sketchily to be illuminating; he briefly recalls the history of the American Jewish community, with its internal rivalries and its leaders, but never gives an analytical account of the various Jewish organizations and their differences in membership, activities, and beliefs.

What he refers to as “the lobby” is predominantly AIPAC (as distinguished from the political action committees properly so called, which alone are entitled to finance candidates in federal elections). About AIPAC’s remarkably effective organization and about money raising by the Jewish PACs one learns as much from two recent articles in The New York Times,3 which appeared after Tivnan’s book was published. (One wonders if the Times was stimulated to run this series by Tivnan’s book.) But Tivnan’s criticisms of AIPAC’s methods in particular and of the American Jewish community’s timidity vis-á-vis Israeli foreign policy are telling, and his own suggestions, aimed at fostering a more critical attitude toward Israel and more debate, are sound. I will discuss both later in this review.

His book, however, is marred by a lack of consecutive argument and by insufficient attention to a number of critical points. How close is the relationship between the Israeli government, its ambassador in Washington, and the American Jewish leaders? Most of Tivnan’s information is about the 1960s, when Eban was the ambassador, and about the early 1970s. How do AIPAC’s strength (50,000 dues-paying members in 1984) and effectiveness compare with those of other powerful and well-organized lobbies, especially foreign affairs lobbies? Above all, what are the deeper reasons for its success, the many sentimental, strategic, ideological, and religious factors that predispose Congress and the American public to hearing and to endorsing its arguments? Tivnan discusses AIPAC’s deliberate appeal, since 1982, to Protestant fundamentalists, but they are not the only receptive audience.


Whatever their weaknesses, these books raise questions of fundamental importance. There is, first, the question of Israel’s foreign policy. Is it in Israel’s own best, long-term interest? With respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict, many Israelis—not all of them lifelong doves—realize that the occupation of the West Bank and of Gaza will sooner or later become precisely what it was aimed at preventing: a major threat to the security of Israel, indeed to its identity as a Jewish state and as a democracy. If the Palestinians who live either in Israel or in the occupied territories were to be granted full rights of citizenship, Israel would sooner or later become the binational state so often proposed by Arafat. If the Palestinians in the occupied territories continue to be treated as noncitizens, Israel will continue to be seen as a pariah state by many nations of the world. It will indeed appear as the last colonialist power, as Beit-Hallahmi contends it is now (or the next to last, along with South Africa); it will have to deal with increasingly radicalized Palestinian young men and women, among whom Islamic fundamentalism could become the ultimate beneficiary of despair and the new fanatical source of hope; it could also have to face increasing polarization within Israel itself.

These are some of the reasons why getting out of the occupied territories should be Israel’s most urgent goal, a view acknowledged in this country by as pro-Israeli a figure as Michael Walzer4—and in Israel by the official Labor party program, notwithstanding the party’s failure to pursue negotiations with the Palestinians. As long as Israeli moderates try to find ways to avoid negotiating with the PLO, clearly the only force capable of speaking for the Palestinians, or demand preliminary changes of positions by the PLO without any simultaneous commitment on their part to the principle of self-determination, the formidable burdens that Israel acquired by its triumph in June 1967 will grow ever heavier.

Israel’s arms policies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America can be explained in large part by the need to avoid international isolation and by financial considerations—the enormous contribution made by arms sales to the Israeli balance of payments. Hallahmi’s sweeping theories about Zionism as essentially colonialist in character do not take sufficient account of such motives. But he may well be right in suggesting that the deep and diverse links developed by successive Israeli governments with so repulsive a regime as South Africa’s result from a sort of solidarity. At home, each of these two states is threatened by forces that resent their fate and demand their rights—Palestinians and blacks. In the UN, both states have been the principal targets of condemnation by the newly independent nations and by the Communist countries. This solidarity has bred a sinister complicity, particularly in the development of nuclear weapons. And it is true that Israel’s willingness to provide internal security systems, including police equipment, to tyrants around the world marks the triumph of Realpolitik over democratic ideals.

Many Israelis, and Jews throughout the world, would have much more difficulty accepting (or repressing) these deals if they did not consider them required by Israel’s beleaguered situation, and if they did not believe that this condition is imposed on Israel by Arab intransigence, terrorism, and divisions—a judgment that is only partly valid. The record, carefully sifted by the late Israeli journalist and peace activist Simha Flapan,5 to cite only one such study, shows that the responsibilities for the tragedy of Arab-Israeli relations have to be shared by both sides. And whatever the failures of the past, it is up to the stronger party, which is the occupying force—the one that has a nation-state and a government—to take the initiative in order to remove the main obstacle: the occupation.

  1. 1

    See my analysis, “Reagan’s Underworld,” The New York Review (May 7, 1987), pp. 9–13.

  2. 2

    St. Martin’s, in association with the Institute for Palestine Studies, 1986.

  3. 3

    David Shipler, The New York Times (July 6, 1987), pp. A1 and 4; Robert Pear and Richard L. Berke, The New York Times (July 7, 1987), p. A8.

  4. 4

    Israel’s Great Victory,” The New Republic (June 8, 1987), pp. 22–25.

  5. 5

    See his books: Zionism and the Palestinians (Barnes and Noble, 1979) and The Birth of Israel (Pantheon, 1987).

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