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.

As for America’s policy toward Israel, the picture of American-Israeli solidarity described by Beit-Hallahmi and advocated by AIPAC is not entirely accurate. Beit-Hallahmi himself notes that David Kimche’s schemes by which the US would finance long-term Israeli assistance to countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have not made much headway either in the State Department or with Congress. AIPAC’s goal of setting up permanent arrangements for joint US-Israeli action in military and security matters—a goal Tom Dine, AIPAC’s head, has attributed to George Shultz—seems somewhat grandiose. Washington has been eager to make such arrangements against Soviet influence and against terrorist activities, but anything more extensive or formal would undermine the US policy of cultivating “moderate” Arab states friendly to the US. The Iranian arms deal, instigated by Israel, has had such an effect, and the US is now busily engaged on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf in order to regain favor with these states.

Nor has Israel been merely a surrogate for the US. When Israel sent arms to countries to which the US (under Jimmy Carter) had suspended the delivery of military assistance—Somalia, Somoza’s Nicaragua, Argentina among them—it certainly did not do so at Washington’s request. A few months ago, when Israel finally decided to forgo new contracts for arms sales to South Africa (but not to end joint research and development programs), it did so because of a threat of reprisals by the US Congress if Israel continued to do business as usual with Pretoria.

Still, American policy can be faulted on at least two counts. First, especially since 1981, the single-minded anti-Soviet rationale of American diplomacy in the Middle East and elsewhere has strengthened the view, constantly repeated by AIPAC, that Israel’s “security interests” are almost identical to those of the US, and that Israel is a major US “strategic asset.” This view has complicated US relations with Arab countries, as has been made clear by the divisive “AWACS battle” in Congress over the sale of electronic warning planes to Saudi Arabia in 1981 and by the obstacles the AIPAC lobby has thrown up against arms sales to Jordan and, more recently, to the Saudis. It has also allowed the Israelis to drag the NSC and the President into the fateful Iranian arms deal (with the help of bizarre Israeli intelligence reports about Iran’s weakening in the war against Iraq). One may well question whether the policy of successive Israeli governments of arming Khomeini against the geographically closer “danger” of an Iraqi victory was intelligent from Israel’s point of view. Iraq could never have hoped for much more than a stalemate, and a Khomeini victory would hardly be an advantage for Israel in the long run. An Islamic fundamentalist revolutionary wave is hardly in the interest either of so-called Arab moderates or of Israel. In any case there was absolutely no justification for the US to follow Israel into the deadly alley of secret arms diplomacy.

Secondly, partly because of the anti-Soviet rationale, partly because of the complexities and divisions in the Arab world, the US, ever since the collapse of its policy in Lebanon, has given up any serious efforts to resolve the Palestinian issue—it has shown, for instance, far less interest in an international conference than Foreign Minister Peres, and thus objectively strengthened Prime Minister Shamir’s opposition to it. Immobility in Israel has often been defended with the arguments that any negotiated solution of the Palestinian issue would either only create new headaches or leave many other sources of trouble in the Middle East intact; that no solution acceptable to all parties is in sight anyhow; and that—ever since the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty—the status quo is basically stable and favorable to Israel. This very shortsighted view concentrates only on one type of peril—war between Israel and the Arab states—and neglects all the others.

Still, one of the reasons for such “benign neglect” is the domestic political costs that any administration will suffer if it tries to prod Israel on the Palestinian problem. Tivnan shows that there are plenty of reasons for politicians to be mindful of the political power of the American Jewish community, but here again, one must avoid exaggerations. “Jewish money” doesn’t seem to be the problem: in 1985 and 1986, sixty pro-Israeli PACs contributed $3.8 million to candidates, out of a total of $319.5 million provided by 3,152 PACs. In 1986, according to The New York Times,6 the ten leading military contractors contributed $2.9 million to Congressional candidates through PACs. Twelve of the fifteen top recipients of pro-Israeli PAC contributions were elected to the Senate, fifteen out of fifteen to the House; but it is hard to prove that “the lobby” was the decisive force, and Tivnan does not attempt to do so. It is also silly to blame AIPAC simply for its technical effectiveness—in providing briefing books to political candidates, in organizing networks of citizens who meet often with representatives, in reminding members of Congress of AIPAC’s power to reward and to punish. This is what lobbies try to do—whether it is for Ireland, for Greece, for farmers, or for military contracts—and it is part of the game of democratic politics. As I have suggested before, it would have made more sense to ask what it is, beyond excellent organization and a devoted membership, that makes the lobby so influential. In addition, sharp questions need to be asked on three different points.

First, is it proper for AIPAC, and for the other Jewish organizations that aim at influencing the political process, to act as the relentless, unconditional supporters of Israeli foreign policy, and indeed of its most “hard-line” aspects? At times, as Tivnan shows, the lobby acts as a branch of Israeli diplomacy, used by the Israeli government to get unwelcome American policies dropped. The most spectacular case arose when Henry Kissinger, stymied by Prime Minister Rabin in his attempt to negotiate a second partial agreement between Israel and Egypt in the spring of 1975, threatened to reconsider US policy toward Israel. AIPAC organized a protesting letter from seventy-six senators that, as Tivnan puts it, “exploded” Kissinger’s “efforts to reassess US policy.” (How much Kissinger actually wanted to change his policy, how much he merely wanted the threat of a change to force Israel’s government to yield, as it eventually did, is a question Tivnan does not ask.) AIPAC also helped to undermine détente with the USSR in 1973 when it supported the Jackson-Vanik amendment that tied credits to Moscow to a change in Soviet policy concerning Jewish emigration.

It has been particularly skillful at promoting strategic cooperation between the US and Israel and at preventing contacts between the US and the PLO. And when AIPAC lost its fight to stop arms from going to Arab countries, the administration decided that the lobby had nevertheless shown itself to be so strong that it had better cooperate with it—for example, by providing it every year with a classified list of arms sales. Tivnan reports that before the Senate vote on the AWACS sale, in October 1981, AIPAC sent a copy of the novel Holocaust to each senator.

In order to get the support of the American Congress and the public, AIPAC and the government of Israel have skillfully preserved the highly misleading image of a weak, mortally threatened, and beleaguered Israel whose pleas for peace have been perpetually rejected by all the Arab leaders except Sadat—murdered for having been a heroic exception. That American Jews do not consider, or want to consider, that Israel is a foreign power—any more than Greek-Americans consider Greece to be an ordinary foreign nation, or Irish-Americans Ireland—is to be expected, especially when one considers what Israel has meant and continues to mean for persecuted Jews everywhere, and for believers in the Zionist dream of nationhood. But their very concern for Israel, and the huge contributions made by American Jews to Israel’s welfare, give American Jews the right to have opinions of their own about Israel’s future and reason to adopt a perspective less parochial, more objective, and less dictated by short-term external emergencies or by internal squabbles than that of the Israeli government.

Tivnan wants American Jews to “help shape the Jewish state”—something Israelis might properly object to; they could legitimately answer that whoever wants to “shape” the state ought to live in it. But precisely because they have chosen not to, American Jews ought at least to feel free not to endorse every move that Israeli officials want to make, or not to be even more inflexible toward the PLO than Shimon Peres, as Tivnan points out. Precisely because they are anxious about its fate, American Jews ought to provide Israel with advice and criticism, instead of serving as a hard echo and acting as a blind servant.

Neither feelings of guilt for the failure to help European Jews in the 1930s and the war years nor the desire to compensate through militancy for the decision to remain comfortably in America rather than moving to Israel should justify the automatic solidarity that pervades the Jewish communities. It is neither in Israel’s long-term Realpolitik interest nor compatible with the ideals many of Israel’s founders had.

Secondly, is it proper for American Jewish organizations to apply to political figures running for election and reelection a single criterion—support for Israel (as measured by votes in Congress for and against the measures defended and opposed by AIPAC)? AIPAC, as Tivnan shows, has opposed liberal senators and representatives even though they have voted for the domestic causes and bills most American Jews support, just because they voted “wrong” on arms to the Saudis, or voted against an omnibus bill that happened to contain aid to Israel among its many provisions. For AIPAC to do so is to indulge in the most narrowly bigoted kind of politics.

In addition to the defeat of Charles Percy, Tivnan gives the example of AIPAC’s successful campaign against Roger Jepsen in 1984. Jepsen, a Republican known as a “good friend of Israel,” yielded to Reagan’s pressure to approve the sale of AWACS to the Saudis. He was defeated by Tom Harkin, who was elected with more than $100,000 from pro-Israel PACs, even though Harkin had once signed a newspaper ad highly critical of Israel. To be sure, all lobbies deal with special interests, but a distinction needs to be maintained between the defense of these interests and so exclusive a concern for a single cause that the result can only be bad for democracy. Democratic politics requires compromise, the adjustment of interests, the conciliation of concerns as varied as material needs, ideological preferences, and partisan calculations.

This brings us to the third question: debate and dissent within the American Jewish community. It has never been monolithic; there has always been a maze of organizations, and attempts to unify them have never been successful. There have simply been too many differences between secular and religious Jews or among religious tendencies, and too many leaders and “presidents.” Tivnan mentions that the positions taken by AIPAC have been fiercely criticized by such distinguished leaders as Arthur Hertzberg, Philip Klutznick, and Alexander Schindler; that the American Jewish Committee, in 1978, pointedly raised the issue of dissent and listed arguments for as well as against criticizing Israeli policies; that the opinions of American Jews are very far from those Likud policies that AIPAC had endorsed or failed to challenge.

But Tivnan also points out that the dissenters do not have the organizational power of AIPAC; that Breira, the one organization that tried to represent strongly dissenting propeace views between 1973 and 1976, was violently attacked by the dominant Jewish groups, as well as by Prime Minister Rabin, and saw its money dry up and its membership disperse; and that many American-Jewish leaders, during the Begin years, were willing to voice criticism of his policies only in private meetings among Jews, either in the US or in Israel. Rare were those who, like Hertzberg and Schindler, made their opposition public.

Again, the idea that public criticism of Israel and dissent from its policies is somehow either a bad thing for Israel or a proof to non-Jews of American Jewish weakness seems to me indefensible. Many observers have noted that dissent is more open and vociferous in Israel than among American Jews, that the pressure for conformity has been much greater in the US, despite America’s democratic traditions, than in Israel, whose political traditions are more authoritarian. (Is this a case in which Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority” is at work?) As for non-Jews, the days when the American Jewish community was weak and politically insignificant, and thus had an incentive to close ranks, are long gone. Nothing is to be gained by stifling dissent.

Israel’s foreign policy, US policy toward Israel, and the behavior of the American Jewish community are all linked. As the late Nahum Goldmann, one of Israel’s founding fathers, used to put it, many Israelis realize that Israel’s refusal to budge on the Palestinian issue is a time bomb for their country; they aspire to peace with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, want a more humane foreign policy, less dominated by arms deals with dubious regimes or by the Mossad’s covert activities, and understand that a de facto anti-Soviet alliance with the US is an obstacle to such aspirations. But they will not be able to make such views prevail in the jungle of stalemated Israeli politics unless the US government pushes strongly in the same direction. The US government is unlikely to do so if opposition in Congress is strong. And so long as the American Jewish community appears as monolithic as it has been in public, Congress will remain swayed by AIPAC’s arguments and pressures—which reinforce to the point of distortion such diverse, powerful, and understandable sentiments as distrust of the Arabs, suspicion of Soviet aims in the Middle East, a horror of terrorism, sympathy for the plight of the Jews, admiration for the remarkable achievements of Israeli society, and awe of the exploits of the Israeli military. This vicious circle can be broken only if all those who are deeply unhappy with it succeed in cooperating on behalf of a radically different strategy. So far, there have been few signs of such a movement taking shape in the US.

This Issue

October 8, 1987