The myth of the pro-Israel lobby

The myth of the pro-Israel lobby
© Getty Images

There is something deeply troubling, and even dangerous, about the fevered debate over the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on members of Congress. Both the left and the right are locked in a narrative that members of Congress support Israel either because they love that land or because they are gripped by a powerful lobby. But what is missing from the argument is what really motivates most of my former colleagues: What is good for the United States?

The current framing, whether by calculated design or simple inference, casts a shadow on the political motives of supporting Israel. The narrative on both ends portrays members as acting on interests not germane to their responsibilities to protect American interests first and foremost. In this version, a member of Congress supports Israel either because of an affection for the Jewish State or the sway of AIPAC. The implication here is that distinctly American interests linger somewhere in the background.

ADVERTISEMENT

It is time to to dispel that myth. The vast majority of the Democrats and Republicans in Congress support Israel because it is a valuable ally that shares fundamental ideals in a volatile region of the world. To some, those ideals seem undermined by various policies of the current Israeli government. But Israel is not Turkey, which has veered from American interests, or Russia or China. So our lawmakers support measures like funding ballistic missile systems or the $40 billion security package that will help protect aligned American and Israeli interests in the Middle East.

In a region where terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah spread, Congress supports Israel not because of a lobbyist, but because stopping the influence of Hamas and Hezbollah is essential for the United States. In a region where democracy is stifled and religious freedom prohibited, our lawmakers support Israel because it remains a democracy. It elects Arabs to its Knesset, allows massive demonstrations against the government, and has a set process by which an attorney general can indict the prime minister. Like too many democracies around the world, ours included, it is submitting to growing authoritarian impulses. It is flawed and messy, but Israel is still a democracy worth supporting as a geopolitical imperative.

I used to listen to some colleagues in Congress admit that despite their personal beliefs, they had to vote against a gun safety measure or else lose an election to a pro-gun activist. I never heard someone say they wanted to vote against funding a ballistic missile system for Israel but could not because of fear that they would lose an election to AIPAC.

To be clear, AIPAC is very powerful. It does what every lobbyist does in drafting legislative language, organizing votes, pressing candidates to write position papers, and seeking to influence members of Congress. It has, at times, overreached and I am concerned with the sense of growing partisan rifts among its members. But it does not have the power to get members of Congress to vote against the national interest. It frames its arguments not based on what is good for Israel but what is good for the United States. For the vast majority of our lawmakers, that is an easy sell.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.