Sometime in 1980 or thereabouts, during my four year stint at AIPAC, the powerful organization that is the main component of the pro-Israel lobby, I asked Tom Dine, its executive director, if a president of the United States could ever change Israeli behavior even in cases where U.S. national security interests were clearly at stake.

My question related specifically to the occupation of the West Bank that began in 1967 and which seemingly made an Israeli-Palestinian agreement impossible. It also was even three decades ago, the source of intensifying Arab and Muslim anger against the United States.

It appeared to me that there was no way that the United States could get an Israeli prime minister to end the occupation. The prime minister then was Menachem Begin who was Israel’s first Likud prime minister, and the first to claim the West Bank not just for strategic reasons but because it was given to Israel by the Almighty.

All Begin’s predecessors were from the relatively more flexible Labor party and none was prone to cloak political questions in a divine mantle. Begin did and the lobby, in turn, began citing the Bible as if it was a diplomatic paper like the Balfour Declaration. And, like the Israeli government, it had become increasingly hard line.

Even matters that did not directly affect Israel like U.S. arms sales to U.S. allies like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, would meet massive resistance from the Israeli government, backed by the lobby and its huge following in Congress.

How, I asked Dine, could the United States get ever get Israel to actually yield occupied territory if it became clear that the Arabs were ready for peace?

I remember that Dine’s response was essentially this, although I did not take down his exact phrasing.

He responded that although he hoped the day would come when Israeli leaders (and hence the lobby) would be ready for “compromise,” he did not think a president could make Israel do anything it didn’t want to do given the power of AIPAC and “our friends in Congress.”

But then he added a caveat: “Of course, if a president pushed hard enough, and told the American people that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was damaging U.S. interests and that he had a plan to end it; that it required ending the occupation in exchange for peace and that the plan would guarantee Israel’s security while enhancing ours; and asked the American people for support, he would prevail.”

He elaborated: “By that I mean AIPAC would have no choice but to support him.We can never defeat a U.S. president who reaches over the heads of AIPAC and Congress and goes to the American people directly and invokes the national interest.”

The logic behind Dine’s thinking was simply that American Jews would never allow themselves to be perceived as putting Israel’s interests over America’s.

It is one thing to support the Israeli government when it is at odds with the U.S. government. But only so long as the president does not invoke the U.S. national interest and suggest that it was being harmed by Israeli policy.

That is why the lobby was so outraged when Reagan administration officials suggested that opposing an arms sale to Saudi Arabia that President Ronald Reagan was pushing represented the wrong answer to the choice of “Reagan or Begin.”

It is why any criticism of the lobby that even hints at the lobby’s putting Israel’s interests above America’s produces such fury, hence the recent hysteria over my use of the term “Israel Firster.”

American Jews (with the exception of a tiny, tiny minority) will not tolerate the suggestion that they are anything but loyal Americans. Hence opposing a president in favor of the prime minister of Israel, after the president invoked the U.S. national interest, would not be sustainable. In that situation, the lobby would back down. And with it Congress and, then, the Israeli government (which depends on U.S. assistance to survive).

Although a President’s choice for Secretary of Defense is not in really a national security issue, it does get to the question of an American President and his prerogatives. Once the White House told AIPAC that he would nominate Hagel, the game was over. AIPAC would not fight. Just as it would not fight a President who was pushing a peace plan that he said was in the U.S. national interest.

The Hagel fight, such as it was, demonstrated that AIPAC can be beaten because it was defeated.

Of course, AIPAC will claim it was not involved in the effort to prevent Hagel’s nomination. That is a lie. AIPAC never operates in the open. It uses cutouts in Congress, the media and smaller fringy organizations like the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Emergency Committee For Israel to do the dirty work so it can keep its hands cleans. Anyone who think that Commentary, the American Jewish Committee, the Free Beacon, the “pro-Israel” bloggers, pundits and Alan Dershowitz do not get their marching orders from AIPAC is living in a dream world. Josh Block the “former” AIPAC spokesman remains its principal voice, smearing recklessly with impunity because he is no longer on the payroll. (He is well paid by an AIPAC spinoff, The Israel Project). I worked at AIPAC for four years and in Congress for 20. That is how it works. AIPAC is the ball game.

And now it has been defeated. The other crazy right groups will keep fighting Hagel (they really want the “anti-Semite” label to stick so Hagel will stay in line once Secretary of Defense) but AIPAC will work the phones, hand out fact sheets on blank letter heads, smear Hagel in conversations with the media, but all in the dark.

That is how they usually operate. The difference is that this time a President fought back and they folded. The precedent is obvious. The lobby can be rolled. Next time it will be over policy. All a President needs to do is invoke the U.S. interest and the game is over.

No wonder AIPAC is so miserable today. Like the Wicked Witch it is “melting, melting.”

As Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s then (subsequently indicted) #2 guy told me in a memo 1982:

Always remember

A lobby is a night flower

It thrives in the dark

And dies in the sun.

 


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