Posted on August 23, 1993 in Washington Watch
(This is part three of a four-part series on the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, examining the sources of its power and the roots of its current internal and political problems.)
In the past two years, AIPAC has been buffeted by a number of exposes and negative press reports. All these came on the heels of the organization’s first legislative defeat since the AWACs vote in 1981. President George Bush’s initial victory in denying unconditional loan guarantees to Israel was a disturbing loss for the lobby. It had been humiliated. Its myth of invincibility was shattered by the incident, since the loss showed that the lobby was vulnerable to defeat.
During the 15 years of Likud rule in Israel, AIPAC had become wedded to that government’s political line. Throughout the entire period leading up to President Bush’s decision to deny the loan guarantees to Israel, Shamir was convinced that his American supporters would teach Bush a lesson and win congressional passage of the loan guarantees. After its repeated victories in Congress, Israel’s government felt that whenever it had problems with an Administration, it merely had to turn to the lobby, which would move the Congress to intimidate the President and his State Department. That strategy had worked numerous times in the past.
But in this instance, Bush was convinced that if the unconditional loan guarantees were to go through, chances for a comprehensive Middle East peace would diminish. Therefore, he was determined to resist Congressional pressure and do some behavior modification of his own on the Israeli government.
Bush’s now famous press conference remarks about being “one lonely guy” resisting the pressure of “one thousand lobbyists” are interesting for a number of reasons. First, he showed that Presidential leadership could win and force Congress and the lobby to back down. Second, Bush showed that public opinion was clearly not with Israel’s request for more financial benefits from the U.S. (In fact, a poll the Arab American Institute provided the White House days before the Presidents’ press conference showed overwhelming public opposition to Israel’s loan guarantee request.)
The one benefit for AIPAC to come out of this setback was the perception in the Jewish community that Bush was insulting the lobby and questioning the loyalty of Jews who actively supported Israel. AIPAC, which as we shall see, has recently had a rocky relationship with other mainstream Jewish organizations was momentarily strengthened by Jewish supporters rushing to its defense.
In the end, Bush won and Shamir lost, and AIPAC emerged from this fight somewhat wounded in the eyes of the larger public. But, at the same time, the lobby was somewhat strengthened within the Jewish community. And AIPAC was resolved punish the President who had beaten it.
In an ominous speech before AIPAC’s policy conference on April 5, 1992, Tom Dine, then AIPAC’s Executive Director, said:
... we are not going away. We are here. And we will not be intimidated. We shall continue to nudge the stone up the hill inch by inch—until we get to the top. The campaign to win support for the guarantees may take several rounds before we succeed. Let us remember that the landmark Jackson-Vanik legislation to free Soviet Jewry did not succeed on the first effort in September 1972. The Nixon Administration adamantly opposed the legislation as a threat to detente and, by extension, to world peace. It took two and one half years of debate, plus Nixon’s resignation, before the Jackson-Vanik amendment was adopted in December 1974. ...We are very tenacious people when an issue of principle is concerned. On the issue before us today, we are right and the Administration is wrong.” (emphasis added)
Whether or not Dine intended his speech as a threat to Bush, the message was clear. AIPAC would oppose George Bush and even seek to bring him down. The die was cast. Bush ended up losing the election, but AIPAC emerged wounded as well.
Shortly after winning his election in Israel in June of 1992, the new Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin let it be known that he did not care for the way the so-called pro-Israel groups behaved during the loan guarantees debate. In Rabin’s eyes, they had arrogated to themselves the power to negotiate with the Administration on behalf of Israel. And that, he noted, would no longer be tolerated.
Furthermore, Labor Party officials let it be known that they did not care for the way the lobby had sided with the Likud during this debate. In a number of public rebukes, Rabin chided AIPAC for its position. And this left the organization wounded in the eyes of many in the Jewish community and the press. Bush’s attack had had the short-term effect of winning Jewish support for the lobby—Rabin’s attacks ended that.
Still reeling from this embarrassment, AIPAC received a number of additional shocks in the following months as several major newspapers carried exposes detailing how AIPAC’s “research department” spied on and defamed its enemies. The articles featured reports on how AIPAC had carried out campaigns against African Americans, Arab Americans, politicians and, most significantly, even prominent American Jews who had run afoul of the lobby because of their suspected “pro-peace” positions.
The case that first prompted the exposes involved the removal of the editor of the influential Washington Jewish Week (the paper of this city’s Jewish community). As the story unfolded, it was established that the editor and an important writer for the paper had come under AIPAC scrutiny because the editor had made “dove-like” comments at a picnic sponsored by a pro-Israel peace group, and the writer had written stories that were unsympathetic to AIPAC’s positions. The lobby, it appeared, had launched a campaign utilizing prominent Jewish leaders to pressure the paper to replace the editor and remove the writer.
While AIPAC won and the editor was forced to resign, the stories that appeared in the aftermath proved quite embarrassing to the lobby. The organization was described as McCarthy-like (a reference to the famous U.S. Senator who in the 1950’s launched a “witch-hunt” to ferret out “communists” in the U.S. government). As the story developed it became clear that, like McCarthy, AIPAC’s “enemies lists” were very long indeed.
A few months later, fresh from what AIPAC viewed as “its victory” over George Bush in the November 1992 election, the organization was rocked by yet another scandalous revelation.
(In fact, the Clinton victory was not due to the work of AIPAC. It was due to a number of factors including the continuing decline in the nation’s economy, the frustration of many groups with Republican economics, the coalition of a number of liberal groups whose causes the Democrats supported, and the disruptive presence in the campaign of Ross Perot. But, as in the case of the Percy campaign in 1984, AIPAC was quick in claiming victory for itself.)
In the midst of their euphoria, the President of AIPAC, David Steiner, was tape-recorded in a telephone conversation making the following boastful claims to a prospective contributor:
...I helped him [Clinton], we raised over a million dollars for him in New Jersey. ...I’ve known Bill for seven, eight years from the National Governors Association. I know him on a personal basis. One of my friends is Hillary Clinton’s scheduler, one of my officer’s daughters works there, we gave two employees leaves of absence to work on the campaign. We have a dozen people in his headquarters. ...In Little Rock, and they’re all going to get big jobs. we have friends, I also work with a think tank, the Washington Institute, Michael Mandlebaum and Martin Indyk being foreign policy advisors. Steve Speigel, we’ve got friends…this is my business. ...we need a friendly President, and we have Bill Clinton’s ear. I talked to Bill Clinton …He’s going to be very good for us.
AIPAC was not only publicly humiliated by this incident, but it was politically hurt as well. Negative articles appeared, Steiner was forced to resign, and many of President Clinton’s closest advisors were furious at the AIPAC President’s arrogance and his distortions, since many of his claims were not true.
AIPAC’s wish-list for appointments in the Clinton Administration was long, but in the end very few succeeded in receiving their hoped-for assignments. A New York Times article in January of 1993 noted AIPAC’s frustration as it failed to place “its favorites” in most of the top positions in the Administration. In fact, only two of the top appointments sought by AIPAC and the pro-Israel community came through, and they were balanced by other appointments given to supporters of Peace Now and other experienced members of the foreign policy establishment.
More recently, AIPAC was hit once again by negative stories which, in a week’s time, forced the resignation of its long-time Executive Director, Tom Dine, and also one of its Vice Presidents, Harvey Friedman, a wealthy businessman from Florida.
Ostensibly, Dine was removed because of comments he had made that were insulting to traditional Orthodox Jews. The comments, appearing in a recently published book, refer to the orthodox as “smelly” and “low-class.”
Dine insists that he was merely telling the author how some in the mainstream upper-middle class Jewish community feel about the traditionalists, but despite his appeals, he was told by the organization to resign. Many feel that the real reason for Dine’s ouster lay deeper in the internal struggles taking place within AIPAC.
A clear example of this struggle can be seen in the second recent forced resignation, that of Harvey Friedman. On a recent trip to Israel, Friedman, along with three members of Congress from Florida, met with Israeli Deputy Minister Yossi Beilin. Beilin is a well-known dove. When Friedman raised the issue of the peace process, Beilin responded that he believed Israel should give territories back to the Palestinians in exchange for peace. Friedman challenged Beilin with the suggestion that the Palestinians ought to be invited to leave the occupied territories for other Arab countries, and then went on to question the mandate of the Rabin government to trade any territories for peace. And to add insult to injury, when asked to later comment on the exchange, he referred to Beilin as “a little slime ball.”
For his insult to the Israeli Deputy Minister, Friedman was asked to resign.
The debates and divisions that run through Israeli society have also emerged in the American Jewish community. They have long been hidden from public view, as the community and its organizations maintained a facade of internal cohesion and complete acceptance of whatever the Israeli government position.
What the Dine and Friedman resignations point to is a fracturing of the cohesion and the acceptance within AIPAC.
AIPAC’s new President. Steve Grossman, is a wealthy Massachusetts business executive. He served as chair of that state’s Democratic Party and has been a vice President of AIPAC. He has promised to restore AIPAC’s credibility, and is currently heading a search committee for a new Executive Director.
Grossman is known to be a supporter of the Labor Party and has expressed some sympathy for a “land for peace” position. He is also an acquaintance of the new Democratic President. While some Jewish newspapers have taken the Grossman Presidency of AIPAC to mean “a kinder and gentler AIPAC,” the pro-Labor position of its President doesn’t mean a real shift as far as Arab Americans and supporters of a balanced U.S.-Middle East policy are concerned. AIPAC is still pushing, as its recent newsletters show, for a narrow pro-Israel and one-sided Middle East policy.
For its part, Israel is now trying to help the organization it so recently rebuked. The Labor government obviously likes Grossman’s politics, and has sent letters in praise of him to AIPAC’s newsletter, Near East Review (NER). In recent issues of the NER there has been a campaign-like effort to convince AIPAC members that a new page is being written in the relationship between the lobby and the government of Israel. First, a letter to Grossman from Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., Itamar Rabinovich, was reprinted, which said in part:
While AIPAC undoubtedly has weathered some difficulties in recent months, there unfortunately seems to be a tendency to convert isolated cases into major conflicts, thus amplifying the issue. I wish to tell you, dear Steve, that my talks in Jerusalem with the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, and other leading officials, emphasized to me the great degree of respect and gratitude we feel toward AIPAC. ...On a personal note, may I say that your ascendancy to the leadership of AIPAC was received in Israel with hope and high expectations. (emphasis added)
Months after his rebuke of AIPAC (then led by Dine), a letter from Rabin to Grossman also ran in the NER which furthered the effort begun by Rabinovich to shore up the lobby and its new president. “I want my position to be fully understood:” Rabin wrote, “I consider AIPAC to be an important friend of Israel, and I am a friend of AIPAC. ...Through you, Steve, I want to thank AIPAC’s dedicated officers, staff, and members.”
Whether Grossman can steer AIPAC back to its former position remains to be seen and depends upon his ability to resolve serious internal difficulties and political problems plaguing the organization.
These internal political problems will be examined in next week’s article, the last of this series.
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