07 August 2007

07 August 2007 - Why AIPAC works

Yesterday, I was invited to tag along to a luncheon in Jerusalem hosted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the “Israel lobby” that is at the center of so much controversy nowadays. The guests were a group of Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives on an AIPAC-sponsored tour of Israel, with their staff in tow; the AIPAC tour for Democrats starts next week.

The meeting was off the record, so I probably shouldn’t say specifically who was there or what they said. Generally, however it was a simple lecture on the history and politics of the region. Nothing too controversial, though the speaker was careful to highlight both Israel’s strength and its vulnerability, softly underlining the both the success of and the need for a strong and continuing U.S.-Israel relationship.

What makes AIPAC work? It is widely regarded as one of the strongest lobby groups in Washington, after the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the National Rifle Association (NRA). Critics like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer seem to think AIPAC succeeds because it uses propaganda and connections to steer donors way from anti-Israel candidates during elections.

Perhaps that’s part of the story, but not all of it. When I was an undergraduate, I spent a summer working as an unpaid intern in Washington, D.C. To cover costs, I took a night job as a telemarketer at the Kennedy Center, selling season tickets by telephone. I started poorly, making only one sale in my first week. But after two weeks, I had the hang of it, and started making good money in commissions.

There are a few basic rules in sales. The first is that you need to have a good product. You might be able to sell junk to a few people, but not many. The second rule is that your core job as a salesperson is to provide reliable information to the customer. You can fool people for a while, but not for long. The third rule is that you have to let the customer decide. Most people will back away from a hard sell.

The reason AIPAC works is that it follows these rules. Take the first rule. AIPAC sells a product—Israel—that works. There are aspects of Israeli life that Americans find strange, alien and uncomfortable, but overall Israel is what Americans expect to find in a foreign country: democracy, free markets, and faith. Israel also has a “can-do” attitude and an egalitarian ethic that Americans like to see in themselves.

Now the second rule. One thing I’ve heard American politicians say over and over again about AIPAC is that it provides them with good information about the Middle East. It even provides them with criticism of Israel. Yesterday’s speaker, for example, was quite open about his unhappiness with certain Israeli policies. That honesty gave his presentation, and AIPAC itself, even more credibility.

Finally, the third rule. AIPAC lets the politicians decide for themselves. It brings thousands of grassroots activists to Capitol Hill ever year; it campaigns hard for its cause; it defends Israel in the media. But it does not twist anyone’s arm. It does not give money to political candidates. It does not control debate. The fact that AIPAC sometimes loses on issues such as arms sales to Arab autocracies proves the point.

There are lobby groups that have arisen in opposition to AIPAC, such as various Arab and Muslim groups, and even some groups in the Jewish community that want to represent a left-wing perspective. Some of them get a fair amount of face time on television or op-ed space in newspapers. But they can’t beat AIPAC—not because AIPAC is so powerful, but because they can’t top its product or its pitch.

There are a few successful Arab cities and countries, but none that American politicians or voters can identify strongly with. Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, is booming, but its economy is based on expatriate workers who will never be allowed to become citizens or exercise political rights there. Qatar is reforming slowly, but is run by a small dynasty whose tolerance for dissent is limited.

Israel also holds a special place in the American imagination. As Michael Oren points out in his book Power, Faith and Fantasy, biblical Israel was a source of inspiration for early American pioneers, and the idea of restoring Jewish sovereignty was shared by American thinkers before the emergence of Zionism in Europe. The U.S.-Israel alliance only got started after 1967, but its roots are deep.

Today, Israel has become a model for Americans struggling to come to terms with the threat of terror. What seemed to impress the politicians most yesterday were the stories of how Israeli cafés were rebuilt the day after they had been destroyed by suicide bombers, and how Israel had finally managed to prevent and deter terror attacks in its major cities by using sophisticated but essentially conventional tools.

My consistent criticism of AIPAC has been that it does not talk enough about human rights. It does not deal well with the criticisms of Israel in this area, nor does it talk enough about Israel’s strengths here. But AIPAC knows its market. For most U.S. voters and politicians, what matters is security, and that Israel is the only true democracy and steadfast American ally in the Middle East. The rest is commentary.

No sale can succeed unless the price is right, and the question that Walt and Mearsheimer are going to pose in their forthcoming book is whether the cost of the U.S.-Israel alliance is too high. As experts like Martin Kramer show, the U.S. benefits hugely from the relationship, securing relative stability in the eastern Mediterranean for the past 30 years, plus trading partners in Israel and Jordan.

The issue on the table now is how to manage affairs on the other end of the Middle East—whether, when and how to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq; how to protect the new government in Afghanistan; and above all, how to prevent (or deter) a nuclear Iran. These issues will persist, with or without the U.S.-Israel relationship. It is better, for America and for the region, that the connection remain strong.

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