Israel Policy Caught in the Middle of Partisan Politics on Capitol Hill
Menu JTA Search

Israel Policy Caught in the Middle of Partisan Politics on Capitol Hill

Download PDF for this date

Incensed at President Clinton’s plans in March 1998 to pressure Israel with a public blueprint for peace with the Palestinians, Jewish Republicans turned to Capitol Hill.

But as Republican senators lined up to voice their opposition to the White House, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee stepped in.

The effort could not be partisan, the pro-Israel lobby argued, pushing the National Jewish Coalition aside.

It took a two-week, bruising lobbying campaign by AIPAC before 81 senators would sign a letter to Clinton pledging to oppose U.S. pressure on Israel.

As partisanship rises in Washington, AIPAC has been forced to deal with more episodes like this one. Indeed, even as the group is preparing for its annual policy conference May 23, a partisan spat over U.S. policy toward Jerusalem has scuttled the group’s plans to lobby members of Congress to support a new bill forcing the Clinton administration to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Instead, the group is searching for a bipartisan compromise.

As hundreds of AIPAC activists prepare to gather in Washington, the pro-Israel lobby is facing greater obstacles keeping Republicans and Democrats united on U.S. policy toward Israel.

The task is a matter of paramount importance for the U.S.-Israel relationship, activists say. If Israel becomes embroiled in party politics, they explain, support could erode for foreign aid, Israel’s position in the peace process and the Jewish state’s qualitative military edge.

For its part, AIPAC downplays the increased partisanship.

“We believe that these issues are not meant to be partisan issues,” said Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director.

“The story is that in this incredibly partisan atmosphere, it’s not more partisan than it is.”

But across a broad spectrum of Jewish activists and Capitol Hill insiders, there is growing concern about partisanship when it comes to Israel.

“Those who have observed Congress have to be concerned about the breakdown in the bipartisan approach,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a Jewish umbrella group.

While matters concerning Israel’s security bring lawmakers together, other issues, “particularly the peace process,” have in “recent years split Democrats and Republicans in ways that have been unhelpful,” he said.

The partisanship coincided with the proliferation of Jewish groups lobbying Congress on the peace process, according to Capitol Hill aides and Jewish officials.

“AIPAC is not the exclusive voice on Israel now,” Raffel said.

The Zionist Organization of America regularly lobbies members of Congress to slow the peace process. Their allies are primarily on the Republican side of the aisle. At the same time, the Israel Policy Forum and Americans for Peace Now work to move the process along. Democrats have been most sympathetic to their calls.

Capitol Hill aides say it’s only natural for Democrats to feel a kinship toward the Labor Party, which is also seen as having liberal roots. The same is true for Republicans and Likud, which share a similar economic philosophy.

AIPAC is often left in the middle trying to hold the parties together — and so far, the pro-Israel lobby is receiving high marks from some Jewish activists and politicians.

“I do not see that Israel has paid a serious price for the emergence of multiple voices,” Raffel said.

“Has the U.S. delivered on Israel’s agenda? The answer has invariably been yes.”

These tensions are not new. The president’s party always feels the need to protect him from partisan attacks. At the same time, the party out of the White House looks for ways to make political inroads.

But partisan strains over Israel, as well as other issues, are likely to increase as the 2000 election campaign heats up.

Jewish Republicans are seeking to use Israel as a “wedge issue” in the campaign to win Jewish campaign contributions and votes.

The Republican Jewish Coalition, formerly the National Jewish Coalition, plans to run ads and work with candidates to accuse Democrats of being soft on Israel, according to Matt Brooks, executive director of the group.

There are “valid concerns” that this work will lead to partisanship that will eventually hurt Israel, Brooks said.

“This is not something that we’re happy about,” he said, blaming the White House for the “necessity” of the campaign.

“The U.S.-Israel relationship is partisan only in so far as the White House is making it partisan by exerting pressure and playing on party loyalty. That’s what’s dangerous,” he said.

It’s this type of talk that has AIPAC concerned about the future of U.S.-Israel relations.

“We wish from our point of view that both Republicans and Democrats would not do this,” Kohr said.

But with top American political consultants working for Israel’s political parties in its upcoming elections, many are closely watching to see if such a split could become more pronounced.

Top Democratic Party operatives, including James Carville, are working for Israel’s Labor Party, and Arthur Finkelstein, a senior Republican consultant, is in at least his fourth year on the Likud Party’s payroll.

“There is a political danger in having political consultants for particular parties and particular leaders get involved in the identifiable way they have in foreign countries, including Israel,” said Jess Hordes, the Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“You cannot foretell all of the consequences of the development of running a campaign there” and coming back here to work on U.S. elections, Hordes said.

In the aftermath of the Israeli elections and with U.S. presidential primaries less than a year away, these consequences will be closely watched.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund