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Legislators uneasy over pro-Israel lobby

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Following a campaign backed by pro-Israel groups, Denise Majette celebrates her victory over controversial Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) in the primary for McKinney´s House seat. (Denise Majette Campaign)

Following a campaign backed by pro-Israel groups, Denise Majette celebrates her victory over controversial Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) in the primary for McKinney´s House seat. (Denise Majette Campaign)

WASHINGTON, Oct. 22 (JTA) — Pro-Israel lawmakers, including some Jewish members of the U.S. House of Representatives, are complaining about the influence of Jewish lobbying groups on Middle East issues. According to congressional staffers and lobbyists, several pro-Israel congressmen are agitated by the type of influence that Jewish organizations are exerting, specifically their calls to support the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Following the defeat this year of several incumbents deemed anti-Israel — defeats attributed in part to the influence of Jewish money — congressmen who normally would speak out on the Middle East are finding it better to stay quiet. Most of the focus is on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobbying organization. The organization stresses that its mandate is to support the policies of the current Israeli government, but lawmakers say AIPAC has little tolerance for more dovish stances, such as calls for restraint during Israeli military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “There is a growing sense on the Hill that” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is not so cut and dried,” one congressional staffer said. “Many members feel uncomfortable buying into AIPAC’s line.” Supporters of AIPAC and other Jewish groups make no apologies about their tactics, saying they’re simply playing by the rules of politics. They compare the Jewish lobby to other organizations like the National Rifle Association — and note that AIPAC essentially is being criticized for doing its job effectively. “I’m sure there are people out there who are for gun control, but because of the NRA don’t say anything,” said Morris Amitay, who served as AIPAC’s executive director from 1974 to 1980 and now is treasurer of the pro-Israel Washington PAC. “If you’re a weak candidate to begin with,” your record is “anti-Israel and you have a credible opponent, your opponent will be helped,” he said. In two highly publicized congressional primaries this year, incumbents who were considered anti-Israel lost to challengers who received large amounts of Jewish money. Both Reps. Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.) and Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) were targeted by Jewish groups because of their perceived anti-Israel stances. “It was designed to send the message, ‘Shut up,’ and that message was heard,” one longtime Jewish community activist said. “It will have a chilling effect on the Middle East debate.” Leaders of other Jewish organizations also say the Hilliard and McKinney races affected the way they work. While some say the outcome strengthened the groups’ ties with lawmakers, others — including groups that do not support all of Sharon’s policies — say they are having trouble getting lawmakers to buck the AIPAC line, even if legislators privately indicate that they favor more dovish views. Critics point to the May 2 debate in the House on a resolution in support of Israel. “Many of the members thought that the resolution was inflammatory, unbalanced and gave a green light to Sharon’s military response to terrorism,” a congressional aide said. Several lawmakers who eventually voted for the bill first voted against suspending House rules to bring the bill quickly to the floor, hoping that additional debate might lead to a more balanced resolution. They said the bill should recognize the suffering of the Palestinian people and call for increased U.S. engagement to resolve the conflict. The vote to suspend the rules passed with 82 votes against it, including three from Jewish legislators and several others with strongly pro-Israel voting records. In the vote on the actual bill — which was more closely watched by Jewish organizations — only 21 representatives voted no. “It’s difficult for members of Congress to stand up against a resolution that might appear to be pro-Israel but under the surface is not pro-Israel” — because it is too hawkish — “or in the best interest of the United States,” the congressional aide said. AIPAC stresses that the organization does not promote candidates or fundraise for them. But many AIPAC leaders do contribute to campaigns and other PACs based on lawmakers’ views on Israel. Both sides of the debate acknowledge that Hilliard and McKinney were rare cases: Both had long records of anti-Israel bias and were weak within their own districts for other reasons. Some of the more staunchly anti-Israel congressmen have been immune to AIPAC pressure because of their popularity in their home districts. But some representatives, none of whom were willing to speak on the record, describe a growing fear factor: People on the Hill acknowledge that the chances of Jewish money being used to defeat a safe incumbent are slim, but many in Congress are unwilling to take the risk that they will be the first. Some lawmakers say they fear to express views — such as opposition to Israeli military operations — that they say are more in line with their local Jewish communities. While there have been cases in the past of Jewish money helping to defeat powerful legislators, the McKinney and Hilliard races showed that Jewish activists will target even lawmakers without a great deal of influence. That has forced some lawmakers to cast votes against their better judgment, sources said. “For the first time they are going after people who are obscure and insignificant,” the community activist said. “It sends a message that you can be from Podunk, Miss. and we’ll go after you.” Officials at other Jewish organizations say they are being told by lawmakers and staffers that they feel more pressure than usual, and are fearful that any vote could come back to haunt them. “Since Sharon became prime minister they hold their nose and do what they’re told by AIPAC,” the community activist said. “What members say privately is totally at a variance with what they say publicly.” Some argue that the change has less to do with the Hilliard and McKinney races or lobbying pressure, and more with the situation on the ground in the Middle East. The past two years of violence have created the impression that Israel is under attack and has moved Jewish constituents to the right, one Jewish leader noted. “One has to look at what’s happening in the broader context of the situation Israel faces,” the official said. “There is a heightened sense to protect Israel and seeing it more vulnerable than people did in the mid-1990s.” Jewish groups welcome the fact that even lawmakers considered strongly pro-Israel have been reaching out to them in recent months to affirm their support. “The only thing I see as a result is that the real attention has been paid to relationships we might have taken for granted,” one Jewish lobbyist said. “Lawmakers who thought they were in our corner” are making “efforts to strengthen relationships and make sure no one feels they are being taken for granted.” AIPAC spokeswoman Rebecca Needler said her organization acts like other Jewish — and non-Jewish — groups, who track lawmakers’ votes and give the information to their membership. “AIPAC works to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship, a key component of America’s Middle East policy,” she said. “The reason why the majority of Americans and their elected representatives back that relationship is because they understand the value of supporting the one true democracy in the region. It’s good policy and it happens to be true.”

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