Soros Won’t Take On AIPAC (Yet)


Billionaire George Soros has no plans to put his money where his mouth is, a spokesman said Tuesday — two days after the philanthropist and political advocate assailed the pro-Israel lobby as a threat to Israeli and U.S. interests.

Rumors, rife since last October, that Soros would fund a dovish alternative to the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee, quickened when Soros published a blistering attack on the lobby in the New York Review of Books this week. But Soros spokesman Michael Vachon rebutted the notion he would bankroll such an effort.

“He considered it,” said Vachon. “Many people wanted him to fund the effort. In the end he decided he should not be involved. “On the other hand,” Vachon added, “Who can predict the future?”

Vachon cited Soros’ lack of prior involvement in Jewish life as the prime reason for his decision. The 76-year-old Jewish hedge fund manager and prominent donor to liberal and Democratic causes has not been a major player in Jewish affairs over his long career, he said. “He feels he would not have the necessary standing in the community,” said Vachon. “Some people might even be put off by his involvement in such an effort.”

None of those concerns hindered Soros from penning a 3,700-word New York Review article that is likely to make him an even bigger lightning rod.

In the article, Soros urged Israel and the United States to drop their refusal to deal with a new unity government in the Palestinian Authority dominated by Hamas, a terrorist organization that rejects Israel’s right to exist. He suggests a peace agreement could be reached that Hamas would ultimately accept under pressure from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, which have signaled they seek such an agreement to counter a rising threat from Iran.

But in the United States, Soros writes, any move to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority’s unity government is blocked by “the pervasive influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which strongly affects both the Democratic and Republican parties.”

“AIPAC under its current leadership,” argues Soros, “has clearly exceeded its mission, and far from guaranteeing Israel’s existence, has endangered it.”

Besides its campaign against the Palestinian unity government, AIPAC recently pressured Democrats in Congress to drop a legislative provision that would have forced President Bush to obtain congressional approval before taking military action against Iran, Soros notes. AIPAC also “became closely allied with the neocons and was an enthusiastic supporter of the invasion of Iraq,” he charges.

In fact, while some Jewish groups and neoconservative Jewish policy advocates lobbied for the war, there is no evidence AIPAC ever did so. Asked to cite an example of such support, Vachon acknowledged, “AIPAC took no official position on the war [but] clearly there was a perception, partly orchestrated at its 2003 meeting” of such support.

Vachon cited a Washington Post story on the group’s annual conference that year. The story reported that lobby officials boasted of how U.S. forces were using Israeli-made weapons in the then-ongoing invasion. U.S. administration speakers won cheers from the audience for their remarks on the war, it related, and Israeli government speakers supported of the U.S. effort.In his article, Soros says that with the rise of Iran as a prospective nuclear power hostile to Israel’s existence, that existence “is more endangered than at any time since its birth … Israel needs the support of the United States more than ever.”

But, he says, a solution to the Palestinian issue is also crucial for Israel and the United States as they confront Iran. And Saudi Arabia, also viewing Iran as a threat, “has a genuine interest in promoting a settlement based on two states.”

“It would be tragic to miss out on that prospect,” he writes.

A 2002 Saudi peace plan supported by the 22 countries of the Arab League offered Israel full recognition by those states if Israel would negotiate a Palestinian state along its pre-1967 borders and allow the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in Israel. Israel praises some aspects of the plan but rejects these conditions as fatal to its existence.

Hamas, victor of a democratic election for the P.A. legislature last year, has been locked in near-civil war with armed forces loyal to the authority’s elected president, Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Abbas rejects terrorism, accepts Israel’s legitimacy and seeks a Palestinian state next to Israel. The two sides signed an agreement in Mecca last month to stop fighting and form a joint government. But Israel, the United States and the European Union have refused to drop efforts to isolate the regime unless it clearly accepts Israel’s existence, commits to non-violence and pledges to abide by earlier agreements Israel reached with the PLO.

Abbas and the PLO have done so. And Israel and the United States say they are willing to engage Abbas on a limited basis. But the unity government agreement Abbas has forged with Hamas addresses only one of the three demands of the international community — a commitment to “respect” prior agreements the PLO reached with Israel. “The sticking point is Hamas’s unwillingness to recognize the existence of Israel,” Soros argues. “But that could be made a condition for an eventual settlement rather than a precondition for negotiations.”

In part because of AIPAC and the broader Israel lobby, writes Soros, “The current policy is not even questioned in the United States. … The pro-Israel lobby has been remarkably successful in suppressing criticism. Politicians challenge it at their peril because of the lobby’s ability to influence political contributions … Academics had their advancement blocked and think-tank experts their funding withdrawn when they stepped too far out of line.”

A spokesperson for AIPAC said the group would have no comment on Soros’ article.

Soros’ attack is the latest in a series of jeremiads against the pro-Israel lobby. One day after his article hit the Internet, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff lamented, “There is no serious political debate among either Democrats or Republicans about our policy toward Israelis and Palestinians.” In the face of pro-Israel forces, he said, “American politicians have learned to muzzle themselves.”

Similar articles have appeared recently in the Internet magazine Salon, the American Conservative, and in postings by several popular young Jewish bloggers. In his current New York Times best seller, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, “ and in interviews, former President Jimmy Carter, too, argues that AIPAC “inhibits” debate on the issue. Last year, two prominent academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, set off a firestorm of controversy when they argued — in a paper posted on the website of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government — that the pro-Israel lobby suppressed debate on Israel and influenced U.S. Middle East policy in ways damaging to U.S. interests. They have since signed an $850,000 contract with Farrar Straus and Giroux to expand their essay into a book, due out next fall.

But in Congress and among politicians, where AIPAC concentrates its efforts, there is scant sign of such debate. In Wednesday’s New York Sun, spokespeople for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee disavowed Soros’ views, as did Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and other politicians.

Still, the cottage industry of criticism in the public square by these writers raises oxymoronic questions about their claims of suppression.

Vachon, the Soros spokesman, acknowledged that his boss, with an estimated worth of some $8.5 billion, has “a bully pulpit. When he talks people listen. Many people privately hold similar opinions but do not express them publicly because they are afraid of being vilified.”

In his piece, Soros himself complains of a “campaign of personal vilification” since he participated in a meeting discussing “the need for voicing alternative views” last October.

Soros — who narrowly escaped the Holocaust in Hungary — noted that Martin Peretz, editor of The New Republic, had accused him of being a “‘young cog in the Hitlerite wheel’ at the age of 13 when my father arranged a false identity to save my life and I accompanied an official of the Ministry of Agriculture, posing as his godson, when he was taking inventory of a Jewish estate.”

In a 1998 “60 Minutes” interview, Soros acknowledged that the official he accompanied was engaged in confiscating property from Jews being deported to death camps.This week, in the wake of Soros’ article, Peretz lamented, “I let him off the hook the last time with his sloppy pleas of innocence . . . Since he has picked the scab off his own wound this time, I will not be so kind this time.” “I am not a Zionist, nor am I am a practicing Jew,” Soros concedes, “but I have a great deal of sympathy for my fellow Jews and a deep concern for the survival of Israel.”