Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Why AIPAC is Feared

For most members of Congress, U.S. foreign policy on the Middle East has traditionally been a pretty peripheral issue. Only since September 11th, and the invasion of Iraq, has it taken on the importance it has now for most politicians.

There's always been a tendency for most member to choose the path of least resistance, and everyone in Washington understands that, if you vote against AIPAC's wishes, the Israel lobby has tools to punish you. I'm going to offer an illustration here of how this works -- based on the experience on Rep. Earl Hilliard (D-AL), an African American congressman from Alabama who lost his seat in 2002 after voting against AIPAC positions on a couple of issues. Yes, I know that this wasn't the only issue brought up in the campaign, but I think what I'm going to illustrate here gives a good example of why AIPAC is feared on Capitol Hill.

In the 2000, election, Hilliard had faced a challenge from Artur Davis in the Democratic primary. It wasn't very well-financed, as you can see from the data on his donor list. Note that he got almost no funds from out-of-state.

Davis's 2002 campaign, however, was characterized by a remarkable avalanche of out-of-state contributions. He raised over $315,000 in New York, over $61,000 in New Jersey, over $58,000 in California, and over $21,000 in Connecticut. Maybe in such an exciting race, he also had some people in neighboring states interested in backing him? Well, here's the data for Mississippi. One zip code (10021) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan gave more than triple what he got from donors in Georgia.

Now I know it's politically incorrect, but go back to the donor data and look at the surnames. Sure, some of these people may not be members of AIPAC, but it's clear that the majority of them contributed in response to Earl Hilliard's record on AIPAC's issues. Kinda self explanatory, eh?

AIPAC only has around 60,000 members, and that's only about 1% of the total number of Jews in the United States. They also tend to back relatively conservative positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict which are to the right of the position of the majority of the American Jewish community. Their tensions with the Labor governments in the 1990s over the Oslo Accords were well-known. Despite their small numbers though, they have influence in Washington which goes beyond what you'd expect from such a small constituency.

The "Jewish vote" is actually a pretty small factor, regardless of what folks like the Republican Jewish Coalition will tell you. Most American Jews live in a few states, and with the exception of Florida, none of those states is at all competitive in presidential elections. Bush got 24% of the Jewish vote in 2004, up from 20% in 2000, but most American Jews identify with the Democrats, for a number of reasons, and there doesn't seem to be much likelihood that a small shift in the Jewish vote could tip a presidential election. Florida is the only possible exception. Needless to say, very few congressmen and senators would have their races come out differently as a result of a shift of a few percent in Jewish votes or turnout. And again, a lot of (probably most) American Jews don't agree with all of AIPAC's policy positions, even though they support Israel.

Anyway, the bottom line is this -- AIPAC is feared because they're able to mobilize and coorindate a couple tens of thousands of key donors. For most elected officials in Washington, the calculation is simple -- toe the AIPAC line, and get some help courting out-of-state donors -- or vote against them, and potentially face a tsunami of cash flowing to your opponent. In most cases, members aren't that concerned with the Middle East anyway, and it's much easier to take the path of least resistance.

But what happens when the issues they're pushing on are of huge importance, like policy toward Iran? See what's featured in the center of their 'issues' page. They don't even need to go bang on Joe Congressman's door -- it's clear the policy outcome they want to achieve.

And it wasn't exactly a secret that the Israel lobby was pushing for regime change in Iraq.

I know that some are going to be annoyed that I'm even raising this, but as we head into a year where we may end up debating an expansion of the war beyond Iraq, I think we need to be able to have a frank discussion of how political pressure groups may be influencing that debate, and how people who oppose their position can counter their influence.

If you found this post of interest, take a look at my blog, The Gorilla in the Room. (i.e. the one you're not supposed to talk about) I posted a bunch of new stuff today. You may also want to take a look at my previous post on the The Office of Special Plans.


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