Not surprisingly, my recent column on an ugly 1988 experience with AIPAC, the Israeli government, and late New York Times columnist William Safire elicited some controversy. I knew it would.
There aren't that many first-person accounts of encounters with the lobby (for obvious reasons) so my recollections of how it went down on Capitol Hill fill a vacuum. Hopefully, there will be more such accounts as those of us who dealt with the lobby in the 1980s move into a position (career-wise or financially) where we feel free to talk and write about it without any fear of retribution.
If I were 35, there is no way that I would challenge an institution which has a long history of preventing its critics from advancing professionally. I am not that brave -- although the terrain is finally changing for the better thanks to the internet.
One problem in making analogies between the lobby today and in the '70s and '80s is that it was infinitely less aggressive and right-wing then than it is now. In my description of an event that took place in 1988, I refer to AIPAC's then-executive director, Thomas Dine.
Dine, who today is close to J Street, came to the lobby from Ted Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign. He had worked previously for several Democratic senators and, in his 20s, in the LBJ White House. By contrast, AIPAC's current executive director, Howard Kohr, is a conservative Republican who was hired largely because of his personal and political closeness to Newt Gingrich. In the Israeli context, Dine was Labor and Kohr is Likud.
Back then, the Palestinians had not yet recognized Israel, so AIPAC's argument that Israel had no negotiating partner was not totally unfounded. Today, 17 years after Israel and the PLO exchanged mutual recognition, the "no partner" claim is nothing but a device to avoid negotiations.
Not only that, but in several rounds of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the two sides have come extremely close to an agreement, the essence of which was described by President Obama in two recent Middle East speeches. That is the exchange of the lands captured by Israel in 1967 for peace and normalization with the Palestinians -- with modifications and land swaps to reflect current realities. This is the so-called "two-state solution," which wasn't even discussed in the 1980s.
In other words, the entire Israeli-Palestinian landscape in 1988 was dramatically different then both in the region and here in Washington. And the AIPAC we know today had not even been born. (For instance, back then AIPAC never defended or even mentioned Israeli settlements, considering them an embarrassment. AIPAC lobbyists were told that, when asked, they should say that AIPAC had no position on settlements. Today it vehemently opposes any efforts to freeze them.)
In the 1980s, AIPAC's basic foreign policy position was that peace would come when the Palestinians recognized Israel. It stated that it would be at that point that negotiations based on United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338 would ensue. And, as envisioned in those resolutions, land would be exchanged for peace.
That is why the hysterical reaction to Senator Levin's letter mildly chastising Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir for saying that 242 and 338 did not apply to the West Bank was so shocking.
In retrospect, it was a harbinger of the more militant AIPAC that was then struggling to be born. (A very right-wing board fired Dine in the early 1990s, having decided it wanted a Republican executive director. Dine was then appointed by President Clinton to run America's massive aid and restructuring programs for the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe.)
Nonetheless, it was the more moderate AIPAC that went off on Sen. Levin for having the temerity to call on Shamir to remain committed to UN Resolution 242. It was the more moderate AIPAC that organized threatening calls to Levin (and other senators who signed his letter) by outraged donors. It was the more moderate AIPAC that enlisted Israel's U.N. ambassador, Binyamin Netanyahu, to call New York Times columnist William Safire and urge him to threaten me. (Safire's call was no simple call by a reporter investigating a story; it was a call by a powerful media figure threatening a Jewish congressional staffer for not toeing the line.)
In a column in The New Republic, Jonathan Chait, an excellent domestic policy columnist, calls my account of what happened a "pulp novelization" of a story that really only demonstrates that AIPAC does not exert undue influence (or, at least, no more than the AARP and other lobbies). After all, Levin is still in the Senate. President Reagan supported Levin's effort. And even AIPAC's executive director, Tom Dine, secretly supported Levin's effort. (Of course, he was soon fired for being a dovish Democrat.) And I have certainly not been silenced (although I only began telling the unvarnished truth about AIPAC when I was safely immune to the lobby.)
So Chait has a point.
Except: One, AARP and every other power lobby one can name (including the NRA, PhRMA, AHIP and the Chamber of Commerce) advocate for U.S. interests, as it sees them. (The AARP represents tens of millions of Americans over age 50 and the NRA represents millions of American gun enthusiasts.) AIPAC, on the other hand, gets its direction from a foreign government. If the Israeli government decides it will give up, say, downtown Hebron, AIPAC will say the same almost immediately. It is as independent of the Israeli government as the U.S. Communist Party was independent of Moscow. (The only time this was not true was in the early 1990s when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin tried, and failed, to reduce AIPAC's influence).
Except: Two, members of Congress criticize these powerful lobbies all the time. And doing so does not make page one of the New York Times, while Levin's mild call on Shamir to support Israel's own official position did. Criticizing Israeli policies is, thanks to AIPAC, the "new third rail" of American politics, replacing Social Security and Medicare. (Both those programs are now attacked daily). AIPAC is the only lobby that both Democrats and Republics fear challenging.
Except: Three, in 1988, the Israeli occupation was still only (only!) 21 years old. Today, the occupied territories have been occupied for 44 years. In 1988, there were 63,600 West Bank settlers (not including East Jerusalem). Today there are 296,700 settlers in the West Bank and another 192,000 in East Jerusalem. In 1988, the issue dividing the two sides was Israel's right to secure borders; today, the issue is Israel's right to continue settling the West Bank and evicting Palestinians from Jerusalem to make way for ultra-Orthodox settlers.
And: Four, AIPAC's effort to squelch Senate dissent succeeded. I remember one of AIPAC's top lobbyists telling me to thank Levin for the letter. "You'll see, MJ, after what Levin went through, no senator will ever pull that kind of thing again. You did us a favor," she said.
And, guess what? No senator has, not in 23 years.
There is no other lobby in Washington, not one, that has that kind of power. That was obvious when Prime Minister Netanyahu, a consistent opponent of U.S. policies, received a congressional reception worthy of the Second Coming. What I experienced in 1988 was nothing. Woe to the senator or Senate aide who even imagines such a thing today.