U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, DC. (MICHAEL BROCHSTEIN/SOPA IMAGES/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2020, pp. 21-23
By Dale Sprusansky
CRITICS OF THE UNITED STATES’ unwavering support for Israel had several notable reasons to celebrate this winter.
Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren made headlines by doing the once unimaginable: boycotting the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference. Sanders even went as far as issuing a tweet accusing the organization of being a purveyor of “bigotry.”
Just a decade ago, scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt observed in their landmark book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, “any politician who challenges [the Israel lobby’s] policies stands little chance of becoming president.” Sanders and Warren set an historic precedent by remaining viable candidates despite their unwillingness to kowtow to the country’s foremost foreign policy lobby.
Of additional note was AIPAC’s steepened descent into a partisan organization. The group’s public confrontation with Sanders—at the time the front-runner for the Democratic nomination—was a destructive blow to its long-touted ability to corral nearly unanimous and unflinching bipartisan support for Israel.
Sanders’ unreserved denunciation of AIPAC came in the midst of numerous polls showing that left-leaning Americans are increasingly critical of Israel and support elected officials challenging the AIPAC-enforced status quo.
The Israel lobby’s response to this trend has been to resort to smearing and bullying. The Democratic Majority for Israel, a lobbying group formed in 2019 with the hope of sustaining support for Israel within the Democratic Party, launched a deluge of television ads attacking Sanders ahead of the Iowa and Nevada caucuses. Even more remarkably, AIPAC launched attack ads accusing Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar (MN), Rashida Tlaib (MI) and Betty McCollum (MN) of anti-Semitism and being “maybe more sinister” than ISIS.
This is not a new tactic. In his authoritative 2015 book, Congress and the Shaping of the Middle East, Professor Kirk Beattie noted that AIPAC has long sought to make dissidents pay a high price. He quoted one Hill staffer as saying that AIPAC is “so unused to people defying them that when it happens they try to create so much pain for your office that it’s not worth the effort.”
Now, however, an increasing number of elected officials are willing to hold their ground against the lobby’s attacks. Rep. McCollum, targeted for introducing legislation that would protect Palestinian children from abuse at the hands of the U.S.-funded Israeli military, has been unequivocal in her response to AIPAC’s smears. In a statement, she called AIPAC a “hate group” and accused them of “weaponizing anti-Semitism and hate to silence dissent.”
In subsequent comments to Israel’s +972 Magazine, the congresswoman identified fear as the motivating factor behind AIPAC’s attack. “They’re trying, the best I can figure out, to intimidate and bully members of Congress from speaking out,” she said. “This is an example of somebody who’s paranoid or frightened. It makes me think it comes from fear.”
If McCollum’s analysis is correct, it represents a major sea change. It would mean that the group that was once so powerful that it had, according to one Senate staffer quoted by Beattie, the ability to issue a “potential electoral ‘kiss of death,’” is now operating from a place of weakness and resorting to desperate attacks.
The rising number of voices unapologetically critical of Israel and the apparent inability of AIPAC to successfully shame leaders such as Rep. McCollum certainly give this argument credence. However, the fact that many Democrats unreservedly attended AIPAC’s policy conference after the organization offered only a tepid apology for its attack ads suggests that the group’s ability to exert power, though reduced, remains.
If nothing else, McCollum, Sanders and other leaders appear to have taken to heart Mearsheimer and Walt’s observation that because the lobby’s “strategic and moral arguments are so weak, it has little choice but to try to stifle or marginalize serious discussion.” These politicians are transcending the lobby by pioneering the notion that its bullying cannot, and must not, usurp the moral reality on the ground in Palestine.
THE PATH TO WASHINGTON GOES THROUGH JERUSALEM
While American politicians are slowly beginning to overcome the heavy-handed tactics of the Israel lobby, there are signs that leaders from the so-called developing world increasingly see establishing good relations with Israel as a prerequisite for effective engagement with the United States.
This is not necessarily a new development—Washington has for decades provided diplomatic cover for Israel and vociferously declared to the world the inex-
tricable link between the two countries.
American support for Israel on the world stage is closely tied to the Israel lobby’s influence over U.S. politicians. Political scientist Tony Smith supplied anecdotal evidence of this in his book Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy. “In 1998-99 I was told by different knowledgeable observers that Turkey and Jordan considered the body with which they must first negotiate their relations with the United States to be not the State Department or some congressional body but AIPAC,” he wrote.
Given the plethora of foreign leaders brought in by AIPAC to speak at their 2020 conference, it’s clear the lobby still plays a meaningful role courting international support for Israel via the U.S. One needs to look no further for evidence than Democratic Republic of the Congo President Felix Tshisekedi using his speech at this year’s event to announce his decision to appoint an ambassador to Israel.
However, in the era of the Trump administration, where “true believers” of the Israeli cause occupy key White House and diplomatic positions, it is likely that Washington’s global campaign to support Israel is less lobby-driven than merely lobby-endorsed.
Israel scored a major geopolitical victory this February when Sudan’s interim leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, met Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Uganda and began the process of normalizing relations with Israel.
In subsequent remarks, Burhan affirmed Khartoum’s solidarity with the Palestinian people, but emphasized that engaging Israel is critical to the national interests of Sudan.
Burhan explained that establishing relations with Israel is a conduit to getting his country removed from the U.S. State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Sudan’s presence on the list since 1993 has severely restricted its ability develop its economy and receive financial assistance.
“During the meeting that took place in Entebbe, Uganda, we stressed the role of the Israeli side in supporting Sudan with regards to the list of state sponsors of terrorism,” Burhan said in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat. According to the Associated Press, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Burhan in advance of the meeting to thank him for normalizing ties with Israel and to invite him to the U.S.
The Entebbe meeting was reportedly orchestrated by the UAE, whose leaders have a close relationship with White House adviser and ardent Zionist Jared Kushner. Some analysts speculate the UAE viewed the meeting as a way to enlist Khartoum in its regional agenda, which includes isolating Iran by forming an unspoken but transparent alliance with Israel.
It thus appears the UAE, U.S. and Israel capitalized on Sudan’s economic desperation and desire to emerge from international isolation to impose a quid pro quo: join the Washington/Jerusalem/Abu Dhabi alliance in exchange for the removal of U.S. sanctions.
Scholar Joseph Massad recently noted in the Middle East Eye that this arrangement is hardly a new proposition. “In January 2016, with [then President] Omar al-Bashir still in charge, foreign minister Ibrahim Ghandour sought to lift the U.S. economic sanctions on Sudan by offering to open formal diplomatic ties with Israel,” he wrote.
THIS REALITY RINGS TRUE THROUGHOUT THE REGION
Residents of Khartoum protest against Sudanese Sovereign Council Head Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Uganda. (MAHMOUD HJAJ/ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Tunisia raised eyebrows in February when its newly elected President Kais Saied hastily fired his U.N. ambassador, Moncef Baati. Media reports indicate that Saied, eager to cozy-up to the U.S., terminated the diplomat after Washington lodged a complaint about Baati’s efforts to oppose the Trump administration’s “peace plan.”
Saied maintained the firing was purely based on Baati’s job performance. His colleagues summarily rejected that characterization. “He was among the most respected ambassadors at the United Nations and the government said he was fired because he was unprofessional? It’s a joke,” one U.N. ambassador told reporters.
Further west, there are reports that Israel is approaching Morocco with an agreement similar to the one it reached with Sudan. Netanyahu has apparently offered his assistance in securing U.S. recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over occupied Western Sahara if Rabat agrees to normalize relations with Israel. Like many other countries in the region, Morocco currently has a covert military and economic relationship with Israel that it officially denies.
Even Jordan, which has long enjoyed cordial relations with Washington and a strong working relationship with Israel, has apparently started to wonder if its $1.3 billion in U.S. aid could be jeopardized by its opposition to Trump’s peace plan.
Jordanian political commentator Fahd al-Khitan recently reported in Al-Ghad that senior officials in the Hashemite Kingdom view “the unpredictability of the White House” as “a cause of concern.” While Amman still views the withdrawal of U.S. aid as unlikely, their concern speaks volumes of the extent to which Israel is on the minds of officials in the region—and beyond—when it comes to their bilateral relationship with the U.S.
It’s easy to chalk up Washington’s international support for Israel to standard diplomatic practice. It’s well known, after all, that in international negotiations, the stronger party should not merely give away gifts, but extract concessions from the weaker party. If the U.S. is willing to remove Sudan from its terrorism list, what’s wrong with it throwing its ally Israel a bone by tying the move to Khartoum normalizing relations with Israel?
That logic is fair enough. But there is one important reality to consider in this case: The Trump administration, an allegedly impartial mediator that claims to view Israel-Palestine peace as being in the U.S. national interest, has not once sought to extract a concession from Israel. Asking Israel to give up nothing in return, Washington has simply handed Israel the Golan Heights, Jerusalem and a blatantly one-sided peace deal.
It appears other nations must make concessions to Israel in order to play ball with the U.S., while Israel in turn extracts nothing but concessions from the U.S. Who benefits from this arrangement?
CHANGE ON THE HORIZON?
The late Sen. Charles Mathias (R), who represented Maryland from 1969-1987, once warned that when “factions among us lead the nation toward excessive foreign attachments or animosities,” it results in the “loss of cohesion in our foreign policy and the degradation from the national interest.”
Countless observers have warned that unwavering U.S. support for Israel has resulted in a disjointed Middle East policy that jeopardizes many of its interests. For decades, the Israel lobby has used its strength to stifle an open dialogue about this policy. However, with the lobby increasingly losing its bipartisan standing and struggling to rebuff critics, a rethinking of U.S. policy may, at long last, be on the horizon.