Remarking on the Unremarkable and Making it Remarkable
Earlier tonight, I expressed surprise that the idea that AIPAC is more powerful and active than any other foreign policy interest group is deemed at all controversial. I went on to point out some indisputable facts and figures about AIPAC’s lobbying activities, combined with some personal anecdotes and an explanation of the important role lobbyists and interest groups play in our political system. I also argued that AIPAC itself plays a valuable role in our public policy discussion, and as far as interest groups go, it’s remarkable mostly because its lobbying model avoids a lot of the behavior that Americans most hate about interest groups and lobbyists. The problem, I said, is just that AIPAC is the only credible foreign policy interest group around with a focus on the Middle East and Israel, which makes AIPAC something of a default source for information on that policy.
Although AIPAC may be the single most influential foreign policy interest group, it is hardly unique when compared to American interest groups writ large. But I’m quite certain that I’m not the first to make this point; the difference in my analysis is just that I have a neutral to slightly positive view of interest groups in general, whereas most people usually assume that interest groups are out to undermine some ill-defined “Public Interest.”
The recognition that AIPAC is hardly remarkable compared to other influential interest groups raises a troubling question for me, though. Specifically, why is it necessary to blame questionable U.S. Middle East policy on “the Israel Lobby” if AIPAC (which is what is meant by the term) is no different from any other significant interest group on any other issue? It seems like scapegoating to me, at least in the sense that it implies the existence of an illegitimate power that seeks to undermine the vaguely defined “Public Interest.”
What makes me particularly uncomfortable is that the phrase “the Israel lobby” also implies that the obstacle isn’t merely AIPAC but rather is some secret cabal for which AIPAC is merely a front group. Even worse, it suggests that being “for” Israel is an evil in and of itself. From there, the leap to anti-semitism doesn’t seem so daunting.
But most who use the phrase “Israel lobby” don’t mean it in this sense. Indeed, most who use the phrase actually take positions that although closer to Israel’s Kadima Party than to the Likud-like positions of AIPAC are quite distinct from being pro-Hamas or even pro-Fatah. Many of this group ultimately believe that it is they who best represent Israel’s interest. As Br. E.D. succinctly states:
If there were some counterbalance to AIPAC – a really viable yin to its yang – then we wouldn’t be having this “Israel lobby” discussion because one portion of the “Israel lobby” would agree that a different approach needs to be made in resolving the conflict. There really is a much healthier debate going on within Israel than here on the matter, and that’s sort of absurd when you think about it.
This is exactly correct. The goal for most is to create a pluralistic “Israel lobby” rather than leave AIPAC as the sole voice that is “pro-Israel.” Blaming the “Israel lobby” for the lack of a pluralistic “Israel lobby” while trying to create an alternative “Israel lobby” seems like a pretty bad way to go about doing this.
I don’t think most recognize this contradiction, though. Instead, I think it comes about as a result of feeling compelled to defend anyone who is accused of being insufficiently pro-Israel. And some of those, particularly those who are quick to introduce the phrase “Israel lobby” into the discussion, really do disagree with the notion that the security interests of Israel and the US are closely aligned (this is different from being anti-Semitic, though occasionally not much). Seeing someone accused of being insufficiently pro-Israel merely for dissenting from the prevailing view on US-Israel policy is deeply frustrating for many in this group, and they feel compelled to defend that person. If that person invokes the “Israel lobby” argument, then this group (of which I am part) has to specifically defend this argument…and the only way to do that is to point to AIPAC’s influence as proof that there is an overly influential Israel lobby.
Unfortunately, in the process of defending the accusations against the “Israel lobby,” one winds up inadvertently and implicitly defending all the implications of the phrase. Not good.
Those who wish to challenge AIPAC’s status as the sole “pro-Israel” interest group of any value would do well to recognize that those who blame the “Israel lobby” for our foreign policy often have a different view of whether a “safe, strong, and secure Israel” is an important US policy objective. Defending such claims, which turn the influential but unremarkable AIPAC into a remarkable conspiratorial cabal, inadvertently undermines the argument that one can be both “pro-Israel” and opposed to AIPAC’s vision of what being “pro-Israel” entails.