U.S. President Barack Obama speaks alongside Saban Forum Chairman Haim Saban / Getty Images
The New York Times over the weekend shed some needed sunlight on the close ties between Washington think tanks and foreign governments. Digging into the funding practices of some of the nation’s most respected research institutions, the article outlined an impressive array of foreign money funneled into think tanks. These contributions, the article revealed, come with many strings attached and could put into question the independence of the research conducted in think tanks. (Though, it should also be noted that think tanks, as opposed to universities, are set up, in many cases, around a certain ideology or belief and do not claim the mantle of objectivity.)
The list of foreign governments supporting American think tanks is populated heavily with Arab countries and also demonstrates the significant role played by Norway in funding these think tanks (much of this focus is thanks to Norway’s aggressive public disclosure policies that allowed the writers to follow the money from Oslo to Washington.)
Israel, however, is absent from the list. The reason is clear: Israel does not directly provide government money to fund American think tanks. But this doesn’t mean there is no Israeli input. Pro-Israel donors in the United States have long made generous gifts to research institutions of their liking.
Three decades ago, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) sought to increase its influence in Washington policy circles by setting up its own think tank. It founded the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and funded it for several years. Since, however, the Washington Institute has severed its institutional ties with AIPAC and is now completely independent. But it still counts among its major funders some of the lobby’s key donors.
With the AIPAC conference competing with the Oscars, Jewish politicos will have to choose between watching willowy Natalie Portman grace the red carpet and Jacob Lew explain the White House’s policy on Israel.
(JTA)— Anti-Semites say that Jews control Hollywood. And they say that Jews control Washington. But can we control both at once?
The biggest event in pro-Israel Israel advocacy — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference — kicks off this Sunday, the same day as Hollywood’s biggest night, the Academy Awards.
According to the AIPAC conference schedule, the day’s big speakers (Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and AIPAC President Bob Cohen) will have wrapped up by 7 p.m. — early enough for them to catch the red carpet broadcast from Hollywood.
AIPAC evening events going head-to-head with the Oscars include an offsite dinner for AIPAC leaders, a campus awards program titled “Sunday Night Live” and unspecified “special events.”
This isn’t the first time that a major Jewish organization has had to compete with a major television event.
In 1998, the American Jewish Committee scheduled its annual meeting opposite the series finale of “Seinfeld.”
“What the hell are you all doing here? Don’t you know what tonight is?” show co-star Jason Alexander asked AJC attendees in a video-taped message.
This year’s AIPAC conference continues on Monday and Tuesday, starring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary of State John Kerry, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and musician David Broza.
Sanctions bill sponsor Sen. Robert Menendez addresses AIPAC annual policy conference, Washington Convention Center, March 5, 2013 / Getty Images
Efforts to pass a new Iran sanctions bill have not only stalled in the Senate, but appear to be slowing even in the House. Perhaps predictably, given the focus on AIPAC as the primary driver of the bill, observers are now wondering whether AIPAC has “over-reached” and been “weakened.” While the failure of any lobby group to pass signature legislation dents its reputation, presumptions about AIPAC’s coming vulnerability betray fundamental misconceptions about how foreign policy is made.
Foreign policymaking in the United States is an executive privilege. Presidents typically have a lot of leeway in this area. This is the result of constitutional authority, judicial reinforcement, and a general acceptance among lawmakers that presidential predominance in foreign affairs is both necessary and, by now, traditional.
Under these conditions, lobby groups have always had much more success with Congress than with presidents. Congress is a fractious body, with over 500 individual targets; the president is a single individual. Failures in Congress are more setbacks than anything else, given the multiple access points and the rolling nature of elections; failing to convince the president is a very public event, harder to overcome.
Sanctions bill sponsor Sen. Robert Menendez addresses AIPAC annual policy conference, Washington Convention Center, March 5, 2013. / Getty Images
In American politics, do Jewish voices count more on Israel than others? Should they? And who’s counting? UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, for one, who called on his Washington Monthly blog for readers to lobby their senator against a new Iran sanctions bill especially “if you’re Jewish, or have a Jewish-sounding name.” The anti-Zionist writer Phil Weiss responded that Kleiman’s appeal proves that, on this issue, “we [Jews] are 5/3 of a man, to reverse the old voting fraction of black people.”
Weiss has picked an obnoxious analogy. Even those who talk about Israel as an “apartheid state” rarely have the chutzpah to include Washington D.C. in the supposed ethnocracy. But Weiss is also wrong in a more interesting way. Talk of how much Jews count is hopelessly naïve, because in fact, American foreign policy — in many areas — responds far less to mass demographics than to small, committed ideological elites.
Why is that? First of all, American Jews don’t care much politically about Israel. Most feel emotionally attached to Israel, but in 2012, only four percent considered it their most important political issue, classing it with sleepers like the environment and immigration. Nor is our apathy atypical: Americans just don’t care much about foreign policy. Less than ten percent of us vote primarily on foreign policy. When asked what is the most important issue facing the country, we show no interest in other countries (well, a little when people leave them to come here). Government, policy, and media elites love to talk about an increasingly globalized world, but most Americans think of foreign affairs as politically remote and irrelevant.
As the controversy rages over Hillel’s Israel guidelines — which delineate which groups it will partner with or allow to participate in Hillel-sponsored events — observers have started to wonder what effect all this will have on American Jewish identity and Israel advocacy. The issue, though, is about more than just defining Hillel; it’s also about defining the issue itself.
We use language not just to describe things, but to give ideas emotional meanings. People, including policymakers, respond to specific discursive cues. When these cues are associated with a particular meaning or emotional state that matters to the listeners, they are more likely to respond in the way the speaker intends.
So, for example, part of the reason Jewish groups advocating for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship (think AIPAC) have become successful is because of the rhetoric they use in their public statements and private conversations. The U.S. sees itself as a superior form of democracy, a beacon of light and a “good” country. Lobbyists who can tie into those feelings — by using key words like “shared values,” “democracy,” “individual rights,” “common Judeo-Christian heritage,” and “common strategic interests” — can make a stronger case for their demands.
Similarly, when it comes to Hillel, the fight is really about how to define what “pro-Israel” means, a controversy that has flared up in recent years, spurred by the battle over Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense and questions about whether the U.S. Jewish community should pressure Israel on peace talks or not. But in this case, Hillel’s own guidelines have left the door open to multiple interpretations of what “pro-Israel” means.
AIPAC’s new spokesman Marshall Wittmann has a wandering eye, at least when it comes to politics.
Wittmann was once a lobbyist for Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition. He’s also a onetime Trotskyite who has served as a spokesman for labor unions – as well as for Republican Sen. John McCain.
In 2006, the New York Times called him “one of the great career vagabonds, ideological contortionists and political pontificators ever to inflict himself on a city full of them,” as Daniel Treiman noted.
Wittmann has apparently held every conceivable political conviction during his lengthy Washington career, swinging from the far left to the far right. He wound up somewhere on the center-right in his latest post as a spokesman for Sen. Joe Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut.
As the flack for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Wittmann will be the voice of the famously press-shy pro-Israel group. His lack of ideological constancy could be a boon at AIPAC, which goes to great lengths to represent itself as nonpartisan.
Wittmann takes a position that’s been more or less vacant since Josh Block left in 2010. Block has recently been named head of The Israel Project.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to call early elections in September followed a “discreet” meeting with leaders of AIPAC, who told him that polls show President Obama heading for reelection in November—so writes Maariv chief diplomatic correspondent Ben Caspit, as reported by Noam Sheizaf on the left-wing, English-language Israeli site 972mag.com blog.
Here’s Caspit, as translated by Sheizaf:
Netanyahu’s surprising announcement on the early primaries in the Likud, which fell on his party’s senior member like thunder on a cloudless day, came three days after a discrete meeting he held with the chiefs of AIPAC, that estimated, based on polls, that Barack Obama would also be the next president.
Bibi knew he can’t campaign when Obama is in his second term. This [would be] a dangerous gamble. Sheizaf goes on to note that the September 4 Knesset elections will come during the Democratic National Convention, which means that “Instead of the U.S. president possibly playing a role—deliberately or not – in the Israeli elections, Netanyahu will get a chance to play a part in the American one.” No, Noam, it’s not a coincidence.
Speaking of Israeli elections, two new political parties are forming on the right:
In addition to Mitt Romney’s remarks at AIPAC yesterday, arguing that his approach to Iran would be a radical break from Obama’s (though nothing he said indicated how it would be different), one of his high-profile foreign policy advisers, Dan Senor, also had a well-placed op-ed in the Wall Street Journal making similar points but with not much more substance.
Senor, who some will remember was the Bush administration’s spokesman in the first days of the Iraq War and more recently the author of “Start-Up Nation,” about Israel’s successes in high tech, briefly flirted in 2010 with a run for Senate from New York. He has since hunkered down with Romney and is presumably a key part of his brain trust when it comes to figuring out the Middle East.
Senor set out to explain, as the headline of the op-ed put it, “Why Israel Has Doubts About Obama.” He didn’t dispute the major piece of the administration’s counter-argument, that security cooperation between the two allies is at an all time high — though he does try to attribute this to commitments made by President Bush (commitments, it goes without saying, Obama could have ignored but instead reaffirmed and strengthened).
Instead, Senor simply strings together a few offhand comments from administration officials that he argues make the Israel-U.S. relationship look vulnerable when viewed from Tehran. The overwhelming majority of these comments came from the mouth of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. There was the time in October 2011 when Panetta worried about Israel “isolating” itself in the diplomatic arena, and then in December when Panetta implored Israel to “get to the damn table.” There’s not much more to Senor’s argument. He mentioned Obama’s not having visited Israel yet, but as we reported here, George W. Bush (Senor’s former boss) went twice at the very end of his second term. His father, George H.W. Bush, never went. You know who else never visited Israel as president? Ronald Reagan. So maybe we can just retire this debating point.
But if Senor’s argument about the administration is really an argument about Panetta, the defense secretary’s words this morning at the AIPAC conference should really suffice to slam the door on this Obama anti-Israel trope the Romney folks are trying to develop.
Just take a look at some of Panetta’s statements:
President Barack Obama was more than half way through his address Sunday before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee before he mentioned the issue of the hour: Iran. That may well be because public officials tend to leave the thorniest subjects to later in their speeches. But it struck me as an apt metaphor for American Jewish reaction to the president in this white-hot election year.
Here’s why. Obama devoted the first and largest portion of his Aipac speech to a robust defense of his administration’s policies toward Israel, essentially repeating the phrase he mastered in an interview with Atlantic magazine a few days earlier – that is, he’s got Israel’s back. Anyone who believes this argument will very likely believe the subsequent pledges he made about Iran, because they are logical, systematic, and hold up to the facts as presented.
And those American Jews (and their evangelical Christian counterparts) who don’t believe that this administration has been as staunch an ally of Israel and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as it should be will simply not believe Obama on Iran, either.
In the end, it’s a matter of trust. And politics.
It is still more than a week away, but AIPAC’s annual policy conference is already creating a buzz in the political world. Every year organizers promise this will be the biggest pro-Israel gathering ever, but this time around the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has really outdone itself, with 13,000 participants expected to take part at the three-day parley opening on March 4. Headlining the event will be President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel’s president Shimon Peres and the Republican presidential candidates, not to mention congressional leaders and just about anyone who has anything to do with Israel, politics and policy.
But with success come a few headaches.
First, for Republican candidates. The AIPAC conference is taking place just before Super Tuesday on March 6, when ten states hold primary elections. So what is a candidate to do? Fly back to Washington and give up valuable campaigning time in the voting states? Or perhaps skip the AIPAC conference and focus on the voters? It is a tough decision that all three leading candidates (Ron Paul does not seem to be relevant for the AIPAC crowd) need to make. Speaking at the conference can make some political sense, since it is a great venue to show off pro-Israel credentials and to deliver some punches at the Obama administration. On the other hand, staying on the ground in the states that are voting the next day could be a sounder decision, given the high stakes involved. Newt Gingrich already decided to make the trip to Washington. No word yet from Romney and Santorum.