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Alliance breeds influence for Israel

Capitalizing on fierce support in the United States and some deft political organizing, Israel has acquired unique sway.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published October 17, 2004

During their debate on foreign policy, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry wrangled over Iraq. They also tussled over Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan.

But except for two fleeting references, there was no discussion of the issue that so often commands center stage: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was an omission that surprised few experts.

"This is an area where both candidates, at least in their declared policies, agree solidly," says Duncan Clarke, professor of international relations at American University. "Both of them have repeatedly stated their undying commitment to Israel and Israel's interests."

Born in 1948 from the ashes of the Holocaust, Israel has inspired fierce loyalty among generations of American policymakers. In part, that stems from a genuine feeling that Israel, with its democratic, pro-Western government, is the United States' most reliable ally in a tumultuous region rife with dictatorships.

But the support has been deftly cultivated by pro-Israel organizations, particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Through an aggressive network of members, lobbyists and friends high in the Bush administration, AIPAC wields a power that keeps politicians toeing a pro-Israel line.

The result: Israel exerts a significant influence on U.S. foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.

A case in point is Iraq. Although protecting Israel was not the only reason for invading Iraq, it clearly was a factor. Just days after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush told several House members that the biggest threat was not al-Qaida but "Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction."

"He can blow up Israel and that would trigger an international conflict," Bush said, as recounted in Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack.

In the past year, the administration has also backed off efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while appearing to give free rein to the hard-line government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Critics say the failure to push for peace is inflaming tensions in the Mideast and hurting U.S. credibility.

And while Israel is a small nation (pop. 6.2-million) with one of the world's highest standards of living, it long was the largest recipient of American foreign aid. It dropped to second place this year only because of the huge sums allocated for Iraq.

Given the history of the two countries, the pro-Israel tilt of U.S. foreign affairs is understandable. But while no one expects any sea changes soon, there are signs of discontent with current policies, U.S. and Israeli alike.

"People are desperate to hear something different than just a line," says M.J. Rosenberg, author of a widely read column on American-Israeli relations.

"After all, we're a pro-Israel organization, but our bottom line is that peace is in Israel's best interest and American involvement (in the peace process) is in America's best interest."

Or as Lewis Roth, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, puts it: "Friends don't let friends drive drunk. "It's all well and good for someone to say that anything the (Israeli) government says is the right way to go when it comes to Israeli policy. But if you're really a friend, you have to step back and be more analytical about the path that Israel is actually taking."

"Where terrorists thrive'

After Israel declared its independence in 1948, President Harry Truman became the first world leader to recognize the new state. But U.S.-Israeli relations were sometimes strained early on.

In 1956, the United States led the international outcry that forced Israel, France and Britain to back down from their plan to seize the Suez Canal from Egypt. According to some historians, the U.S. opposition stemmed in part from a desire to weaken British and French power in the oil-rich Middle East.

Although Israel was on the losing side of the Suez crisis, its stock soared after the 1967 Mideast War. The speed with which Israel routed its Arab enemies showed the United States it could be a valuable ally as America increased its own power in the region.

Since then, Israel has prevented victories by radical nationalist movements in Lebanon and Jordan, and helped keep Syria in check while it was a Soviet ally during the Cold War. Israel also served as a conduit for U.S. arms to Iran, Guatemala, South Africa and the Nicaraguan contras when it would have been politically untenable for the United States to give direct assistance.

Moreover, the Israelis have worked with America in developing new weapons and testing them in battlefield conditions.

So close is the relationship that experts are hard put to name any cases in which the United States has taken actions that Israel considered against its interests. One exception: Bush's support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rankled hard-liners.

"President Bush adopted the Arab position of a Palestinian state despite the sustained and murderous execution of terrorism by the Palestinian Authority," says Ariel Cohen, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

"Having said that, George W. Bush does have the reputation of being the most pro-Israel president" in two decades.

The administration's ardent support is widely presumed to be rooted in the influence of the "neocons" or neoconservatives - a group of top officials and advisers with longtime ties to the Jewish state. Among them are Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary, and Richard Perle, former chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board.

Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, says the neocons have a world view in which an aggressive, militarized Israel plays the same role on a regional level as America plays on a global scale.

"Let your allies and potential adversaries know that no country or group of countries will be allowed to match, let alone supercede, your level of military capacity," she said. "Let them know you will deal pre-emptively and militarily with anything you deem a threat, rather than (using) diplomacy."

The neocons' vision for Israel was laid out in the 1996 treatise, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm." In it, Perle and others said Israel should adopt a get-tough policy with Syria and the Palestinians, and "focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq."

Thus, in the wake of 9/11 it came as little surprise when the neocons pressed for action against Iraq as well as al-Qaida.

With Hussein's overthrow, Israel no longer has to worry about a bellicose Arab dictator who fired Scud missiles at Tel Aviv during the 1991 Gulf War. But the chaos in Iraq has emboldened neighboring Iran, which Israel considered a far greater threat because of its support for terrorism and its growing nuclear program.

Contrary to the neocons' intent, the Iraq war may be doing more to hurt than to help Israel.

"Now we have a situation in which we're tied down in a quagmire," says Gershom Gorenberg, associate editor of Jerusalem Report.

"The United States is in a weakened position to deal with Iran, it obviously has far less energy and resources to put into an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and Iraq itself is becoming one of those hollow states where terrorists thrive, the way petri dishes grow mold. It's clearly not in Israel's interest to have another such state in the Mideast."

"A really bad client'

Even before the neocons became a factor in U.S. foreign policy, Israel enjoyed almost unqualified support in Congress. One big reason is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Founded in 1954, AIPAC calls itself "America's Pro-Israel Lobby." Fortune once named it the second most powerful lobby in Washington, after AARP.

"AIPAC has become masterful in combining its real political power in Washington with the perception of power," says Ori Nir, who covers AIPAC for the Jewish newspaper Forward. "I have in the past interviewed quite a few members of Congress who said things like, "Don't quote me on that, I don't want to get in trouble withAIPAC.' "

Douglas Bloomfield, a former AIPAC lobbyist, says one reason the organization is so successful is that it faces little opposition.

"The Arab lobby has a really bad client - you just can't go into the halls of Congress with Yasser Arafat as a poster boy for good government."

Those familiar with AIPAC say it enhances its aura of power by picking battles it knows it can win. It was credited with - or blamed for - the 2002 defeat of incumbents Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and Earl Hilliard of Alabama, both seen as hostile to Israel.

But the two were vulnerable for other reasons, and observers say it is telling that AIPAC hasn't aggressively gone after Jim Moran, a popular House member from Virginia, despite remarks some considered anti-Semitic.

Because it is not a political action committee, AIPAC does not contribute to campaigns. However, it encourages its 85,000 members to be "active citizens," and those familiar with the organization say members work closely with pro-Israel PACs. The founder of Washington PAC, which has donated $182,250 to candidates this year, is a former executive director ofAIPAC.

At the start, AIPAC concentrated on lobbying Congress. But it broadened its reach into the executive branch, where in recent years it has established close ties to neocons in the Bush administration.

Too close, some say.

The FBI is investigating whether a Pentagon analyst passed a classified document about U.S. policy on Iran to AIPAC, which in turn may have given information to Israeli officials. Israel and AIPAC deny wrongdoing, and AIPAC mounted a counteroffensive:

"Not only is AIPAC under attack - the U.S.-Israel relationship itself is also under assault," the organization's leaders said in a statement.

But critics say the matter raises questions about whether AIPAC has crossed the line between lobbying and acting as an agent for a foreign government. AIPAC also "risks fueling claims of those who would accuse the Jewish community" of working with the neocons to pursue a regime change in Iran, Nir wrote in Forward.

Despite the criticisms, AIPAC enjoys strong backing from many American Jews, and there is little evidence Congress is wavering from its pro-Israel stance. By a 361-45 vote, the House recently passed a resolution supporting Israel's controversial security fence.

And this summer, the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved $2.6-billion in aid for Israel.

Stephen Zunes, a Mideast expert at the University of San Francisco, says the history of U.S. aid belies a common perception: Israel needs huge amounts of money because it is weak nation threatened by its Arab neighbors.

Instead, more than 90 percent of American aid has flowed since 1967, when Israel demonstrated its military superiority over Arab armies, occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and began building the settlements that have complicated efforts to create a Palestinian state.

"The more dominant Israel has become, the more aid it has gotten," Zunes says. "If we're really concerned about Israel's survival, we would have given most of our aid in the first years of existence when it was most vulnerable."

Critics say some of the money now going to Israel would be better used in countries like Afghanistan, with five times as many people and far more pressing needs. A reduction in aid could also hasten the Mideast peace process, some say.

"Israelis might have to learn to live with their neighbors, God forbid, if they're not subsidized by Uncle Sugar," says Clarke of American University.

But others argue it is cheaper for the United States to keep Israel militarily strong instead of going to war if the Jewish state is attacked.

"If the proportion of aid going to Israel somehow looks out of kilter to other countries, the challenge is to increase American foreign aid overall, not cutting back aid to Israel," says Roth of Americans for Peace Now. "Compared to a lot of other Western countries, we don't do that much."

"An apocalyptic foreign policy'

After the presidential election, will there be any change in U.S. policies toward Israel?

Publicly, there is little daylight between the candidates. Both support a Palestinian state but call Arafat a "failed leader." Both support Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Both appeared at AIPAC's annual conference.

"If you read between the lines, there may be some more flexibility in a Kerry administration than clearly there has been in the Bush administration, which has washed its hands of the so-called peace process," Clarke says. "There is a certain internationalism in Kerry's tone overall that might carry over into Arab-Israel issues, but I'm speaking now as an optimist."

The Bush administration's failure to push its "road map for peace" stems in part from fear of alienating Jewish voters in an election year. But some experts say it is also because Bush doesn't want to anger a key Republican constituency: evangelical Christians.

Among them are the millennialists, who prophesy Israel's occupation of all of its "biblical lands" and other scenarios that could lead to holy war with Islam.

The Christian right "has a very clear idea what it would like to see happen in the Mideast, and that's not based on Israel's pragmatic security but on theology - what could be called an apocalyptic foreign policy," says Gorenberg of the Jerusalem Report.

"When you look at the behavior of the current administration you have to wonder to what extent its hands-off policy toward Mideast negotiations is determined by the desire to keep its base in the Christian right or even the ideological affinity of the president himself to the Christian right."

But whoever occupies the White House for the next four years, don't expect any fundamental change in U.S.-Israeli relations.

"The historical record shows that from the Six Day War in 1967 onward, American policymakers consistently regarded Israel as the Middle Eastern country most clearly on the side of the West in the Cold War," Gorenberg says.

"Now we're in a situation where the United States perceives that its biggest foreign policy challenge is Islamic extremism. But once again you have the perception that Israel is the one country in the Middle East that can be relied on as a steady ally, a country that is going to stay on our side of the chessboard."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 17, 2004, 01:25:25]


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