When Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu sit down for the first time as world leaders today, chatter in and outside the Beltway will revolve around the chess match expected between two savvy political heavyweights.
Behind the scenes, though, a perpetual whisper will become even more pronounced. From anti-Semitic Web sites to left-wing (but mainstream) outlets like DailyKos, the complaint about Israel’s “undue influence” on U.S. foreign policy will ramp up if Obama doesn’t win on every concession some are expecting him to demand.
Taking the brunt of these loopy allegations, no doubt, will AIPAC, American Israel Public Affairs Committee. No group in the U.S., in fact, is subject to more socially acceptable conspiracy theories. Because no government in the world is more pro-Israel than that of the United States — and AIPAC is the most visible advocate of maintaining that support — tales are constantly circulating about the group’s now-legendary prowess.
Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt made waves when they published an essay on the “Israel lobby” that mystically controls U.S. foreign policy, acting as puppet master to the U.S. Congress. Despite the authors’ protestations, the “Israel lobby” really boils down to the strength and effectiveness of AIPAC. Millions of Internet fans swooned, and the pair pulled down an eye-popping $750,000 advance to expand their thesis into a book, which eventually became a New York Times bestseller.
There’s no denying that AIPAC is powerful. Yet the reasons not only are not hidden, but rather flaunted. And their efforts are only able to be as effective as they because ordinary Americans support Israel.
This year’s annual Policy Conference, which took place last week and clocked in at over 6,000 activists from across the United States, featured the slogan, “Relationships Matter.” It is from that simple premise, in fact, that AIPAC has become one of the most formidable outfits in the U.S.
Not only is the secret to AIPAC’s success strikingly straight-forward, but it’s lifted pretty much wholesale from the corporate world. Businesses that depend on partnering with other companies have entire divisions dedicated to relationships called “business development.” Those units — the successful ones, anyway — typically go out in force and build relationships that could yield joint ventures. In short, the more relationships you build and nurture, the stronger your company can grow.
Where AIPAC differs is that everyone involved with the organization — from staffers to donors to volunteers — is in business development. Everyone in the AIPAC extended family is expected to develop relationships with people in positions of power, or figures who could be in those spots in the future. If there’s a young politician who just got elected to the school board, for example, that person has likely already gotten to know someone involved with AIPAC — even in an area without a large Jewish population.
What this means is that whenever an issue arises, AIPAC-affiliated people who have pre-existing relationships will be able to contact all the key decision-makers. Those relationships mean that the policymakers will take the time to listen, and the trust they’ve developed over time lends credibility to the lobbyist’s pitch.
All the relationships in the world, of course, matter little when the product stinks. This is what “Israel lobby” devotees don’t get: Americans support Israel. They don’t support Israel because they’re told to; if anything, many Americans who back the Jewish state consume a regular diet of anti-Israel messages, mostly from the likes of the New York Times and NPR.
In years past, support for Israel was typically broad, though not necessarily deep. Americans sensed that Israel was more like the United States than its neighbors, and domestic voices supporting the Jewish state obviously won supporters. Also, Evangelical Christians, such as Pastor John Hagee, have been successfully cultivating political backing for the Jewish state from the 1980s onward.
After 9/11, though, Americans felt a profound, almost visceral connection to Israel. The massive attack on U.S. soil occurred as Israelis already had been suffering a relentless suicide bombing campaign for almost a year. That the terrorism at both ends was being perpetrated in the name of Islam only strengthened the bond.
If Obama, as some are theorizing, plans to push Netanyahu to act much faster and grant more concessions than an understandably weary Israeli public is ready to support, he is likely to face significant resistance. While unhappy AIPAC activists will work their relationships and make impassioned pleas for their viewpoints, not everyone involved with the organization will act in lockstep.
Regardless, the greatest hurdle to ambitious action on the Middle East is the vast majority of Americans who believe in supporting Israel. While evangelical Christians are among the most vocal advocates of the Jewish state, plenty of non-evangelicals, whether religious or secular, passionately back Israel.
Though the strength of the pro-Israel position no doubt rankles those who desperately desire a different U.S. foreign policy, there is nothing nefarious or shadowy about the reasons why America supports Israel.