I came to Washington, more than four decades ago, to run the Palestine Human Rights Campaign. We founded the PHRC after hearing from lawyers and human rights activists in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian lands horrible stories of rights being abused on a daily basis. Because these stories weren’t known in the US, or they were ignored, we launched the PHRC to shine a light on these violations and mobilise support for the Palestinian victims.
Early on, we were successful in gaining the endorsement of prominent civil rights leaders, major anti-Vietnam war activists, and church leaders. There were, however, only a few Members of Congress who embraced our efforts, and those who did often put themselves at risk of incurring the wrath of the pro-Israel lobby – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). They made no secret of their displeasure with elected officials who supported Palestinian rights and often threatened them that if they didn’t back off, they would be defeated.
In 1979, I received a call from the staff person of a Congressman who had endorsed a few of our more prominent cases and had been a consistent critic of Israeli policies. He had repeatedly voted against bills to give Israel more aid, citing their human rights record. The person told me that her boss met representatives of AIPAC and someone from the Israeli Embassy and a heated discussion had ensued. She said that because he liked and trusted me, I should come over to the office and speak with him. I did so, but never got to see him. In fact, despite that we had been friends, he rarely spoke with me after that day. During his next few decades in Congress he never again voted against AIPAC-supported legislation, all the while becoming one of the largest recipients of pro-Israel financial contributions.
It was fear – the threat of defeat and the power of campaign contributions, either for you (if you voted “correctly”) or against you (if you dared to vote “incorrectly”) – that shaped the way that Congress behaved on matters involving Israel and the Palestinians.
I remember expressing my frustration to former Congressman John Conyers that members who consistently voted to give Israel blank check support were acting in an unprincipled way against the interests of the US. He laughed and told me that from the day they were first elected, the only principle that guided a Congressperson’s behaviour was what they felt they needed to do to be re-elected.
While there are a number of principled souls serving in Congress, for too many members raising money and getting re-elected become ends in themselves.
The money that could be raised for or against a candidate was real, but it was never the decisive factor. More consequential was the cultivated myth of AIPAC’s invincibility.
AIPAC consolidated its hold early in the 1980’s when they received two unearned gifts. They were able to claim credit for the defeat of two prominent elected Republicans, a Congressman and a Senator. I know first-hand that although AIPAC did pour a great deal of money into both elections, other critical factors decided both contests. The Republican Congressman lost because he had been redistricted from a Republican-majority district to one that favoured Democrats. In addition, in the year he lost, there was a Democratic wave in which the party won an additional 27 seats in Congress. But that didn’t stop AIPAC from boasting that they had vanquished their foe and use this victory to cement fear of their power.
The Senator’s defeat in 1984 also played into the AIPAC myth. It’s true that a great deal of money was raised to defeat him – including one million dollars to run a more conservative individual as a third-party candidate to siphon votes away from him. But, the real reason for his defeat was that for the first time black voters had endorsed his opponent. That didn’t stop AIPAC from once again boasting of their victory in defeating a “foe of Israel.”
I can be thankful that all this is changing – at least among Democrats. The recent victory of Jamaal Bowman over AIPAC-backed Eliot Engel; AIPAC being forced to “give permission” to members of congress to oppose Israeli annexation plans for the West Bank; and the recent letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, from 12 representatives and one senator not only opposing annexation, but promising legislation to condition US aid to Israel to their policies in the West Bank – all provide evidence that AIPAC may be losing its grip on Congress.