Big bucks keep US politicians lined up in pro-Israel camp

Lobbying/ money and fear
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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Bill Clinton's refusal to come to London for the VE anniversary celebrations two weeks ago revealed less about the state of the transatlantic alliance than about American politicians and their special relationship with Israel.

Mr Clinton had a more pressing engagement at the Washington Sheraton: attending the annual conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac). He had to be there. Bob Dole, his likely rival in next year's presidential race, was going to address Aipac and there was no way Mr Clinton was going to allow the Republican senator to steal a march on him. If there is one thing US politicians have learnt - literally half the members of Congress attended the conference - it is that you snub America's powerful Jewish lobby at your peril.

The last three weeks have witnessed three developments which Middle East experts believe will do little to promote peace between Arabs and Israelis: Mr Clinton imposed a total embargo on trade with Iran; Mr Dole announced at the Aipac conference that he would introduce a Bill in Congress to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; and, on Wednesday, the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that criticised Israel's confiscation of Arab lands in East Jerusalem.

It is no coincidence that Aipac's current three main goals are the containment of Iran; ensuring Jerusalem becomes the capital of Israel, and preserving current levels of aid to Israel, which at $3bn (pounds 1.9bn) a year - 20 per cent of America's total foreign aid budget - represents by far the highest amount received by any country.

Mr Clinton and Mr Dole made a point of reassuring the 2,500 Aipac delegates that they would not tamper with Israeli aid. Indeed, at a time when balancing the federal budget has emerged as the most pressing issue in US politics, when education, health care and welfare are all under the axe, no Republican or Democrat has dared suggest that Israel's share of American taxpayers' money should be reduced.

A clue to the hold the Jewish-American lobby exercises over Washington is provided by the example of Mitch McConnell, a Republican senator who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. He recently proposed that aid to Africa, $1bn continent-wide, should be slashed. Aid to Israel, however, was sacrosanct, he said. When Mr McConnell last stood for election he received $213,900 from Jewish individuals and more than 50 pro-Israel groups.

Bob Packwood, another Republican senator with an impeccable record of backing the Israeli cause, has been under investigation for some time by the Senate ethics committee for alleged sexual misdemeanours. Last week it was announced that he would face a special hearing to answer to 18 such charges. Pro-Israel groups have given him more than $20,000 towards legal fees.

Aipac, a registered congressional lobbying group, has 50,000 members and an annual budget of $15m. It does not give money to politicians but, after scrutinising voting records and public pronouncements, steers Jewish donors towards the deserving.

Edward Tivnan, author of a book on Aipac called The Lobby, said: "Senator Al d'Amato of New York, who is of Italian origin and whose politics are appalling to most New York Jews, offers a case in point. When a guy who was a Democrat and Jewish tried to run against him he couldn't get past first base, because d'Amato had positioned himself as exceedingly pro-Israel."

One Charles Percy, a Republican who sat on the Senate Foreign Relations committee in the mid-1980s, won awards from Jewish groups for his devotion to the Israeli cause. When he started asking questions about the Israeli role in the West Bank, however, Jewish groups around the country, under Aipac's guidance, started distributing flyers denouncing him as Israel's biggest enemy. Funds poured into the coffers of Paul Simon, his rival in the 1984 elections, and Mr Percy was duly defeated. Tom Dine, the president of Aipac at the time, said in a speech: "All the Jews in America, from coast to coast, gathered to oust Percy. And American politicians got the message."

Jim Zogbi, president of the Arab American Institute, said: "What they did to Percy was the equivalent of shooting a dog dead and putting it in your front lawn, a message from the neighbours saying, 'Don't mess with us'. Congressmen still say to themselves, 'I won't become the next Chuck Percy'."

Mr Clinton, like Mr Reagan before him, promised while on campaign to push for the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem. In office both relented, Mr Clinton guided by the realisation that to raise such an emotive issue could disrupt the delicate Middle East peace negotiations. But the Jewish lobby in America, as Mr Tivnan put it, is more Israeli than the Israelis. It is what they want to hear that interests Mr Dole and Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

In a speech to Aipac in April Mr Gingrich said: "You are the most effective general interest group for an American foreign assistance programme on theplanet. If you did not exist, we would have to invent you."