The US Jewish lobby falls from grace: Clashes with Orthodox Jews and Israel mark the decline of a powerful pressure group, Patrick Cockburn writes from Washington

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The Independent Online
ACCORDING to a Washington political joke there are three branches of the US government: the National Rifle Association, the Tobacco Institute and Aipac - the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. During the 1980s Aipac was the most powerful lobby in the capital, capable of killing an appointment or a programme with a nod.

Aipac had money and political clout and was quick to use both to reward and punish its friends and enemies. From 1980, when President Ronald Reagan was elected, it also became a critical link between the Republicans and the right-wing Likud government in Israel.

Its power was bound to wane with the victory of the Democrats in the United States and Labour in Israel, but nobody expected Aipac's most prominent leaders to destroy themselves by a series of misstatements and lost political battles. 'Everybody shoots themselves in the foot once in a while but no need to use a machine-gun,' said one Washington observer.

The most dramatic departure from Aipac is that of Tom Dine, its executive director for 13 years, who resigned under pressure after publication of an interview in which he insulted Orthodox Jews. His remarks were made four years ago to David Landau whose book, Piety and Power - The World of Jewish Fundamentalism, has just appeared.

Mr Dine said: 'I don't think mainstream Jews feel very comfortable with the ultra-Orthodox. It's a class thing. Their image is smelly. That's what I'd say now that you've got me thinking about it. Hasids and New York diamond dealers.' He also said leaders of the United Jewish Appeal, the largest Jewish philanthropic body, told him they did not like to fly El Al, Israel's national airline, because 'those people' were on board.

'Actually, I prefer Swissair or Lufthansa myself,' Mr Dine continued. 'But I fly El Al to Israel because it's direct. Yes, TWA flies direct too. But it's low-class, like the Orthodox. Yes, that's still the image.'

Although Mr Dine said he had not meant to demean Orthodox Jews he provoked an outraged reaction. Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the leader of a number of ultra-Orthodox groups, wrote: 'Surely you recognise that if you were to make similar remarks about African Americans, for example, or about Reform Jews, you would be compelled to resign your position.'

Even so, as the man who had created Aipac as a political power, Mr Dine might have survived the furore. But his remarks about the Orthodox came after a series of setbacks. Aipac was at the height of its power when the Republican right ran the White House. President Bush and James Baker, his secretary of state, were determined to get Middle East peace talks going in 1991. When the US held up dollars 10bn in loan guarantees for Israel, Aipac fought back but failed to make its opposition stick in Congress.

Not only did Mr Dine resign but his departure was followed last week by that of Harvey Friedman, an Aipac vice-president, who became involved in a dispute with Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, Yossi Beilin. He said that Mr Beilin had told him that Israel was prepared to return to its 1967 borders in return for peace. Mr Beilin says this was a 'gross misquote'.

Mr Friedman's response to the denial was forthright. He said: 'This little slime ball can say he didn't say it but three congressmen will affirm that's just what he said.' The clash also epitomised the differences between Aipac and the Labour government whose leader, Yitzhak Rabin, last year criticised the organisation for unnecessarily damaging the relationship between Israel and the US. He demanded that the lobby limit its contacts with the administration and stick to trying to influence Congress.

American Jews have always voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats. The defeat of the Republicans and Likud was bound to weaken Aipac, but it is still a powerful lobby. After President Bill Clinton was elected last year David Steiner, then the president of Aipac, boasted to a contributor, who recorded his remarks, that his organisation had significant influence over Clinton cabinet appointees. The claim was probably true, but when his conversation was published, he too had to resign.