So, just how powerful is the Israel lobby in the US?

Out of America: Perhaps no more than a dozen out of more than 400 Representatives are pro-Palestinian

Share

As public grovels go, this one was pretty spectacular. Former Senator Chuck Hagel, who may or may not become the next US Secretary of Defense, was back in his old haunts on Capitol Hill for his confirmation hearings, trying to explain a remark he made a few years back, that "the Jewish lobby intimidated Congress" and did some "dumb things".

Name a "dumb thing", he was asked by Lindsey Graham, his Republican colleague for six years until 2009 – though you wouldn't have guessed it from the venom of the exchanges on Thursday. Hagel couldn't. Graham persisted. "Name one person who's intimidated by the Israel lobby in the United States Senate." A taut silence, then Hagel limply responded, "I don't know."

Public hearings, especially confirmation hearings, are one of the great shows of Congress. Hagel's made especially good theatre, largely because the reek of treachery was in the air. Here was a Republican who had abandoned his party and colleagues like Graham and John McCain, his one-time friend and fellow Vietnam war hero, by turning against the Iraq war begun by a Republican president.

Worse still, Hagel had backed Barack Obama, not McCain, in the 2008 election, even accompanying the Democratic candidate on a high-profile campaign visit to Iraq and Israel. And now here he was, back on Capitol Hill as Obama's choice to lead the Pentagon, about to collect his 30 pieces of silver. If anything, McCain's own grilling of his former pal was even more poisonous.

In the end the public drama may make little difference. Hagel did pretty poorly, seeming to be taken aback by the hostility of the Republicans, even though the latter had made no secret of it beforehand. But performances at confirmation hearings rarely change minds – and even more rarely is a President's nominee to an important post actually rejected. The Democrats and their allies hold a 14-12 majority on the Armed Services Committee, and 55 of the 100 Senate seats. That should be enough. The only way Republicans can block Hagel is by using the filibuster to prevent a final vote on the floor.

But what lingered in the mind was not the set-to over Iraq, or the suggestions that Hagel was "soft" on Iran (he once had the temerity to suggest direct negotiations between Washington and Tehran) but his exchanges with Graham over the "Jewish lobby". It's always a mistake to use that expression, and not primarily because it sounds anti-Semitic. I did so in a sloppy opening paragraph a few years ago, and was rightly excoriated by American readers. "Jewish lobby" is wrong on two counts. First, the lobby includes many non-Jews, most notably Christian conservatives. Second, many American Jews do not support the group's hardline policies over Israel. The correct term, as Hagel quickly acknowledged last week, is "Israel lobby".

And that is precisely what it is: one of the most potent advocacy groups in Washington DC, and not only here. Few of its spokesmen were more forceful than Ed Koch, the colourful former mayor of New York who died on Friday. Koch, child of Jewish immigrants from Poland, was a passionate Israel supporter, and accused Obama of "turning his back on Israel" by naming Hagel to the Pentagon, which he called "a terrible appointment".

There are those who claim that the lobby's clout is vastly exaggerated, insisting that far from being a sinister body subverting US foreign policy in one of the world's most unstable regions, it is pushing at an open door. Even without a lobby, the thesis runs, Americans would be overwhelmingly supportive of Israel. Which may be true, but misses the point.

Power lies in the perception of power, and the Israel lobby, led by Aipac, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is perceived to have a heck of a lot of it. Fall foul of the Israel lobby, with its financial muscle and ability to put the word out, and, it is said, your political career may be doomed. That, presumably, was what Hagel was getting at when he spoke of people in Congress being "intimidated".

Exhibit A in this argument is Chuck Percy, the three-term Republican Senator from Illinois said to have been defeated in 1984 as a result of an Aipac-led campaign against him. Percy's offence, according to a committee official at the time, was to have shown "insensitivity and even hostility to our concerns". Also mentioned is George Bush Snr's failed 1992 re-election campaign, to which his short-lived block on loan guarantees to Israel while it continued to expand settlements may have contributed.

True or false? It's impossible to say. What matters is the perception. But one thing is incontestable. Congress is overwhelmingly supportive of Israel. Probably no more than a dozen of the 435 Representatives can remotely be described as "pro-Palestinian", while the mood in the Senate may be divined from a 2000 resolution expressing support for Israel, signed by 96 of its members (Hagel was one of the four who did not).

Not for nothing did Pat Buchanan once describe Congress as "Israeli-occupied territory" – so much so that an Israeli prime minister at odds with the White House can bypass the President, making his case directly to an Aipac conference or on Capitol Hill. Take Benjamin Netanyahu when he delivered an address to Congress in May 2011. I remember the assembled lawmakers jumping up and down like jack-in-the-boxes to give him 29 standing ovations. Whatever else, Bibi would never have received an acclamation like that in the Knesset.

If Chuck Hagel doesn't make it to the Pentagon, opposition to him from the Israel lobby won't have been the only reason, or even the main reason. But one thing you can be sure of. A good few more on Capitol Hill will have been "intimidated".

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Finance Manager - Central London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Business Development Manager

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: IT Buyer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This award winning IT company are currently re...

Recruitment Genius: IT Account Manager

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

What the advertising world can learn from Zoella's gang

Danny Rogers
Rachel Reeves is the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary  

What are we voting for? No one knows

Stefano Hatfield
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor