Political lobbies presumably are formed to promote the interests of those they represent. It is therefore surprising to encounter a lobby acting in a manner manifestly contrary to the interests of its client.
The lobby in question is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose sole aim is to promote the interests of its client, the state of Israel. In the words of Tom Dine, AIPAC's chief, "we are single-minded about being single-issue." The case in question is the committee's absolute opposition to the sale of advanced U.S. weaponry to any Arab state. This was typified in its successful lobbying of the Senate to refuse approval of Administration-proposed sales to Saudi Arabia of 40 F-15 fighters in 1985 and 800 Stinger shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles in 1986. Saudi Arabia wanted the planes and missiles to bolster its defenses against marauding Iranian aircraft.
AIPAC would have the American people believe that U.S. and Israeli interests in the Middle East are identical. AIPAC also would have Americans believe that Israel is always right (a kind of modern-day political version of papal infallibility), or, at the very least, that the United States is morally and politically bound to support any action by any Israeli government.
There has been virtually no official Israeli act for which AIPAC has not offered a justification, exculpatory explanation or mitigatory excuse. Such acts have included a deliberate attack on an unarmed U.S. naval vessel (the Liberty in 1967), illegal annexation of foreign territory (the Golan Heights in 1981), strategic deceit of its only ally (the invasion of Lebanon in 1982), complicity in war crimes (the Sabra and Chatilla massacres), espionage against the U.S. military (the Pollard spy case), and short-sighted occupation policies (still in progress in Gaza and the West Bank).
The prevailing view at the committee's headquarters seems to be that all Americans, Jews and Gentiles alike, should keep still and simply fork over whatever amount of military and economic assistance Israel demands. To express an opinion critical of how Israel uses its virtually blank checks from the United States is to commit the unpardonable sin of meddling in the internal affairs of another sovereign state.
In recent years, however, AIPAC's actions have caused many Americans, including Jewish citizens, to wonder whether it is any longer capable of recognizing, to say nothing of promoting, Israel's long-term security interests. For example, in orchestrating the Senate's refusal to approve the sales of F-15s and Stingers to Saudi Arabia, AIPAC compelled the Saudis to shop elsewhere.
And did they ever! They went to Great Britain, which has no pro-Israel lobby and does not shackle its arms exports with debilitating political restrictions. The result: Last month Saudi Arabia announced that it had concluded a $25-billion deal with the Thatcher government, an agreement said to be the largest single arms transfer since the U.S. Lend-Lease program of World War II.
Under the deal, which will generate an estimated 50,000 new jobs in Britain, the Saudis will obtain 48 first-class Tornado fighter-bombers, up to 60 Hawk jet trainers, 80 Westland Black Hawk helicopters, and six minesweepers. The British will also build two new air bases in Saudi Arabia and train the Saudi army and air force.
Leaving aside the potential dollars and new jobs lost to the United States, the frustrated Saudis' switch from Washington to London benefits neither Washington nor Tel Aviv. On the contrary, because the arms deal effectively displaces the United States as Saudi Arabia's principal supplier of arms and military advice, it significantly reduces U.S. political influence in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world as a whole. It also diminishes U.S. maintenance of some measure of control over Saudi Arabia's employment of modern weapons.
Is it in Israel's interest to have a Saudi Arabia less dependent on the United States for its capacity to wage war? Is it in Israel's interest to have a Saudi Arabia more dependent on another country that, unlike the United States, can by no stretch of the imagination be considered an ally or even political friend of Israel?
The Israeli government itself did not think so. Though it was hardly enthusiastic about the proposed sales of F-15s and Stingers to Saudi Arabia, it mounted no serious diplomatic campaign to block them. It was AIPAC, not Israel, that led the charge. The Israeli government clearly understood that the Saudis would obtain advanced weaponry from one supplier or another, and concluded that it was better that they be American weapons, which carry both explicit and implicit political conditions governing their use.
It is unlikely that AIPAC will learn anything from the debacle that it has engineered for both U.S. and Israeli long-term strategic interests in the Middle East. Indeed, just a few weeks ago AIPAC claimed another Senate victory in blocking a proposed sale to Kuwait of Maverick air-to-ground missiles, prompting Kuwait to strike yet another arms deal with the Soviet Union.
Like the National Rifle Assn., AIPAC seems to have succumbed to an unreasoning extremism that is immune to either moral or intellectual intrusion.
And, like the National Rifle Assn., AIPAC appears to have fallen victim to self-obsession, especially obsession with its great political clout, losing sight that political clout is but a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is hard to escape the impression that AIPAC's opposition to the F-15 and Stinger sales was motivated more by a desire to demonstrate its power on Capitol Hill than it was by any reasoned sense of what was best for its sole client.