AIPAC’s power is often overrated

Issam Nashashibi

“Pro-Israel bankroll claims another victim,” screamed the headline from an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC). The article also read in part, “and now the message is clear: Unless you want the kiss of political death, stay clear of any Arabs and Muslims.”

Here we go again, I thought, another Arab-baiting article on the heels of the three the AJC published in its vehement campaign against Representative Cynthia McKinney. Interestingly, the guest column, written by an Arab-American, did not once mention AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, perhaps because the AJC editor recognized the author provided no evidence to back up his conclusions regarding AIPAC’s omnipotence.

Ironically, much compelling evidence points to many other reasons for the Georgia Democrat’s electoral loss. Indeed, Representative McKinney herself clearly articulated the cause for her loss: that the Republicans wanted to get rid of her more than Democrats wanted to keep her. Therein lie the real causes of her electoral loss: changed district demographics to include more Republican-leaning voters, the Republican “crossover” vote, and low turnout by her supporters.

Following the 2000 census, McKinney’s congressional district was redrawn to include more suburban whites and fewer African-American poor, her strongest base of support.

Recognizing that, and conscious of the Muslim- and Arab-baiting attacks her Republican opponent used against her during the 2000 campaign, McKinney started fund-raising early to amass a formidable war chest for the 2002 congressional campaign. She was not unprepared for a competitive electoral race.

Having failed to defeat McKinney every other way, the Republicans adopted an approach that would enable them to vote for the Democrat of their choice: They backed an African-American woman running against McKinney in the Democratic primaries. Moreover, they passed on the opportunity to select their own party candidates by crossing over to vote against Cynthia McKinney in the Democratic primary.

These same reasons were behind the failure of Representative Earl Hilliard to gain his district’s Democratic Party nomination, except that they were amplified because Hilliard had not accumulated a significant campaign war chest.

In addition, Hilliard’s small but dedicated campaign staff failed to muster more than 50 percent of the primary vote, thus forcing a run-off election in which more Republicans, having nothing to lose, crossed over to vote against Hilliard, whose Alabama base did not turn out to vote for him a second time so soon after the primary.

Despite these very straightforward reasons for the two electoral losses, the press continues to mythologize AIPAC’s power and invincibility; a theme echoed in some of the Arab press in a classic case of shooting oneself in the foot by promoting an opponent’s myth.

Interestingly, in yet another example of AIPAC’s self-proclaimed myth of invincibility, the Israeli lobby’s leadership, realizing that John Sununu, Jr. was on his way to winning New Hampshire’s Republican senatorial primary, openly declared him to be its next target. That news, however, not to mention Sununu’s victory despite the challenge of AIPAC, did not resonate with either the national or the Arab press.

Despite the mounting evidence that the myth of AIPAC’s power is indeed just that, many in this country – including Arab Americans – continue to help promote AIPAC’s omnipotence by giving it credit it has not earned. Their objective, they argue, is to “educate” the average voter about AIPAC’s influence to motivate the electorate to combat it. Not only has such an argument failed to achieve its objective in the last 35 years, there is no evidence the electorate wants to know (or cares) about AIPAC’s so-called omnipotence. On the contrary, there is compelling evidence to support the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s truism that all politics is local: something AIPAC is not.

Nevertheless, AIPAC makes a point of lobbying every elected official from mayors to senators on pro-Israel issues. Unfortunately, there is virtually no group opposing AIPAC’s views and countering its efforts. This lack of meaningful opposition makes AIPAC appear powerful.

Some argue that concern about AIPAC’s omnipotence is justified because AIPAC is a frequent topic of The Washington Report, a monthly Washington-based periodical that calls for a balanced US policy in the Middle East. These people fail to note, however, that the Washington Report’s objective is not to mythologize AIPAC’s power, but to force the US Federal Election Commission to classify AIPAC as a political action committee (PAC), thereby requiring it to reveal its contributors and funding sources, and to disclose the manipulation of the campaign finance system by the network of pro-Israel PACs.

In a March 1999 Washington Report article, I argued that, while AIPAC’s “top-down” strategy has worked for Zionism, it might not be as effective for an Arab-American lobby, because the resulting competition would prompt AIPAC to increase its spending, thus demanding even more of Arab Americans’ scarce financial resources.

Regarded from a purely economic perspective, AIPAC’s lobbying results in more than $200 in aid to Israel for every dollar AIPAC spends. That’s a lucrative business proposition no one would easily give up but, to the contrary, would defend vigorously even if the annual expenses were multiplied many times over.

Another disadvantage of the “top-down” strategy is that it ignores the most basic objective: institutionalizing our relationship with the mainstream US electorate instead of investing in individuals who may remain in Washington only a few years. Arab-Americans, therefore, should concentrate on a “bottom-up” strategy that approaches the US political leadership through the other half of the electoral equation: votes.

Such a strategy has worked wonderfully in Southern California’s Los Angeles and Orange County areas. A three-year old coalition of Muslim, Arab and Armenian organizations has successfully managed to convince area representatives to be more balanced on issues of importance to the coalition, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This influence came through frequent contacts with candidates, representatives, and other elected officials. Also important were coalition members building alliances with other ethnic and similarly minded organizations, in addition to assisting candidates’ campaigns by donating funds and time as volunteers.

The most exciting aspect of this strategy is the opportunity it provides to inform fellow volunteers not about AIPAC’s access to Congress, but of the real human rights issues important to Arab-Americans, such as Washington’s bias toward Israel and Israeli apartheid. This way, such subjects become truly local by creating an informed and active electorate that will instinctively work with Arab-Americans on holding any representative’s feet to the fire on such issues. With a growing mainstream electorate that shares Arab-American concerns about Israeli apartheid and US bias toward Israel, we can build a real, and more permanent, force to counter AIPAC’s access in Congress.

Issam M. Nashashibi, an Arab-American political activist, is a US-based director of Deir Yassin Remembered, an organization that aims to build a memorial for victims of the Deir Yassin massacre