Making the Israel Lobby

Making the Israel Lobby

My current research examines the formation of the Israel lobby in Washington during the 1950s and 1960s. Steven Rosen, the former foreign policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), used to say that a “lobby is like a night flower: it thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.” True or not, the debate surrounding the Israel lobby seems to unwittingly honor this adage. Critics of the lobby complain that it exploits the pluralist structure of US politics to impose policies that are detrimental to US interests and sometimes also to Israel’s own good. Sympathizers, in contrast, maintain that the lobby merely gives expression to deep cultural ties between Israel and the American people. Studies focusing on the legitimacy of the lobby pile up, but the very work of the Israel lobby—the concrete practices that lobbyists use to direct American foreign policy—are treated as anecdotes and escape analytical scrutiny. This oversight contributes to a mystification of the lobby’s power and to an impoverished understanding of the formation of US-Israel relations.

This study focuses on the nuts and bolts of lobbying, illuminating the delicate process through which a heterogeneous cluster of organizations and individuals, now commonly referred to as the Israel lobby, came to play an important role in shaping US policy in the Middle East. Using a pragmatist approach, I treat lobbying as a practical organizational accomplishment. I focus on the difficulties that arose in encounters between lobbying organizations and the Jewish American public, Israeli leaders, and American officials during the lobby’s formative period in the 1950s and 1960s, and identify the mechanisms that were developed in order to overcome those obstacles. This focus on the how of lobbying allows me to identify the practices and organizational configurations within which the interests of Israel and the US aligned.

Preliminary examination of the data shows that the Israel lobby created a deliberative forum wherein diverse actors—legislators, State Department and White House officials, Jewish leaders, and Israeli diplomats—negotiated their preferences, adjusted their positions vis-à-vis each other, and shaped legislation. “Israel’s interests” as well as the interests of other actors, in this respect, were not objective immutable facts but moving targets, which pragmatically took shape in and through the lobby’s deliberations. This dynamic process of interest formation helps in understanding how the preferences of the various actors that were engaged in the legislative process gradually aligned. The lobby’s influence stemmed not from imposing its will on legislators and government officials but from its ability to negotiate between them and produce a pragmatic version of what being “pro-Israel” means in the United States.

 

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