02/06/08 "Asia Times" -- - WASHINGTON - They're all here - and they're all ready to party. The three United States presidential candidates - John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Madam House speaker Nancy Pelosi. Most US senators and virtually half of the US Congress. Vice President Dick Cheney's wife, Lynne. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. And a host of Jewish and non-Jewish political and academic heavy-hitters among the 7,000 participants.
Such star power wattage, a Washington version of the Oscars, is the stock in trade of AIPAC - the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the crucial player in what is generally known as the Israel lobby and which holds its annual Policy Conference this week in Washington at which most of the heavyweights will deliver lectures.
Few books in recent years have been as explosive or controversial as The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, written by Stephen Walt from Harvard University and John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago, published in 2007. In it, professors Walt and Mearsheimer argued the case of the Israeli lobby not as "a cabal or conspiracy that 'controls' US foreign policy", but as an extremely powerful interest group made up of Jews and non-Jews, a "loose coalition of individuals and organizations tirelessly working to move US foreign policy in Israel's direction".
Walt and Mearsheimer also made the key point that "anyone who criticizes Israeli actions or says that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over US Middle East policy stands a good chance of being labeled an anti-Semite". Anyone for that matter who "says that there is an Israeli lobby" also runs the risk of being charged with anti-Semitism.
All the candidates in the House say yeah
Republican presidential candidate McCain is opening this year's AIPAC jamboree; Clinton and Obama are closing it on Wednesday. Walt and Mearsheimer's verdict on the dangerous liaisons between presidential candidates and AIPAC remains unimpeachable: "None of the candidates is likely to criticize Israel in any significant way or suggest that the US ought to pursue a more evenhanded policy in the region. And those who do will probably fall by the wayside."
Take what Clinton said in February at an AIPAC meeting in New York: "Israel is a beacon of what's right in a neighborhood overshadowed by the wrongs of radicalism, extremism, despotism and terrorism." A year before, Clinton was in favor of sitting and talking to Iran's leadership.
And take what Obama said in March at an AIPAC meeting in Chicago; no reference at all to Palestinian "suffering", as he had done on the campaign trail in March 2007. Obama also made it clear he would do nothing to alter the US-Israeli relationship.
No wonder AIPAC is considered by most members of the US Congress as more powerful than the National Rifle Association or the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
AIPAC has explicit Zionist roots. The founder, "Si" Kenen, was head of the American Zionist Council in 1951. The body was reorganized as a US lobby - the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs - in 1953-4, and then renamed AIPAC in 1959. Under Tom Dine, in the 1970s, it was turned into a mass organization with more than 150 employees and a budget of up to US$60 million today. Dine was later ousted because he was considered not hawkish enough.
The top leadership - mostly former AIPAC presidents - is always more hawkish on the Middle East than most Jewish Americans. AIPAC only dropped its opposition to a Palestinian state - without endorsing it - when Ehud Barak became Israeli prime minister in 1999.
AIPAC keeps a very close relationship with an array of influential think-tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Security Policy, the Hudson Institute, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the Middle East Forum, the The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Sprinkled neo-cons in these think-tanks can be regarded as a microcosm of the larger Israel lobby - Jews and non-Jews (It's important to remember that Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser and five other neo-cons drafted the infamous "A Clean Break" document to Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996 - the ultimate road map for hardcore regime change all over the Middle East.)
The house that AIPAC built
AIPAC in the US Congress is a rough beast indeed. Former president Bill Clinton defined it as "stunningly effective". Former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich called it "the most effective general-interest group across the entire planet". The New York Times as "the most important organization affecting America's relationship with Israel". Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, before his involvement in a corruption scandal, said. "Thank God we have AIPAC, the greatest supporter and friend we have in the whole world."
AIPAC maintains a virtual stranglehold over the US Congress. Critics of the Israel lobby other than Walt and Mearsheimer also contend that AIPAC essentially prevents any possibility of open debate on US policy towards Israel. Compare it with a 2004 report by the Pentagon's Defense Science Board, according to which "Muslims do not hate our freedom, but rather they hate our policies".