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June 08, 2006

 An apology to AIPAC

In an April post on the "Israel Lobby" furore, I seriously misrepresented AIPAC:

Try this thought experiment. Peace Now comes to power in Israel - very unlikely but not impossible. AIPAC would presumably change its tune on settlements, like the Vicar of Bray.
I was wrong. AIPAC is not at all a loyal representative of the views of the elected government of Israel. It is aligned with the hardline hawkish views of an Israeli faction: more or less, of Likud and the settlers. Disowned by Yitzhak Rabin when he took office in 1992, AIPAC worked to sabotage the Oslo accords he signed in 1993. It secured the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995 that mandated moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem - against the wishes not only of the American President Clinton but of Israel's Prime Minister.

My source for this is a long follow-up piece in the NYRB by Michael Massing. The first part is a judicious summary of the "Israel Lobby" row, with a few mild criticisms of Mearsheimer and Walt's analysis of Israel's case for the US support in enjoys. The second part digs into their assertion about the lobby, and backs it up completely:

It is possible to show that, on their central point—the power of the Israel lobby and the negative effect it has had on US policy—Mearsheimer and Walt are entirely correct.

On his evidence, AIPAC has an eerily complete hold over the US Congress, unmatched by any other lobby. The leverage is secured by funding and its withdrawal, sustained pro-Israel "background noise", blackballing of congressional staffers and outright smear tactics (see the protest letter of Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota). Massing quotes a congressman:

Congress would never pass a resolution that was in any way critical of anything Israel has done.
The congressman would not allow his comments to be attributed.

There is something very wrong when such influence over American democracy is exercised by a single lobby aligned with one unsavoury Middle Eastern party. The parallel trajectories of Likud and its enemy the PLO, from terrorism to corruption, bring to mind the lines of Thomas de Quincey:

For if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop.
But surely AIPAC must in the end represent the views of the American Jews who make up its membership? Massing explains why not in an interesting section on the structure of AIPAC (you won't find anything on its website).
AIPAC claims to represent most of the Jewish community. Its executive committee has a couple of hundred members representing a wide spectrum of American Jewish opinion, from the dovish Americans for Peace Now to the militantly right-wing Zionist Organization of America. Four times a year this group meets to decide AIPAC policy. According to several former AIPAC officials I have talked to, however, the executive committee has little real power. Rather, power rests with the fifty-odd-member board of directors, which is selected not according to how well they represent AIPAC's members but according to how much money they give and raise.

Reflecting this, the board is thick with corporate lawyers, Wall Street investors, business executives, and heirs to family fortunes. Within the board itself, power is concentrated in an extremely rich subgroup, known as the "minyan club." And, within that group, four members are dominant: Robert Asher, ... Edward Levy, ... Mayer "Bubba" Mitchell, ... and Larry Weinberg.

There's a general issue here. Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are organised democratically; the leadership is accountable to the membership through elections. The Sierra Club clearly falls into this group; so, I think, do the AARP and the NRA. (I can't find the bylaws on the NRA site , but the organisation has a history of contested elections ). The other style is oligarchic: the leadership co-opt its successors, and appeals to an amorphous base for funds and support. The only way the base can vote is with its feet. NGOs of this type include the Catholic Church, Harvard University, the International Olympic Committee, the Mafia, and Greenpeace. Whether or not they carry out their mission well, they have little claim to speak for their members.

I toyed with Menshevik and Bolshevik as the labels, which would be true, but Leninism had other characteristics; notably a messianic ruthlessness of which the Corporation of Harvard University (say) has shown little evidence. However, AIPAC's multitier structure of token participation is indeed reminiscent of the Soviet constitution.

It's obvious that effective NGOs can be of either sort, and there's no reason to declare oligarchies illegitimate in general. But deviant NGOs are I think always oligarchic; democracy is an effective check on abuse. We should I suggest be suspicious of lobbying NGOs organised as oligarchies - especially when they claim to speak for a wider community, as AIPAC does. Sadly, the NRA probably does speak for the large number of American gun nuts.

To end with, two practical suggestions for the reform of lobbying:
1. Require any lobby that has a website to publish on the site its bylaws, officers, and annual reports.
2. Establish a legal distinction between membership organisations and corporate ones, give privileges to the former if they meet standards of internal democracy, and establish greater scrutiny of the latter.

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