Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The candidates and the lobby

All US presidential candidates bar one paid this week due homage to the Israel lobby. But in what they said it is clear that the interventionist outlook in Washington is waning, writes Adam Sabra*

Al-Ahram Weekly

The news that four out of five remaining candidates in the US presidential election would speak at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference on 21 March came as no surprise. Along with the National Rifle Association, AIPAC is generally regarded as one of the most powerful lobbying organisations in Washington and has considerable influence, especially over Congress. Since AIPAC supports candidates of both major parties whom it considers pro-Israel, its influence is bipartisan. Indeed, its major goal is to guarantee bipartisan support for Israel so that whichever party is in power, Israel’s interests in Washington are protected.

In this context, the decision of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders not to attend the policy conference came as a surprise to many observers. Coupled with the support that Sanders received from Arab- and Muslim-Americans in the Michigan primary, some Sanders supporters went so far as to cite Sanders’s decision as an indication that his candidacy represents a fundamental break with previous campaigns with regard to the Middle East. Sanders has been waging an insurgent campaign within the Democratic Party against the establishment candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton. In many ways, his populist campaign parallels the campaign of the Republican outsider Donald Trump, in that both campaigns seek to win the support of disenfranchised constituencies and challenge party elites.

Before considering how the current candidates might alter US policy towards the Middle East, it’s worth examining how we got to the present situation. Traditionally, support for Israel was considered a Democratic cause. A substantial majority of American Jews have always voted for the Democrats. Predominantly secular and socially liberal, 70-80 per cent of Jewish voters have consistently chosen the Democratic presidential candidate in the general election. Republicans were not usually anti-Israel, but they were more influenced by business ties to the Arab world. Israel was a Cold War ally of the US, but that era came to an end in 1989. The rise of Christian conservatism in the Reagan administration signalled the advent of a new ideological interest in support for Israel among Republicans, but as late as 1991, the administration of George H W Bush regarded Israel as a potential spoiler of its attempt to build an Arab coalition to oppose Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

A turning point came after the attacks of 11 September 2001, when neoconservatives took over Middle East policy within the Republican Party. Their signature policy was the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which they conceived of as a way to eliminate opposition to Israel and bring to power pro-US governments in the Arab world. The Democrats were divided on the Iraq war. Neoliberals such as then-Senator Clinton supported the war, while others, such as Sanders and Barack Obama, opposed it. The disastrous consequences of that war led to an Obama victory over Clinton in 2008 and eight years of Democratic rule in the White House. In Israel, however, a series of increasingly right-wing governments with connections to the settler movement came to power, frustrating attempts by Obama to restart Palestinian-Israeli talks on a two-state solution and threatening to upend any nuclear deal with Iran. The last thing Obama wanted was to be drawn into another Middle Eastern conflict.

The current election cycle looks both familiar and very different. Hillary Clinton has changed very little. Despite expressing regret over the outcomes of the Iraq war and Libyan intervention, she remains the candidate most committed to US intervention in the Middle East. Indeed, with the exit of the neoconservatives’ favoured candidate, Marco Rubio, Clinton may be the closest thing to a neoconservative left in the race. Her speech to AIPAC was notable for its failure to criticise Israeli intransigence on the issue of settlement building and for its call for the US to reassert itself in the region. The principal difference between Clinton and the Republicans at this point is her support for Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.

Among the Republicans, John Kasich offered an old-fashioned Republican statement of general support for Israel without promising any radical changes. At the other end of the spectrum, Ted Cruz claimed that he would tear up the Iranian nuclear deal and dismantle Iran’s support network in the Arab world, a policy that could easily provoke a regional war. In addition to Israel, Cruz expects to obtain the support of regional allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who would presumably be immune from criticism of their human rights records.

Of the candidates who spoke at the policy conference, the most anxiously awaited was Trump. Trump’s campaign has combined non-interventionism with economic nationalism. Rejecting the Iraq war as a disastrous waste of resources, Trump promised to negotiate with countries such as China from a position of strength. With regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, he advocated neutrality so as to act as an honest broker. All of this suggested to AIPAC that Trump is not ideologically committed to Israel and that he would prefer to disengage from the Middle East. This impression was strengthened in the hours before Trump’s speech when he called for the US to reconsider its relationship with NATO, questioned whether the US has any compelling interests in the Ukraine, and called on wealthy aid recipients such as Israel to pay back the aid they had received from the US.

When Trump took the stage at the policy conference, however, he behaved like a man transformed. He spoke relatively quietly and without most of his usual bombast. He used a teleprompter, rather than speaking extemporaneously as he typically does. His speech promised unswerving support for Israel and promised to amend the Iran nuclear deal to prevent Iran from developing ballistic missiles. The crowd, which was initially quiet, grew more supportive. The loudest cheers came when he celebrated the fact that Obama is in his last year in office. Given the fact that Obama’s relations with Binyamin Netanyahu have been terrible, this is hardly surprising, but for an organisation that claims to be bipartisan, the scene was embarrassing.

Was Trump’s performance convincing? Trump’s attack on Obama exploited the shared hostility of the nationalist right in Israel and the US to the policies of the internationalist Obama. Beyond this, however, it is unclear what the two have in common. Trump voters are opposed to foreign entanglements and unlikely to support Israel for ideological reasons. Trump’s transformation was sudden and unexplained. All of this suggests that his performance was undertaken to please figures in the Republican establishment, and that he could easily change his mind again once in power. Neoconservatives such as Robert Kagan have gone so far as to call on Republicans to vote for Clinton, should Trump become the Republican nominee.

Finally, Bernie Sanders was notable for his absence. Campaigning in Utah, he offered to appear by video-link or send prepared comments. AIPAC refused. His absence is understandable for a number of reasons. AIPAC zealously defends the rightwing government of Netanyahu, which puts them at odd with Sanders’s commitment to a two-state solution, including the removal of settlements from the West Bank, and lifting the siege on Gaza. Sanders also supports Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Perhaps more important, however, is that AIPAC’s philosophy that emphasises influencing important people through directing campaign donations is directly opposed to the model of his campaign. Sanders has built his campaign around an appeal to working class voters who are angry at the way in which wealthy individuals and corporations have been able to purchase influence in Washington. He has limited the size of individual campaign contributions he is willing to accept, and appealed to the youth vote. Pandering to AIPAC, as Clinton did, would have led to accusations of hypocrisy and undermined his claim to be leading a populist campaign. That said, however, the policies Sanders has put forward for the Middle East don’t sound very different from those pursued by the Obama administration. He, like all the other candidates, is critical of the grassroots campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) being waged against Israel. He accuses the movement of harbouring anti-Semites.

Recently, Barack Obama accused European and Middle Eastern leaders of being free riders who have benefited from US involvement in the Middle East, but contributed little. This impatience with the region and its chaotic political situation is present to an even greater degree in the campaign rhetoric of Trump and Sanders. If Obama’s candidacy was a protest against neoconservative interventionism and its consequences, the current mood among major constituencies in both parties favours domestic retrenchment over international intervention.

No matter who is elected, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the American political elite to convince voters that the US has a vital interest in intervening in the Middle East. There are too many problems at home and the prospects for the US to advance its interests in the region are too remote.

Adam Sabra is professor of history, at the University of California, Santa Barbara

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