Is It Good for the Jews? the Recent Controversy over the Israel Lobby Has Focused on How It Distorts U.S. Foreign Policy. Forgotten Is Whether It Helps Israel (and the Peace Process)

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ON MAY 23, THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES passed Resolution 4681, the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, by a vote of 361 to 37. Nothing remarkable about that. But the passage of H.R. 4681 had all the ingredients of the worrying way in which the Israel-Palestine conflict has played out in American polities and policy for the past decade or more.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobbied enthusiastically for the bill. Many AIPAC supporters and donors, assuming that they were simply doing right by Israel, would be surprised and perhaps even shocked to learn that its provisions are significantly more draconian than Israeli policy. Israel has to live with the Palestinian reality on the ground, coordinate with whomever necessary on everything from security to avian flu, and distinguish between moderates and extremists. Congress and lobbyists do not.

Israeli officials, as had happened on numerous occasions, were concerned by this excess of zealotry, but they kept quiet for considerations of domestic politics and politesse. After the fact, while visiting Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of course welcomed H.R. 4681.

This congressional propensity to out-kosher the Israelis and even give a nudge toward escalation led three prominent American-Jewish organizations--Israel Policy Forum (IPE), Americans for Peace Now (APN), and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom--to campaign publicly against the bill. In private, many representatives recognized the bill's shortcomings, but a yes vote was the path of least resistance.

Some members were intimidated. Unusually, one congresswoman who voted against the measure, Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum, hit back after being accused of supporting terrorists by an AIPAC representative. In a letter to AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr, McCollum called on the organization "to immediately condemn this un-American attack and disavow any attempt to use this type of threat and intimidation to stifle legitimate policy differences ... until I receive a written, formal apology ... AIPAC representatives are not welcome in my offices or for meetings with my staff."

Interestingly, the Bush administration opposed the bill, too. Presumably, the final legislation will look different and presidential waivers will be used against the more irksome provisions.

But back here in the Middle East, the damage has already been done. Moderates are undermined and critics of the United States strengthened, America is blamed for Palestinian suffering, and reformers once again lower their expectations of the United States. How such a cavalier and irresponsible approach to a central foreign-policy question became so fashionable--and its implications for Israeli's interests, as well as future U.S. policy--is the subject at hand.

THE PUBLICATION EARLIER THIS YEAR OF A HARVARD University Kennedy School of Government paper by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt entitled "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" placed the issue under a magnifying glass.

It is sensitive territory. Their thesis, and the counterattacks, have been well-rehearsed elsewhere, including most recently by Michael Massing in The New York Review of Books. Establishing some benchmarks is a worthwhile exercise. The more shrill conspiracy theorists who suggest the existence of an all-powerful foreign interest occupying Washington, such as "They Dare to Speak Out" author and former Republican Congressman Paul Findley and his Council for the National Interest (a group that I had the misfortune to be quoted by in a recent New York Times ad), are wide of the mark. Conversely, those defenders of the cause whose reflexive response is to cry antisemitism can be equally misguided and also do a disservice to the struggle against contemporary manifestations of real antisemitism.

AIPAC's sheer name recognition and resources guarantees that most American Jews who care somewhat about Israel but are not policy wonks will likely choose it as their default vehicle for occasional involvement. …