THE ISRAEL LOBBY AND AMERICAN POLICY
Dale Sprusansky: I’m Dale Sprusansky. I’m the assistant editor of
the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. On behalf of the
Washington Report and the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern
Policy, the two organizations sponsoring this fourth annual event on
the Israel lobby, it’s my pleasure to welcome you here to today’s
conference. Before we get going, I just want to take a moment to
thank all of the people that made today possible - our donors. Such
a monumental undertaking would simply be impossible without their
continued support, and we are tremendously grateful for their
Also, before we begin, we’d like to take a moment to acknowledge a special person who is not here today at least physically. That is our late publisher, Andrew Killgore, who died at the age of 97 in December. Before co-founding the Washington Report in 1982, Andy had a distinguished career in the U.S. Foreign Service serving in Jerusalem, Amman, Baghdad, Tehran and many other cities. He concluded his diplomatic career by serving as Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to Qatar from 1977 to 1980.
Andy dedicated his retirement to the Washington Report seeing the magazine as a way to provide Americans with a better understanding of the Middle East, the region he loves dearly. In particular, Andy fought tirelessly to challenge the Israel lobby’s powerful grip on U.S. policy. Despite his advanced age, Andy came into the office pretty much every day.
Before his passing, he participated actively in the planning of today’s events. He would often comment about how encouraged he was by the continued success of these events, and it instilled in him a sense of hope for the future. So he may not be here today, but his presence is surely felt. We do miss him dearly and we dedicate this conference to him.
As we were planning this conference, one of the things that we pondered was how the outcome of the November election would impact this event. I think most people viewed Hillary Clinton, at least on this issue, to be a much better known commodity for better or for worse. That’s up to you to decide. We’re nonpartisan. We felt confident that the lobby would remain a pertinent and timely issue in the early days of her presidency.
But Donald Trump of course is a much different entity, an unknown quantity in the political sphere, and some have argued this independent streak would allow him to operate with greater autonomy from lobbying groups. Others would point to his speech at AIPAC last year as evidence that he doesn’t really plan on challenging the lobby. Others would point to the influence of people, like his son-in-law Jared Kushner, as evidence that maybe the lobby doesn’t need to do so much convincing within the Oval Office. Then, of course, there is also the theory that he himself really isn’t sure what he’s going to do with this topic.
But regardless of where Trump moves U.S. policy on this issue, I think the recent events have shown that this topic remains an incredibly important one. Take for instance the anti-defamation leagues’ recent defamation campaign against Keith Ellison during his bid to become the chair of the DNC. The ADL and other pro-Israel groups and donors sought to portray Ellison as an anti-Semite simply because he openly questioned Israel’s influence on U.S. policy to the region. On the topic of Islamophobia, just a few weeks ago Eli Clifton of LobeLog reported that in 2015 AIPAC donated $60,000 to well-known Islamophobe Frank Gaffney. We’ll hear more about the Israel lobby’s ties with anti-Muslim groups later in the day from Wajahat Ali.
President Trump, despite proposing a 28 percent reduction in diplomacy and foreign aid, has pledged that Israel will continue to receive the more than $3 billion in annual military assistance it currently receives. Israel of course is the top recipient of U.S. foreign aid, with Egypt being second. Then last week, as many of you know, the UN released a report describing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as apartheid. Predictably, Israel balked at the report, and the U.S. administration in turn swiftly pressured the UN to repudiate the report. Unsurprisingly, the UN gave in and removed the report from its website. Rima Khalaf, the head of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, the UN agency that commissioned the report, resigned saying, quote, it was expected that Israel and its allies would exercise pressure on the UN Secretary General to distance himself from the report and that they would ask him to withdraw it.
Back here on Capitol Hill, the 115th Congress has shown that it’s business as usual when it comes to Israel. In just the past two months, about 30 bills and resolutions directly relating to Israel have been introduced by members of Congress. That’s more legislation on Israel than on China, Russia, North Korea or even countries where the U.S. is engaged in active military conflicts such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. In fact, perhaps only Mexico has more legislation passed and introduced than Israel. Most of that is just dealing with immigration and border issues such as environmental agreements. So one can certainly argue that Israel is the preeminent focus of foreign affairs legislation on the Hill. Of course, we’ll be hearing more about how the lobby interacts with Congress from former representatives Jim Moran and Nick Rahall later this morning.
So all of this is just to say that despite the media’s heavy focus on potential Russian interference in the U.S. election, health care policy, the Muslim ban, Trump’s tweets, et cetera, the lobby is still at work and it remains an important and timely topic to discuss. That is evidenced by the fact that all of you are here today and that we’ve had our highest registration ever for this event this year.
Before we begin, just some housekeeping items for you for a long day today. To our online audience, we are streaming live. We encourage you to send in your questions via Twitter @wrmea. For those of you here, you can join the conversation with #israellobbycon. That information is on the back of your program. The Wi-Fi information is also on the back of your program.
Of course we ask that you keep your phones silenced. If you’re going to be making kind of noise, typing heavily or something like that, if you can move to the balcony so as not to distract the people around you, that would be great. You can also take your conversations to the Exhibition Hall next door and then check out some of the great vendors, including the Middle East books and more which is part of the Washington Report. The film you just saw will also be available for purchase over there.
There will be book signings throughout the day, at lunch and during the reception. They will be taking place by reception where you signed in. There’s been a slight change to the schedule of the signings. There will be slides throughout the day to provide you with the up to date information about that.
During the Q&A, you guys, when you checked in, should have gotten note cards and a pen. Use those note cards to write down your questions. There will be ushers moving about to collect your questions and bring them up to the moderator. Please don’t come up and bring them up yourself because it can interfere with the camera shot and cause some problems. Of course, just a reminder, please don’t do any recording unless you have received prior permission.
We will have a reception following today’s events over in the Exhibition Hall. There’s a red ticket in your badge that will be available for free drinks, so don’t lose that.
Just two notes on schedule of changes today. Eric Margolis was previously scheduled to attend here today. But due to an illness, he will not be able to attend. And just this week Katherine Franke from Columbia Law came down with pneumonia, so she will not be here today. But no need to fear, we have Maria LaHood from the Center for Constitutional Rights to fill in. She’s wonderful. She came here last year. For those of you who were here, you will remember her.
With that, we’re going to get going with our first speaker of the day, Grant Smith. Grant Smith is the director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy. Again, the co-sponsor of today’s events. He’s the author of the 2016 book Big Israel: How Israel’s Lobby Moves America which covers the history, functions, and activities of Israel affinity organizations in America. Grant has written two unofficial histories of AIPAC and many other books.
His organization is constantly working on Freedom of Information Act request and uncovering important documents especially on Israel’s nuclear program. I can tell you that few, if any people, work harder on this issue than Grant. Between his frequent research, appearance in FOIA court, his writing, his polling and his 5:00 AM emails, Grant is truly a one-man machine. Today he will be sharing polling data on U.S. aid to Israel conducted by his organization and by other pollsters. And he will take the stage as soon as he assembles everything.