Don’t count your votes before they’re cast. Up on Capitol Hill, all those proud protestations of faith and romance during the campaign don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world until it is time to make tough decisions and vote.
It is easy enough to get a slew of members of one party to make a statement they consider pro-Israel — whether from right or left — and wave it around as proof that the absence of signers from the other party means it is anti-Israel.
Even though polls in the last two elections showed Israel was a decisive issue for only a tiny percentage of voters, candidates rushed to go on the record declaring their pro-Israel devotion.
And yet, AIPAC’s claim long before the 112th Congress was even sworn in that it is “expected to be the most pro-Israel Congress ever” was just plain silly.
First, there’s the question of how to define the term “pro-Israel.” A candidate can support the position of the peace camp — compromise, territorial concessions, and Palestinian statehood — or the opposite (those things pose mortal threats to the survival of the Jewish state) and still lay claim to the term. There is enough diversity in the Jewish community and in Israel to validate both.
That doesn’t stop politicians on both sides — more these days on the GOP side of the aisle — from hurling accusations about insufficient loyalty to the pro-Israel cause based on such legitimate differences, thereby turning a subject of national consensus into a partisan wedge issue.
If you read them carefully, candidate position papers are much more vague than they initially appear. They’re full of the right phrases about democracy and our common Judeo-Christian heritage, shared values, partnership in the fight against Islamist terror, zero tolerance for Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge, and making sure it is safe and secure. But they lack substance and provide few hints of what lawmakers will actually do when confronted with hard choices. Only one word really counts and it is “yea” or “nay” on difficult votes. All else is commentary.
There will be many legislative issues that groups like AIPAC may tally as friendly or unfriendly, but those that really matter can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and the most important is Israel’s $3 billion-plus foreign aid package.
That’s where Congress has the greatest influence, and it’s the real way to measure support for Israel, not all those resolutions, letters, speeches, and gotcha stunts that are either designed to embarrass the other party or to impress hardline Jewish supporters and contributors by showing how tough a lawmaker can be on the Arabs.
Over the past few years the foreign aid bill has sailed through, but that may be about to change as a new Congress elected on the Tea Party tide starts hacking away at unpopular programs — which is what the overall foreign aid program has been for years.
The 108 members of the 112th Congress freshman class are overwhelmingly Republican. Many won on their first try for public office, and over half identify themselves with the Tea Party. They are claiming a mandate to slash federal spending. Few had any ties to the Jewish community, much less Israel; many have negligible Jewish constituencies.
How can AIPAC boast that this could be the most pro-Israel Congress ever? They can’t, really. The group bases its contention on position papers from the candidates since few have any record to run on. The problem is many of those were written by or with help from AIPAC. I know because my staff and I wrote them for many years while I worked there, for congressional as well as presidential candidates of both parties.
The word is out that if you’re looking for Jewish support — translation: campaign contributions — you need to see AIPAC, and many candidates make the pilgrimage to lobby headquarters or meet with its members back home. As a matter of official policy, AIPAC does not “rate or endorse” candidates, but it does signal to a vast network of activists, PACs, and other big contributors who needs and deserves help and who doesn’t.
What do politicians give in return? They sign letters, give speeches, show up at events, cosponsor resolutions, or vote for amendments that spend no money.
But that’s the easy stuff; the proof will be in the pudding. And this year, the pudding could be the foreign aid bill.