A lobby for Palestine?

Shaun Joseph examines the critiques that antiwar writer Juan Cole has made of the importance of protests in support of the Palestinians.

Some 20,000 people marched in Washington, D.C., for a rally in support of Gaza (Vanissa Chan)Some 20,000 people marched in Washington, D.C., for a rally in support of Gaza (Vanissa Chan)

MIDDLE EAST Studies professor Juan Cole, author of the Informed Comment blog, is one of the few left-of-center figures whose views enjoy circulation in the mainstream political discussion.

The "debate" in the U.S. press about Israel and Palestine is almost nonexistent, and based on ignorance; Cole's blog, by contrast, is refreshingly well-informed and sympathetic to popular Arab views. It is a generally excellent resource for Palestine solidarity activists--which is why a series of posts attacking the recent international wave of demonstrations in defense of Gaza come as such a disappointment.

Cole makes his case at length in two posts--the first on January 10 titled "On the Uselessness of Street Protest; And the Usefulness of Web 2.0 Lobbying" and a follow-up on January 12 titled "Only a 'For America' PAC Can Stop the Madness."

Briefly, Cole argues that street protests and boycotts are "useless" to stop the U.S. government's massive support for Israel. Campaigners should instead "change the U.S. domestic political equation" by forming a "Peace Lobby" or "For America PAC." (Cole initially called it the "America First PAC," but must have later realized that the name "America First" is deeply entwined with racist and anti-Semitic politics--common trouble in the lexicon of patriotic-sounding names.)

This new lobby would act as a "countervailing political force" to the pro-Israel lobby, which, according to Cole, currently dominates the issue by making individual senators' and representatives' political survival contingent on supporting right-wing Zionist policy.

The new lobby would be able to convince our political leaders that "more equitable policies in the Middle East" are in everyone's best interests, as well as providing them with political support against the attacks of the notorious American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and others.

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COLE'S ARGUMENT--and indeed all the arguments which blame U.S. support for Israel more or less squarely on the Zionist lobby--assume that the theory of government imparted in middle school civics classes is basically correct. That is, government policy is set, in the final instance, by Congress, which itself makes policy by weighing the views of different constituent groups.

A more worldly-wise variant concedes that there is no small amount of bribery, blackmail, and dirty tricks involved--but still accepts the basic framework of different factions or lobbies fighting over the division of the Congress. The character of these divisions determines policy, or so the story goes.

But the reality is quite different; actually, it is the reverse. We can prove this by making a quick study in comparative palm-greasing. In the 2008 election cycle, AIPAC and its affiliates disbursed about $2.5 million to various politicians, according to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

This is not really that much by modern standards: in the same cycle, the firefighters union donated almost $2.7 million, according to OpenSecrets.org, ranking 21st in the list of top donors. Overall, the contributions of labor unions to (mainly Democratic) campaigns overwhelm those of the Zionist lobby by a large factor. Yet labor has nothing like the political dominance enjoyed by Israel advocates.

It could be said, of course, that labor competes against very powerful business counter-lobbies. That's true, but keep in mind that it does field a sophisticated lobbying organization, and its "get out the vote" operations at election-time are prized by the candidates it supports. There's no accounting for the employers' dominance in Washington by comparing the lobbying strength of the two sides.

This is even more clear if we examine particular industries. For example, the Big Three auto manufacturers collectively donated $2.2 million in 2008, compared to $2 million from the United Auto Workers (UAW). Yet the recent auto bailout has been completely unfavorable to the UAW, requiring layoffs and givebacks on wages and benefits.

The policy of the government can't be explained by the relative strength of the factions or lobbies vying for Congressional influence. In reality, the state is "instinctively" on the side of the bosses, because the state is fundamentally about protecting their property and their economic interests.

Indeed, the very real strength of the pro-Israel lobby doesn't ensure a pro-Israel policy. It's the other way around--the policy ensures the strength of the lobby.

Israel plays a critical role in securing U.S. imperial interests in the Middle East by posing a permanent military threat to any strategic competitor in the region. Thus, Israel coerces other states to either curb their ambitions (Iran) or adapt themselves to being U.S. clients (Egypt).

U.S. support for Israel is determined by the need of American capital to control the vital energy supplies of the Middle East; the Zionist lobby is fundamentally a consequence, not a cause, of this policy--a kind of "antibody" produced by the system itself to ensure that the "legitimate" discussion is not "infected" by natural feelings of solidarity with the Palestinian oppressed.

A similar phenomenon occurred in the lead-up to George Bush's invasion of Iraq, but in a much shorter time span, so it's therefore easier to recognize.

We now know that the idea of invading Iraq was discussed extensively in high government and business circles during the late Clinton and early Bush administrations--that is, well before 9/11--but there was no kind of popular resonance for a war during this period.

However, once the policy was fixed in late 2001, a pro-war "lobby" was quickly established to agitate in every possible forum for invading Iraq. In other words, the policy was already set--the function of the pro-war lobby was to police the discussion and implant (phony) pro-war arguments into public consciousness.

Cole's proposal for a "peace lobby" rests on a basic misconception about the nature of government policy in general, and the role of the pro-Israel lobby in particular. Instead of a new Washington lobby, we need a revivified international movement of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination--the kind of solidarity movements that helped stop the U.S. war on Vietnam and topple apartheid in South Africa.

Street protests aren't enough on their own, but they do play an essential role in organizing the movement and announcing its political presence.

Without the outbreak of global protest, the Palestinians' resistance to Israel's war on Gaza would have been heroic, but more isolated than ever--another righteous but probably doomed act in the ongoing tragedy. With the protests, the issue has been reopened as an arena for new struggles, especially for the antiwar movement.

Only a struggle of major proportions can counter U.S. imperialism's interests in the Middle East and force it to give up its support for Israel. Let's focus on building the movement that can organize this struggle--not another PAC in the swamps of the Potomac.