Washington Report on Middle East Affairs • The Israel Lobby and American Policy • March 24, 2017
Grant Smith: American Public Opinion About U.S. Aid to Israel and Other Top AIPAC Programs
Dale Sprusansky: Grant Smith is the director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy—again, the co-sponsor of today’s event. 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 requests 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 a.m. e-mails, 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.
Grant Smith: Thank you, Dale. Public opinion polling is very important, obviously, but there isn’t very much done in terms of asking about what the public thinks about core Israel lobby programs. But that’s going to change today. The polling that we are about to look at could and should provide input to elected officials, who should then, in turn, act in the public interest. Polling about the Israel lobby programs that we’re going to look at reveals the growing gap between what the public thinks about particular issues, and the government actions being demanded by the Israel lobby.
Last year, I spoke here about the birth of the Israel lobby in the United States, its growth, its size, its composition and division of labor. This was all based on my book Big Israel, in which I reveal a $3.7 billion nonprofit ecosystem on track to reach $6.3 billion by 2020. With 14,000 employees, 350,000 volunteers, but a paying membership of approximately 774,000, it is this nonprofit lobby, along with overlapping campaign-finance infrastructure—whether it is large individual donors, stealth political action committees—that provide Israel with the U.S. support that it would otherwise not have. All of this will be on a brilliant display when 15,000 AIPAC members assemble this weekend to begin their annual policy conference. So let’s continue looking at the lobby, and what Americans think of that program.
The following surveys I’m about to show you are Google Consumer Research Surveys, probably the single most accurate polling tool available in America today. The famous Nate Silver said, “Perhaps it won’t be long before Google and not Gallup is the most trusted name in polling.”
So let’s take a look at what Americans think about Israel’s single most important program, which is obtaining unconditional U.S. foreign aid, including advanced American weaponry, cash for Israel’s export-oriented military industry, packaged into 10-year memorandums of understanding, or MOUs. These 10-year MOUs we’re going to look at require keeping the entire issue of Israel’s nuclear weapons program off the table.
The U.S. has provided $254 billion in known foreign aid to Israel, more than any other country. Now there has been a recent attempt by scholars, such as Prof. Hillel Frisch, to try to move the goalpost and claim that Japan, Germany, and South Korea are in fact bigger recipients. However, this argument is wrong. Japan, Germany, and South Korea are in a different category—that of treaty-bound allies. The military alliance expenditures, with contributions by both sides, have mutual obligations which make them not usefully comparable to U.S. aid with Israel, which has no obligations.
When informed of its relative size, 60 percent of Americans believe that U.S. foreign aid to Israel is either much too much or too much. And this finding is also reflected in polls by Shibley Telhami and some Gallup polls. This has been consistent over time. Recent years—2014, 2015, 2016—showed similar levels of responses. Americans responding to this poll have been informed that aid has been around 9 percent of the total foreign aid budget, but this question will have to change in the future, as Dale has mentioned, since the Trump administration proposes cutting the State Department budget, while leaving aid to Israel untouched. So we should ask ourselves when that happens, what will it be—10, 20, 30 percent? We don’t know yet.
The Sept. 14 Memorandum of Understanding, the U.S. guaranteed in this MOU security assistance over 10 years. There are no Israeli obligations, and up to 28 percent could be spent on Israel’s own export-oriented industries. This is the latest in a series of 10-year commitments, and the public has been told that this will guarantee Israel’s qualitative military edge.
When we polled this right after the MOU signing, the public responded—60 percent of them—that they had higher priorities. When questioned if the $38 billion was a good investment, 60 percent said health care for U.S. veterans, education, and paying down the national debt would be far better expenditures. Only 17 percent thought it should be spent on Israel.
When Congress passes aid to Israel and presents them to the president in bills to be signed, both rely on a subterfuge that the U.S. does not, and indeed cannot, know whether Israel has nuclear weapons. However, under the Arms Export Control Act, procedures must be followed whenever the U.S. provides foreign aid to known nuclear powers that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 2012, under increasing pressure—including from a journalist who’s here today and Helen Thomas, who’s not with us—the Obama administration passed a gag order that punishes any federal employee or contractor who speaks out about what most people already know, which is that Israel has nuclear weapons.
So in a public opinion survey, first of its kind, most Americans would prefer an honest discussion about Israel’s nuclear weapons. Fifty-two percent said Congress should take nukes under consideration. Officially Congress has said it does not take a position on this matter. But under pressure from reporters—a handful—and legal action to block U.S. aid over its nuclear weapons program, and dogged reporting, this could change.
[Start of video clip]
Sam Husseini: Do you acknowledge that Israel has nuclear weapons, sir?
Sen. Chuck Schumer: I’m not—you can go read the newspapers about that.
Sam Husseini: You can’t acknowledge that Israel has nuclear weapons, sir?
Chuck Schumer: It is a well-known fact that Israel has nuclear weapons, but the Israeli government doesn’t officially talk about what kinds of weapons and where, et cetera.
Sam Husseini: Could the U.S. government be forthright?
Chuck Schumer: Okay. That’s it.
[End of video clip]
Grant Smith: That was Sam Husseini, who is here with us today. In 1985 Israel and its lobby were the primary force behind providing preferential U.S. market access to Israeli exporters. This was later rebranded as America’s first free trade agreement. Because U.S. industry and labor groups were unanimously opposed to it, an Israeli Embassy operative covertly obtained and passed a 300-page classified report compiled from proprietary industry data from the ITC to help AIPAC overcome opposition. This was investigated as a counterespionage matter by the FBI.
And, as could probably be expected from such a process, it replaced a balanced trading relationship with a chronic U.S. deficit to [Israel].
In fact, on an inflation- adjusted basis, the U.S.-Israel Free Trade Agreement is the worst bilateral free trade deal ever, with a cumulative deficit of $144 billion.
In this era of popular disapproval of trade deals—whether it’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative or the North American Free Trade Agreements—when informed of the Israel free trade deal, 63 percent of Americans would either renegotiate or cancel it altogether.
Another bad deal that has been a long-term Israel and lobby initiative is moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Since 1948, Israel has been attempting to persuade foreign embassies to relocate in Jerusalem, which is, under the original partition agreement, supposed to be international. But, leveraging Bob Dole’s presidential aspirations, in 1995 the Zionist Organization of America and AIPAC championed a law that was passed that defunds State Department overseas building budgets unless the U.S. Embassy is moved. U.S. presidents have refused to do it, but there are now many champions of the move in the Trump administration.
Americans are not so excited when told in a survey question, “Israel’s U.S. lobby wants the U.S. Embassy in Israel moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. No other country, in accord with the U.N. resolutions opposing such a move, has done so.” Fifty-six percent of Americans indicate the embassy should not move, while 38 percent say it should.
There is a renewed push to return to a policy of no daylight between the United States and Israel. This policy, particularly championed by former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, means that the U.S. and Israel can disagree, but not openly, since that would encourage common enemies and renders Israel vulnerable. Of course, such a policy mainly benefits Israel as a bargaining chip it can put in its pocket and leverage the appearance of U.S. unconditional support in its own relations. So there is an effort underway for that.
Americans, when told and asked, Israel and its U.S. lobby are the only parties making such a demand in a question—“Israel and its U.S. lobby want a no-daylight policy, the president never criticizing Israeli settlements and giving Israel billions in aid and diplomatic support at the U.N.”—most say, 56 percent say, the majority say, there should not be a no-daylight policy.
We have Maria LaHood with us today who can do a much better job talking about what Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) are—a movement to end international support for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians—and the effort by the Israel lobby to pass laws blocking this, making it illegal across the country.
So I’ll only say that Israel lobby direct mail fund-raising campaigns are virtually unequivocally focused on stopping BDS as a fund-raising and major program initiative right now. It’s highly visible. It’s the number one priority.
But Americans are ambivalent. When asked, 60 percent neither oppose nor support such laws, with 21 percent opposing them and only 18 percent supporting them. So Americans are not behind BDS, are not highly on board with it, and they also don’t support the entire idea of single issue lobbying on behalf of a single foreign country.
I think this is the most important survey question, because it gets to the heart of the entire mechanism by which the Israel lobby has accumulated so much influence—campaign contributions. So here it is. That system ranges from seed funding of political candidates to funding through coordinated stealth political action committees, bundled campaign contributions, and pro-Israel mega donors. Janet McMahon and two former congressmen will be talking about that, I’m sure.
Seventy-one percent of Americans do not support this system.
They are probably not aware, however, why lobbyists for Israel no longer talk about getting guns and diplomacy for Israel. They talk about maintaining the U.S. special relationship with Israel, and there is a legal reason for that. Lobbyists for Israel, including the old-timers such as Abraham Feinberg and the founder of AIPAC Isaiah Kenen, in their writings and speeches were far more forthright in the early days. They honestly stated that their goal was weapons, money, and diplomatic support, because Israel needs it. There was no talk of because America needs Israel.
AIPAC received, indirectly, foreign startup money to launch itself, and today the tight coordination with the Israeli government continues. But the PR frame, the public relations frame, has changed. Now, it’s one of preserving special interests and common values. By the 1970s, no matter what the lobby did, the Justice Department stopped pursuing questions about whether some of its actors were in fact foreign agents who should be regulated as such. And since that year, a growing number of espionage investigations of AIPAC, and even the ADL, were opened, but then quietly closed for no justifiable reasons. 1970, in fact, was the last year the Justice Department took an interest in the Israel lobby as a foreign agent. There were in-depth hearings in 1962 and 1963 pleading with the IRS to look at their tax-exempt status, but nothing happened.
However, Americans appear to support a return to that simpler time when foreign agents were compelled to comply with disclosure laws and didn’t have quite so much power over Congress and elected officials. Sixty-six percent, in fact, when asked, favor returning to regulating such activities.
Perhaps this is driven by warranted investigative journalism about coordinated Israel lobby and Israeli government officials that are still using every means possible, including covert ones, to win. That includes an attempt to overturn a very beneficial—the JCPOA—Obama administration deal with Iran which most Americans favor, but which Israel and its lobby do not favor.
So you do have good journalism that came out about surveillance of the negotiations with the Iranians, about the Israeli government offering to do whatever is necessary with individual members of Congress if they would oppose passing this deal which the entire mainstream establishment Israel lobby—AIPAC, the ADL, the AJC—were united in opposing.
So, in conclusion, solid majorities of Americans polled, when using accurate survey technology, believe that U.S. foreign aid to Israel is too much. They don’t really even approve of the means by which they’re won, and the funds and the U.S. unilateral commitments that are made to execute. However, this is a passive majority. None of these opinions and views has recently been, with few exceptions, translated into direct action by their members of Congress. So only through active opposition, rather than passive opposition, which is clearly out there, will Americans be able to get their government back into the business of representing them. And only by clearly asking about, and polling, and surveying, and doing serious research about Israel lobby programs and what Americans think about them, will we be able to have a process that takes wing and goes viral, so to speak, in terms of engaging more Americans to get out of this passive mode and become active participants once again with their government.
So with that, I am hoping our wonderful ushers, who are here today earning some community service hours, will circulate—Adrien, and Tabatha, and Sebastian, there we have Sapphire. If you have any questions, please pass your cards to them. We’ve got a very tight schedule, so we’re trying to keep our question and answer sessions getting to the most important questions first. Thank you. Do we have any questions yet?
Questions & Answers
Dale Sprusansky: One question off the bat here is, so you used the term Israel lobby in your polling, how can you be certain that Americans understand what exactly you mean by Israel lobby when you mentioned it?
Grant Smith: Right. That’s a good question. We did some preliminary polling, and these slides and a subsequent report will be out soon. But it turns out that if you ask people what is the Israel lobby in the context of these questions about Congress and international relations, they will actually say it’s not the registration desk of the hotel in Jerusalem, the King David Hotel. They’ll say it’s not a group in the Israeli Knesset which has a similar name. They know what it is. So I can assure you that on the basis of having done some preliminary work, we’re not asking about an entity that is completely unknown at this point.
Dale Sprusansky: There is just one question about how the polling was conducted and the sampling. Were these respondents simply voluntary or self-selected? Was there any regional, age, religious or other kind of sampling?
Grant Smith: That’s great. So there’s been a lot of junk polling that’s been done. When I pulled this presentation together, I had a section on junk polling. There is a piece of polling that was conducted by Kellyanne Conway, many of you have heard about it, a self-selected poll on Muslims which did not have a representative sample. It had extremely, sort of toxic implications and it’s informing the government right now. You can when you—and I suggest you download this slide deck. You can certainly go to all of these hyperlinks at the bottom of this Google survey and see every single response, and look at the representative sampling that was done by Google to get these responses. This is not a Kellyanne Conway or other type of poll which has an agenda. Yes, we’re asking about the lobby because it’s important and it can be done. But this is a legitimate, statistically significant survey.
Dale Sprusansky: We just have another question kind of, I guess, asking you to draw some conclusions based on these polls. Do you feel that they represent America’s moving more away from a pro-Israel stance? Do you think we’re at a tipping point right now? The person points out that polls show that Democrats and young people are increasingly prone to be siding with Palestine.
Grant Smith: I’m not sure we’re at a tipping point. I think there are a lot of people in this room, including some speakers who are coming up very soon, who’ve done an excellent job in bringing a higher public awareness about what the Israel lobby is, what its agenda is. But the only way we’re going to get a tipping point, I think, is if we manage to spread the word a lot further; if we manage to continue drawing alternative media; if we continue to have brilliant journalism exposing some things. And I include the Wall Street Journal, which broke an important story. It’s not just Mondoweiss, which is a great place as well—and I notice that Philip Weiss is here today, so be sure to say hi to him. There are others, including one of my favorites, Antiwar.com, where I write a lot of articles. We’re trying to spread the word, because there hasn’t always been a welcoming presence for this type of information in the mainstream media.
Dale Sprusansky: Great. So a question here about—not directly related to polls, but since you are involved in this, what is the latest on your legal actions on Israel’s nuclear arsenal?
Grant Smith: Right. So we found that in order to get good information from the government, you have to file a FOIA and then follow it up with a lawsuit. This afternoon, when we’re sort of wrapping up, I know some of you have been very interested in a lawsuit we filed about Israel’s nuclear program, about the compliance of foreign aid with Symington and Glenn amendments inside the Arms Export Control Act. There’s talk about that a little bit toward the end. But I can tell you, that lawsuit is ongoing and we’re learning a great deal about functions of government by pursuing it. So more to come on that.
Dale Sprusansky: Great. Then a question to broaden the conversation about military contractors. Someone asked, aren’t they behind most of the lobbying for U.S. aid to Israel?
Grant Smith: Yeah, I get a lot of things in my inbox saying, you know, Grant, this is really about Lockheed Martin, this is really about the large defense contractors. But if you look at their total revenue compared to the $3 billion a year/$4 billion a year we know about given to Israel, it’s a tiny, tiny fraction. If you go to the signing ceremonies for MOUs—which is part of my job, I do that—you don’t see a lot of defense contractors attending those events.
So I would have to say, based on the data, based on the book Big Israel, based on the book Spy Trade, based on a lot of research and a lot of investment into this, I don’t think that they are a major part of the push to pass massive foreign aid packages to Israel. In fact, a lot of them really don’t like and attempted to get the majority of the last MOU spent on American arms as opposed to being spent on developing Israel’s export-oriented industries. AIPAC takes the lead on this. This is their key core function, arms and money in the form of serial foreign aid packages from the United States. It’s not the military and defense contractors.
Dale Sprusansky: All right. Well, perhaps this is a good transition to our next speaker, our keynote speaker. We have a question about Mearsheimer and Walt’s book. They claim the Israel lobby is as American as apple pie. Do you agree with that assessment? Be careful.
Grant Smith: He’s not here yet, is he? I have to say, I wrote an entire book called Spy Trade, about the espionage that was conducted to pass America’s first free trade agreement. It wasn’t as American as apple pie what happened to U.S. industry. It just wasn’t. It wasn’t as American as apple pie when two AIPAC executives managed to obtain information they thought they could use from Col. Lawrence Franklin to gin up an attack on Iran. I think that there’s far more going on, including coordination to oppose the JCPOA, that’s a mix. It’s lobbying. It’s phone banking. It’s coordinated campaign contributions. But there is a foreign covert action component to a lot of these things. And so, to me, it’s not as American as apple pie. Sorry.
Dale Sprusansky: Okay. I think that we should wrap it up.
Grant Smith: Do we have one more?
Dale Sprusansky: We have one more quick one.
Grant Smith: Okay.
Dale Sprusansky: Why does the IRS continue to grant pro-Israel groups, especially those that fund settlements, tax-exempt status?
Grant Smith: I think that’s a great question. Recently, a test case was that the Zionist Organization of America lost its tax exempt status, and so it had to go back and re-apply. This ancient organization, which was really one of the originals, had to go back and apply to the IRS and make its case for why an organization that was purely about promoting Zionism in the U.S. was tax-exempt. And we obtained all of the correspondence from the IRS about that. They asked the question. Mort Klein and his team of lawyers evaded it, and they were never asked again. The question has never really been put forth and answered by the IRS.
Senator J. W. Fulbright made an attempt to ask about the status of AIPAC, about the status of the Jewish Agency at that time, and a number of other organizations, to the IRS after a seminal investigation in 1963. And they strong-armed him and did not answer the question. So it’s an open question. The one about settlement financing in particular is the subject of litigation right now. The problem is always standing. You should probably ask a real lawyer, like Maria LaHood, that question in the following sessions.
Dale Sprusansky: Great. Thank you very much, Grant.
[End of presentation]
[End of transcript]