AMITAY QUIT AIPAC IN 1980 TO OPEN A LAW PRACTICE that lobbies for defense contractors. But he didn't give up working for Israeli interests, forming his own pro-Israel PAC, the Washington Public Affairs Council. And AIPAC continued to grow under his successor, Thomas Dine, who presided over a massive increase in the group's size and influence during the 1980s, a decade in which the lobby claimed some significant political scalps. Pro-Israel money helped defeat Republican Reps. Paul Findley of Illinois and Pete McCloskey of California and Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois, all of whom were deemed too sympathetic to Arab causes and too critical of Israel.Amitay used to work for Feith & Perle at International Advisors Inc.
Nevertheless, the Israel lobby, and AIPAC in particular, gained a reputation as the National Rifle Association of foreign policy: a hard-edged, pugnacious bunch that took names and kept score. But in some ways it was even stronger. The NRA's support was largely confined to right-wing Republicans and rural Democrats. But AIPAC made inroads in both parties and both ends of the ideological spectrum.
AIPAC in recent years has parted with some of the staff members who gave it a harder edge, foremost among them Steve Rosen, its former director of foreign policy issues. Rosen and a fellow staff member, Keith Weissman, were fired last year after they were indicted under the 1917 Espionage Act for allegedly receiving classified information about administration strategy on Iran from Lawrence Franklin, the Pentagon's Iran desk officer. Their trial is scheduled for later this summer.
Lawyers for Rosen and Weissman contend their clients did only what journalists and analysts do every day in Washington -- gather information. Maybe so, but what's really intriguing for our purposes is how this little scandal came about. It wasn't Rosen and Weissman pursuing Franklin; it was Franklin seeking them out to make an end run around his superiors, who didn't share Franklin's view that the White House should crack down harder on Iran's developing nuclear program. Franklin believed enlisting AIPAC's help was the best way to ensure that his message got delivered to the White House.
Recent electoral victories by Islamic radicals in Iran and the Palestinian territories have only heightened the sense of us vs. them. With his sweeping condemnations and threats against the United States and Israel, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's radical new president, has quickly joined the pantheon of bad guys, alongside Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. "Ahmadinejad is worth every penny," says Morris Amitay. "He says amazing things, and the scary part is he really means it."
Iran may be worrisome, says Walt, but no more so than previous threats. "My belief is we would not be contemplating preventive war if we did not have a powerful domestic interest group pushing this issue. We have lived with a number of really odious regimes having nuclear weapons, because we understood that we could deter them effectively with the weapons at our disposal."
SOME OF THE ANGRIEST RESPONSES TO WALT AND MEARSHEIMER COME FROM AMERICAN JEWS who are singled out in the essay as members of the lobby. Douglas Feith, a former Pentagon official and neoconservative thinker who was a strong advocate for the Iraq war, says he's furious that the essay suggests he supported the war because it helped Israel's interests rather than those of the United States.
Ben-Gurion oversaw the building of Israel's powerful defense establishment, mixed economy and quarrelsome political system. But, for all his achievements, he suggested one simple way to measure a country's success that might be instructive to Walt and Mearsheimer, as well as to their critics. "The test of democracy," he wrote, "is freedom of criticism."
Or, as Morris Amitay put it when our interview ended: "It's been nice talking to you, and I look forward to sending a very critical letter to the editor after your article appears."
update: the author of the piece held a chat at wapo-online:
Amitay joins in the fun:
"The whole premise of the existence of an all powerful pro-Israel "lobby" is almost laughable if one examines U.S. policies in the Middle East for the past 60 years. These policies have invariably been more "even-handed" than Israel critics Walt and Mearsheimer allege. A secure Israel continues to be in the best interests of the United States. This is reflected in the strong support Israel continues to earn from the American people and by large majorities of both parties in the U.S. Congress.
Shared values, a commitment to civil society, and real democracy, and facing common foes and threats make for the close U.S.-Israel relationship. These are the factors which guide American policies, not the supposed inordinate power of American citizens exercising their constitutional rights. At times, I wish that the power and influence attributed to the pro-Israel community were indeed true."
update from the comments:
"Amitay is also a former co-chair of JINSA and the cofounder with Michael Ledeen of the Coalition for Democracy in Iran, one of the major centers of Neocon agitation for regime change. Definitely someone who gets around."