The uniqueness of American–Israeli relations has always been one of the main riddles for Middle Eastern countries. The prioritization of Israel has made it clear that Israel’s security is one of the main determinants of American foreign policy in the Middle East. The United States (US) was the first country to recognize the State of Israel on the day of its establishment on May 14, 1948; however, relations between Americans and Israelis go back further than that to the nineteenth century, when the Christian Zionist movement called for the establishment of a Jewish state. This was also reflected at the official level by the letter of U.S. president John Adams to Jewish writer Mordecai Manuel Noah in 1819, in which he wished for Jews to be again in Judea as an independent nation. Furthermore, Chicago witnessed the establishment of the Chicago Hebrew Mission, which is believed to be the first mission of Jewish evangelism in the US, and which can be described as the first pro-Israel lobby in the US. This mission was led by William E. Blackstone, who brought a petition to President Benjamin Harrison in 1891 signed by 413 Americans asking him to campaign for their return to Israel. This was six years before the establishment of the Jewish Agency by Theodor Herzl in 1897.
With all this, it is clear that the bilateral relations between these two nations are well rooted. Nonetheless, the role of the pro-Israel lobby needs to be fully comprehended in order to understand its role in affecting US politics regarding the Middle East. Thus, this paper seeks to shed light on the centrality of the pro-Israel lobby in US–Israel bilateral relations, the determinants of Israel’s relations with the lobby, and the dynamics between the pro-Israel lobby and new Israeli government.
Centrality of the pro-Israel lobby in US–Israel bilateral relations
It is crucial to understand the role of the pro-Israel lobby when analyzing the internal and external politics of the US, especially given that the pro-Israel lobby groups throughout the US play a significant role in preserving and advancing Israeli interests. There are many lobby groups in the US that represent the particular interests of countries, organizations, corporations, or public campaigns (anti-gun, anti-violence, anti-racism, anti-smoking campaigns etc.) Most lobby groups are legitimate under the American legal system, specifically under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, which regulates the work of lobby groups in terms of their registration with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives; disclosure of income, assets and liabilities; and adherence to regulatory rules.
To simplify the terminology, a lobby can be defined as a group of people who work on persuading decision-makers to adopt their preferred policies. In the US, it is common for lobby groups to engage in practices aimed at convincing US officials to serve the interests of the actors for whom they are working. Their work is centered on gaining the support of Congress members in both the Senate and the House of Representatives for a bill in exchange for support for their electoral campaigns, whether it is publicity through media broadcasts or the promise of votes. The counter-method against them consists of threatening campaigns, withholding or banning votes and, in some cases, carrying out defamation campaigns. With that, we can say that lobby groups are an important element in shaping political public opinion in the US. Thus, the first task for American decision-makers is to listen to them, weigh their requests, and express their will.
When talking about the ‘pro-Israel lobby’, it is important to clarify why the terms ‘Israeli lobby’ or ‘Jewish lobby’ are not used. This is simply because the pro-Israel lobby is not exclusive to Israelis or Jewish people. Many members of this lobby are neither Israeli nor Jewish, but still support the interests of Israel. For instance, many members and supporters of the pro-Israel lobby are American neoconservatives, Christian Zionists, and evangelicals; hence, it would be more appropriate to call this group the ‘pro-Israel lobby’.
There are a number of well-known pro-Israel lobby groups that work systematically to promote Israeli interests. Examples of those lobby groups are the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Republican Jewish Coalition, J Street, Pro-Israel America PAC, NORPAC, Democratic Majority for Israel, Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, To Protect Our Heritage PAC, Maryland Assn for Concerned Citizens, Americans United in Support of Democracy, and American Jewish Committee (AJC). Although they differ in terms of their influence, they are all well respected by American officials.
The money that these lobby groups spend in the US has helped to secure enduring support for Israel till today. According to Open Secrets, a research group tracking money in US politics and its effects on elections and public policy, the total amount of money spent by the top pro-Israel lobby groups in the US from 2021 to 2022 was about $35,280,906. AIPAC alone spent $20,846,098 during this period, which represents 59% of the total spent by the top pro-Israel lobby groups. Interestingly, of the $20,846,098, approximately $7,807,707 was contributed to the Democrats, $8,500,000 to nonpartisans, and $4,533,391 to the Republicans. Moreover, J Street spent $5,879,332 during the same period, and of this, its contribution to the Democrats was about $5,253,435. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Jews in the US prefer to vote for the Democrats. What also supports this argument is that since 1968, on average 71% of Jews have voted for the Democrats as opposed to the Republicans.
This is likely the reason why Benjamin Netanyahu did not take a stance against Joe Biden during a telephone conversation with Donald Trump before the last presidential election; Netanyahu cautiously avoided criticizing either side in order to preserve the Americans’ support for the pro-Israel lobby. He needs to tread carefully due to the strategic relations that bind Israel with these lobby groups. It is crystal clear that this lobby is key for Israeli politicians to advance their nation’s interests in Washington, D.C. What supports this argument is the importance that American politicians give to the conferences and activities that these lobby groups hold across the US. Biden, for instance, has good relations with AIPAC, evidenced by his participation in their annual conference during his term as vice-president in Obama’s administration back in 2016, and his campaign for the 2020 presidential election, where he emphasized how much AIPAC’s voice matters to him.
Furthermore, in May 2022, the Biden administration participated in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which explicitly illustrates the value of the lobby for Biden and his administration in navigating public opinion in many aspects that might affect the future of the administration. During the Conference, Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, emphasized the importance of fighting antisemitism, the pillar of the work of pro-Israel lobby groups. Adding to that, during a visit to Israel in July 2022, Biden – who was received by President Isaac Herzog and former Prime Minister Yair Lapid – expressed his support for Zionism, saying: “You need not be a Jew to be a Zionist.” This position clearly represents his approach in dealing with Israel and the lobby, which in his view has a strong influence in the US in general and on Congress specifically. He thus aims to gain maximum support to preserve his party’s achievements and garner votes in the next elections.
Determinants of Israel’s relations with the lobby
Israeli politicians are keen on solidifying their relations with these lobby groups, especially at the premiership level. Each prime minster endeavors to meet with them once he gets appointed after the Knesset elections. This supports the notion of the lobby’s influence in Washington, which is vital to the Israeli government in its foreign policy. Netanyahu, for instance, has made a significant number of appearances with pro-Israel lobby groups at their conferences, so as to guarantee their support for him and maintain his country’s relations with the US. In January 2023, Netanyahu conducted a video conference with AIPAC leaders and activists from his Knesset office. He focused on three main topics: Israeli–American relations, Iran, and peace with Arab countries. This clearly demonstrates the feasibility and viability of those lobby groups in advancing and securing Israeli interests in American foreign policy.
To comprehend the dynamics of this relationship, it is important to look at the determinants of the relationship, which can be summarized under three broad categories, namely Zionism and the existential threats to the State of Israel, antisemitism, and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
Zionism and existential threats
The notion of Zionism is central in the work of the pro-Israel lobby groups. It starts from the idea of supporting the Israeli state’s right to exist in the international system, especially given that its establishment occurred within a context of conflict with the Palestinians. The pro-Israel lobby explicitly defends the idea of Zionism by focusing on the right of Jews to have their own state and supports Israel by preserving American military aid to the country. This can be observed in messages from lobby groups, such as AIPAC, whose stated role is to advocate for security assistance to Israel, the development of cooperative missile defense programs, and the strategic relationship between the two countries. AIPAC also carries out other activities such as congressional trips to Israel that are arranged through the American Israel Education Foundation. From 2000 to 2019, $16 million was spent on visits by more than 1,400 lawmakers and their staff, according to congressional travel records. These practices illustrate the efforts to influence Americans in general, and American officials in particular, to secure support for Israel and promote its right to exist.
Working against Iran, which represents an existential threat directly and indirectly through its proxies, is another determinant of relations between Israel and the pro-Israel lobby. For example, the Republican Jewish Coalition – a pro-Israel lobby group – states that it lobbies on Capitol Hill against Iran. The work carried out in this respect is not confined to Congress members; it goes beyond that through the conferences that the group holds, which help to shape the views of Americans on the Iranian threat. The pro-Israel lobby groups are very straightforward and harsh on the Iranian file. Another example is Pro-Israel America United, which believes that “Iran is the world’s leader in state-sponsored terrorism.” This thought represents very well the Israeli approach toward Iran as its biggest adversary in the region.
The big win for the pro-Israel lobby was its successful movement against Iran’s nuclear program, which led to Trump withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the nuclear deal reached between Iran and the P5+1 in 2015. The lobby continued this effort by insisting that the Biden administration maintain Trump’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ on Iran, a campaign aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear activities.
The fight against antisemitism has been given serious attention since World War II. The US took this issue as a threat to the liberal world order; thus, it was and remains keen on combatting antisemitic activities in order to secure liberalism. The pro-Israel lobby has utilized this to target everyone who criticizes Israel, although semitism is not confined to Jews but includes Arabs as well. The world considers antisemitism in relation to the crises Jews have suffered in the last several centuries, particularly the Holocaust perpetrated by Adolf Hitler, which killed more than six million innocent Jews. Israel and the pro-Israel lobby used the suffering of Jews to persuade people about the necessity, from an ethical perspective, of supporting Israel. American Jews say that despite the criticism that Israel has drawn due to some extreme policies against the Palestinians, support for the State of Israel should continue as it is the only Jewish state in the world and Jews have the right to have their own state. All pro-Israel lobby groups on the left and right have expressed the same view. For example, J Street has mentioned that it is keen on promoting US policies that enhance democratic Jewish values and principles that help secure the State of Israel. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations clearly states that it works to open links between Jews around the world and provide them with aid, while fighting antisemitism and anti-Israel bias.
One important example of this notion is the visit of Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer to the US in January 2023 – the first visit to Washington by an Israeli official since the new Israeli government was sworn in – whereby he met with senior White House and State Department officials. On the sidelines of his visit, Dermer took part in a special event in Miami hosted by International March of the Living, which is an annual educational program that brings people from different countries to Poland and Israel to study the history of the Holocaust. Although his participation in the event was scheduled before his appointment as a minister, his links with the program reflect the importance of groups that work on enhancing the image and interests of Israel through their fight against antisemitism.
Besides spreading their influence in the US, lobby groups also strive to gain the attention of international organizations to promote Israel’s interests in this respect. For instance, the Democratic Majority for Israel welcomed Congressman Brad Schneider’s call on the United Nations (UN) Secretary General António Guterres and UN Human Rights Commissioner Dr. Volker Türk in February 2023 to relieve Francesca Albanese, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, of her duties for her “anti-Israel bias” and “antisemitic statements”. Such actions clearly show how this lobby encourages Congress members to expand their efforts in advancing Israeli interests, not just within the American political system but in the international arena as well.
One sensitive issue surrounding relations between Israel and the pro-Israel lobby is the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Although they state that they support the two-state solution, they do not really advocate for such actions that would resolve the conflict. It is important to point out that there are two wings of the pro-Israel lobby in this regard. The first is the right wing that supports Israel unequivocally and does not criticize it, such as AIPAC and the Republican Jewish Coalition. The other is the left wing, encapsulated by J Street, which criticizes Israel on this issue and voices its position clearly.
There are many examples of right-wing pro-Israel lobby groups that work against Congress members who criticize Israel, such as Ilhan Omar, who is known for criticizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Her Twitter statements against pro-Israel lobby groups, especially AIPAC, raised concerns among Congress members as to whether Ilhan Omar was encouraging antisemitism. From the moment she began criticizing Israel as a congresswomen and progressive Democrat, the pro-Israel lobby led several campaigns against her. The controversial views she presented in Congress regarding Middle Eastern countries in general, and Israel specifically, put her future in jeopardy. Consequently, she was expelled from the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives.
Interestingly, Omar, who presented herself as an advocate of democracy and liberalism in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, signed a new resolution, along with 30 House Democrats, “recognizing Israel as America’s legitimate and democratic ally and condemning antisemitism,” before she was voted out of the Committee. Her contradictory positions and political behavior clearly illustrate her insincerity in her dealings with Israel. Many pro-Israel lobby groups have praised the decision of the House of Representatives, such as the Republican Jewish Coalition, which issued a statement thanking Rep. Max Miller for introducing the resolution to remove her, stating that the group had advocated for Omar’s removal from the committee for years.
What can be understood from this incident is that the pressure applied by the pro-Israel lobby is strong and that it can affect the future of Congress members who work against Israeli interests. The list of Congress members who lost elections because of their position against Israel is long. Some examples can be seen on AIPAC’s website, which states that 13 candidates were defeated in the House of Representatives elections in November 2022, as they were seeking to weaken the US–Israel relationship. Some of the names listed on the website include Nina Turner, Andy Levin, Yuh-Line Niou, and David Canepa. This lobby does not care if its target is a Republican or a Democrat; what it cares about is the politician’s efforts to preserve Israeli interests and not harm them.
Israel and the pro-Israel lobby also work against movements that oppose Israel, like the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Their joint goal is to confront these pro-Palestinian movements against Israelis, which forms another determinant of relations between Israel and the lobby groups within the US.
Dynamics between the pro-Israel lobby and new Israeli government
The new Israeli government that came into power after the Knesset elections in November 2022 has raised concerns in the international community about the far-right nationalists who are part of the coalition government that Netanyahu has formed. However, when it comes to the pro-Israel lobby and its concerns about the policies of the new Israeli government, the image is quite vague. Thus, it is vital to highlight the most important issues that concern the international community and determine what the pro-Israel lobby’s positions are toward them, and how the lobby groups might behave within the framework of their activities in the US. The main issues of international concern, particularly for the US Biden administration, revolve around the Israeli government’s policies toward the West Bank, the Ukrainian war, and Israel’s judicial reforms.
Israel and the West Bank
The West Bank has witnessed continuous escalations since the beginning of the year. Some members of the Israeli government, such as Minister of Finance and Minister in the Defense Ministry Bezalel Smotrich, and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, promoted policies that led to several confrontations between the Israeli government and Palestinians on the one hand and between settlers and Palestinians on the other. The international community condemned Israel’s policies on the West Bank, stating that they are in violation of international law as it is occupied territory.
The pro-Israel lobby groups, as stated above, are keen on taking the Israeli position when it comes to the Israeli–Palestinian crisis, and although they claim to support the two-state solution, the current status quo does not reflect this; no efforts have been made by the lobby to convince the Israelis of the feasibility of the two-state solution. Some lobby groups have criticized the Israeli governments recent provocative policies, such as J Street, which condemned Smotrich’s “disgraceful” comment that the Palestinian village of Huwara “should be wiped out” and stated that it rejected the Israeli annexation of the West Bank. By contrast, AIPAC has not condemned the Israel’s policies and has instead correlated the “settlers’ vigilantism” with what it called “Palestinian terrorism”.
It is expected that these lobby groups will face difficulties in preserving Israeli interests if serious escalations arise as a result of the continuous provocative policies introduced by some members of the Israeli government. There is no doubt that the financial resources of the lobby groups and their influence on Capitol Hill will secure the Congress members’ positions in favor of Israel. However, their influence on international organizations remains questionable, especially given the international community’s stance against Israel since the beginning of the year.
The Ukrainian crisis
America’s support for Ukraine in Russia-Ukraine war has no doubt been reflected in the movements of the pro-Israel lobby. If we take a look at the stakeholders in the Ukrainian crisis, we can see that there are some aspects linked to Israel. For instance, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is the only Jewish president outside of Israel. In addition, there are Jews in Ukraine and Russia who are linked with world Jewish agencies and associations. Many Jews have also made what is called in Hebrew the Aliyah (migration) to Israel because of this crisis, which led to many critics asking the Israeli government to provide Ukraine with the support that Zelensky wanted.
Although the previous and current Israeli governments were very cautious about revealing their true stance on the crisis, the pro-Israel lobby was very clear in its position. Looking at the statements of pro-Israel lobby groups, we can clearly identify a consensus among them (right and left) in standing with Ukraine, which is in line with the US position and its foreign policy. AIPAC worked on promoting Israel’s efforts in its humanitarian aid to Ukrainians. J Street talked about the “horror of the unprovoked violence” and the suffering caused by the crisis, condemning Russia’s plans to annex Ukrainian territories. Furthermore, the Republican Jewish Coalition strongly criticized Russia’s actions, describing it as a threat to Ukraine’s democracy.
This position on the crisis is non-negotiable for the pro-Israel lobby as deviating from the American stance will backfire on them when it comes to their work on promoting Israeli interests in the US.
Israel’s judicial reforms
When Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced his controversial judicial reform plan, criticism came from both within and outside of Israel. The measures basically concern (1) allowing the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority of 61 votes out of 120; (2) changing the procedure for selecting Supreme Court justices by giving the governing coalition control over appointing them, whereas the current selection procedure is undertaken by a committee of nine members, which includes three Supreme Court judges (including the High Court president), two representatives of the Israel Bar Association, two ministers, and two Knesset members; (3) lowering the age of retirement for Supreme Court justices from 70 to 67; (4) revoking the ability of the Supreme Court to judge Knesset legislation, appointments, or other government decisions on the grounds of “reasonability”; and (5) giving government ministers the right to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of the current practice of receiving counsel from advisers operating under the Justice Ministry.
The plan for these reforms triggered protests across Israel and was extensively criticized by Western media and, in particular, the US. This criticism was also observed in the rhetoric of some pro-Israel lobby groups; some delved deep into the issue, while others remained silent. For instance, AIPAC did not cover the issue much and avoided going into detail, which led some Israeli writers, such as Ben Luria, to ask pro-Israel lobbyists to raise their voice on this issue to persuade Netanyahu to preserve Israeli democracy. AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittmann briefly mentioned the issue when he said “there is a vigorous debate underway in Israel on this issue, which is reflective of the Jewish state’s robust democracy,” emphasizing that AIPAC will continue working to strengthen US–Israel relations. This position shows that AIPAC is not very concerned about what is happening inside Israel and is more focused on US behavior toward Israel.
Yet some pro-Israel lobby groups came out very strongly against the Netanyahu coalition. One of them was J Street, which described the reforms as a threat to democracy and the future of Israel, and praised the Israeli people who took to the streets to protest for their democracy. American Jewish Community also raised its voice along the same lines. Its CEO Ted Deutch issued a statement saying that “the legislation that has moved forward in the Knesset thus far, and the way in which it has been advanced, falls short both substantively and procedurally.” These positions align with the liberal order that is advocated by the US, as the pro-Israel lobby groups know that standing with the Israelis on undemocratic policies will lead to them losing credibility among the Americans.
The pro-Israel lobby has a core position in advancing and maintaining Israeli interests in the foreign policy of the US. The lobby has the power to impact the calculations inside the two chambers of the US Congress and plays a crucial role in helping Congress members gain seats in elections and defeating those who are against Israel, such as the progressives who support Palestine. Those Congress members who are supported by the pro-Israel lobby eventually serve Israeli interests by blocking or allowing any US-led policy regarding Israel. It is well understood that the determinants of the relations between this lobby and Israel are well grounded, with both parties keen on preserving their joint interests. The pro-Israel lobby’s behavior toward the international community’s concerns about Israel is in line with US trends; lobbyists might reach out to the Israeli government or demonstrate a position in accordance with Western values that aim to preserve liberal order and democracy. At the same time, if the US approach is in conflict with any of the determinants that govern the lobby’s relations with Israel, the lobbyists will take the Israeli side by maximizing their pressure on US officials in order to preserve the interests of the State of Israel, which is their ultimate goal.
 Gabriel Thomas Cutter, "The Pro-Israel Lobby, the United States, and the Iran Nuclear Deal: The Pro-Israel Lobby’s Influence on US Foreign Policy," (Bachelor Thesis., University of Oregon, 2019).
 Joseph Massad,” Semites and Anti-Semites, That is the Question,” The Palestinian Initiative for thre Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, December 11, 2004, https://cutt.us/bToIx (accessed March 20, 2023).
 United Nations, “Israeli Annexation of Parts of the Palestinian West Bank Would Break International Law – UN Experts Call on the International Community to Ensure Accountability – Press Release,” June 16, 2020, https://cutt.us/S3KRG.
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