New York Congressman Gary Ackerman and I shared the same podium about 12 years
ago when we spoke for the American- Indian lobby (Indian, as in Calcutta). Gary
was honored because of his close relationship with the country and its American
sons and daughters. I was speaking as a representative of one of the world’s
That episode describes several factors in Congress’
role in foreign policy. While it is traditionally the bailiwick of the executive
branch, Congress and its members often support, encourage, and sometimes seek to
shape American policy.
Prior to serving as deputy ambassador in
Washington, I worked at AIPAC for 25 years, including 15 years as director of
its office in Jerusalem. In that period I witnessed major changes in how
Congress involved itself in Middle East policy and how, with congressional
encouragement, Israeli-US relations deepened.
Consider the changes in
American policy that these items reflect:
• When Israel destroyed Saddam
Hussein’s Osirak reactor in 1981, the US government imposed an embargo of F-16
jets to Israel. In 2007, when a Syrian reactor was destroyed – allegedly by IAF
planes – not a word of disapproval was voiced in the US.
• In 1982, a
huge American sale of AWACS aircraft and F-15 add-ons to Saudi Arabia led to a
bruising political battle on Capitol Hill. The House voted overwhelmingly to
oppose the sale; in the Senate, the sale passed 52-48. Currently, a $60 billion
sale of new aircraft to Saudi Arabia is being considered, but there are few
words of objection. In the interim, the US and Israeli defense establishments
set up an intimate relationship of consultations, cooperation, intelligence
sharing and joint exercises.
• In the 1970s, NSC advisers objected to
members of Congress calling Israel an American ally or a strategic asset. Today,
only a handful of Israel’s most strident detractors would echo those
• With Israel considered a strategic ally, the US helps
develop and fund some of its cutting-edge military technology, such as the Arrow
missile and the Iron Dome system to shoot down rockets and missiles in the
arsenals of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. US foreign aid permits “offshore
procurement” of equipment.
• US legislation has allowed the development
of joint research projects in agriculture, hi-tech, science and industrial
R&D. Just last year, joint projects in the binational agricultural R&D
programs twinned Israeli research institutions with scientists at the University
of Maryland, Cornell, Penn State, Hawaii, Auburn, Arizona, UC Davis, Northern
Texas, Washington, Oregon, Kentucky, Michigan, Purdue, Nevada, Washington State,
UC Berkeley, Michigan State, U Mass, Southern Florida and UC Riverside.
With Congress preparing such groundwork over the years, the governor of
Massachusetts was recently in Israel with a team of officials and industrialists
to examine joint projects. Over 100 companies in Massachusetts have Israeli
These employ 6,000 workers and generate $2.4
MANY YEARS ago I heard AIPAC’s founder Si Kenen warn that in
Washington the “even-numbered years belonged to the Israelis; the oddnumbered
years to the Arabs.”
By that he suggested that domestic political and
electoral considerations were factors in determining US policy. But that’s not
true today, in part because of Congress’ constant involvement in foreign policy:
• Last month, many observers credited congressional concerns with helping the
administration decide to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning
• In 2009, Congress effectively pressed for strong sanctions
against the Iranian government. These measures led to serious disruptions of
Iranian banking and shipping. Some countries, but not enough, seeing America’s
determination on this issue, joined in.
• And Congress will play a
cardinal role in approval of foreign aid, and the nature of that aid, to Middle
East countries undergoing historic transitions – countries like Lebanon and
Aaron David Miller, one of the US’s veteran Middle East
negotiators, asked in Foreign Policy online last month, “Will [the
administration] race to coddle and court the new Arab democrats, doing so at
Israel’s expense?... In short, will spring for the Arabs turn into winter for
the Israelis?” Miller concludes that it will not, and I suggest that spring may
well lead to a calm summer.
While the Middle East is indeed undergoing
drastic change, several constants will not change.
The US and Israel
remain strategic partners facing unprecedented challenges. The warfare conducted
against the West and its allies is a war often conducted in secret. It is a war
of drones and cyber warfare; of unusual measures against nonconventional
combatants, such as President Barack Obama’s recent decision to maintain the
Guantanamo detention center.
In these areas the US and Israel presumably
work closely together. The nature of such cooperation must remain secret,
despite WikiLeaks best – or worst – efforts. But perhaps most importantly, both
countries realize that to maintain their democratic identities and commitment to
justice they must adapt these measures to fit their laws and not their laws to
fit these measures.
The shared constant depends on publics in the US and
Israel who uphold these ideals. It is no wonder then that support for Israel
among the American public, and by extension among its elected representatives,
remains at near-record highs.
The writer served as deputy chief of
mission in Israel’s embassy in Washington. Today he is a consultant on public
affairs and blogs at www.lennybendavid.com. This article was excerpted from a
paper prepared for the Capitol Hill seminar of the Jerusalem Conference for