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Myths and Realities

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There is a persistent and pernicious myth that maintains that "Jewish money" is the determinant factor shaping all aspects of U.S. Middle East policy. Not only is this a core belief among anti-Semites, it is also advanced by some advocates for Israel, who see this notion serving their purpose.

I mention this because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is coming to Washington in a few days and the Israeli and Arab press are rife with speculation about the purpose/meaning of the visit. One column, appearing in Ma'ariv, a major Israeli tabloid daily, made reference to this myth in a way so striking that I felt it required closer examination.

The column, by a respected commentator, Ben Kaspit, begins by noting that Netanyahu is viewing his invitation to meet with Obama as evidence that he "won" his test of wills with the U.S. President. Kaspit goes on to present his take on the turn of events, quoting "Washington insiders" who note that the last month has witnessed a change in the White House's approach to Israel in a deliberate effort to calm troubled waters. The reason for this change, as understood by Kaspit's "insiders", is Democrats' concern with the November elections. One is quoted in the article saying, "The coffers of the Democratic Party are empty... Many Democratic Congressman and Senators have complained that if the harsh treatment of Israel continues, they will not get any campaign donations from Jewish voters and could lose the vote".

I was struck by this claim both because it summarized so perfectly the "myth" as it is believed by anti-Semites and used by some pro-Israel propagandists, and also because it is so blatantly false.

Just days before Kaspit's "insider" made his remarks, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and two other Democratic Party vehicles (the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee--DCCC, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee--DSCC) and their three Republican counterparts, released their most recent fundraising totals.

Far from "empty coffers", the DNC reported $15.1 million cash on hand, more than the Republican Party's $12.4 million. Similarly the DCCC and the DSCC are flush with cash, both showing larger balances than the two Republican campaign committees.

More telling still is the fact that since the recent Obama Administration flap with Netanyahu began in early March, 2010, Democratic fundraising to all three committees has risen sharply. The DNC raised over $24 million in the two months when the tension was highest (contrast that with the RNC's $18 million during the same period). The DCCC and the DSCC added another $24 million, with the two committees reporting a total of "$44 million cash on hand--$16 million more than the two matching Republican groups.

I am forced to ask exactly what was Kaspit's "insider" attempting to do by speaking such an obvious falsehood? Projecting the "myth" of a monolith of omnipotent Jewish donors obsessed with Israel can be a useful, though potentially dangerous tool. It plays into the hands of anti-Semites, but I suppose from the perspective of some advocates of Israel, that's worth the risk. Because the myth is believed by some Arabs makes it doubly valuable. If Arabs become convinced that nothing they do can make change in U.S. policy, since they will always lose to "Jewish power", then they won't try to work for change. And if Arabs can be made to believe that American behavior can so easily be checked by someone "pulling the purse strings", then why would they ever trust any U.S. initiative?

Reality, of course, is far more complex. American Jews are, in fact, prodigious donors to American politics. And pro-Israel PAC's do make substantial contributions to candidates. But most money given by American Jews has nothing to do with Israel. And while some sleazy pro-Israel characters have made threats in the past to withhold "Jewish contributions" if they didn't get their way, their threats were as hollow as their boasts.

Over the years, I've seen pro-Israel groups claim credit for defeating politicians when they, in fact, had no more than a marginal role in the effort. I've also seen them mobilize vast sums of money to defend allies in Congress who were on the verge of defeat, only to see them lose despite the contributions that filled their coffers.

Nevertheless, the myth has power and persists -- hence its use by Kaspit's "insider". But a simple check of the facts reveals that the myth is just that -- a myth.

A more reasonable explanation of Washington's efforts to "calm the waters" and President Obama's upcoming meetings with the Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian President is the Administration's determination to move peace talks forward. Having secured Israel's agreement to freeze settlement construction (in the West Bank and Jerusalem) and having moved the parties to begin "proximity talks", they want the focus to be squarely on outcomes.

So Netanyahu can claim what he wishes (settlements are still, for all intent and purposes, frozen), and "insiders" can boast or threaten as they are wont to do (but the Democratic Party is doing quite well). The reality is that talks are continuing and Washington is still issuing the invitations and calling the shots.

Dr James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute and author of the forthcoming book "Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us And Why It Matters" (Palgrave-Macmillan, October 2010)

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