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The existence of a uniquely powerful Israel lobby in the United States is nearly indisputable. While other lobbies certainly exist, the unique power of the Israel lobby is its remarkable ability to enforce an ironclad bipartisan consensus on the Israel question. Unlike, for instance, the question of funding Ukraine or the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, all of which are rightly discussed and debated in the US Congress, the unconditional support for Israel is not, despite the fact that it has been accused of genocide and aggressively spies on the United States. The Israel lobby is widely seen to be a reason for this. Every serious presidential candidate gives fawning speeches to AIPAC. All of this is despite support for Israel becoming an increasingly contentious issue in the public eye.

Quoting Mearsheimer and Walt, two renowned international relations scholars:

The bottom line is that AIPAC, a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on Congress, with the result that US policy towards Israel is not debated there, even though that policy has important consequences for the entire world.

The strange thing I have noticed, however, is that the question of the Israel lobby is scarcely discussed in American politics or in American media. We might contrast this with e.g., the Left regularly criticizing the NRA or the Right criticizing e.g., other ethnic lobbies. The last time the Israel lobby figured in mainstream public discussion was in the late-aughts when Mearsheimer and Walt released their book. There is a taboo, and in fact we see this taboo manifested on this very website: my eminently reasonable question asking why the US views Iran as a geopolitical adversary received three close votes, almost certainly because I had the gall to mention the Israel lobby.

What are some of the reasons for this taboo?

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    I find it interesting that you link to Wikipedia to (correctly) establish the existence of pro-Israel lobbyist groups in the USA, but then focus your question on AIPAC, when the page notes that the group Christians for Israel is the largest member of this lobby (it has around 70 times as many members as AIPAC!). But of course, then the story becomes one of systemic cultural factors in politically influential segments of the USA and how they influence policy toward Israel, more than sinister Israeli control over politics.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jan 23 at 5:29
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    Along the note that @Obie2.0 mentions, it would be useful to indicate to indicate what specifically notes them as more powerful than, say, the NRA - while the NRA does get criticized by the left more publicly, in 2023, there were 146 mass shootings from January to April - and yet their lobbying continues to hold sway calling for more security,even as they were facing legal trouble (Including a bankruptcy claim and a potential breaking up of the NRA), and with ~5 M members,manages to seem to have a strong hold in lobbying, even with critique. Jan 23 at 5:48
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    Voting to close this question, because it aims to one-sidedly discredit one political side. This goes against the rules on Politics SE. See help center for guidance before posting anything on this site. Soapboxing is discouraged here. Jan 23 at 13:11

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Is Israeli lobby not discussed?

The strange thing I have noticed, however, is that the question of the Israel lobby is scarcely discussed in American politics or in American media

Existence of Israeli lobby is not exactly a secret, see, e.g.,

Politicians across the political spectrum openly interact with it, and these interactions are covered by media. Just a couple of examples:
Obama's famous gaffe during 2008 presidential campaign:

"Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided," Obama told the vast annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC).

The event was widely discussed afterwards, as for obvious reasons the Obama team had to backtrack on the statement.

Bernie Sanders, who is not a rather well-known politician in the US, has been pointedly avoiding and criticizing AIPAC for years, e.g.: Bernie Sanders Prepares for ‘War’ With AIPAC and Its Super PAC

There are also Israeli lobby groups promoting agendas different from those by AIPAC, like JStreet that tried to play an alternative to AIPAC during the early years of the Obama administration and their Middle East peacemaking. JStreet positions are basically those of the Democratic party, and as such didn't have bi-partisan support.

Is Israeli lobby that powerful?

The existence of a uniquely powerful Israel lobby in the United States is nearly indisputable.

Lobbying is a powerful activity in the US, and encompasses a lot more than foreign/ethnic/religious lobbies:

The number of lobbyists in Washington is estimated to be over 12,000, but most lobbying (in terms of expenditures), is handled by fewer than 300 firms.4 A report in The Nation in 2014 suggested that while the number of registered lobbyists in 2013 (12,281) decreased compared to 2002, lobbying activity was increasing and "going underground" as lobbyists use "increasingly sophisticated strategies" to obscure their activity.5 Analyst James A. Thurber estimated that the actual number of working lobbyists was close to 100,000 and that the industry brings in $9 billion annually, mostly from corporations.5 Wall Street spent a record $2 billion trying to influence the 2016 United States presidential election.

If we judge lobbies by their spending, AIPAC is nowhere near the top - see here or here.

There are also other powerful foreign lobbies, such as: China lobby, Turkish lobby, Libya lobby, Saudi Arabia lobby, Arab lobby, etc.

Why does Israeli lobby attract excessive attention?
One reason why the Israeli lobby attracts more attention is the extension of the exceptional attention given to the Arab-Isreali conflict. However, this is not the only reason - attributing Jews excessive influence and blaming them for the world's evils is a rather old conspiracy theory, whose famous representative is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion - an antisemitic fabrication publish in Czarist Russia more than a hundred years ago. These claims raised to the level of national policy in Nazi Germany, and this is the reason why after the defeat of Nazism very few have appetite for repeating them in public, although the conspiracy theory is by no means dead.

This reluctance to rehash the claims of the Worlwide Jewish Conspiracy is however limited to the Western World. E.g., The Proticols were brought back to life during the Durban 1 conference in South Africa in 2001:

While the 2001 conference aimed to become “a landmark in the struggle to eradicate all forms of racism,” it degenerated into a hallmark of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, marking a lost opportunity to create a strong international mechanism against racism and all forms of hatred. Accredited groups at the conference distributed copies of the antisemitic The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and cartoons of hook-nosed Jews. Thousands protested against Israel, with signs equating the Star of David to a swastika, praising Hitler and calling it an apartheid state.

Remarks

  • IMHO, rehashing century old antisemitic conspiracies seriously damages the Palestinian cause. While on the emotional level one can understand Palestinians feeling to be "understood" by westerners who hate the Jews, the objectives of the two groups are very different: for Palestinians it is a rational goal of fulfilling their national aspirations, while for western Israel-haters it is the irrational urge to denigrate and eventually exterminate the Jews. Instead Palestinians should associate with the rational people, which also happen to be those involved in the actual decision-making.

Related: The antisemitism of the AIPAC witch-hunt

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Let's start with a 2010 quote by Walter Mead:

A group like AIPAC enjoys power and recognition not because it controls or even represents the votes of Jews. AIPAC’s power rests on gentile ideas and support; if a politician gets loudly and publicly labeled anti-Israel by AIPAC and its allies that politician will get hammered in the next election because so many American gentiles want their politicians to support the Jewish state. AIPAC works like the NRA; it is the publicly accepted voice on an issue about which the public has strong views.

Now, Mead has staked out a position roughly opposite that of Mearsheimer (author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy). To quote that (2007) book's Goodreads entry:

... it (Israel Lobby) provoked both howls of outrage and cheers of gratitude for challenging what had been a taboo issue in the impact of the Israel lobby on U.S. foreign policy ... remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the United States provides to Israel and argues that this support cannot be fully explained on either strategic or moral grounds. This exceptional relationship is due largely to the political influence of a loose coalition of individuals and organizations ... *

wikipedia's coverage of reactions to the book stated (remember that Wikipedia coverage of politically sensitive subject can be less than wholly neutral):

Mark Mazower, a professor of history at Columbia University, wrote that it is not possible to openly debate the topic of the article: "What is striking is less the substance of their argument than the outraged reaction: to all intents and purposes, discussing the US-Israel special relationship still remains taboo in the U.S. media mainstream. [...] Whatever one thinks of the merits of the piece itself, it would seem all but impossible to have a sensible public discussion in the U.S. today about the country's relationship with Israel."

or

Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, gives a detailed point by point critique of the paper.[45] Zunes also writes that "The authors have also been unfairly criticized for supposedly distorting the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though their overview is generally quite accurate," and agreed with Joseph Massad's interpretation of Mearsheimer's and Walt's argument: "[T]here is something quite convenient and discomfortingly familiar about the tendency to blame an allegedly powerful and wealthy group of Jews for the overall direction of an increasingly controversial U.S. policy."[45]

Mead's dispute with Mearsheimer

Mead also notes that contrary to Walt and Mearsheimer's claim that pro-Israel groups exert influence through campaign finance, pro-Israel groups contributed less than one percent of PAC contributions in the 2006 election cycle. Mead agreed that pro-Israel political advocacy is a topic worthy of study but argued that the US policy on Israel grows out of more diverse and complicated historical reasons than described in The Israel Lobby.

With that out of the way...

The USA is a nation of diasporas, "moral certitudes" (the US is always right) and, yes, lobbies.

Yes, a diaspora feeling very strongly about a single issue can influence policy. One such has indeed largely steered foreign policy on a narrow subject, presumably decided a POTUS election and flipped what used to be contested state into solidly a one-party state.

AIPAC? No, the 2000 POTUS election, Florida and Cuban policy, via the Cuban expat community. Do we hear much muttering about Cubans ruling the US? We do not.

AIPAC, and the Cuban expats operate standard, legal, lobbying entities. With the electoral transparency they are required to use, no more, no less. They do not control US foreign policy, but, as per Mead, they do manage to steer policy in a way that both suits them and already resonates with the US public (note that Mead wrote this in 2010, the popularity of AIPAC is not written in stone). That is what lobbying organizations do.

Generally speaking, Jewish people (7.6M / 2.4% US population) are well-regarded in the US and, as Israel is also, for reasons already asked about on this site, held in fairly high esteem, their support for Israel is not contentious. If the Cuban expats were instead supporting Castro's legacy, they presumably would not be well regarded. China's expats, if they were to deploy a charm offensive to support Xi, would be villified. If those same expats attack the CCP, they will be applauded. The starting context matters: does the US public like the policy advocated?

Likewise, Biden reminded the UK PM a while back that screwing up the Good Friday accords wrt Ireland's land borders would not be taken kindly in US trade deals. People are expected to support their roots, within reason, as long as that support "flows" with general US sentiment.

What about Palestine?

Sad to say, when Gaza makes the news it usually starts with the wrong reasons. Americans react badly to terrorism. They don't pay that much attention to the population's day to day hardships, hold the region in low esteem (no democracies like ours there!) and generally avoid looking too closely at what Israel is up to.

If the Palestinian people had better representatives, they would likely get better press. As it is, the spokespersons are Hamas and the PLO's not-recently-elected Abbas. Absent mass civilian casualties their sympathy meter just does not stack up to Israel's.

Who else supports Israel?

Some of the strongest supporters of Israel are US Evangelicals. They most certainly are not held under thrall by AIPAC.

To reiterate: the nature of AIPAC's influence is not a problem by itself: it remains well within the laws and customs of lobby groups, even if it is certainly quite influential. The goals of AIPAC, which seems largely to be to insulate the Israeli government from having to compromise is a problem, to some. If J Street, a much smaller, pro-peace Jewish American lobby group was ascendant, there would be no complaints (from those wishing for a 2 state solution).

Does it matter?

Traditionally, Presidents have steered clear of taking on Israel, even on fairly clearcut issues like the illegal settlements, until they are near the end of their second term and do not have to face reelection. Bush senior, Clinton, IIRC.

Or, Guardian:

The groups are a powerful force in US politics that draw comparisons to the National Rifle Association (NRA) at the peak of its power, and spent more on the 2022 Congress than other special interests, such as the oil and gas industry.

The former president Barack Obama, in his 2020 memoir, detailed the threat Aipac presents to Israel’s critics, who risked “being tagged as ‘anti-Israel’ (and possibly anti-Semitic) and confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election”, he wrote.

As to the fact that AIPAC's influence is discussed and hardly a secret, I defer to another answer.

The big honking elephant in the room

So far I've compared AIPAC to the Cuban expat lobby, with comparisons to Chinese and Irish-root expats as well.

But that is not the whole story. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a long-standing conspiracy theory, started in early 1900s Russia, exploited in 1930-1940s Nazi Germany and part-resurrected at a UN convention in 2003. The Protocols claims that Jews "control stuff" and is a recurring staple of anti-semitism at its most virulent. In general "Jews controlling too much stuff" is a bog standard anti-semitic talking point.

AIPAC gets little challenge because

  • it operates legally and in similar fashion to other lobby groups

  • its aims, for better or worse, are in line with US public sentiment. And those of its opponents, less so.

  • criticism of it can, rightly or wrongly, depending on the nature of said criticism, be associated with some of the most vile anti-semitic crap humanity has been able to drum up.

It should be possible to question US foreign policy wrt Israel, like other branches of its foreign policy get questioned, but the anti-semitism stink is a strong deterrent. And so is the tendency of pro-Palestinian supporters to pooh-pooh Hamas' atrocities.

* I rather liked Mearsheimer's book, which is definitely a work of realpolitik. I think it's a bit easy to accuse him of anti-semitism in it, he mostly seems to object to AIPAC's aims not aligning all that much with US interests, rather than its methods, and would not mind a stronger voice from say, J Street. That said, Mearsheimer's position on Ukraine, that NATO left Putin no choice, has definitely soured me on his analysis and I wonder what intellectual shortcuts he took in writing the Israel Lobby.

p.s. while the question can certainly be considered contentious, not least for its Protocols-y whiff, the massive downvoting it attracted does somewhat support the notion that it bears asking. Is there enough realpolitik assessment of what supporting Israel come-what-may gains the US? Or indeed Israel itself, if it has to continue its present policies indefinitely? Then again, how much does the US-Cuban foreign policy really get questioned?

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    +1 Well-researched answer (it would be a pity, if the Q is deleted, as it deserves a public rebuttal and therefor useful... but violates other guidelines.) IMHO Mearsheimer is an example of covert racism - a seemingly rational outlook based on biased premises (which are too deeply rooted in one's education/experience to be questioned.) Jan 25 at 15:41
  • Thanks. It is a sensitive and controversial subject, but I didn't think a delete/close was appropriate - doing so makes it look like there is something to hide. Jan 25 at 18:21
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    A fact that's probably very relevant to the issue: There are 5.7 million Jews living in the US, and they're well-represented in media and academia. So the Jewish/Zionist perspective on the Palestine issue is well-represented, not because of any nefarious AIPAC conspiracy, but simply because Jews are a normal part of American culture, in a way that they aren't in other countries (except Israel).
    – dan04
    Jan 26 at 23:05
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Define 'discussion'. I mean just today there was a headline in Politico:

AIPAC uncorks $100 million war chest to sink progressive candidates

AIPAC is expected to spend $100 million across its political entities in 2024, taking aim at candidates they deem insufficiently supportive of Israel, according to three people with direct knowledge of the figure, who were granted anonymity to discuss private meetings.

[...] J Street, a progressive pro-Israel group that defended candidates against AIPAC in primaries in 2022, won’t reprise that role in 2024, arguing that it’s “generally not a fruitful use of our resources to spend in intra-party feuds,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said. Instead, they’ll focus their $10 million program on only general election campaigns.

[...] Democratic operatives pointed to AIPAC’s success in 2022 as evidence of “serious ROI” for giving, said one Democratic bundler who is close to AIPAC. Last cycle, AIPAC won six of the eight primary races where it intervened, prevailing in largely open races. Levin, who lost to fellow Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) after the pair were drawn into the same district, was the only incumbent they took out.

[...] The expansiveness of AIPAC’s battlefield primarily comes from its roster of mega-donors. They’re backed by Democrats, like media executive Haim Saban, and Republicans, like former Home Depot CEO Bernie Marcus and billionaire financier Paul Singer. But those GOP donors give progressives, they believe, an opening to attack AIPAC, aiming to turn their endorsement toxic in primaries.

Looks like a lot of discussion to me.

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