The battle between American-Jewish political donors heats up

Jonathan Cook

With potential candidates for next year’s US presidential elections starting to declare their hand, the chief donors on both sides of the political divide appear to have one issue uppermost in mind: Israel.

Among Republican hopefuls, there has been especially intense pressure to prove their unwavering support for the right-wing Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Reports last week suggested that one leading contender, Jeb Bush, brother of former President George W Bush, had become an early casualty among Republicans trying to prove their pro-Israel credentials.

The National Review reported that Bush was considered “a dead man politically” after losing the backing of the Republican party’s kingmaker, billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Adelson is said to have been infuriated by comments from Bush’s foreign policy adviser, James Baker, a former US secretary of state. Baker criticised Netanyahu in March at the annual conference of J-Street, a liberal Israel lobby group.

Key donors to the Republican and Democratic camps have grown increasingly concerned about deteriorating US-Israel ties following repeated clashes between Barack Obama’s White House and Netanyahu’s government.

Relations hit an unprecedented low in early March, when Netanyahu outraged the White House by engineering — with Republican help — an address to the US Congress to try to scupper talks between major world powers and Iran over its nuclear programme. The White House has said a deal with Tehran is a key plank of its Middle East policy.

Two weeks later, Netanyahu decisively won an Israeli general election that could see him in power for the next four years or longer.

Concerned by US-Israel ties

Although Congress is widely regarded as supportive of Israel, the growing diplomatic rupture between Netanyahu and Obama appears to have become a motivating factor among major donors in the upcoming presidential race.

According to analysts, the key bankrollers of both the Republican and Democratic campaigns want to make sure Netanyahu faces a much easier ride with Obama’s successor.

Clashes with the White House have centred on the Israeli prime minister’s intransigence on Palestinian statehood and his confrontational stance towards Tehran.

The influence of billionaire donors on the positions of presidential hopefuls has grown rapidly in recent years as the sums they are allowed to invest in campaigns have swollen dramatically.

Politico, an online site dedicated to US politics, called this the “new big-money political landscape”, arguing that “a handful of donors can dramatically alter a campaign with just a check or two”.

Mention of Israel’s influence in Washington was long ago silenced by accusations that such discussions were inherently anti-Semitic.

However, in recent years the role on Capitol Hill of aggressive Israeli lobby groups, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), has come under scrutiny.

Famously, columnist Thomas Friedman referred in The New York Times to Congress’ multiple standing ovations for a 2011 speech by Netanyahu “as bought and paid for by the Israel lobby”.

In recent days, committees of both the House of Representatives and the Senate have unanimously voted for controversial Aipac-backed amendments that would penalise states and organisations if they support boycott, divestment or sanctions (BDS) campaigns against either Israel or its illegal settlements in Palestinian territory.

If the legislation passes, it would appear to be “the first-ever formal step toward US government recognition of the settlements’ legitimacy”, according to an op-ed in Jewish daily The Forward.

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