US Israel lobby: Money speaks louder than words

US Israel lobby: Money speaks louder than words
Comment: Both Trump and Clinton receive huge sums from pro-Israel donors, and make no bones of their support for Netanyahu and opposition to BDS, writes Dr. Tamara Kharroub
6 min read
16 Sep, 2016
The debate around Wall Street overshadowed the impact of pro-Israel lobbies [AFP]

A recurring theme in the current US presidential election season has been corporate influence in US politics. 

Such influence can take the form of indirect gifts to politicians, candidates or their foundations, funded campaign ads or paid speeches. But despite demands to "take money out of politics" and overturn the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision and the ensuing Super PACs (Political Action Committees) - corruption in the US political system is alive and well.

A few multimillionaires and wealthy interest groups invest millions of dollars in different forms of campaign financing and donations, in order to promote their corporate interest, advance certain political and social causes, and support candidates who benefit them.

While rich individuals and interest groups have diverse agendas that they push to promote through campaign financing, the majority of the discussion has focused on the corporate influence of Wall Street.

What remains less publicly discussed is the impact of pro-Israel multimillionaires who pump hundreds of millions of dollars into presidential campaigns and the candidates' foundations and super PACs, with only one condition; supporting Israel.

Numerous examples from past election cycles (both presidential and congressional) can give some indication of this strong influence on political outcomes. The current US presidential elections are also no exception.

In 2005, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was a fellow at right-wing American Enterprise Institute, and wrote an article expressing a somewhat moderate view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Despite the overwhelming rhetoric of "Palestinian terrorism" and criticising the Palestinian leadership and his disproportionate focus on Israeli security, Gingrich showed some compassion toward the Palestinian people.

The "majority of the Palestinian people would like to live in safety, health, prosperity, and freedom," he said encouraging the Palestinian diaspora to invest in their "ancestral lands". He even praised the Palestinian people as "a relatively wealthy, educated, and cosmopolitan people" and "among the most international and most advanced people in the Arab world".

Less publicly discussed, is the impact of pro-Israel multimillionaires who pump hundreds of millions of dollars into presidential campaigns

Furthermore, Gingrich suggested that the US place limitations on Israel including financial leverages to pressure Israel to end what he himself called settlements, land grab, and expansionism. He said, "The US government should become the protector of the Palestinian people's right" and should "actively support a democratic Palestinian state". He even called on Congress to "establish a program of economic aid for the Palestinian people to match the aid the US government provides Israel."

Five years later, Newt Gingrich was running for the republican presidential primary, with multimillionaire Sheldon Adelson as his largest campaign contributor giving more than $20 million in donations. Incidentally that year, Gingrich adopted views more consistent with Adelson's strong pro-Israel agenda.

Sheldon Adelson and his Israeli wife Miriam spent almost $100 million and reportedly another $50 million to prevent Obama's re-election in the period leading to the 2012 presidential elections. In December 2011, Newt Gingrich made his famous claim that Palestinians are an "invented people" and that the peace process is "delusional". He also made public statements in a radio interview supporting Israeli settlements as a "development in the Israeli-occupied areas".

Such views clearly echo Adelson's strong pro-Israeli political agenda and his efforts to expand settlements and oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state. Adelson blatantly says that "the two-state solution is a stepping stone for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people," in clear contradiction to the bipartisan official US policy.

Adelson has made it clear that his only condition for $100 million in contributions to the Trump campaign is support for Israel

Newt Gingrich's about-face is one of many examples of the influence of pro-Israel money on US politics. After Gingrich dropped out of the republican primary race and Mitt Romney became the nominee, Adelson directed his contributions to Romney, spending $30 million and arranged for the regular visit to Israel in which the US presidential candidate court Israeli leaders and voice support for the Jewish state.

Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is the 21st richest man in the world, with a fortune of $30 billion as estimated in 2016 by Forbes. He is the largest contributor to GOP candidates and their PACs. Adelson's self-declared cause for leaving the Democratic Party and joining the Republican Party is the fact that republicans are known to be more pro-Israel.

The multimillionaire soon became the Republican Party's money machine, with all candidates paying him regular visits in Las Vegas and the Republican primary becoming known as the Adelson primary. He is also influential in Israeli politics; he founded the newspaper Israel Hayom and has been known to greatly support Netanyahu and other right-wing groups.

Adelson has reportedly given more than $140 million to Birthright Israel and $5 million to Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, in addition to many other Zionist pro-Israel organisations in the United States.

A visit to Las Vegas and an AIPAC conference later, Trump's positions evolved

As far as the 2016 presidential race is concerned, Sheldon Adelson has made it clear that his only condition for $100 million in contributions to the Trump campaign is support for Israel. This can explain Trump's U-turn on the issue.

In the early stages of his presidential campaign in December 2015, Donald Trump hinted that Israel carries the majority of the blame for the failure of the peace process, and later made some comments about being "neutral" and recognising Palestine and Palestinians. He even hinted that he is not interested in Jewish republican money when he said, "I can't be bought."

However, a visit to Las Vegas and an AIPAC conference later, Trump's positions evolved. His statements are now more strongly pro-Israel and in support of illegal settlement expansion in occupied Palestinian areas, and are now consistent with the traditional position of US political candidates and elected officials.

At this point it is not yet publicly known whether the $100 million contributions have been made, but Trump's statements on Israel suggest this is the case. Although Adelson requested Trump visit Israel - like Romney did in 2012 - Trump is probably pressed for time at this late stage in the election season, with debates looming at the end of September and October and the elections in November.

The influence of pro-Israel money is not exclusive to the Republican Party. Several democratic mega-donors have greatly influenced Democratic politics. Haim Saban, longtime donor for the Clinton Foundation, is one of them. The pro-Israel multimillionaire publicly declared several times, "I'm a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel," making clear that his plan is to influence US politics through donations, think tanks and media.

Along with Saban's almost $25 million donation to the Clinton Foundation, most donors to the foundation have long been known to be pro-Israel and recently anti-BDS. With hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to her foundation, Hillary Clinton shows no hesitation in strongly supporting Israel and Netanyahu, and opposing BDS.

While the young and educated progressives in the Democratic Party - including American Jews, most of whom were Bernie Sanders supporters during the Democratic primary - are increasingly critical of US policy towards Israel, money remains louder than their voices, at least for now.  

Dr. Tamara Kharroub is a Middle East Analyst at the Arab Center, Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.