When the sale of AWACS jets to Saudi Arabia was narrowly upheld in the Senate on October 28, 1981, the President’s victory was widely seen as a major setback for the supposedly powerful “Jewish lobby.” Yet the first thing that needs to be observed is that the very definition of the AWACS fight as a test of “Jewish power” reflected—and reflects—a falsified conception.
It was clear, at least at the outset of the controversy, that the proposed sale was unpopular among Americans in general, not just among Jews. According to a survey of editorial comment released on May 8, 1981, 54 of 63 newspapers covering all sections of the United States opposed the deal. With the debacle of Iran just behind us, to say nothing of Vietnam earlier, the idea of providing sophisticated, modern weaponry to a small and inherently weak country that could fall into unfriendly hands was deeply disturbing to many Americans. This was further evidenced in the overwhelming vote in opposition to the sale in the House of Representatives, the branch of government closest to the people. Even in the Senate, and as late as September 17, Senator Robert Packwood was able to muster 51 Senators behind a statement announcing opposition to the sale.
In short, for a majority of Americans the issue was, as it should have remained, what was good for American foreign and military policy; and on the merits, most Americans opposed the sale. But at some point, and through a conscious decision by the Reagan administration, which was otherwise in danger of losing the fight on the merits, the issue was transformed into a question of what was good for Israel and American Jews. The slogan that emerged to symbolize the new conception—“Reagan vs. Begin”—had the further effect of placing the President’s prestige on the line, along with the whole question of who controls American foreign policy. This, together with the President’s legendary persuasive powers, finally insured passage—albeit even then by a slim margin.
Now that some time has elapsed, other elements of the picture have also fallen into place. Thanks to an exhaustive investigation by Steven Emerson (“The Petrodollar Connection,” New Republic, February 17, 1982), we can see clearly the extraordinary dimension of the campaign waged by large segments of the American business community on behalf of the AWACS deal. This campaign involved a veritable Who’s Who of corporations, oil companies, banks, and law firms with business connections and hoped-for business connections in Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Arab countries.
The campaign to influence Congress on behalf of Arab interests had begun well before the AWACS issue emerged. Federal Election Commission records show that oil-industry contributions to congressional campaigns doubled between 1978 and 1980, to more than $4,5 million. As Harold Scroggins, a lobbyist for the Independent Petroleum Producers Association, explained: “We came to a decision some time ago that the only way we could change the political fortunes of the petroleum industry was to change Congress.”
Emerson’s detailing of business pressures, “from the top of the Fortune 500 to rice growers in Arkansas,” and his description of the intimate involvement of Saudi leaders who came to Washington to work directly with corporate elements—Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, son of the Saudi Defense Minister, was provided with an office off the Senate floor—make grim reading. A month before the vote, for example, Richard M. Hunt, director of government relations for N.L. Industries, a major manufacturer of petroleum equipment and supplies, put together an ad-hoc coalition to lobby for the sale. Among the 40-odd corporations represented were Boeing and the Pratt and Whitney division of United Technologies Corporation, both with a direct stake in the sale (as, respectively, prime contractor and engine builder). The coalition also included such major oil companies as Exxon and Mobil and two international construction firms, Brown & Root and Bechtel, both of which have major interests in the Middle East.
A Midwest Senator told Emerson he was called by every chief executive officer in his state. The week before the vote, Senator Heinz of Pennsylvania, who was in the midst of a reelection effort, found himself under enormous pressure from the major industrial corporations in his home town of Pittsburgh; when he failed to vote for the sale, the number of tickets taken by companies for a Heinz fund-raising event fell precipitously.
The campaign went well beyond Congress. In a full-page ad, “A Message Worth Repeating and Repeating,” that appeared on October 13 in the New York Times and in eleven other major newspapers, Mobil reminded the American people that more than 700 companies in 42 states do “well in excess of $35 billion in contracts” for work with Saudi Arabia, dwarfing the work and contracts involving Aramco and the large American oil companies. The “magnitude and promise of this economic alliance cannot be ignored,” Mobil pointed out.
The American Jewish community was clearly not prepared for this assault, undertaken by the administration and the business community together. Jewish agencies had bent their efforts over the years to counteracting the Arab boycott campaign against Israel. Legislation requiring penalties for business cooperation in boycotts represented the fruit of their achievements in this area, and since winning this legislation they have devoted themselves to monitoring compliance. But the fact is that a major new front in the economic war against Jews and Israel has now been opened, in which the most significant feature is blackmail. We are now in a time of severe recession, and many Americans are deeply worried about losing their jobs. When Mobil reminded us of the $35 billion in contracts with Saudi Arabia, or when Boeing, in the course of its AWACS lobbying, threatened to lay off 400 workers if the sale fell through, a new and potent weapon had been introduced into the political arena.
The stakes involved are, indeed, great. With Arab investments in the United States as high as (in one estimate) $200 billion, and Saudi oil profits between now and 1990 estimated as high as $1.69 trillion, it seems obvious that in the coming years the Arabs will be able to buy ever greater quantities of professional expertise and even grassroots support, and to lobby ever more effectively for their interests. A “Washington connection” has already been well established, consisting of the White House, an important group of legislators and former legislators, and other high-level officials now working for the Arabs, as well as Washington news sources. Fred Dutton, the leading Saudi consultant-lobbyist in Washington—and the reputed author of the “Reagan vs. Begin” slogan—is a former aide of President Kennedy and a former Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations; he was recommended to the Saudis by former Senator J. William Fulbright, whose law firm, Hogan and Hartson, is now registered as a foreign agent for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Dutton is also a former associate of Herbert Schmertz, the Mobil executive credited with launching Mobil’s AWACS campaign.
The concerted campaign by the administration and important segments of the business community was aided by the development over the past years of a new consensus of political opinion concerning the Middle East conflict. Steven L. Spiegel1 has well described the main tenets of this body of opinion, which played a key role in the unfolding AWACS debate; among them are the beliefs “that Saudi Arabia is a moderate force, a country whose wealth and leadership can be relied upon to aid the pursuit of peace; that enhancing the security of the states of the Persian Gulf is a means of insuring energy supplies and also of protecting Western interests; and that the major impediment to a policy based on the foregoing propositions is the Jews of the United States. . . .”
Since the stakes involved are so high, and since, according to the new consensus, Jews stand in the way of their successful pursuit, it is not surprising that in the AWACS fight every tool was used to neutralize the Jewish factor, including anti-Semitism and the threat of anti-Semitism. As the battle heated up, even the right of American Jews to contest the sale became an issue. Senator Alfonse D’Amato of New York, who opposed the sale, placed the blame for this “at the door of corporate and pro-Saudi lobbyists,” but it has to be traced more directly to the administration in Washington. The main source of opposition to the sale, it was argued by officials in increasingly less subtle ways, came from an outside power (Israel) and from the American Jewish community, which for these purposes was an extension of that power. The administration leaked a story that Senator Packwood was opposed to the sale only because he could not afford to alienate his wealthy Jewish contributors. Secretary of State Alexander Haig warned of the danger of letting our “independent foreign policy” become hostage to “external veto.”
This was all in the nature of preliminaries. In a news conference on October 1, the President himself declared, “It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy.” Asked if this meant that Israel should “keep her hands off” American national-security matters, he said, “Well, or anyone else.” (A Christian Science Monitor correspondent noted on October 5, “Nobody had any doubt that Mr. Reagan was addressing Israel and its more zealous partisans in the United States.”) Former President Richard Nixon drove the point home a few days later declaring that “if it were not for the intense opposition” of Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and “parts of the American Jewish community,” the AWACS sale would “go through.”
For the first time since World War II, then, American Jews were being explicitly challenged, not by fringe elements like the Liberty Lobby but by the highest authorities in the land, on their right to involve themselves in an important area of public policy. Few at the time saw fit to raise a comparable question about the intensive lobbying effort of the business community. One who did was Hobart Rowen, who declared in the Washington Post on October 8 that the real drive behind the sale was a crass and grubby reach “for the Arab dollar . . . coupled with the Pentagon’s effort to lower the unit cost of the AWACS plane. . . .” Rowen went on: “Yet I do not hear those who profess to worry about the ‘divided loyalty’ of Americans of Jewish faith—thus churning up anti-Semitism—express concern about a business lobby that puts its dollars-and-cents stake in the Persian Gulf ahead of anything else.”
With the legitimation of the charge of dual loyalty, the anti-Semitism normally percolating below the surface was now brought to the fore. It was done in a curious way. Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon reported a few days prior to the Senate vote that his mail “and my talks with people in my home state” showed that anti-Semitism was definitely on the increase. A number of other Senators also noted that their mail reflected a pick-up in anti-Jewish sentiments. Senator William S. Cohen of Maine, son of an Irish mother and Jewish father, focused this entire issue when he declared that since defeat of the sale would cause a “backlash” against Israel and American Jewry, he had decided to change his previous position and vote for it. In other words, an act which American Jews saw as detrimental to their interests—passage of the AWACS deal—would really, in this interpretation, protect their interests, by neutralizing the hostility toward them that was said to be everywhere on the rise in this country.
Aside from the convoluted and self-serving quality of this reasoning, there are grounds for believing that the alleged growth of anti-Jewish feeling, which became so much of an issue shortly before the vote, was considerably overblown. Outside of Washington, a survey of editorial comment indicates, the AWACS sale was discussed on the merits and there was little mention of “dual loyalty,” pressure from the Israeli-Jewish lobby, or fears of a rise in anti-Semitism. Senator Hatfield’s impressions may have been the exception rather than the norm. A report prepared by Milton Ellerin of the American Jewish Committee, based on discussions with senatorial assistants, found that their offices “did not record any significant increase in anti-Semitic mail even during the intense final weeks of the debate.” What mail did come in was in line with what might have been anticipated, and was traceable to efforts of the Liberty Lobby, an organization which is both anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. Before the administration began its final push in the House, not a single representative reported an increase in the anti-Semitic component of his daily mail.
It is true that according to a Gallup poll conducted several weeks after the AWACS vote, 53 percent of the public expressed the belief that Israel wields “too much influence” in American foreign policy, but only 10.5 percent felt this way about American Jews (as distinct from Israel), while the percentages of those who believed that Saudi Arabia, the oil companies, and labor unions possess too much influence were 64, 70, and 46 respectively.
There is little reason, then, to believe that the debate changed popular perceptions about the Jews. What may be a problem is the harmful insinuations made at the highest levels of government, which can be more easily repeated when some explosive new issue that seems to involve the Jews arises. Was it just a coincidence that on November 17, 1981, in a heated debate on the floor of the Senate on voluntary prayer in the public schools, Senator Ernest Hollings of South Carolina referred to Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio as the “Senator from B’nai B’rith”? (He later apologized.) Or that California State Senator John Schmitz, a serious contender for the U.S. Senate, while conducting hearings, referred to a “sea of hard, Jewish, and (arguably) female faces” supporting abortion rights?
The AWACS fight raises the question of the relationship of the Jewish community to American conservatism. There has been considerable discussion in recent years over a Jewish “move to the Right.” Jews gave Reagan 39 percent of their vote in 1980, the highest proportion received by a Republican candidate since 1928. Many liked the strong stand he took on national defense and Israel, in contrast to Carter’s vacillating position. A number, disenchanted with welfare-state policies that seemed to have run out of control, were attracted by the Reagan promise to reinvigorate the private sector and tap its potential for helping to solve America’s social problems.
But even during the 1980 campaign itself, as Wolf Blitzer pointed out in a little-noticed article in the New Republic, the Reagan forces had begun to develop the “evenhanded twitch” on Middle East issues that has afflicted almost every President, whether Democrat or Republican, once he gains the Oval Office. Reagan campaign officials resisted efforts by pro-Israel Republicans to incorporate in the Republican party platform his earlier, strong position calling for Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. Some of Reagan’s most important supporters and advisers, Blitzer wrote, were coming from “gold-plated corporate giants such as Bechtel and Fluor, two California-based construction companies with significant business interests in Saudi Arabia who did not want the Republican nominee to overextend himself on the Middle East.” In July 1980, Blitzer asked the question many American Jews have been asking themselves since the AWACS fight: “Would Reagan’s policy on the Middle East be different from Carter’s?”
Reagan’s emphasis on the private sector has also proved disappointing. While he has talked a great deal about turning loose the entrepreneurial elements in our society so necessary to economic growth, and primarily the small and medium-sized businesses responsible for generating most of the new jobs in the country, in fact the major beneficiaries of his policies so far have been the corporate giants who pushed so hard for the AWACS sale. The latter differ little from welfare-state bureaucracies in their addiction to the status quo and to a kind of corporate-style socialism.
Moreover, these business interests, and the administration that represents them, have shown that they will always put economic considerations above those of national security, as the recent bail-out of the Polish debt so vividly demonstrates. (In the words of the conservative columnist George F. Will, this seems to be an administration that loves commerce more than it loathes Communism.) Small wonder that such forces should back the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia, no matter how devastating the potential consequences to our security position in the Middle East.
The role American corporations now have come to play in the formulation of American policy, particularly in the Middle East, is of concern to all Americans, but it has special meaning for Jews. This is not only because of their fears for Israel but also because Jews have so little influence in this particular area of American society. Despite the efforts of the American Jewish Committee and other organizations, Jews have still not been successful in gaining leading positions in the corporate world. In 1981, a recent study shows, the Fortune 500 industrial corporations continue to be headed by Wasps (76 percent) and, to a considerably lesser degree, Roman Catholics (16 percent). The story in banking is even more bleak, with not a single major bank in the country headed by a Jew.
Still, if the “military-industrial complex” went all out to push the sale of AWACS, this was perhaps to be expected. An unexpected, and last-minute, casualty was the Christian Right. Although American Jews have been worried by the growing strength of Christian fundamentalism in American life, they have comforted themselves with the thought that when it comes to Israel, men like the Reverend Jerry Falwell have been staunch. After the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear plant in June, Prime Minister Begin was reassured by Falwell that “God deals with nations in relation to how nations deal with Israel.” As late as October 27, Falwell’s name appeared on an anti-AWACS ad, but by this time the support expected from this quarter—mail, phone calls, fiery statements—was conspicuously absent.
Simultaneously, there was a defection by conservative Senators normally associated with a strong American foreign policy and with support of Israel—“my boys,” as Falwell has called them. One of the most significant of these was Senator Roger W. Jepson of Iowa, a silver-haired, Bible-reading, ex-insurance man who had been perhaps the most vehement opponent of the sale. (“I am a Christian,” he told an American Israel Public Affairs banquet in May. “That is why I am for Israel. This sale must and will be stopped.”) When the vote came, 26 out of the 28 Senators generally associated with the Christian Right, including Jepson, supported the sale.
Along with the conservative Senators who have normally backed the policies of Israel, such organizations as Young Americans for Freedom, the American Military Retirees Association, Catholics for Christian Political Action, the Conservative Victory Fund, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars joined in a coalition in support of the AWACS sale. The group was put together by Richard Sellers, director of congressional relations for the American Security Council and Washington director of the Coalition for Peace Through Strength. “We created an environment in which it was possible,” Sellers later told the Washington Post, “for certain key, wavering Senators to change their minds and support the sale or to drop an uncommitted stance and come out behind President Reagan.”
If conservatives normally seen as supporters of Israel proved unreliable on the AWACS issue, the liberal-Left did not exactly cover itself with glory either. It is true that the AFL-CIO strongly opposed the sale. And on the whole, liberal Senators were better on the issue than others. Some of them, however, were clearly driven at least as much by the opportunity to embarrass the Reagan administration as by any special commitment to the safety and security of Israel. Earlier in the year, one of the leading Senate liberals, Charles Mathias, Jr. of Maryland, wrote an article for the influential magazine Foreign Affairs scoring the “Israel lobby,” which acts for “reasons not always related either to personal conviction or careful reflection on the national interest.” Representative Paul N. McCloskey, Jr. of California, who achieved fame by his vigorous opposition to the war in Vietnam, told a group of retired naval officers that “we’ve got to overcome the tendency of the Jewish community in America to control the actions of Congress and force the President and Congress not to be evenhanded” in the Middle East.
The truth is that on Israel, the Jewish community has been badly served by both conservatives and liberals. Perhaps the main lesson to be learned from this is the one applied by Clemenceau to nations—that they do not have permanent allies, only permanent interests.
There was, however, one heartening aspect of the battle over the AWACS, and that was the response of the Jewish community itself. Early in the debate, it became clear that the Israeli government had been largely neutralized by the Reagan administration, which had forced it to stay out of the debate under threat of serious reprisals. At this point the American Jewish community stepped forward on its own. Of special importance was the role of a group of 40 Republican Jewish leaders who had backed Reagan for the Presidency and met now with presidential adviser Ed Meese and with the President himself to argue against the sale.
In the past, Jews in a position of leadership have been ambivalent and sometimes worse when it has come to speaking out on issues of Jewish concern. Not so these men and women. On the eve of the vote, the Jewish Republicans released a sharp public blast at the proposed sale. They were unsuccessful, of course, but as Irving Greenberg has pointed out, their behavior, like the behavior of the Jewish community at large, represented a “historic taking of responsibility” and a “political coming of age.” This holds out some hope for the future as well, since it may mean that American Jews will begin to take more initiative on broad issues affecting Jews around the world.
What has happened is that in recent years, a new group of Jewish leaders has emerged in American life. They have come to maturity in the period after World War II. They are comfortable with the idea that there is such a thing as Jewish interests, and they have learned well the lesson that Jews need not be ashamed to fight for those interests—just as blacks, unions, and business groups fight for theirs.
The administration’s policy toward Saudi Arabia and the Arab states has hardly changed in the wake of the AWACS fight. Summarizing the nature of Saudi influence in this country, Leslie H. Gelb wrote in the New York Times on December 16, 1981 that it no longer resides in the power to supply or deny us oil, but is rather “now bound up in banks, stocks, real-estate, and major international financial institutions . . . [that] inevitably feed into politics.” President Reagan expressed the point somewhat differently when he told a group of Jewish leaders who met with him on November 19 that Saudi Arabia “is the key to peace in the Middle East.”
But if there is no inclination in Washington at the moment to reconsider policy, this does not mean that those who have alternative views are without recourse. The political process should not be counted out. The President has been buffeted by a decline in his popularity, and Republican strength generally has eroded in recent elections in Virginia and New Jersey. And then there is the politics of pluralism. The electoral importance of the Jews has to be factored into the game plan of the Reagan forces in the coming months.
Still, it would be well to acknowledge candidly the broader currents affecting the Jews, currents over which they have little or no control but which in the final analysis determine their ability to further their own interests in a manner congruent with the national interest properly understood. These have to do with the country’s need to face a powerful Soviet adversary in various parts of the globe, our continued dependence on Middle East oil resources, and the economic decline and loss of productivity which have weakened the nation’s strength and resolve. Unless real progress is made on these fronts in the coming months and years, no amount of Jewish “power” will be able to effect a meaningful change in American policy toward the Middle East.
Finally it would be well to acknowledge too the special interest Jews have in Israel, which is qualitatively different from the interests that Jews have in other areas affecting their welfare. Israel is unique, Nathan Glazer has written, “in that it is not threatened with defeat or the loss of territories or the loss of respect—it is threatened by annihilation, up to, one assumes, the massacre of its inhabitants. . . .” This explains the intensity of American Jewish feeling about Israel, and it also points to the terrible predicament toward which we may be heading. For one can conceive of a scenario, unfortunately the more plausible as this country seeks to draw closer to the Arab states, where the American “national interest” will prevent the United States from doing what may need to be done to insure the survival of Israel.
Glazer has described the difficult position in which this places American Jews. “[A]t a time when Jewish leadership is more unified than ever before, when fewer issues of interest, culture, style, and orientation divide it, when it is more united in spirit—if not in organization—than ever before, one central problem . . . rises up more intensely for Jews than for any other group: how does one defend group interests without affecting—or being seen to affect—adversely the public interest?”
This is the stark dilemma which the dirty fight over the AWACS has posed with excruciating clarity for American Jews.
1“The Middle East: A Consensus of Error,” COMMENTARY, March 1982.