Kerry is Right: The Israel Lobby Needs to Lobby Israel

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

“Israel lobby” is a term that could have two meanings, if you think about it. In standard Washington usage, it refers to American groups—often but not always Jewish—that lobby the U.S. Congress and White House on behalf of Israel, or rather on behalf of policies that those groups think are good for Israel. But there’s another possible meaning, as John Kerry implied in a speech to the American Jewish Committee on Monday: Americans, especially Jews, lobbying the Israeli government.

This already happens. Recently American Jews have publicly pushed for changes in Israeli policy on two issues. In both cases, though, they were arguing about deck chairs on the Titanic: how much they cost, and who gets to sit in them. Speaking to the AJC’s Global Forum, the secretary of state warned that the ship is sailing into an iceberg. His listeners, he said, should urge, beg, nudge, and bagger the captain and crew to change course.

Here’s one example of reverse Israel lobbying: Last month, the Israeli cabinet was about to vote on the national budget. One item would have eliminated an exemption from Value Added Tax for tourists. That is, a foreigner would have to pay tax on her hotel room or car rental, just like an Israeli. The chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Richard Stone, and Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his finance minister, asking to keep the loophole. Making tourists pay VAT, Stone and Hoenlein wrote, could “cause many to reconsider, postpone, or even cancel trips to Israel.” It would raise the cost of Birthright, the program that gives free trips to Israel to 40,000 Jewish young adults annually, and of “missions,” visits by delegations of U.S. Jewish organizations, they said.

The cabinet decided to keep the exemption. To be fair, the local tourism industry also pressured politicians. On the other hand, public outcry did not keep the cabinet from slashing support for poor and middle-class families. The precise impact of the request from the Presidents Conference is unknown. But Stone and Hoenlein certainly didn’t refrain from lobbying the Israeli government when it affected their pockets.

Read the rest here.