AIPAC and the Corruption of Ben Cardin
When I speak of Ben Cardin's corruption, I am not speaking of pay-offs, or bribes or anything of that sort. I am not talking about anything that is illegal, and not about dark secrets that I have learned. I am speaking of something deeper, and ultimately, more important.
That said, there is one troubling area of some relevance, campaign contributions. In 2006 Cardin ran for the Senate for the first time. His win, that November, followed a squeaker victory in the Maryland Primary against another Congressman, Kweisi Mfume. Having outspent Mfume, Cardin won by 44% to 41%. In 2004, the last year Cardin ran for re-election as a member of the House, he was hardly a matter of focus for AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), nor for the slew of so called "pro-Israel" PACs it guides, nor for AIPAC supporters around the country. AIPAC typically gives to all members of Congress, but vastly more to some than others. In 2004, Cardin was near the very bottom, receiving under $1,000. But two years later, when he ran for the Senate he was at the very top, receiving over $400,000 from the AIPAC related PACs, and also near the top as a recipient of major contributions from individual AIPAC supporters across the country. A decade later, Cardin was one of the 4 Democratic Senators to follow AIPAC's lead and join the 54 Republicans who voted against President Obama's Iran deal. Not a coincidence, but apparently to him, nothing to be ashamed of either.
Putting this kind of thing aside, or simply in the background, what I am talking about is something more fundamental, and it begins not in Congress, and not with AIPAC. It begins in the Jewish experience, and our still uncertain relationship with America. Thirty years ago, I founded The Jewish Peace Lobby, an alternative to AIPAC as a voice in Washington; J-street before there was J-street, when Arafat was still bottled up in Tunis and the concept of the two-state solution and negotiating with the PLO was, to most, laughable. The central fact about the Jewish Peace Lobby was that we were (and remain) prepared to deal with Israeli governments, and related U.S. policy, on the merits. If we disagreed with a sitting Israeli government, or with accommodating U.S. policies, we said so.
Ben Cardin is pro-Israel, at least in intention. This is the main thing he does in the Senate. For him this means promoting and ensuring what he calls a strong "relationship" between the United States and Israel. This is his way, and it is largely AIPAC's way. It sounds like something we all should want, but it is deeply deceptive.
Operationally, this comes down to U.S. support for virtually anything that any Israeli government does. I know this perspective well. When the Jewish Peace Lobby first started, I was told repeatedly that we Jews had to keep our differences "in house" and that Israel was a democracy. It was their lives that were on the line, not ours, and we had to respect the decisions of a freely elected Israeli government. Also there were fears about how public divisions in the community might affect U.S. aid to Israel, and also something unspoken, but rooted in concern over our place in America.
This is a powerful line of thought. Indeed, it is the way most Jews in America have thought, perhaps up until very recently. Since 1989, I have had three things to say in response. First, we are Americans, concerned with American foreign policy. Our obligation is to try to have our government do what is both right and in conformity with the interests and values of our own democracy. This has great overlap with supporting Israeli governmental policy, but it is certainly not total, and sometimes, depending on the Israeli government, it is or can be, at odds, even in significant conflict. While as private individual Jews we might decide to bite our tongues and not speak out, for this to be the foreign policy of our country, or the role of our elected Senators or Congresspersons, is simply untenable, being contrary to their elected responsibilities and our democratic institutions.
Secondly, if we are to be politically engaged, it is unsustainable and ultimately dishonest to support any policy of any Israeli government. The policy objectives of one sitting Israeli government can swing 180 degrees overnight depending on an election or on coalition deal making. How can we argue one day that our government should endorse the dream of Greater Israel because Shamir is in power, and then the next day urge that our government pursue the two-state solution because Rabin has become Prime Minister. How could any self-respecting Senator flip-flop in that way?
And third, it seemed to me impossible, if we really cared about Israel, really cared about peace, really cared about justice -- that we would or could, in this case of special concern, go ahead and check our brains at the door. As engaged people, as daily readers of Haaretz, as frequent visitors to Israel, we know more about her situation and have stronger views about her real interests than we have about any country in the world, other than our own. How can we in good conscience, act and engage contrary to all our beliefs, our knowledge, that we have acquired, sometimes over decades?
In short, I have a very different view of how be pro-Israel than Ben Cardin. Yes, the relationship is of great importance, and there is a bottom line when it comes to an American commitment to the survival of Israel. But short of that, I believe that whatever the objectives of the sitting Israeli government, whatever the coalition, we need to strongly promote an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that means some variant of the two-state solution, and some degree of respect for the rights and dignity of the Palestinians. Sometimes it means tough love.
The central point here is that my disagreements with AIPAC and with Ben Cardin on vital issue, are at bottom, not really about the issues. Whatever they really think about the issues, is not knowable. It may be that that they are not inherently right-wing, even AIPAC. If Ben Cardin really does think through the issues, which I doubt, there is no way of telling what he concludes in his mind. In his actions, however, as with AIPAC, he is on the right. He opposed President Obama's nuclear agreement with Iran. He offered legislation to protect settlements, and votes against the initiatives of others to make even the mildest of criticisms. He even introduced legislation that would undermine American freedom of speech, as the ACLU argued with respect to his anti-boycott legislation. He holds and promotes these positions because the sitting Prime Minister of Israel, Bibi Netanyahu has these positions.
Ben Cardin, no doubt, thinks it is all one great co-incidence. He, and AIPAC, just happen to always agree with every Israeli Prime Minister. And yes, this does happen to fit with his "maintaining the special relationship" perspective, and yes it happens to fit with the imperative to keep disagreements inside the community. And it even fits with his source of campaign contributions. But again, just one big coincidence. That he has come to think that he takes his positions and actions on the merits is near delusional. Either that, or he is deeply cynical. In truth, having watched him closely for years, I don't know which.
That he presents himself as a thoughtful and knowledgeable public servant, both to the public and to the other Senators who look to him for leadership, is an essential part of the scam. All of this is the inner corruption of which I speak, and it infects many in the Congress. In a Senator, especially one who focuses and leads others on foreign policy, it is a disqualification for office.