The Battle over AWACS (1981)

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The battle over AWACS is, J.J. Goldberg writes, 'the most storied episode in the history of American Jewish politics'.[1] It pitted American Jewish organisations against a newly elected and popular administration, in an often vicious political battle waged in public over several months. At stake was the Reagan administration's intention to sell five AWACS (Airborne Warning And Command System) — C-5 cargo planes fitted with advanced electronic surveillance equipment — to Saudi Arabia.

The AWACS sale had initially been the project of the outgoing Carter administration (in Autumn 1980), and while running for office Reagan had opposed it. As President he soon changed his mind. He approved the sale on 21 April 1981, and formally notified Congress on 1 October the same year. Congress therefore had the opportunity to veto the sale — this required a majority vote in both the House and the Senate — in October. The months between April and October thus saw a political battle take place, with American Jewish organisations seeking to persuade as many legislators as possible to pre-empt the October vote by publicly declaring opposition to the sale, and the administration trying to prevent them from doing so.

In the end, the administration carried the day — though it lost the House by an overwhelming margin (301-111 voted against the sale), the Senate rejected a veto resolution and the sale went through. The margin of victory for the administration was, however, strikingly narrow: the Senate rejected a veto by a vote of 52-48.

The battle over the AWACS sale is frequently cited in arguments about the political influence of the Israel lobby. However, different analysts draw different conclusions from it: some point to the lobby's ability to very nearly defeat a popular president on a crucial and otherwise uncontroversial strategic issue as evidence of its power; others stress the fact that the lobby, despite mobilising all its resources to win the AWACS fight, ultimately lost.[2] 'Politically', writes Goldberg, the lobby's failed AWACS campaign spawned 'a myth of Jewish invincibility' — more specifically, 'it created the myth of AIPAC'.[3]

The Battle

The administration's rationale

Nicholas Laham, drawing on archival documents from the Reagan White House, argues that the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia was a crucial element in its strategy both to stimulate the domestic economy and to re-assert U.S. power in the Gulf.

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Security Affairs James Buckley described the proposed sale as 'a cornerstone of the President's policy to strengthen the strategic environment in the Middle East'.[4] U.S. power in the region had been shaken by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the same year. The Reagan administration was determined to strengthen the U.S. military presence in the region, through the U.S.-Saudi alliance. The AWACS sale would allow the Saudi regime to detect incoming Iraqi, Iranian or Soviet planes trying to attack its oilfields, on which the U.S. economy depended, and more broadly would help cement the U.S.-Saudi military alliance.[5]

The administration didn't see the sale as endangering Israel's Qualitative Military Edge (QME), because the AWACS planes were purely defensive in capacity. Laham seems to endorse this argument — but then, why did the Israeli government and its lobbyists in the U.S. so strongly oppose it?

The Lobby's opposition

Reagan approved the sale on 21 April 1981. The lobby's response was immediate. On 23 April the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a statement, entitled 'Middle East Memo-Warning: America's Interests at Risk', opposing the sale. It gave two grounds for opposition:

  • the Islamist uprising in Mecca in 1979 revealed that the Saudi regime was unstable, and so the weapons might end up falling into the wrong hands;
  • the Saudis opposed the Camp David process.

Hence, said the Conference of Presidents, the sale would put the U.S. in 'grave danger' — 'It must be stopped'.[6] These would be the two main grounds on which lobby groups would oppose the sale throughout.

There were some six months between Reagan's approval of the sale and his formal notification of it to Congress, which would then have the opportunity to veto it. The Lobby sought to use that period of time to pre-emptively pressure as many senators and representatives to declare their opposition to the sale, hoping that this would show the Reagan administration that they would be defeated in Congress, and prevent it from even putting it to a vote. The Reagan administration sought to prevent representatives from pre-emptively declaring opposition to the sale, fearing that it would lock them in to opposing it.[7]

Israel lobby weighs in

As discussed below, AWACS would come to be seen, retrospectively, as a triumph for AIPAC. But according to Goldberg, AIPAC's actual role was limited. The anti-AWACS campaign was, he writes, 'waged by a broad consortium' of organisation under the umbrella of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NCRAC), working with the Conference of Presidents. During the campaign AIPAC was merely the public face in Washington of this national campaign.[8]

Between the April and October the lobby mounted a two-pronged campaign. It sought to pressure the administration directly, and it sought to persuade as many legislators as possible to publicly declare their opposition to the AWACS sale before the administration put it before Congress.

By mid-1981 the anti-AWACS campaign seemed set for victory. In the House, the campaign against the sale was led by Rep. Clarence D. Long (Maryland). Long, reports Findley, 'exemplified the strong ties between AIPAC and Capitol Hill': as chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, which deals with aid to Israel, he 'delivered for Israel'.[9] Long was heavily supported by pro-Israel money — 18 pro-Israel PACs contributed $31,250 for his 1982 re-election campaign.[10] 'AIPAC made my district their number one interest', Long boasted.

'Long ago I decided that I'd vote for anything AIPAC wants. I didn't want them on my back. My district is too difficult. I don't need the trouble [pro-Israeli lobbyists] can cause. I made up my mind I would get and keep their support.'[11]

On 27 April Long and Rep. Norman F. Kent (New York) introduced a concurrent resolution objecting to the sale — Long explicitly based his opposition on concern about the sale's implications for Israel's security. By 1 July the Long-Lent resolution had the support of 232 co-sponsors in the House. This support was substantially bipartisan: 161 of 242 Democrats and 61 of 192 Republicans had signed on. Long informed Reagan that a further 75 representatives had privately assured him that they would for the anti-AWACS resolution, which brought the total number of representatives publicly and privately opposed to the sale to nearly 300. As a result the Reagan administration, from early July, gave up on the House as a lost cause, and focused its energies on the Senate.[12]

But things were looking bad for the administration there, too. On 24 June 54 senators, led by Sen. Bob Packwood (Oregon), wrote to Reagan opposing the AWACS sale. They comprised 34 of 47 Democrats and 20 of 53 Republicans in the senate: a bipartisan senate majority. On 13 July Packwood wrote Reagan another letter reaffirming his opposition and adding Sen. Claiborne Pell to the list.[13]

Neither Goldberg nor Laham go into much detail about how the lobby persuaded so many legislators to publicly oppose the administration over AWACS. That there was pressure seems clear. On 21 September, at the height of the battle to sway senate votes, Sen. Barry Goldwater wrote to Reagan: 'You have no idea of the extreme pressure that is being put on by the Jewish-Israel lobby, and right now everybody who is up for reelection in the Senate, and that is one-third of them, are [sic] going to vote 'no'."[14] (Laham sees this as an exaggeration, for reasons discussed below.) There is also evidence that representatives were lobbied by Jewish constituents to oppose the sale. On 27 May Rep. William M. Brodhead (Michigan) sent Reagan a 'partial' list of 233 constituents — 'practically all' of whom were Jewish, writes Laham—who had lobbied him to oppose the sale. On 3 June Rep. Charles E. Schumer (New York) presented the administration with handwritten letters from 13 constituents opposing the sale, most of whom (says Laham) were Jewish.[15] Of the 20 Republican senators who signed the resolution of disapproval, six were up for re-election in states with large Jewish constituencies, two were Jews, and two were from New York and Florida. Of these 10, only one voted for the sale (Hayakawa of California).[16] Of the other ten, eight eventually succumbed to administration pressure to reverse their vote.[17]

American Jewish organisations also lobbied the executive branch directly. From early August, they 'began a campaign of unrelenting pressure', flooding the administration with letters opposing the sale.[18] B'nai B'rith, which then had some 500,000 American members, took a leading role, as did women's Zionist organisations. On 10-13 August the B'nai B'rith Board of Governors adopted a resolution opposing the AWACS sale and urging its members to lobby against it. Among those who wrote to Reagan opposing the sale were B'nai B'rith international president Jack J. Spitzer, Anti-Defamation League chair Maxwell E. Greenberg, Leadership Conference on National Women's Organisations chair Leona F. Chanin and Hadassah president Frieda S. Lewis.[19]

The administration's response

Initially the administration focused on trying to prevent legislators from publically taking positions against AWACS prior to the vote in Congress, from which they would subsequently find it difficult to backtrack. This objective was prioritised at a 27 April White House Coordinating Group on Certain Mid-East Initiatives meeting, chaired by Fred Ikle, which also established three working groups to win legislative backing for the AWACS sale.[20] The administration responded to concerns from American Jewish officials and legislators with letters making the case that the AWACS sale was both crucial for U.S. strategic interests and posed no threat to Israeli security.[21]

From early July, once it became clear that the House was lost, the administration stopped bothering with representatives, preferring to focus on the Senate.[22]

Reagan's main strategy was to present the AWACS sale as crucial for U.S. national security. On 13 June he had signed a memo drafted by White House staff declaring the sale 'of vital importance to... national security' and designating the Asst. to the Pres. for National Security Richard V. Allen to 'coordinate and direct the administration effort to obtain legislative support for this sale'; he sent the memo to 11 senior members of his administration with an interest in foreign and national security policy.[23] As the battle for the Senate intensified in August and the administration's position there looked increasingly embattled, President Reagan became personally active in lobbying for AWACS. Laham thinks this was crucial to swinging the vote in the Senate — a conclusion which, it should be noted, may reflect the fact that Laham's primary source is the Reagan White House archives.[24]

It is interesting to note how the administration responded to insinuations of antisemitism. In letters to the administration the heads of the Leadership Conference on National Women's Organisations, Hadassah, the ADL and B'nai B'rith all implied or openly stated that elements in the administration were guilty of being antisemitic or of encouraging antisemitism in their drive to push through the AWACS sale. The administration ignored the first three. In response to the last — which arrived in the form of a 21 September letter to Reagan by B'nai B'rith president Jack J. Spitzer — Reagan asked Jacob Stein, a prominent Jewish leader and Reagan supporter, to respond (which he did, on 24 September). Laham writes that the charges of antisemitism against the administration were 'groundless', suggesting that 'the leaders of organised Jewry in all likelihood wished to use the charge of anti-Semitic bias against the administration in order to intimidate the White House'.[25] That the Reagan administration didn't buckle before the accusations reflects, Laham suggests, Reagan's long record as both a supporter of the U.S.-Israel alliance and a popular figure among American Jews.

Role of the Government of Israel

Ahead of Begin's trip to the U.S. in September, Jacob Stein reportedly warned him not to press Reagan over AWACS.[26] Begin allegedly promised Reagan not to campaign against the sale in public; he then immediately violated this alleged promise when he denounced the sale in Congress and in several television interviews. Reagan responded angrily: 'It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy'.[27] Steven L. Spiegel, however, reports that Begin didn't in fact lobby hard against the AWACS sale.[28]

After Reagan's push-back, some Israeli Foreign Ministry officials recommended that Israel avoid an all-out fight with the administration over AWACS. At this point, AIPAC, American Jewish leaders and congressional legislators opposed to the sale 'conveyed their concern about the apparent weakening of the Israeli position directly to the government'.[29]

Who fought against the Lobby?

  • The Reagan White House

As we've seen, Laham argues that President Reagan became personally involved in lobbying for AWACS from August 1981, and further that his involvement was decisive in swinging the handful of Senate votes required to push the sale through. On issues of national security, Laham argues, the Senate tends to defer to the President, and Reagan was insistent in advocating AWACS as a vital national security interest.

Bard (1988) agrees with Laham that Reagan's personal involvement was crucial to the administration's victory, but argues that he didn't get involved until September 1981, after Begin's visit to the U.S.[30] Indeed he faults the administration for giving the opposition four months from April to organise without having prepared its own legislative strategy. White House involvement stepped up a gear after Begin's visit, when White House Chief of Staff James Baker and the Legislative Strategy Group that had successfully won legislative victories on Reagan's tax and budget policies took charge of AWACS lobbying. It decided the most effective strategy would be to appeal to wavering senators through personal meetings with President Reagan.[31]

The Arab Lobby hailed the final vote in the Senate as a major victory. But Bard argues that it was not the Arab lobby, but the President, that secured the win. AIPAC's Tom Dine also interpreted it this way, describing it as 'a vote of confidence in President Reagan himself'.[32] It was also the product of bargaining, says Bard: for instance, just before the vote Sen. Slade Gordon received a promise from the White House to support a $26m appropriation to renovate a public health hospital in Seattle.[33] From September the President personally met with 75 senators and held private discussions with 22 Republicans, 14 of whom voted for the sale. He also met with 22 Democrats and convinced 10 to vote for AWACS. In the week prior to the vote, Reagan made 26 telephone calls to plead his case and had private meetings with 17 senators between Monday morning and 2pm the day of the vote. 'When the President started calling up senators and inviting them down to the White House', Sen. Packwood rued, 'they came back converted'.[34]

A key concession made by Reagan was a letter to Congress promising that he would get agreement from the Saudis not to use the AWACS against Israel before delivering them, stating the Americans would help operate the planes 'well into the 1990s' and committing the president to obtaining Saudi cooperation with the Camp David peace process. Wavering senators were permitted to insert their own provisions into the letter to give them a graceful way out. In addition to the White House, who else lobbied for the sale? Goldberg writes that the battle over AWACS pitted American Jewish organisations against 'big business' and 'the paid lobbyists of foreign [i.e. 'Arab'] embassies'.[35] Laham argues, though, that there was no significant pro-Arab lobby campaigning for AWACS. Moreover, he claims that while the U.S. business community has long-standing ties with Saudi Arabia, it 'has, for the most part, abstained from involvement in American policy in the Middle East'. This surprising claim is sourced to Mitchell G. Bard's The Water's Edge and Beyond, pp. 8-15.[36]

  • Pro-Arab Lobby

Laham reports that business community involvement in the battle over AWACS was 'practically nonexistent', because corporations with interests in Saudi Arabia feared the bad PR that might accrue from involvement in political disputes.[37] But former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer Steven Emerson describes the AWACS battle as unusual precisely because of the degree to which American business became actively involved. He describes an extensive 'Saudi lobbying campaign' in favour of the sale. Saudi Arabia, he reports,

'demanded and received the aggressive support of the most powerful corporations in America. Scores of other business interests joined the campaign in order to protect existing petro-dollar contracts or to obtain new ones. Still thousands of others were indirectly induced to join by pressure from their own domestic suppliers, purchasers, or business partners. And many others with no commercial stake in the sale, or even in Saudi Arabia, jumped into the lobbying fray because they were prevailed upon to believe that not upsetting the Saudis was vital to the U.S. economy.'[38]

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce didn't take a formal position, but its president Richard Lesher wrote to every senator the before the AWACS vote to report that on his trip to the Middle East in October he had been urged, everywhere, to support the sale. Also in October, the Chamber of Commerce held a reception for the Saudi Minister of Commerce who lobbied the businessmen in attendance. The 860,000 recipients of the Chamber's newsletter were advised of the adverse consequences should the sale not go ahead.[39]

The oil industry also, Bard reports, lobbied 'hard' for the sale. Mobil Oil spent more than $500,000 on adverts promoting U.S.-Saudi 'economic partnership'. The biggest lobbying effort 'by far' was orchestrated by Boeing, the main contractor for AWACS, and United Technologies, which had $100m at stake. Boeing and UT presidents sent more than 6,500 telegrams to subsidiaries, vendors, etc. around the country urging them to support the sale.[40]

The main Saudi lobbyists were Frederick Dutton, Crawford Crook and Stephen Cronner, who were collectively paid over $1m in 1981 for their efforts. In early August Dutton sent a 16-page booklet, Why Saudi Arabia Needs AWACS, to every Congressman, and arranged for Saudi officials to appear on news shows and brief the press. Dutton was able to transform the AWACS debate from a policy to a personal dispute, framing it as a fight between President Reagan and Prime Minister Begin. After he told the New York Times that senators who opposed the sale would have to explain 'how they will run foreign policy now that they have chosen Begin over Reagan', the 'Reagan or Begin' angle got considerable media play.[41]

On 19 September Conner arranged for a meeting in Palm Springs between Saudi Prince Bandar and former President Gerald Ford, following which Ford began, in October, to lobby for the sale. At Reagan's request, former Presidents Carter and Nixon also joined in the lobbying effort — although Nixon's remarks about 'parts of the American Jewish community' potentially 'embarrassing and undermining the authority of their indispensable friend in the White House' may have been counterproductive.[42]

Proponents of the sale painted the lobby as the cause of tension between Israel and the U.S.: in a press conference four former U.S. ambassadors to Saudi Arabia asserted that a failure to make the deal would be seen as 'congressional surrender to Israeli pressure'.[43]


How successful was the Lobby?

If Laham is correct to argue that the strategic case for selling AWACS to Saudi Arabia was 'overwhelming', and that Congressional opposition to the sale was due entirely to pressure from the lobby, it follows that the lobby demonstrated, in this instance, significant political influence.[44] There appears to have been no other powerful constituency opposed to the sale: other elements of the U.S. establishment, it seems, were either in favour of the sale or indifferent to it. The lobby's ability to very nearly defeat it may therefore suggest that it has significant independent influence.

But Laham qualifies this picture, noting that the lobby had far more influence over the House than in the Senate. He explains this in terms of the fact that legislators in the House represent far smaller constituencies than legislators in the Senate, and so a single lobby can orchestrate enough money to influence a House election, but not a Senate one. In terms of votes: the Jewish vote is concentrated in four states — New York, California, Florida and Illinois — which are represented by eight senators. The other 92 senators, Laham argues, have nothing to worry about from the Lobby. Of the 52 senators who voted against the anti-AWACS resolution, only two represented states with large Jewish constituencies. One of them — Sen. Charles H. Percy (Illinois) — was subsequently targeted and punished by the lobby (see below). But the fact remains that overwhelmingly, senators who voted against the lobby were not punished by it for doing so.

This, however, raises a puzzle: if the lobby has little influence on the Senate, why did 48 senators, including many Republicans, vote against the administration over AWACS? Laham's answer may not convince: while senators from states with no significant Jewish constituency 'have little or no practical reason to fear defeat' at the hands of the Israel lobby, many of them 'do fear the pro-Israel lobby... irrationally'.[45] So Laham effectively maintains that dozens of senators knowingly took a position 'contrary to the vital national security interests of the United States' because of a purely irrational fear of a lobby that, in fact, 'had no way of imposing any real punishment' on them.[46] More generally, Laham argues, basing himself on Bard, that the Israel lobby has strong influence on the House, weaker influence over the Senate, and 'practically no political influence' over the White House. Moreover the lobby is least influential on issues of national security: its influence, as demonstrated in its defeat over AWACS, is constrained by the ability of the president to frame policies in terms of national security interests, and the tendency of the Senate to defer to the White House on such issues.

The factors that might account for the lobby's influence in the AWACS battle include:

  • The lobby went all-out: full mobilisation. (It still isn't clear why, if, as Laham argues, Israel's security wasn't gravely undermined by the sale)
  • Lack — according to Laham — of serious organised opposition: no effective pro-Arab lobby, and no active business community involvement

The factors that might account for the lobby's ultimate defeat include:

  • Direct presidential involvement: Reagan was able to frame the issue as one of national security and to win 'strong support' from the foreign and national security policy community, led by former Secretaries of State and Defence, White House national security advisors and Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This eventually made it 'politically impossible' for the Senate to block the sale
  • Reagan had credibility as being pro-Jewish and pro-Israel, which undermined smear campaigns (see above)
  • The case for the AWACS sale was, says Laham, 'overwhelming' in terms of U.S. national security interests, given recent events (e.g. Iranian Revolution 1979) that had undermined the U.S. position in the Gulf
  • To veto the sale, the lobby needed to secure a majority in both the House and the Senate. But its influence was relatively limited in the latter


'The Myth of AIPAC'

Although AIPAC wasn't the only, or even the principal, Jewish organisation lobbying against AWACS, and although the lobby ultimately lost that battle, Goldberg identifies it as the beginning of the 'myth of AIPAC' as an omnipotent force on Capitol Hill. AWACS marked, writes Edward Tivnan, 'the end of AIPAC's national obscurity'.

In the 1980s, he writes, a '[c]arefully cultivated... myth' of swaggering Israeli power took root in Washington, which provoked a 'rash' of responses: Noam Chomsky's The Fateful Triangle (1983), Stephen Green's Taking Sides (1984), Paul Findley's They Dare to Speak Out (1985), Tivnan's own The Lobby (1987) and the Andrew Cockburn and Leslie Cockburn's' Dangerous Liaison (1992). However, writes Goldberg, the myth of AIPAC only surfaced in the mid-1980s: Chomsky's book doesn't mention it, and Green's book mentions it just once. In Findley's AIPAC is 'a lead player'; in Tivnan's, it is 'the whole show'.[47]

AIPAC ascended despite the public defeat over AWACS for three reasons, Goldberg writes:

  • Reagan's victory: a new atmosphere of militant anticommunism abroad and deep conservatism at home was very hospitable to Israel, but 'increasingly hostile to Israel's traditional defenders in Washington', who had a left-of-centre domestic agenda. This created a vacuum for a Jewish leadership with no agenda except Israel, which could therefore work with the new, right-wing Washington establishment. AIPAC filled this gap.
  • Begin's victory in Israel (1977): American Jewish leaders embraced Begin immediately, despite long ties with Labour.
  • Regime change in AIPAC: in October 1980, weeks before AIPAC joined AWACS battle, Thomas Dine became a staff director at AIPAC. Dine had knowledge of US foreign policy-making, but none of the Jewish community: AWACS was his 'trial-by-fire'. When it was over, he 'set about engineering a revolution at AIPAC': Dine created 'battleship AIPAC'.[48]

After AWACS Dine converted AIPAC from a congressional arm of the big national Jewish organisations into an independent powerhouse, under the control of its wealthiest donors.[49]

Tivnan was the first to cite AWACS as 'the maiden voyage of battleship AIPAC' — in fact, says Goldberg, it was 'the last major performance by AIPAC in the role of disciplined cog in a well-oiled Jewish community machine.' AWACS taught AIPAC the value of going it alone. AIPAC 'retooled itself' in the years ahead, and 'cultivate[d] the myth of AWACS as its finest hour'.[50]

Reagan befriends AIPAC

The Reagan administration drew from AWACS the lesson that Jewish lobbyists could be a formidable opponent — and hence, could also be a formidable ally. Reagan proceeded to cultivate relations with AIPAC 'of unprecedented intimacy'.[51] Days after AWACS vote, administration officials sought out AIPAC officials and invited them to help plan government policy.

'Particularly given its close ties to the Democrats, the lobby could often sell administration policies that the White House itself could not':

  • AIPAC was "regularly enlisted to line up congressional support for the overall foreign-aid package, an unpopular program with little grass-roots backing outside the Jewish community".[52] Even Paul Findley concedes that foreign aid 'might have difficulty surviving at all' if it weren't for AIPAC.
  • February 1983: AIPAC director Tom Dine is the only professional lobbyist named to a blue-ribbon citizens' commission assembled by Secretary of State George Schultz to review the U.S. foreign-aid program.[53]
  • November 1984: Dine is invited to the White House for a private meeting with National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane, Reagan's closest Middle East advisor, to discuss the situation in Lebanon and a proposal to help Jordan establish a rapid deployment force. This came a week after Dine had helped Reagan get the War Powers Resolution authority extended.
  • October 1984: Reagan 'personally enlisted AIPAC's help to fight a congressional resolution that would have forced him to pull U.S. Marines out of Beirut'. Reagan won that,'after a handful of senators were turned around by AIPAC lobbyists'.[54]
  • Throughout the 1980s AIPAC 'regularly helped' Reagan secure Democratic congressional support on 'unlikely issues from Central American to sub-Saharan Africa'. The lobbyists 'told the liberals that Israel needed its friends to compromise on other issues in order to maintain solid American support for Israel', and more generally, 'a strong U.S. defence posture' helped Israel.[55]

In return, argues Goldberg, the Reagan administration became most pro-Israel in history:

  • Autumn 1981: Israel permitted to sign formal military pact with Washington.
  • Israel and the U.S. cooperated on overt and covert overseas programs: aiding the Contras; training security forces in Zaire; sending arms to Iran; unprecedented cooperation in weapons development and sharing of technology, intelligence and information.
  • The annual aid package was repeatedly increased; loans became grants.[56]

The Lobby takes revenge

Sen. Charles H. Percy (Illinois) was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee at the time of the AWACS vote. His vote against the anti-AWACS resolution carried a lot of weight in the Senate. Organised American Jewry already didn't much like Percy, after he had announced conditional support for negotiations with Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1975; refused to sign a letter opposing Ford's "reassessment" in 1975; and voted to approve Carter's sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia in 1978. After AWACS, in 1984, AIPAC mobilised against him: his democratic opponent Paul Simon raised $3.1m from the Jewish community — i.e. 40% of his funds — of which $235,000 came from pro-Israel PACs. He was the largest Senate beneficiary of pro-Israel PAC money in 1984. $1.6m for Simon came from a single donor: Michael Goland, a Jewish activist from California, who financed attack ads against Percy. Percy lost by 89,000 votes: Simon got 65% of Jewish votes, which, says Laham, gave him his win. Percy received 35% of the Jewish vote, down from 70% in 1972.[57]

AIPAC 'took full credit' for mobilising against Percy. Its director Tom Dine declared: 'All the Jews in America... gathered to oust Percy. And American politicians... got the message.'[58] But, says Lapham, Dine was being 'exceedingly boastful and hyperbolic', exaggerating the Lobby's power to intimidate others. Percy was the only one of the 52 pro-AWACS senators who was defeated at the polls because of action by American Jewish organisations. 'The fact remains', Laham maintains, 'that the only senators... vulnerable to defeat as a result of taking positions antithetical to the interests of Israel are the eight representing New York, California, Florida, and Illinois'.[59]


Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 1981

  • Charles H. Percy (Illinois) – Chairman
  • Howard H. Baker, Jr (TN)
  • Jesse Helms (NC)
  • S. I. Hayakawa (CA)
  • Charles 'Mac' Mathias, Jr (MD)
  • Nancy L. Kassebaum (KS)
  • Rudy Boschwitz (MN)
  • Larry Pressler (SD)
  • Claiborne Pell (RI)
  • Joseph R. Biden, Jr (DE)
  • John Glenn (OH)
  • Paul S. Sarbanes (MD)
  • Edward Zorinsky (NE)
  • Paul E. Tsongas (MA)
  • Alan Cranston (CA)
  • Christopher J. Dodd (CN)

House Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1981

  • Clement J. Zablocki (Wisconsin) – Chairman
  • L. H. Fountain (NC)
  • Dante B. Fascell (FL)
  • Benjamin S. Rosenthal (NY)
  • Lee H. Hamilton (IN)
  • Jonathan B. Bingham (NY)
  • Gus Yatron (PA)
  • Stephen J. Solarz (NY)
  • Don Bonker (WA)
  • Gerry E. Studds (MA)
  • Andy Ireland (FL)
  • Dan Mica (FL)
  • Michael D. Barnes (MD)
  • Howard Wolpe (MI)
  • Geo W. Crockett, Hr (MI)
  • Bob Shamansky (OH)
  • Sam Gejdenson (CT)
  • Marvyn M. Dymally (CA)
  • Dennis E. Eckhart (OH)
  • Tom Lantos (CA)
  • David R. Bowen (MS)
  • William S. Broomfield (MI)
  • Edward J. Derwinsky (IL)
  • Paul Findley (IL)
  • Larry Winn, Jr (KS)
  • Benjamin A. Gilman (NY)
  • Robert J. Lagomarsino (CA)
  • William F. Goodling (PA)
  • Joel Pritchard (WA)
  • Millicent Fenwick (NJ)
  • Robert K. Dornan (CA)
  • Jim Leach (IO)
  • Arlen Erdahl (MN)
  • Toby Roth (WI)
  • Olympia J. Snowe (ME)
  • John LeBoutillier (NY)
  • Henry J. Hyde (IL)


Further Reading

  • Mitchell G. Bard, "Interest Groups, the President, and Foreign Policy: How Reagan Snatched Victory from the Jaws of Defeat On AWACS," Presidential Studies Quarterly 18.3 (Summer 1988), 593
  • Robert Berman, "U.S. Arms to the Persian Gulf," in Current Issues in U.S. Defense Policy, eds. David T. Johnson and Barry R. Schneider (Praeger, 1976), 99
  • Barry M. Blechman, The Politics of National Security: Congress and U.S. Defense Policy (Oxford UP, 1990)
  • Wolf Blitzer, "The AIPAC Formula," Moment (Nov 1981)
  • Steven Emerson, The American House of Saud (NY: Franklin Watts, 1985)
  • Paul Findley, They Dare to Speak Out, 3rd Edition (Lawrence Hill, 2003)
  • J.J. Goldberg, Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment (Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1996)
  • Nicholas Laham, Selling AWACS to Saudi Arabia: The Reagan Administration and the Balancing of America's Competing Interests in the Middle East (Praeger,2002)
  • David Pollock, The Politics of Pressure (Conn: Greenwood Press, 1982)
  • Steven L. Spiegel, The Other Arab Israeli Conflict (1985)
  • US House of Reps Comm. on Foreign Affairs, Proposed Sale of Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) and F-15 enhancements to Saudi Arabia Hearings and Markup before the Comm. on Foreign Affairs and Its Subcommittees on International Security and Scientific Affairs and on Europe and the Middle East, 28 Sep, 1 Oct, 6-7 Oct, 1981.
  • United States Senate, Comm. on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, Arms Sale Package to Saudi Arabia: Hearings before the Comm. on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 97th Congress, First Session, Part I, October 1, 5, 6, 14, and 15, 1981


  1. J.J. Goldberg, Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment (Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1996), 197
  2. Abraham H. Foxman, The Deadliest Lies – The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 128
  3. Goldberg 1996, 198-99
  4. Buckley, cited in Geoffrey Godsell, The AWACS crossroad; Reagan and Begin spar over crucial Saudi alliance, Christian Science Monitor, 9 September 1981
  5. Nicholas Laham, Selling AWACS to Saudi Arabia (2002), xi
  6. Cited in Laham 2002, 3-4
  7. Laham 2002, 4-6
  8. Goldberg 1996, 198. Note: NCRAC was established as the 'National Community Relations Advisory Council' in March 1944, by the Council of Jewish Federations. In 1963 it became the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, and in 1997 it became the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
  9. Paul Findley, They Dare to Speak Out, 3rd Edition (Lawrence Hill, 2003), 41. Findley cites the following specific cases where Long delivered for AIPAC: he helped colleagues defeat a 1976 amendment proposed by David Obey (Wisconsin) to cut aid to Israel by $200m, by a vote of 342-32; and he proposed an amendment in September 1983 to remove U.S. marines from Lebanon but cutting funding from the operation, after clearing the idea with AIPAC (the proposal failed, 274-153). (Findley 2003, pp. 41-42)
  10. Findley 2003, 42
  11. Long, cited in Findley 2003, 41. This quote isn't sourced.
  12. Laham 2002, 26-33; Mitchell G. Bard, "Interest Groups, the President, and Foreign Policy: How Reagan Snatched Victory from the Jaws of Defeat On AWACS," Presidential Studies Quarterly 18.3 (Summer 1988), 593
  13. Laham 2002, 25-26
  14. Cited in Laham 2002, 58. Laham thinks Goldwater 'may have exaggerated', for reasons discussed below. (Laham 2002, 62)
  15. Laham 2002, 12, 16. Still, given that most Senators were neither up for re-election nor represented states with sizeable Jewish constituencies, it remains a puzzle why so many voted against the bill. What leverage did the lobby—if, as Laham suggests, the lobby was the decisive determinant of their vote — have over them?
  16. Bard 1988, 595
  17. Bard 1988, 595. The two who didn't were Senators Robert Kasten and Packwood.
  18. Laham 2002, 38, 45
  19. Laham 2002, 38-40, 46-47, 50-52, 55-56
  20. Laham 2002, 5-6
  21. Laham 2002, 8-9, 43-44
  22. Laham 2002, 31-33
  23. Cited in Laham 2002, 24. Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger similarly declared, before both the House and the Senate, the sale important for 'vital national interests': the AWACS would help Saudi Arabia defend its oilfields and hence promote regional stability; would build Saudi confidence in the U.S. as a 'reliable partner'; and would 'increase the effectiveness' of U.S. military power in the region. Presenting the AWACS sale as an issue of national security meant, Laham claims, that Reagan had 'effectively staked the credibility of his presidency' on getting the sale through. (Laham 2002, 25)
  24. He does find evidence that Reagan's personal lobbying was crucial in swinging the vote of one or two Senators.
  25. Laham 2002, 45-46
  26. Hugh Orgel, Begin Warned Not to Press Awacs Issue when He Meets with Reagan, JTA, 24 August 1981
  27. Bryan R. Gibson, Covert Relationship: American Foreign Policy, Intelligence, and the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988 (Praeger, 2010), 73; Walt & Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007), 36, 366 678
  28. Steven L. Spiegel, The Other Arab Israeli Conflict (1985), p. 410
  29. Bard 1988, 590. Bard's cited source is Wolf Blitzer, "The AIPAC Formula," Moment (Nov 1981)
  30. Bard 1988, 589
  31. Bard 1988, 589-90
  32. Cited in Bard 1988, 594
  33. Bard 1988, 595-96
  34. Cited in Bard 1988, 595
  35. Goldberg 1996, 198-99
  36. Bard 1988, 595
  37. Laham 2002, 61-62
  38. Cited in Bard 1988, 587
  39. Bard 1988, 588
  40. Bard 1988, 589
  41. Bard 1988, 587
  42. Bard 1988, 587
  43. Cited in Bard 1988, 590
  44. Laham 2002, 60, 62, 67
  45. Laham 2002, 66
  46. Laham 2002, 66
  47. Goldberg 1996, 199. It is unclear why Chomsky's book could be taken as evidence of a myth being present in Washington; it is also unclear how significant Chomsky's failure to mention AIPAC in 1983 is, given that he continues to relegate it to a marginal role in his analysis today. A more plausible context for its publication would seem to be Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
  48. Goldberg 1996, 200
  49. Goldberg 1996, 201-202
  50. Goldberg 1996, 199
  51. Findley 2003, 32
  52. Findley, cited in Goldberg 1996, 213
  53. Findley 2003, 33
  54. Goldberg 1996, 213-14
  55. Goldberg 1996, 214
  56. Goldberg 1996, 214
  57. Laham 2002, 63-64
  58. Dine, cited in Laham 2002, 64
  59. Laham 2002, 64. Somewhat inconsistently, as discussed above