The Passionate Attachment

America's entanglement with Israel

The Israel Lobby’s Mastery of the Subtle Art of Persuasion

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In Ken Silverstein’s Salon piece on the Israel lobby’s pro-Georgian section, he describes pro-Israeli organisations as “the true masters at spinning and pampering journalists.” To back up his claim, Silverstein provides a link to a fascinating article in the Boston Globe from 2007 entitled “I was lobbied by the ‘Israel lobby.'”

Beginning the piece with a brief overview of the debate surrounding the publication of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” Elaine McArdle admits that she wasn’t around when the controversy broke:

“I happened to be in Israel with eight other American journalists, on a first-class, all-expenses-paid tour funded entirely by AIPAC.”

McArdle goes on to acknowledge how susceptible her profession is to being lobbied by the lobby:

And although mainstream news organizations still bar their staff reporters from taking paid junkets, others aren’t shy at all. Recent tours have included staff from “The Daily Show” and reporters from Spanish and African-American media. “There’s hardly a journalist left in D.C. who hasn’t taken this trip,” one AIPAC representative told us, with only some sense of overstatement.


I’ve never written about foreign policy, and despite Mearsheimer and Walt’s book, I don’t have any reason to think of AIPAC as different than any other lobbying group. Still, after a friend gave them my name and the invitation came, I struggled over whether to accept such a lavish gift from an organization with something to sell. I consulted with other journalists, most of whom asked only one question: How could they get on the next AIPAC trip?

She then describes the trip:

Our weeklong tour would cost AIPAC around $5,000 per person, including six nights in first-class hotels, [AIPAC spokesman Josh] Block told me. AIPAC was asking nothing of us in return. No one in our group – mainly freelance writers like me, with little experience in foreign policy – had assignments to write about Israel.

And there was no hard sell in sight.

Flying business class meant free cocktails in the elite-passenger lounges at Logan and in Newark, hot towels and cold drinks fetched by the flight attendant, and a seat that folded into a bed. I slept the nine-hour flight to Tel Aviv. AIPAC handlers met us at the airport to smooth our passage through customs. A luxury bus drove us through the stunning countryside to Jerusalem, where we checked into the five-star Inbal Hotel in the heart of the city.

Over the next seven days, led by a renowned archeologist, we toured the desert by bus and the Old City in Jerusalem by foot. We lay on the beach in Tel Aviv, a city as vibrant and sophisticated as Manhattan. We saw the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and played with Ethiopian toddlers in an immigrant absorption center. On our first night in Jerusalem, we sat at an outdoor cafe smoking tobacco through an enormous hookah pipe as nearby tables of young men and women – many in army uniforms and carrying M-16s – laughed and flirted in the cool night air.

On her return to Boston, McArdle, who describes herself as an “experienced journalist,” wondered if she had been swayed by the experience and decided to consult some experts:

I was well aware that I had heard only one side of the story on my trip. So how could I be susceptible to persuasion? But I also knew that any lobbying group that drops thousands of dollars on someone expects to get something in return.

I called John A. Bargh, a Yale psychology professor who studies nonconscious influences on behavior, and walked him through the details of my junket. Did he think I was swayed by the experience? “Of course you are,” he said. “You’d almost have to be. And you can’t know it.”

A key tool in the subtle art of persuasion, he said, is reciprocity: offer someone a pleasant experience or gift and they feel an almost irresistible obligation to return the favor. The norm of reciprocity cuts across every culture, and the value of the gift is irrelevant: a cup of coffee is as effective as an extravagant trip. Another tool is to provide friendship and human connection – it’s inevitable that a bond will develop when you spend substantial time with someone, especially in a foreign place, where you depend on them.

In the case of the AIPAC junket, it was a one-two punch: an unforgettable and emotionally charged week with warm, likable people – generous hosts and tour guides whom I worried about after returning to the safety of life in Massachusetts.

Emily Pronin, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton who studies how bias works in the human mind, told me that she and others have found that although we are quick to spot bias in others, bias in ourselves operates almost entirely on a subconscious level. She calls it the “bias blind spot.” Scalia’s cozy weekend was innocent in his own eyes. Doctors who worry about the sway of pharmaceutical companies over their colleagues insist that their own medical judgment would never be affected. Journalists think they’re too savvy to be hustled by lobbyists. We’re all operating under a fundamental misperception about the soft sell: that we’ll see it happening and avoid it.

“It’s a perception of bias as conscious, evil, corrupt behavior,” she told me. “As long as we think that’s how it goes, we’ll continue to say it doesn’t affect us.”

Since we’re all deeply invested in our own sense of integrity – and being accused of bias is an affront – we are primed to deny it. Because bias is subconscious, Bargh said, when our opinion does change we’ll convince ourselves that it’s because objective reality has changed, or that we didn’t have enough facts before.

With a new understanding of the subtleties of influence, McArdle found herself wondering how much her opinion on Israel had been moved by the trip:

It’s not hard for me to acknowledge that I’m much more sympathetic to the predicament of Israel than I was before I saw the place so extensively with my own eyes. Traveling the countryside has given me a much clearer picture of its precarious state, with a mere 9 miles separating the West Bank from Tel Aviv – less than from Boston to Concord, and easy distance for rockets. You can certainly see why Israel wouldn’t give up the West Bank until it has a partner it can trust. Its existence – and the lives of the people we met – are at risk.

Before the junket, I would have described myself as admiring of Israel but increasingly disturbed by its human rights violations.

Now I would say I find myself aligned with a growing group of former Israeli leftists, those who once believed a peaceful solution was imminent but after the debacle of Gaza have, with heavy hearts, lost their bearings and moved toward the center.

She concludes the piece thus:

Was I swayed by AIPAC? It is hard for me to say. I don’t think so. Of course I don’t.

The lobby, however, knows better.


Written by Maidhc Ó Cathail

October 11, 2011 at 7:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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