Amid Ongoing Revelations, U.S. Chamber Sets Up Israel “Business Council”

Recent revelations by Think Progress concerning the  contributions of foreign corporate donors to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC), which are helping to fund American political advertisements, are not deterring the Chamber from expanding  and reinforcing its efforts to shape U.S. politics and policies in the interests of foreign corporate entities.

The newest addition to the U.S. Chamber’s clandestine web of potential election donors :  a new joint U.S.-Israel “business council.”

According to a USCC press release, a “global summit” on Oct. 19 celebrated the the 25th anniversary of the U.S.-Israel Free Trade  Agreement (FTA) by  launching the “U.S. Israel Business Initiative.” A plethora of guest speakers were invited “to address top innovators and entrepreneurs from both countries about potential global investment opportunities, and provide guidance regarding the industries that will shape the future of the U.S.-Israel commercial alliance.”

There  are already twelve organizations calling themselves the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce (or some state or regional variant), who are members of the Association of America-Israel Chambers of Commerce and Industry (AAICCI). Each targets a particular geographic region of the U.S. and promotes trade and cultural exchange. None of  these are to  be confused with the Israel-America  Chamber of Commerce, of which Chemi Peres (son of Israel’s president, Shimon Peres) is Chairman of the Board.

So why the need for the new business initiative?  What will the new council  be able to do that these existing Chambers haven’t, don’t or can’t?

Yitzhak ben Horin on the Y-Net website (the English language version of the popular Israeli news daily Yediot Aharanot) provides a clue:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest enterprise in the world, launched the first American-Israeli business council last week, just like six previous business councils established with China and some of the largest markets around the world.

Does this mean the new “business council” –“just like six previous  business councils”– will enable Israeli corporations to secretly influence U.S. elections without having to reveal their involvement?

According to a study by the Wesleyan Media Project, in a recent five week period the  USCC expended $9 million on campaign ads, which have largely favored (9-1 by one estimate) the election of Republican and “Tea Party” candidates rather than Democrats.  Will the new council enable Israeli corporate interests to go beyond merely lobbying elected officials, by helping to elect the senators and House members that they’ll be lobbying?

Farfetched? Congressman Henry Waxman doesn’t seem to think so. Waxman used  the keynote address he delivered to the newly formed “business council” to confront the U.S. Chamber about its partisan involvement in the upcoming U.S. midterm elections, and its funneling of clandestine contributions from foreign corporations into American political contests. As reported by  Politico‘s Darren Samuelsohn:

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) blasted the nation’s largest business group in the closing moments of a speech on U.S.-Israel business relations.

Echoing remarks recently from President Barack Obama, Waxman criticized the chamber for spending tens of millions of dollars on campaign ads without being more forthright about where the money is coming from.

“An event like this conference today is an appropriate use of contributions from chamber members overseas,” Waxman added. “Spending such money on an election in any country would be inappropriate. In this country, it would also be illegal…”

Waxman urged the Chamber to provide full disclosure about the political contributions it  has been making during this election cycle. Only with proper transparency and disclosure, he said, could the Chamber be “a role model for corporate citizenship in America and around the world.”

Y-Net’s Ben Horin claims that the U.S. Chamber decided to establish the joint council  under the assumption that “Israeli start-ups and technology appeal to the American business world.” Greater interest in the Israeli hi-tech sector has been generated, he suggests, by the publicity surrounding the recent publication of “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” by Dan Senor, who was also among forum’s guest speakers.

But the agenda for the Israeli business council — and the USCC itself — is apparently about more than promoting American investment and cooperation in feisty little Israel’s innovative hi-tech startups. The U.S. Chamber’s devious but successful scheme to enlist the members of its “business councils”–particularly in China, India and the Persian Gulf — in promoting the outsourcing of American jobs, weakening of  environmental legislation, maintaining U.S.  reliance on fossil fuels, promoting regressive labor policies and de-emphasizing human rights in commercial policy was also very much in evidence.

Advance publicity of the event by the U.S.-Israel Science and Technology Foundation noted:

The day will feature panels that delve into subjects such as “From the Battlefield to the Boardroom”; a discussion moderated by Lt. Gen. Dan Christman, Former Superintendent at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Lt. Gen. Christman will promote a discussion between Gideon Argov, CEO of Entegris, and Guy Filippelli, CEO of Berico Technologies. This panel will give an inside look at successful soldiers-cum-entrepreneurs and what we as businesspeople can learn from them.  “Energy to Power the Future” will feature talks from Karen Harbert, President and CEO of the Institute for 21st Century Energy, Mark Little, Senior Vice President and Director of GE – Global Research, John Woolard,CEO of BrightSource Energy, and Bookey Oren, Chairman of WATEC.

The announcement characterizes the panel as “successful soldiers-cum-entrepreneurs.” While it’s difficult to complain about, for example, Guy Filipelli coming up with a technology to make it easier to detect roadside bombs, some participants and panel speakers represented what most worried U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he warned in 1961 about the dangers of the development of a “military industrial complex.”

Another ominous aspect of the USCC’s agenda was made evident by the panel participation of Karen Harbert, the Bush administration’s Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) between 2004-2008.  Harbert “was the primary policy adviser to the Secretary and to the department on domestic and international energy issues, including climate change, fossil, nuclear, and renewable energy and energy efficiency,” according to her self-authored Politico Arena bio. Harbert is also, as Politico‘s Erika Lovley has noted, “a leading critic of Democratic climate change proposals.” Now President and CEO of the USCC’s own Institute for 21st Century Energy, she travels the country reviling green tape (i.e. bureaucratic obstacles posed by environmental concerns).

According to Y-Net‘s Ben Horin, “The new council will also be working towards simplifying proceedings and removing legislative barriers and regulations between the two countries.” Apparently the new “business council” will engage in legislative lobbying  to make terms of trade between the U.S. and Israel even more favorable than they already are.

Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Ben-Eliezer told the conclave that business between the two countries had been burgeoning, noting that  U.S.-Israeli trade had increased by 500%, from $4.7 billion to $28.3 billion between 1985 to 2009, and currently averages about $78 million worth of business per day.

Ben Eliezer did not mention that the U.S. consistently runs a deficit in its balance of  trade of goods with Israel. In 2009 U.S. exports to Israel were nearly $9.5 billion, while its imports from Israel totaled over $18.7 billion. As of August 2010, U.S. imports from Israel were over $14 billion, with exports just over $7 billion.

It’s interesting, however, that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is one of nine business groups that have gone on record as opposing sanctions against Iran. As reported by Laura Rozen at Politico, back on Jan. 26, these groups sent a letter to then-National Security Adviser James Jones objecting to the Iran sanctions bills that were under consideration by the House and Senate, arguing that they would harm U.S. alliances and constrain international trade by imposing U.S. penalties on foreign firms that violated the sanctions:

“While we agree that preventing Iran from developing the capability to produce nuclear weapons is an urgent U.S. national security objective, the unilateral, extraterritorial, and overly broad approach of these bills would undercut rather than advance this critical objective,” the letter from nine U.S. business groups says. “The history of similar efforts demonstrates that such a unilateral approach would provoke a negative response from our allies and would divert attention from an effective, coordinated response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”

It’s unlikely that the USCC will sway fervent Israel’s support for “crippling” Iran sanctions (which most Israeli politicians and defense officials don’t think will work).  Will the new business council persuade the Chamber to favor such sanctions? China and India, two of the Chamber’s key international players, have thus far managed to successfully play both sides of the U.S.-Iran fence.

Myron Brilliant, the U.S. Chamber’s Vice President for East Asia, who is credited by the USCC with creating the “grassroots issue advocacy program” that successfully built up support for “normalization” of U.S.-Chinese commercial relations, asserts in the U.S. Chamber’s post-forum press release, “The U.S.-Israel Business Initiative will infuse energy into the bilateral trade relationship that will change our alliance for generations to come.”


Perhaps it’s time to update the medium of delivery for the punchline of the old joke about the contents of a “Jewish telegram” and make it a Tweet: “Start worrying. Details to follow.”

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.