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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Across the Barricades 2: The Israel Lobby

By Tom Phillips

Last year’s occupiers of Wall Street included protesters against not just the financial and banking lobby, but other powerful interest groups that dominate political life in America.   And the harshest criticism from across the barricades was directed not at people like me denouncing corporate greed, but against a lone fellow with a sign protesting U-S aid to Israel – billions of dollars in annual aid to a modern, prosperous country, far more than anything we give to any of the world’s poor nations.  He was subjected to long, heated lectures from passersby offended by the idea that the U.S should not provide such extraordinary support to its special friend in the Middle East.   I sympathized with him, and told him so, because I’ve been through it.

In fifty years as a journalist, I learned that criticizing Israel is a risky business in America – it can cost you friendships, reputation, career, or political office.  For example, in the current presidential campaign, no candidate including the President has questioned U.S. support for Israel, even as Israel has repeatedly threatened to ignite a disastrous war by attacking Iran’s nuclear program.  They haven’t because to do so would guarantee a storm of protest from one of the most powerful interest groups in America, known as the Israel lobby.

This article will attempt to add my two cents to a description of the Israel lobby and how it works, and suggest how Americans can respond to the dangers of its outsized influence.   It is based in part on a groundbreaking book published in 2007, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, by John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of Harvard.
What is the Israel lobby?   First of all it is NOT a “Jewish conspiracy;” it is neither a conspiracy nor exclusively Jewish.   It operates in public, though usually out of the spotlight.  Many Jews oppose it.   And it has significant backing from Christian evangelicals and Mormons.    The lobby is a special interest group, a coalition of civic and religious organizations and private citizens, extraordinarily well organized, educated and financed, and disciplined in its mission, which is to win unconditional support from the U.S. for the government of Israel.   Its united front goes back to the 1970s, in the wake of a bruising public debate among American Jews over a peace settlement with the Palestinians.   That led to an understanding, reportedly worked out between the Israeli government and major Jewish organizations here: that Israelis alone could decide Israeli policy, and the role of the lobby was to stand publicly united with Israel and air differences only in private. 
That rule has remained largely intact to this day.  And the effect has been that the lobby stands foursquare with the government of Israel, whether it is led by a soldier-statesman like Yitzhak Rabin, who recognized the wounds caused by Israel’s conquest of Palestine and was willing to sacrifice to heal them, or a cynical manipulator like Benjamin Netanyahu, whose political survival depends on pretending to negotiate while never making a significant concession for peace.   

The lobby is universally rated among the most powerful and effective in Washington.  The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) holds nearly absolute sway over Congress, where it vets every single candidate for office, steering campaign contributions toward those who hew to its line, and away from anyone who wavers.   As he was leaving office in 2004, Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) said, “You can’t have an Israeli policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here.”  Congress routinely passes near-unanimous resolutions in lockstep with Israeli policy, and opposing voices are simply not invited to congressional hearings.   Rather than debate middle-east issues, members of congress compete to be most zealous in their support for Israel.   Former House Majority leader Dick Armey said in 2002 that his “number one priority in foreign policy is to protect Israel.”     

Presidents who weigh other views can expect hard-hitting open letters signed by majorities of both parties in congress, many of whose members go along out of despair rather than conviction.  As one senator put it, “it’s easier to sign one letter than to answer 5000.” 
The lobby also dominates middle-east coverage in the mainstream media.  There, its greatest asset is the ignorance and indifference of most Americans in foreign affairs.   Writing on a blank slate, Israel’s backers have created, promoted and protected a story line like a western movie:   Israel is an outpost of civilization in a desert wilderness, surrounded by outlaw gangs bent on a massacre.    “Little Israel,” in Abba Eban’s phrase, survives by its wits and audacity, turning the tables and routing the invaders against all odds, expanding the foothold of civilization among the infidels.  
That’s the story of the 1967 war, as reported in the American media.  I know because I wrote it, hacking away at a New York radio station in my twenties, oblivious to any competing narrative.   In retrospect, the six-day war looks more like this:  Israel scored exactly the victory it had in mind when it launched the war, not to pre-empt an imminent attack, but to exploit its superior military strength and expand its territory.   Menachem Begin himself later acknowledged it was a “war of choice.”
Never mind, though.  The conventional, more exciting story of the six-day war has persisted to this day, with a commentary that provides the rationale for America’s unconditional support of Israel.   The commentary runs like this:  Israel is our best friend and ally, the “only democracy in the middle east.”  Israelis see the world as we see it, and therefore our national interests are one and the same.    On the other hand, Israel’s existence is constantly threatened, by powerful hostile neighbors and rebellious terrorists on its own land.  But Israel has a God-given right to rule over its biblical lands, and Americans should support their claims because of our own Judeo-Christian heritage.
Leaving aside the internal contradictions in that sequence, every statement within it is suspect at best.  Briefly:
Don’t look now, but Israel is no longer the “Mideast’s only democracy.”  Starting in Tunisia, democracy is on the rise in Egypt and throughout the Arab world.   And Israel itself, while it has democratic institutions, has never agreed on its own form of government.   64 years after its founding it is still trying to write a constitution, and making little progress, never having settled the basic questions of the rights of non-Jews in a Jewish state. 
Israel’s existence and its “right to exist,” however, are firmly established.  It’s the most powerful military force in the Middle East, and hardly surrounded.  It is buffered to the east and west by Jordan and Egypt, both of which have signed U.S.-sponsored peace treaties.   Among its other neighbors, Lebanon is broken, and Syria and Iraq are dealing with their own internal convulsions.  Saudi Arabia, for all its Muslim extremism, is a U.S. protectorate, drunk on oil and defenseless on its own.  (see Desert Shield.)  Israel’s only serious rival in the region is Iran, a thousand miles away and dealing with turmoil of its own.   
Israel may or may not have a divine right to rule over its biblical lands.  Who knows?  It may also be that God wants Israel to occupy all its biblical lands to prepare the way for the second coming of Christ, as some evangelicals believe.   But such beliefs cannot be used as the basis for policy and law-making in a republic whose constitution bars any “establishment of religion.”    U.S. officials swear an oath that is much more down to earth:  to “preserve, protect and defend the United States of America.”
If Israel is surrounded, it is surrounded only by its own tragedy, its inability to make peace with the Palestinian Arabs it dispossessed in 1948, who have been refugees in their own homeland ever since.   The conflict has been a leading source of turmoil for the entire world, and especially harmful to the United States, whose support of Israel has brought it widespread distrust and hatred.
Is there a way out of this?  Well, there has to be.  In his State of the Union address, President Obama said U.S. support for Israel’s security is “ironclad – and I mean ironclad.”  (Applause)   Methinks the president doth protest too much.  In fact, the current kabuki among Washington, Tel Aviv and Tehran indicates that the U.S. is resisting Israel’s push for an attack on Iran.   On January 18 the Israelis wisely pulled back, saying any such strike is “very far off,” indicating they will not provoke a crisis during the presidential campaign.  
And hope springs eternal:  if Obama is re-elected, he will be under less pressure to toe the Israeli line.  If he chooses, he can make the pressure flow in the other direction for a change, making U.S. support for Israel contingent on a serious bid for peace with the Palestinians.  Whether that succeeds or fails, it could still open some long-looked-for daylight between the Israeli and U.S. positions, and a more honest examination of their relationship.
The intellectual basis for decoupling has been laid by Mearsheimer and Walt’s book, which nearly didn’t see the light of publication because of pressure from un-named sources.  Like all finite books, it does not answer every question that can be raised on the subject.  Like all language, its terms are often approximate and debatable.   But it jibes well with my own experience in fifty years as a writer, editor and journalism professor with mainstream institutions in New York, including The New York Times, CBS News and Columbia University.   There, I learned the rules of the game, and the penalties for not playing by them:  Conflicts in the middle east must be presented in language that is acceptable to Israel, (e.g. it’s not “Palestine”); aggressive Israeli actions – including assassinations, invasions, torture and house-wrecking – must always be presented with the Israeli rationale; and one must never express unreserved sympathy for victims of Israeli violence, even innocent bystanders.   The penalty for infractions, even minor, is an onslaught of angry protests.  One CNN executive said he got up to six thousand e-mail messages in a single day complaining that a story was anti-Israel.  Needless to say, there is no countervailing pressure from the Arabs, whose story is just as moving but who have no comparable organization here to promote and defend it.   Journalists are quite free to describe Israel’s foes as terrorists, and their attacks as atrocities.  
Mearsheimer and Walt have predictably met with a firestorm of criticism, and denounced as everything from amateur scholars (Harvard? U. of Chicago?) to anti-Semites.   But their book has also been widely defended and praised, and even more important, widely read and discussed. 
If you read it, you will find that M & W are neither anti-Jewish nor anti-Israel.  They are concerned with the damage that the lobby has done, not just to the U.S. but to Israel itself, in promoting one-sided views that will never lead to peace.  Like them, I criticize Israel but I support its existence.  I believe it was justified for Jews to fight for a homeland in Palestine after the World War Two holocaust, even at the cost of displacing the native Arabs.  If you want a nation of your own you have to fight for it, and somebody has to lose.   But the authors and I, along with many Israelis and most Americans, persist in believing that a two-state solution is possible that respects the dignity and rights of the Palestinians.  
So, what can be done?  For starters, read the book.
Vote for Obama.
Speak up.  And if anyone calls you a fool or an anti-Semite for refusing to blindly follow Bibi Netanyahu, be prepared to deliver a firm rebuke across the barricades. 

-- Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips