John Mearsheimer, Wendell Harrison Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard have written a damning indictment of America’s Jewish pro-Israel lobby entitled, The Israel Lobby (unedited version), in the London Review of Books. In it they analyze the pernicious influence of Aipac and related Jewish think-tanks on U.S. Mideast policy:
For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centrepiece of US Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering support for Israel and the related effort to spread ‘democracy’ throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardised not only US security but that of much of the rest of the world. This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the US been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the US provides.
Instead, the thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the other country – in this case, Israel – are essentially identical.
Before we get too far into a discussion of this article, I want to point out that I am aware that Mearsheimer and Walt’s (subsequently referred to here as ‘M&W’) analysis has its limits. I believe that they overstate their arguments in places. Some of their judgments lack the nuance that is required to navigate the dangerous shoals of the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I will attempt to make those reservations known as I write here. But on balance they have written an admirable, provocative and controversial attack on Aipac’s power within American political life. For I believe, along with the study’s authors, that Aipac is a negative influence on U.S. policy and that it does not serve Israel’s long-term interests either (the latter consideration is for me as important as the former). In this post, I quote extensively from the essay because I believe that its authors have something very important to say.
In the above passage, M&W write that the Israel lobby’s (subsequently referred to as “the Lobby”) “situation has no equal in American political history.” I would say that the Cuban-American community’s influence on U.S. policy toward Cuba is quite similar to the level of impact the Lobby has on U.S. Mideast policy.
I also disagree with their contention that “US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics.” It is more complicated than that. U.S. Mideast policy is heavily impacted by The Lobby, but to say it is “almost entirely” determined by The Lobby is an overstatement. Aipac would not have the success it has had if members of Congress did not already believe that Israel’s interests were inextricably interwoven with our own. In other words, members of the Congress and Administration are willing partners in this fool’s dance and deserve their share of blame for the result. Our political leaders have not been hypnotized by the Svengali-like ministrations of Aipac. They embraced these unfortunate policies of their own volition (though with an energetic push from The Lobby).
M&W ask what could be the rationale for such a close alliance between the U.S. and Israel:
This extraordinary generosity might be understandable if Israel were a vital strategic asset or if there were a compelling moral case for US backing. But neither explanation is convincing. One might argue that Israel was an asset during the Cold War. By serving as America’s proxy after 1967, it helped contain Soviet expansion in the region and inflicted humiliating defeats on Soviet clients like Egypt and Syria. It occasionally helped protect other US allies (like King Hussein of Jordan) and its military prowess forced Moscow to spend more on backing its own client states. It also provided useful intelligence about Soviet capabilities.
What this analysis leaves out is that the U.S. has strongly backed Israel since the day in 1948 when Harry Truman recognized the new state. Except for a few key instances (like when Eisenhower forced an Israeli withdrawal from Sinai during the 1956 War and when Nixon jawboned the Israelis into ceasing their attacks on Egypt during the 1973 War), our nation has always maintained a “soft spot” for Israel. So just because Israel ceased being a legitimate “vital strategic asset” after the Cold War doesn’t mean that the U.S. would immediately adjust its relationship with Israel into something more appropriate to its current geopolitical value. Such changes in our relationship with Israel are gradual and slow to evolve. While I too wish America did not provide a rubber stamp to Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and have worked toward that goal for many years, I at least understand the context in which this relationship developed.
In this discussion of the “strategic burden” Israel creates in our interactions with the Arab world, M&W probe some of the thorniest and most critical issues involving in the U.S.-Israel relationship:
Backing Israel was not cheap, however, and it complicated America’s relations with the Arab world. For example, the decision to give $2.2 billion in emergency military aid during the October War triggered an Opec oil embargo that inflicted considerable damage on Western economies. For all that, Israel’s armed forces were not in a position to protect US interests in the region. The US could not, for example, rely on Israel when the Iranian Revolution in 1979 raised concerns about the security of oil supplies, and had to create its own Rapid Deployment Force instead.
The first Gulf War revealed the extent to which Israel was becoming a strategic burden. The US could not use Israeli bases without rupturing the anti-Iraq coalition, and had to divert resources (e.g. Patriot missile batteries) to prevent Tel Aviv doing anything that might harm the alliance against Saddam Hussein. History repeated itself in 2003: although Israel was eager for the US to attack Iraq, Bush could not ask it to help without triggering Arab opposition. So Israel stayed on the sidelines once again.
Next they turn to the issue of terrorism and the alleged nexus between U.S. and Israeli interests in the war on terror:
…After 9/11, US support has been justified by the claim that both states are threatened by terrorist groups originating in the Arab and Muslim world, and by ‘rogue states’ that back these groups and seek weapons of mass destruction. This is taken to mean not only that Washington should give Israel a free hand in dealing with the Palestinians and not press it to make concessions until all Palestinian terrorists are imprisoned or dead, but that the US should go after countries like Iran and Syria. Israel is thus seen as a crucial ally in the war on terror, because its enemies are America’s enemies. In fact, Israel is a liability in the war on terror and the broader effort to deal with rogue states.
‘Terrorism’ is not a single adversary, but a tactic employed by a wide array of political groups. The terrorist organisations that threaten Israel do not threaten the United States, except when it intervenes against them (as in Lebanon in 1982). Moreover, Palestinian terrorism is not random violence directed against Israel or ‘the West’; it is largely a response to Israel’s prolonged campaign to colonise the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
More important, saying that Israel and the US are united by a shared terrorist threat has the causal relationship backwards: the US has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel, not the other way around. Support for Israel is not the only source of anti-American terrorism, but it is an important one, and it makes winning the war on terror more difficult. There is no question that many al-Qaida leaders, including Osama bin Laden, are motivated by Israel’s presence in Jerusalem and the plight of the Palestinians. Unconditional support for Israel makes it easier for extremists to rally popular support and to attract recruits.
This analysis is precisely correct and needs to be stated over and over again until it sinks in with policy analysts in Washington, D.C. Anyone who tells you (and most of the Jewish lobby will tell you this) that U.S. support for Israel has no bearing on our relations with the Arab world or the war in Iraq or the struggle against Al Qaeda is trying to sell you a pig in a poke. Of course they’re related and as long as we deny this fundamental connection we are like blindfolded people trying to walk a straight line. We can’t do it.
M&W argue, unpersuasively in my opinion, that rogue states like Iran do not really post an imminent threat to the U.S.:
As for so-called rogue states in the Middle East, they are not a dire threat to vital US interests, except inasmuch as they are a threat to Israel. Even if these states acquire nuclear weapons – which is obviously undesirable – neither America nor Israel could be blackmailed, because the blackmailer could not carry out the threat without suffering overwhelming retaliation. The danger of a nuclear handover to terrorists is equally remote, because a rogue state could not be sure the transfer would go undetected or that it would not be blamed and punished afterwards. The relationship with Israel actually makes it harder for the US to deal with these states. Israel’s nuclear arsenal is one reason some of its neighbours want nuclear weapons, and threatening them with regime change merely increases that desire.
While I would agree that Iran poses a much graver threat to Israel than the U.S., to argue that we are “going after” Iran merely because of the threat it poses to Israel is wrong. Iran is a threat to the world, not just Israel, if it develops nuclear weapons and ever uses them (and who can guarantee that they won’t?). In attempting to prevent Iran from developing such weapons, we are trying to lessen the threat to the entire world. That being said, I do wholeheartedly agree that Israel’s nuclear arsenal is a tinder box that exacerbates the Arab world’s desire to possess weapons of their own. Whenever a single nation within a region has the bomb it can be nothing other than a provocation to others who will want it as well. While I can understand the motivations that impelled Israeli leaders to undertake their nuclear program, I believe the Mideast would be far better off if Israel–and no other nation in the region–had them.
M&W note that while Israel likes to call itself ‘America’s best friend’ it often does not behave that way:
A final reason to question Israel’s strategic value is that it does not behave like a loyal ally. Israeli officials frequently ignore US requests and renege on promises (including pledges to stop building settlements and to refrain from ‘targeted assassinations’ of Palestinian leaders). Israel has provided sensitive military technology to potential rivals like China, in what the State Department inspector-general called ‘a systematic and growing pattern of unauthorised transfers’. According to the General Accounting Office, Israel also ‘conducts the most aggressive espionage operations against the US of any ally’. In addition to the case of Jonathan Pollard, who gave Israel large quantities of classified material in the early 1980s (which it reportedly passed on to the Soviet Union in return for more exit visas for Soviet Jews), a new controversy erupted in 2004 when it was revealed that a key Pentagon official called Larry Franklin had passed classified information to an Israeli diplomat. Israel is hardly the only country that spies on the US, but its willingness to spy on its principal patron casts further doubt on its strategic value.
Israel’s strategic value isn’t the only issue. Its backers also argue that it deserves unqualified support because it is weak and surrounded by enemies; it is a democracy; the Jewish people have suffered from past crimes and therefore deserve special treatment; and Israel’s conduct has been morally superior to that of its adversaries. On close inspection, none of these arguments is persuasive. There is a strong moral case for supporting Israel’s existence, but that is not in jeopardy. Viewed objectively, its past and present conduct offers no moral basis for privileging it over the Palestinians.
Israel is often portrayed as David confronted by Goliath, but the converse is closer to the truth…Today, Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East. Its conventional forces are far superior to those of its neighbours and it is the only state in the region with nuclear weapons…Syria has lost its Soviet patron, Iraq has been devastated by three disastrous wars and Iran is hundreds of miles away. The Palestinians barely have an effective police force, let alone an army that could pose a threat to Israel. According to a 2005 assessment by Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies, ‘the strategic balance decidedly favours Israel, which has continued to widen the qualitative gap between its own military capability and deterrence powers and those of its neighbours.’ If backing the underdog were a compelling motive, the United States would be supporting Israel’s opponents.
A former staffer for one of the group’s affiliated with the Israel lobby who is a friend of mine (and whose identity will be protected because he still works within the Jewish community) comes right out and says that Aipac will do anything including spying to enhance Israel’s security; and that Israel is a more than willing participant. Anyone who reads the media coverage of the Franklin-Rosen-Weissman-Naor spy affair will have serious doubts about Aipac’s protestations of innocence regarding this scandal.
While I largely agree with the sentiments expressed in this passage, I think the authors neglect a key element in understanding both Israeli psychology and the thinking of U.S. policymakers regarding Israeli security. Certainly, Israel seems to have overwhelming military superiority over the Arabs. But it still does not have peace. It does not have security. And these are the crucial elements that are missing for Israel and until they are in place, Israelis and U.S. leaders will continue to sympathize with Israel’s plight. We can argue all we want (and I discuss this issue very often in this blog) about why Israel does not have such security and how much of the reason should be laid at Israel’s own doorstep. But the plain fact is that as long as there are terror attacks against Israel, the world will feel a degree of sympathy for it no matter what its degree of culpability for that terror.
The Israel Lobby discusses the divergences between Israeli “democracy” and our own democratic values:
Some aspects of Israeli democracy are at odds with core American values. Unlike the US, where people are supposed to enjoy equal rights irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity, Israel was explicitly founded as a Jewish state and citizenship is based on the principle of blood kinship. Given this, it is not surprising that its 1.3 million Arabs are treated as second-class citizens, or that a recent Israeli government commission found that Israel behaves in a ‘neglectful and discriminatory’ manner towards them. Its democratic status is also undermined by its refusal to grant the Palestinians a viable state of their own or full political rights.
The problem I have with this passage is that while they are correct in saying America was a nation founded in opposition to the notion of religious supremacy or majority hegemony, that does not mean that Americans lack sympathy for the notion of a Jewish homeland. They understand the reason why a Jewish homeland was considered necessary after World War II and they have not wavered in their understanding of this concept since then.
One can argue that the nature of Israel as a Jewish state has trampled upon the rights of its Arab citizens. I agree with this assessment. But M&W neglect to consider the possibility that Israel may yet evolve into a nation that values its non-Jewish citizens equally to its Jewish ones. After all, our country valued our African-American citizens less than white citizens for nearly two centuries. Can’t we allow for the fact that Israel might change its most noxious attitudes toward its Arab minority over time and with sufficient political and social pressure coming from civil liberties groups and that minority itself?
This passage gives the lie to the essay’s pro-Israel detractors who dismiss M&W as mere anti-Zionists or latter-day adherents of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion:
A third justification [for U.S. support] is the history of Jewish suffering in the Christian West, especially during the Holocaust. Because Jews were persecuted for centuries and could feel safe only in a Jewish homeland, many people now believe that Israel deserves special treatment from the United States. The country’s creation was undoubtedly an appropriate response to the long record of crimes against Jews, but it also brought about fresh crimes against a largely innocent third party: the Palestinians.
…The tragic history of the Jewish people does not obligate the US to help Israel today no matter what it does.
Everything in this passage including the last sentence is entirely apt.
Next, the essayists confront the “myth” that Israel has constantly worked for peace and been betrayed at every turn by Arab perfidy:
Israel’s backers also portray it as a country that has sought peace at every turn and shown great restraint even when provoked. The Arabs, by contrast, are said to have acted with great wickedness. Yet on the ground, Israel’s record is not distinguishable from that of its opponents.
…During the first intifada, the IDF distributed truncheons to its troops and encouraged them to break the bones of Palestinian protesters…The response to the second intifada has been even more violent, leading Ha’aretz to declare that ‘the IDF . . . is turning into a killing machine whose efficiency is awe-inspiring, yet shocking’…For every Israeli lost, Israel has killed 3.4 Palestinians, the majority of whom have been innocent bystanders; the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli children killed is even higher (5.7:1).
It is also worth bearing in mind that the Zionists relied on terrorist bombs to drive the British from Palestine, and that Yitzhak Shamir, once a terrorist and later prime minister, declared that ‘neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat.’
At this point in the essay, the writers turn from discussing Israel’s relationship with the U.S. to analyzing the Israel Lobby itself:
The explanation [for continued U.S. support] is the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby. We use ‘the Lobby’ as shorthand for the loose coalition of individuals and organisations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. This is not meant to suggest that ‘the Lobby’ is a unified movement with a central leadership, or that individuals within it do not disagree on certain issues. Not all Jewish Americans are part of the Lobby, because Israel is not a salient issue for many of them. In a 2004 survey, for example, roughly 36 per cent of American Jews said they were either ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ emotionally attached to Israel.
Jewish Americans also differ on specific Israeli policies. Many of the key organisations in the Lobby, such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations, are run by hardliners who generally support the Likud Party’s expansionist policies, including its hostility to the Oslo peace process. The bulk of US Jewry, meanwhile, is more inclined to make concessions to the Palestinians, and a few groups – such as Jewish Voice for Peace – strongly advocate such steps. Despite these differences, moderates and hardliners both favour giving steadfast support to Israel.
Again, those who criticize this article should not get away with the accusation that its authors are anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist. They acknowledge that The Lobby is not unified or homogeneous. There is no Protocols like conspiracy to “take over” U.S. policy. But there is a loosely organized and powerful set of pro-Israel interests that coalesce around this hardline position. And M&W are entirely accurate in saying that The Lobby’s leadership is unrepresentative of the views of American Jewry. U.S. Jews have much more dovish views on the conflict than the Hoenleins and Foxmans of the Jewish world.
But I do have a strong criticism of this passage. The writers do not fully credit the broad array of groups which oppose The Lobby’s hegemony over Israel policy. They only name a single group, Jewish Voice for Peace. While this group does play an important role in combating Aipac’s dominance, what happened to the other terrific groups serving a similar (and in many cases much more effective) role? What about the Israel Policy Forum, American Friends of Peace Now (APN), Brit Tzedek to name but a few? APN, for one, has gone head to head with Aipac in trying to derail the Ros Lehtinen-Lantos Palestinian Anti-Terrorism bill touted by Aipac. And they’ve done a great job. I don’t know if they’ll best Aipac on this. But their effort marks the first time that an American Jewish group has battled it out with Aipac in the halls of Congress. If we are ever to achieve a more reasonable U.S. Jewish approach to Israel, then this effort must be encouraged more forcefully than M&W do here.
The essay also discusses an important and damaging coalition between The Lobby and Christian Zionists:
The Lobby also includes prominent Christian evangelicals like Gary Bauer, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson, as well as Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, former majority leaders in the House of Representatives, all of whom believe Israel’s rebirth is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and support its expansionist agenda; to do otherwise, they believe, would be contrary to God’s will. Neo-conservative gentiles such as John Bolton; William Bennett, the former secretary of education; Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former UN ambassador; and the influential columnist George Will are also steadfast supporters.
Those who vilify this article also ignore this type of analysis in which M&W credit The Lobby with exercising its legitimate rights according to the custom of U.S. politics:
In its basic operations, the Israel Lobby is no different from the farm lobby, steel or textile workers’ unions, or other ethnic lobbies. There is nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to sway US policy: the Lobby’s activities are not a conspiracy of the sort depicted in tracts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. For the most part, the individuals and groups that comprise it are only doing what other special interest groups do, but doing it very much better. By contrast, pro-Arab interest groups, in so far as they exist at all, are weak, which makes the Israel Lobby’s task even easier.
This portion of the study discusses the ‘stifling’ role The Lobby plays within U.S. political life:
…It strives to ensure that public discourse portrays Israel in a positive light, by repeating myths about its founding and by promoting its point of view in policy debates. The goal is to prevent critical comments from getting a fair hearing in the political arena. Controlling the debate is essential to guaranteeing US support, because a candid discussion of US-Israeli relations might lead Americans to favour a different policy.
This is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of The Lobby. You can see it in the battery of guns The Lobby has turned on the article itself. This CAMERA article is but one of many examples. And the campaign has hardly begun. The Forward describes the beginning of an orchestrated campaign to rebut the article by several organizations involved with The Lobby, although the Lobby usually works behind the scenes and probably would not telegraph its plans in a newspaper article like this one. Already, it has persuaded Harvard to distance itself from its own faculty member’s work. The authors have been called by the most spurious and hateful epithets. If you go up against these guys you’re going to get mud up to your eyeballs. They don’t like to be “called out” and they don’t like to be criticized.
M&W probe Aipac’s unique influence behind the scenes in the corridors of U.S. power:
AIPAC itself…forms the core of the Lobby’s influence in Congress. Its success is due to its ability to reward legislators and congressional candidates who support its agenda, and to punish those who challenge it. Money is critical to US elections (as the scandal over the lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s shady dealings reminds us), and AIPAC makes sure that its friends get strong financial support from the many pro-Israel political action committees. Anyone who is seen as hostile to Israel can be sure that AIPAC will direct campaign contributions to his or her political opponents. AIPAC also organises letter-writing campaigns and encourages newspaper editors to endorse pro-Israel candidates.
…AIPAC’s influence on Capitol Hill goes even further. According to Douglas Bloomfield, a former AIPAC staff member, ‘it is common for members of Congress and their staffs to turn to AIPAC first when they need information, before calling the Library of Congress, the Congressional Research Service, committee staff or administration experts.’ More important, he notes that AIPAC is ‘often called on to draft speeches, work on legislation, advise on tactics, perform research, collect co-sponsors and marshal votes’.
The bottom line is that AIPAC, a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on Congress, with the result that US policy towards Israel is not debated there, even though that policy has important consequences for the entire world.
The Lobby also works to derail the political careers of those deemed not sufficiently slavish in their support for Israel:
Key organisations in the Lobby make it their business to ensure that critics of Israel do not get important foreign policy jobs. Jimmy Carter wanted to make George Ball his first secretary of state, but knew that Ball was seen as critical of Israel and that the Lobby would oppose the appointment. In this way, any aspiring policymaker is encouraged to become an overt supporter of Israel, which is why public critics of Israeli policy have become an endangered species in the foreign policy establishment.
When Howard Dean called for the United States to take a more ‘even-handed role’ in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Senator Joseph Lieberman accused him of selling Israel down the river and said his statement was ‘irresponsible’. Virtually all the top Democrats in the House signed a letter criticising Dean’s remarks, and the Chicago Jewish Star reported that ‘anonymous attackers . . . are clogging the email inboxes of Jewish leaders around the country, warning – without much evidence – that Dean would somehow be bad for Israel.’
This worry was absurd; Dean is in fact quite hawkish on Israel: his campaign co-chair was a former AIPAC president, and Dean said his own views on the Middle East more closely reflected those of AIPAC than those of the more moderate Americans for Peace Now. He had merely suggested that to ‘bring the sides together’, Washington should act as an honest broker. This is hardly a radical idea, but the Lobby doesn’t tolerate even-handedness.
I take issue with the essay’s characterization of those in the Clinton Administration who worked on Mideast policy:
During the Clinton administration, Middle Eastern policy was largely shaped by officials with close ties to Israel or to prominent pro-Israel organisations; among them, Martin Indyk, the former deputy director of research at AIPAC and co-founder of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP); Dennis Ross, who joined WINEP after leaving government in 2001; and Aaron Miller, who has lived in Israel and often visits the country. These men were among Clinton’s closest advisers at the Camp David summit in July 2000. Although all three supported the Oslo peace process and favoured the creation of a Palestinian state, they did so only within the limits of what would be acceptable to Israel. The American delegation took its cues from Ehud Barak, co-ordinated its negotiating positions with Israel in advance, and did not offer independent proposals.
To call Dennis Ross or Aaron Miller slavish adherents of pro-Israel policy seems absurd. Since when does the fact that someone “has lived in Israel and often visits the country” mean that they can’t have a balanced perspective on the conflict that allows for empathy for the Palestinian cause?
Next, the author’s tackle The Lobby’s hold over media representations of Israel:
The Lobby’s perspective prevails in the mainstream media: the debate among Middle East pundits, the journalist Eric Alterman writes, is ‘dominated by people who cannot imagine criticising Israel’. He lists 61 ‘columnists and commentators who can be counted on to support Israel reflexively and without qualification’. Conversely, he found just five pundits who consistently criticise Israeli actions or endorse Arab positions. Newspapers occasionally publish guest op-eds challenging Israeli policy, but the balance of opinion clearly favours the other side. It is hard to imagine any mainstream media outlet in the United States publishing a piece like this one.
…Editorial bias is also found in papers like the New York Times, which occasionally criticises Israeli policies and sometimes concedes that the Palestinians have legitimate grievances, but is not even-handed.
While I agree that Aipac’s positions are much more readily read and seen in the U.S. media, I think the authors miss the mark by declaring that the organization’s perspective dominates. I think they and Eric Alterman formulate the issue wrongly when they look for “pundits who consistently criticize Israeli actions or Arab positions.” I look for pundits who are willing to challenge Israeli positions when they are wrong (and applaud them when they are right). There are many more than “five pundits” who fit this profile and you’ll find their work discussed in this blog: Tom Friedman, Henry Siegman, Dennis Ross, Aaron Miller, Michael Lerner, Bernard Avishai, M.J. Rosenberg, Eric Alterman, Robert Rosenberg, Leonard Fein, Jimmy Carter and Ray Hanania.
The writers’ analysis of NY Times coverage wholly misses the mark. While I have strongly disagreed with a few editorials I rarely disagree with their content. And I’ve found the Op-Ed page to be balanced fairly well. The fact that the authors provide no proof to substantiate their claim short of an anecdote from Max Frankel, who stepped down as Times editor many years ago, makes it hard to judge.
But where their media analysis is absolutely correct is within the Jewish media. If you read dispatches by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which are distributed to every major Jewish publication in the country, a breathless, unquestioning support for Aipac’s prevails. Voices like my own are rarely heard within the Jewish press. The variety of opinion and debate in Jewish papers is quite limited.
M&W note the ‘freezing’ influence the pro-Israel lobby attempts to exert over Mideast coverage provided by public and private media outlets like National Public Radio:
To discourage unfavourable reporting, the Lobby organises letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations and boycotts of news outlets whose content it considers anti-Israel. One CNN executive has said that he sometimes gets 6000 email messages in a single day complaining about a story. In May 2003, the pro-Israel Committee for Accurate Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) organised demonstrations outside National Public Radio stations in 33 cities; it also tried to persuade contributors to withhold support from NPR until its Middle East coverage becomes more sympathetic to Israel. Boston’s NPR station, WBUR, reportedly lost more than $1 million in contributions as a result of these efforts. Further pressure on NPR has come from Israel’s friends in Congress, who have asked for an internal audit of its Middle East coverage as well as more oversight.
In this blog, I’ve noted similar efforts by Cheryl Halpern, chair of PBS and cowardly actions by WNYC and KQED which were inspired by fear of retaliation from the likes of Halpern and the pro-Israel lobby.
The “reach” of The Lobby also extends to college campuses where it attempts to stifle the full exchange of ideas regarding the Mideast:
Groups within the Lobby put pressure on particular academics and universities. Columbia has been a frequent target, no doubt because of the presence of the late Edward Said on its faculty. ‘One can be sure that any public statement in support of the Palestinian people by the pre-eminent literary critic Edward Said will elicit hundreds of emails, letters and journalistic accounts that call on us to denounce Said and to either sanction or fire him,’ Jonathan Cole, its former provost, reported. When Columbia recruited the historian Rashid Khalidi from Chicago, the same thing happened. It was a problem Princeton also faced a few years later when it considered wooing Khalidi away from Columbia.
A classic illustration of the effort to police academia occurred towards the end of 2004, when the David Project produced a film alleging that faculty members of Columbia’s Middle East Studies programme were anti-Semitic and were intimidating Jewish students who stood up for Israel. Columbia was hauled over the coals, but a faculty committee which was assigned to investigate the charges found no evidence of anti-semitism and the only incident possibly worth noting was that one professor had ‘responded heatedly’ to a student’s question. The committee also discovered that the academics in question had themselves been the target of an overt campaign of intimidation.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all this is the efforts Jewish groups have made to push Congress into establishing mechanisms to monitor what professors say. If they manage to get this passed, universities judged to have an anti-Israel bias would be denied federal funding. Their efforts have not yet succeeded, but they are an indication of the importance placed on controlling debate.
As someone who pursued a PhD in the field of Jewish studies and spent many years on a number of campuses, I am particularly shocked and galled by groups like the David Project. I think they do much more harm to the cause of Israel than any particular Arab professor they might attack.
No discussion about The Lobby would be complete without noting the stifling effect that the charge of anti-Semitism has on free debate about the Mideast:
No discussion of the Lobby would be complete without an examination of one of its most powerful weapons: the charge of anti-semitism. Anyone who criticises Israel’s actions or argues that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over US Middle Eastern policy – an influence AIPAC celebrates – stands a good chance of being labelled an anti-semite. Indeed, anyone who merely claims that there is an Israel Lobby runs the risk of being charged with anti-semitism, even though the Israeli media refer to America’s ‘Jewish Lobby’. In other words, the Lobby first boasts of its influence and then attacks anyone who calls attention to it. It’s a very effective tactic: anti-semitism is something no one wants to be accused of.
The charge of anti-Semitism is a calumny that can be used to silence any debate that is too probing of Israel’s policies. It is an easy shorthand that quickly throws a smothering cloak over debate.
M&W rightly criticize the Bush Administration for its wavering Mideast policy. At times, George Bush and Condi Rice have been willing to exert pressure to get Israel to adopt a particular position. But at other times, they appear to have caved in to the lobbying of Aipac and figures like Sharon in getting the U.S., for example, to embrace Israel’s “right” to assume control of the major West Bank settlement blocs after a peace settlement:
US officials have offered mild criticisms of a few Israeli actions, but have done little to help create a viable Palestinian state. Sharon has Bush ‘wrapped around his little finger’, the former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft said in October 2004. If Bush tries to distance the US from Israel, or even criticises Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories, he is certain to face the wrath of the Lobby and its supporters in Congress.
Unlike critics of The Israel Lobby, I think it is wholly relevant to consider the impact that Israeli and Aipac lobbying has had on policy toward Iraq and Iran. As the authors correctly note, there was a drumbeat for war from Jewish leaders and media leading up to the Iraq war. And anyone who’s read about Aipac’s most recent national conference knows that its major theme was Iran. Many hardline Jewish and Israeli leaders would like nothing more than to see the U.S. bomb or invade Iran to give it the black eye they feel it so richly deserves. They also would like to see Syria added to the “axis of evil” and confronted energetically and aggressively up to and including regime change.
There seems little understanding on The Lobby’s part of how unpopular such militarily aggressive action would be within the country, even within the Jewish community (aside from the leadership, that is).
The Israel Lobby asks whether Aipac’s influence will ever diminish within American political life:
Can the Lobby’s power be curtailed? One would like to think so, given the Iraq debacle, the obvious need to rebuild America’s image in the Arab and Islamic world, and the recent revelations about AIPAC officials passing US government secrets to Israel. One might also think that Arafat’s death and the election of the more moderate Mahmoud Abbas would cause Washington to press vigorously and even-handedly for a peace agreement. In short, there are ample grounds for leaders to distance themselves from the Lobby and adopt a Middle East policy more consistent with broader US interests. In particular, using American power to achieve a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians would help advance the cause of democracy in the region.
But that is not going to happen – not soon anyway. AIPAC and its allies (including Christian Zionists) have no serious opponents in the lobbying world. They know it has become more difficult to make Israel’s case today, and they are responding by taking on staff and expanding their activities. Besides, American politicians remain acutely sensitive to campaign contributions and other forms of political pressure, and major media outlets are likely to remain sympathetic to Israel no matter what it does.
While I don’t disagree with this assessment, I believe that it is critical for those of us progressive Jews to work toward the day when U.S. Mideast policy is not the sole domain of a single narrow mindset within the American Jewish community.
In conclusion, M&W note the damaging impact such narrowing of debate has on Israel itself:
..The Lobby’s campaign to quash debate about Israel is unhealthy for democracy. Silencing sceptics by organising blacklists and boycotts – or by suggesting that critics are anti-Semites – violates the principle of open debate on which democracy depends. The inability of Congress to conduct a genuine debate on these important issues paralyzes the entire process of democratic deliberation. Israel’s backers should be free to make their case and to challenge those who disagree with them, but efforts to stifle debate by intimidation must be roundly condemned.
Finally, the Lobby’s influence has been bad for Israel. Its ability to persuade Washington to support an expansionist agenda has discouraged Israel from seizing opportunities – including a peace treaty with Syria and a prompt and full implementation of the Oslo Accords – that would have saved Israeli lives and shrunk the ranks of Palestinian extremists. Denying the Palestinians their legitimate political rights certainly has not made Israel more secure, and the long campaign to kill or marginalise a generation of Palestinian leaders has empowered extremist groups like Hamas, and reduced the number of Palestinian leaders who would be willing to accept a fair settlement and able to make it work. Israel itself would probably be better off if the Lobby were less powerful and US policy more even-handed.
There is a ray of hope, however. Although the Lobby remains a powerful force, the adverse effects of its influence are increasingly difficult to hide. Powerful states can maintain flawed policies for quite some time, but reality cannot be ignored for ever. What is needed is a candid discussion of the Lobby’s influence and a more open debate about US interests in this vital region. Israel’s well-being is one of those interests, but its continued occupation of the West Bank and its broader regional agenda are not. Open debate will expose the limits of the strategic and moral case for one-sided US support and could move the US to a position more consistent with its own national interest, with the interests of the other states in the region, and with Israel’s long-term interests as well.
It is wrong, as critics have done, to dismiss the sincerity of the two authors in considering Israel’s interests in these matters. Just because they criticize Israel does not mean that they don’t care about its well-being. They have said here that they care. To doubt them is to accuse them of lying which would be entirely unfair and uncalled for.