I think it’s useful to do a little debriefing in the aftermath of the Chas. Freeman affair in terms of who got it right and who didn’t. So first of all kudos to Phil Weiss, Spencer Ackerman, Glenn Greenwald, Greg Sargent, M.J. Rosenberg, Ben Smith, Chris Nelson, Jim Lobe, Laura Rosen, Steven Walt, and others who reported the hell out of this story. Jewish Voice for Peace was also one of the few groups which spoke out for Freeman. We were right, but for reasons beyond our control we didn’t prevail.
But my real concern is examining the mistakes made by our side. First, I really want to take to task the Jewish peace groups like Brit Tzedek, Americans for Peace Now, Israel Policy Forum, and especially J Street for turning tail and running from this fight as fast as their little feet would carry them. One of my readers, Walter Ballin, has done me the favor of posting J Street’s timorous response to his question on the matter and it’s unfortunately very instructive:
The appointment and subsequent withdrawal of Chas. Freeman from a senior national intelligence post this week is just the latest example of Israel policy as political football.
J Street stayed out of this fight. First, we – probably like many of those who did comment – did not know enough about Freeman or his positions to really take a stand. Further, on principle, we objected to making our government’s intelligence apparatus a political battlefield. Remember, it was politicized intelligence that helped mislead the U.S. into Iraq.
I’m sorry but it’s J Street’s job to “know enough” about candidates for government jobs that significantly impact U.S. relations with Israel. This is a cop out of the first order and frankly I don’t believe it. Getting up to speed on Chas. Freeman’s views wasn’t that hard a task.
Second, it was the lobby that “politicized” this appointment not Obama or Freeman. If you refuse to fight on the terms the other guy establishes then you’ll never end up in the fight. They chose the battleground. It doesn’t give us the luxury of refusing to engage. On the contrary, this was a major battle with the lobby, and those groups whose job it is to act as a counter to the most pernicious behavior of the lobby folded up their tent and went home.
Now, however, in the aftermath of the battle and Freeman’s withdrawal, many are interpreting the incident as a victory for those who would make their view of what it means to be pro-Israel a standard for service in the U.S. government.
To that I personally – and we at J Street – object.
You can object all you want. But again, the opponents set the terms. They won. They get to define what their victory means. You can disagree all you want. But since you absconded, it looks a little lame to come in after the fact and say their victory doesn’t mean what they say it means. Besides, even those on our side of this understand that this victory will have toxic effects in the future. The only question is whether the toxicity is small or large. But it is and will be toxic.
The principle at stake here is critical: It cannot be a litmus test for service in the American government that you have never criticized Israel or its policies publicly.
Once again, that’s precisely the argument the other side made and it carried the day. You weren’t there. They were. Sorry, but this is more lameness.
This really isn’t about Chas. Freeman or the statements he’s made. Again, we took no position on his nomination.
Why are you running away from Freeman as if he had leprosy? At most, he was somewhat overbearing in the manner in which he expressed himself about Israel. But none of his views are at great variance with those of J Street’s leaders. Again, I think it’s most unfortunate that J Street spent more time objecting to the messenger than understanding that the message was what was really important.
…Some are strutting proudly today at the personal destruction of someone who – in their view – is a real foe of Israel. In their view, intimidating those who would otherwise speak their mind on Israel is the ultimate service to protect and defend the state of Israel.
They’re wrong. Israel’s no better off with only meek friends in positions of power in the United States. Frankly, all friends, Israel included, need to hear the hard truth sometimes.
And sure would’ve been nice if you’d said that when it could’ve helped Freeman and our side.
Others are clamoring that the failed appointment is the death knell of hope that President Obama may engage in meaningful diplomacy and conflict resolution in the Middle East.
They’re wrong, too. President Obama has already shown his determination to bring about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He’s appointed George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace and lived up to his promise to engage from Day One in resolving the conflict.
Easy to say. But what happens when and if Obama finally bites the bullet and tells Israel to freeze the settlements and the lobby goes into real overdrive (not the ham-handed campaign it waged against Freeman). Everyone will have in the back or front of their mind the “job” the lobby did on Freeman. You couldn’t fault Obama for pulling punches after the shellacking they gave Freeman. And make no mistake, they WILL pull punches. J Street’s role is to encourage the administration NOT to pull its punches. So where were you when we needed you?
What is important to me is that the Obama team not draw the lesson from this episode that they simply need to be more careful vetting of appointees to make sure they’ve never criticized Israel.
And you think that WON’T come into play in future appointments given the experience on this one?
…I also feel strongly that if I see Israel or the United States following a misguided path, it’s not simply my right, but my obligation to speak out. Does that mean that I will never again be able to be in public service?
Given the treatment meted out to Freeman, it might.
Neither Israel nor the United States is served when free discussion and debate about foreign policy is stifled because people fear for the impact on their career of speaking openly.
Presidents and our country are best served by public officials willing to look critically at all sides of an issue that impacts the United States. In particular, those charged with gathering and sorting through intelligence to guide our foreign policy must be able to look at all sides of an issue.
Once again, you’ve got the issues but only expressed the right view after the horse left the barn.
I hope that the President and his team will ensure that subsequent choices for this and other sensitive intelligence and foreign policy positions have impeccable credentials and real independence. I further hope they choose people with the guts to speak truth to power and to force uncomfortable facts into foreign policy debates too often guided by political agendas.
Finally, I would say to friends of Israel that a litmus test for public service that rules out all those who have ever publicly questioned a policy or action of the government of Israel is of no service to the country you love. Without a hard look at the facts and the clock, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic homeland, is at grave risk.
I want to add that J Street is not the sole group at fault. The others I listed above were also derelict in their duty.
In the Brit Tzedek conference call with Dan Kurtzer, a caller asked where the Jewish peace lobby was on the Freeman issue. Steve Masters, the group’s chair, conveniently chose not to respond. But silence doesn’t cut it I’m afraid. We don’t support these groups so they can sit on their hands when we need them to be most vigorous and pro-active. So some serious boos to APN, Brit Tzedek and J Street. As far as Israel Policy Forum, to their credit they allowed M.J. Rosenberg to write extensively in support of Freeman. They probably could’ve muzzled him (though knowing M.J. it might not’ve worked) but didn’t. So kudos to him for his courage.
Finally, the Obama administration also got this one wrong. They didn’t battle for Freeman as they should have. During the campaign, whenever the other side launched a salvo Obama’s people were there to return fire. Here, whenever the pro-Israel right launched a salvo, no one responded. It may’ve been a mid-level appointment and I realize that administrations may not be used to fighting for candidates that low on the totem pole. But once the enemy engaged, it was Obama’s job to reply. He didn’t and the Republican right and Israel lobby carried the day.
The reason why fighting for Freeman was critical wasn’t so much Freeman or the NIC director’s position. It was the symbolism and its impact on future decisions and relationships. I personally can’t believe that Obama and the Jewish peace groups allowed Steve Rosen to have such a cheap victory. This is one of the worst practitioners of pro-Israel street fighting. Someone under indictment for passing U.S. secrets to Israel. This guy starts a fight and you say: “Sorry, not my fight?” I’m sorry, but that’s not the way I see it.
So Steve Masters, Jeremy Ben Ami, Ori Nir, etc. you made a mistake on this one.