Two extraordinary events have come together to place Al Jazeera in a vise-like squeeze that may result in the death of a major TV documentary expose about the power and operations of the Israel Lobby in the U.S. The same investigative team producing this project created the remarkable four-part film, The Lobby, about the UK Israel Lobby. In that documentary, an undercover operative infiltrated the Israel Lobby and became a trusted figure among activists, leaders, MPs, and even Israeli diplomats who he filmed betraying shocking details of their efforts to derail the political career of a junior British ministers, and to spend $1-million on Israel junkets designed to convey a pro-Israel script to UK political figures.
The new documentary follows a similar script. Al Jazeera recruited someone to infiltrate various Lobby organizations based in Washington. The covert operative rented an apartment in the city and held social events and parties there to which he invited key figures in the pro-Israel community in the nation’s capital. He may have even chatted up Israeli diplomats in DC as the earlier UK documentary did. News of this project has been around for months. The pro-Israel tabloid, Tablet, exposed the identity of the secret operative. Now that the groups know who the mole was they have a pretty good idea of what material he procured that would be in the aired show.
That’s where a critical development complicates the process of bringing the program to air. A few months ago, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince decided to teach his nation’s little brother, Qatar, a lesson. The Qataris have always been the upstart standing in the shadows of Saudi Arabia. To compensate, they’ve set out to separate them from their neighbor. They’re crafted an independent foreign policy that has embraced states and movements which are anathema to the Saudis, including Iran, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman doesn’t brook opposition easily. He wants total fealty, and nothing less. He detests Qatar for the temerity of it’s independent course. So he decided to cut it down to size by uniting the Sunni states of the Gulf and Egypt against Qatar. He declared a siege, attempting to isolate it from the rest of the Arab world. He accused the emir of Qatar of supporting terrorism, while neglecting that his own kingdom offered an equal amount of support for some of the same Sunni Islamist terrorists of ISIS and al-Qaeda. He made a list of demands of the Qataris before they would be readmitted into his good graces. Many believed that there was a plan afoot for the Saudi military to invade the country and replace its leadership with Arab quislings who would do MBS’ bidding, though that hasn’t happened yet.
So far the Saudi scheme hasn’t worked. But it certainly has placed the emirate under immense pressure. The Qataris have scurried to create a counter-narrative to rebut charges against them. In the process, they determined that one of the key points of leverage might be the American Jewish community. They saw that given Saudi Arabia’s growing friendliness with Israel, if they could manage to cozy up to Israel and its powerful U.S. lobby, it might take some of the sting out of the charges against them.
To that end, they hired Nick Muzin, a consummate GOP operative who’d last worked for Ted Cruz’s losing presidential campaign. Muzin, who now receives $300,000 per month to lobby on Qatar’s behalf, devised a tried and true strategy from the Aipac playbook: junkets. Get leading figures in the pro-Israel community to accept all expenses paid trips to Qatar. Pull out all the stops; wine them and dine them; offer them facetime with the emir. In this way, Alan Dershowitz, Mort Klein, Mike Huckabee and Malcom Hoenlein have taken up the offer.
Given that these very same individuals have spoken some of the harshest language regarding the Arab states and their ongoing hostility to Israel, it’s remarkable that they’re singing such a different tune. I wondered how a few 1st class plane tickets, a luxury hotel suite and a few hours with the emir could make these leopards change their spots.
That’s when I read about the Al Jazeera documentary. Today, Haaretz published a story acknowledging that almost all of these American Jewish supplicants came to Qatar for one very special reason (there may have been others, but this one was key). They wanted the Al Jazeera documentary killed. They knew if it was aired it would make them look as shabby, venal, and crude as the UK series did. These Lobby leaders also knew they were in a tricky position. Given that they liked to think of themselves as liberal, and supporters of free speech and press, they couldn’t be seen to take an ax to the production in an overt fashion. They needed to work behind the scenes.
That’s where Qatar’s need for new friends in its war with Saudi Arabia came in. In the Haaretz article, a number of the junket participants admitted that they brought up the documentary when they met the emir. The attendees claim that they were told privately that the program would not air. Nick Muzin, confirmed this after consulting with his Qatari collaborators.
However, AJ threw them all a curve-ball this week when it sent letters to a dozen Israel Lobby groups asking for their response to the material in the production. The high-paid executives thought they had it in the bag, when all of a sudden it looked like the cat had escaped. Matters appear to remain in limbo. All Muzin would say was that the documentary would not air “soon.”
I know one of the key members of the team producing the documentary. I’ve asked him if he can speak about it and he’s observing total radio silence. That tells me that: either the documentary is dead and the producers have been told to clam up about it; or the documentary is on track and the AJ powers-that-be do not want anyone on the production team making any statements that might complicate the already knotty situation; or that no decision has been made and the producers have been told that anything they say could derail their project.
I do not know which option is most likely. Will the emir deem realpolitik and protection of his kingdom to be more important than a single documentary project? Or will he understand that doing business with the Lobby in such a shoddy fashion could leave a residual bad taste, staining Qatar’s reputation?
We should prepare for the possibility that the Lobby, powerful as it is, will find the right buttons to push with the Qataris and get the documentary cancelled. If that happens, it’s important that blame be nailed on the wall for all to see, like Martin Luther’s theses. This could be yet another lesson in the suffocating political power of the Lobby in national politics. It should provide an example of how Israel’s interests trump American values of freedom and fairness. When Israel or the Lobby come under attack nothing must stand in the way: not free speech, free press, political debate.
UPDATE: Today, a Qatari foreign ministry spokeswoman rebutted the Haaretz reports:
Explaining Qatar’s position, she said: “…Qatar denies the false news about requesting the Al Jazeera Network to suspend the airing of the documentary that was produced by the latter.”
We see this news in the context of the blockading countries’ tireless attempts to cast scepticism over Qatar’s open and progressive model of governance and to make a case for repeating their demand to shut down Al Jazeera. Shutting down Al Jazeera has been an objective of the quartet which owns dozens of media outlets but seems unable to compete with Al Jazeera, in what should be a free market of ideas. It seems like their inability to compete and gain credibility is what is driving these campaigns to defame Qatar and its various positions.”
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.