Israel lobby losing its grip over US opinion
Across the political spectrum, once-taboo criticism is now common
By Jordan Michael Smith, Salon
With Hamas and Fatah meeting this week in Cairo, reconciliation between the rival Palestinian political parties is likely only a matter of time. Official U.S. policy holds that Hamas is only a terrorist entity, and any agreement between the two factions jeopardizes continued U.S. aid. There is reason to believe, however, that more flexible, productive positions will be expressed in the U.S. media. Slowly but unmistakably, space is opening up among the commentariat for new, critical ideas about Israel and its relationship to the United States.
Freedom of this sort was visible in the pages of the New York Times last week. Thomas Friedman, the paper’s foreign affairs columnist, that American leaders were betraying the country by outsourcing their foreign policy to Israel. A standing ovation given to the Israeli prime minister by the U.S. Congress this year was “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby,” he wrote. Phrased bluntly as it was, Friedman’s sentence was startling. As the quintessential establishment columnist, Bill Clinton’s favorite pundit and a thrice Pulitzer Prize-winner, Friedman is often seen in the U.S. as authoritative on the Middle East and rivaled only perhaps by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in the influence of his writing on popular discussion.
Not surprisingly, Friedman’s piece elicited furor from those policing the conversation about Israel. The Israeli ambassador, American Jewish Committee, Jerusalem Post and even members of Congress gang-swarmed Friedman, accusing him of anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel. It was not the first time in recent months Friedman has been critical of Israel policy. In September, he wrote of the Obama government that the “powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s.” A more damning critique of Israel and the lobby would be difficult to make.
Even so, Friedman is not the only Times-man to let go the pro-Netanyahu line. Columnist Roger Cohen is even more critical of Israel than is Friedman, and like Friedman he is notable for being a liberal supporter of the Iraq War — not exactly a radical, in other words. Cohen now regularly writes about Israel’s “illiberalism,” says U.S. foreign policy has been “Likudnized,” and calls opposing Israeli oppression of the Palestinians the most important task currently facing diaspora Jews.
Cohen believes the new conversations he has contributed to represent “changes going on in the U.S. Jewish community,” he said in a phone interview. “Jewish identify in post-war America was built very much on the Holocaust and support for Israel, and for younger American Jews that may have less resonance. There may be a rethinking of that form of attachment to Israel.”
J Street, the organization devoted to lobbying for Israel from a liberal perspective, is both reflective of, and a stimulant to, a more balanced conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Cohen says. If he is right, J Street is performing its job well. Public discussion about the Mideast conflict is still nowhere near even handed in the United States, but it is more so than it used to be.
Three academics, Tony Judt, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, deserve a lot of credit for expanding the permissible. Whatever one thinks of their analyses or prescriptions, they endured opprobrium and ostracism, to state the obvious: The unconditional U.S.-Israeli relationship is good for neither the U.S. nor Israel. Walt has an important perch at Foreign Policy’s website, which he uses to regularly espouse his once-radical views on Israel.
Criticism of the special relationship, once rare, is now frequent. Newsweek/Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan has become a regular source of attacks on the unqualified U.S. support for Israeli policy. Time magazine’s Joe Klein has been similarly outspoken. “If you don’t think that the Israel Lobby has an enormous influence on the Congress, you’re deluding yourself,” he wrote recently.
Peter Beinart, also of Newsweek/Daily Beast, inspired headlines with his critique of the “Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” He has a forthcoming book sure to get a lot of attention called “The Crisis of Zionism.” Former New York Observer writer Philip Weiss has created a one-stop shop for critics of Israel and U.S. policy. And, of course, Salon’s own Glenn Greenwald regularly questions the bipartisan consensus on Israel.
As one would expect, these developments are causing a great deal of consternation from those determined that views favorable to the Palestinians never get a hearing. In 2006, the American Jewish Committee released its infamous report accusing these new critics of Israel of being simply anti-Semitic. Last year, Lee Smith of Tablet magazine made the odd charge that publications like the Atlantic and Salon encourage Jew-hating writers in the hopes of increasing page views. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol has lamented that charging Israel’s critics with “anti-Semitism” doesn’t effectively silence them any longer. And this week Iran-Contra convict Elliott Abrams criticized Friedman and Klein because they exemplify the mainstreaming of Walt and Mearsheimer’s ideas.
But it isn’t only pundits and academics. Diplomats and the people who would be on the center-right of American politics (if such a thing still existed) have been vocal about their alienation from U.S. discussion of Israel. Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution, an advisor to three presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues, told me in an email that “Fear of angering extreme evangelicals and the old lobby still inhibit real debate about Israel in American politics.”
Paul Pillar, former CIA bigwig, has become a stark critic of Israel for the National Interest. He has defended the comparison of Israel’s occupation policies with apartheid South Africa, and says that he agrees with all of Walt and Mearsheimer’s analysis, including the most incendiary charge — that the Israel lobby was instrumental in pushing the U.S. to invade Iraq.
Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Colin Powell, has been similarly outspoken about the power of what he calls “the Jewish lobby.” Jack Matlock, Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, has written that by far the greatest threat to Israel’s security and well-being is the policies of its own government. And in 2009 longtime diplomat Chas Freeman blasted the Israel lobby for successfully ending his nomination to be chairman of the National Intelligence Council.
For all the discussion-widening in the chattering classes, official U.S. foreign policy has changed little, if at all. Obama has overseen unprecedented military deals between Israel and the United States, and all but abandoned the Palestinians in the international diplomatic arena. Newt Gingrich’s historically discredited claim that the Palestinians are an “invented people” shows that American politicians still take some of the most extreme positions in the Israeli polity as gospel.
Still, at the outset of his term Obama made the biggest rhetorical push against Israeli settlement policy that any U.S. president ever has, only to back down in the face of Israeli objections. The resulting animosity between Netanyahu and the administration is no secret. Democratic rank-and-file voters are also less supportive of Israel than they used to be, and less so than Republicans are now. The new conversation about Israel has yet to make its way into Congress and the executive branch, but that day may be coming.
Jordan Michael Smith has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post.
By Thomas L. Friedman, Op-Ed, NY Times
I have a simple motto when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I love both Israelis and Palestinians, but God save me from some of their American friends — those who want to love them to death, literally.
That thought came to mind last week when Newt Gingrich took the Republican competition to grovel for Jewish votes — by outloving Israel — to a new low by suggesting that the Palestinians are an “invented” people and not a real nation entitled to a state.
This was supposed to show that Newt loves Israel more than Mitt Romney, who only told the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom that he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem because “I don’t seek to take actions independent of what our allies think is best, and if Israel’s leaders thought that a move of that nature would be helpful to their efforts, then that’s something I’ll be inclined to do. … I don’t think America should play the role of the leader of the peace process. Instead, we should stand by our ally.”
That’s right. America’s role is to just applaud whatever Israel does, serve as its A.T.M. and shut up. We have no interests of our own. And this guy’s running for president?
As for Newt, well, let’s see: If the 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians are not a real people entitled to their own state, that must mean Israel is entitled to permanently occupy the West Bank and that must mean — as far as Newt is concerned — that Israel’s choices are: 1) to permanently deprive the West Bank Palestinians of Israeli citizenship and put Israel on the road to apartheid; 2) to evict the West Bank Palestinians through ethnic cleansing and put Israel on the road to the International Criminal Court in the Hague; or 3) to treat the Palestinians in the West Bank as citizens, just like Israeli Arabs, and lay the foundation for Israel to become a binational state. And this is called being “pro-Israel”?
I’d never claim to speak for American Jews, but I’m certain there are many out there like me, who strongly believe in the right of the Jewish people to a state, who understand that Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood yet remains a democracy, but who are deeply worried about where Israel is going today. My guess is we’re the minority when it comes to secular American Jews. We still care. Many other Jews are just drifting away.
I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby. The real test is what would happen if Bibi tried to speak at, let’s say, the University of Wisconsin. My guess is that many students would boycott him and many Jewish students would stay away, not because they are hostile but because they are confused.
It confuses them to read that Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who met with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia last Wednesday, was quoted as saying that the recent Russian elections were “absolutely fair, free and democratic.” Yes, those elections — the ones that brought thousands of Russian democrats into the streets to protest the fraud. Israel’s foreign minister sided with Putin.
It confuses them to read that right-wing Jewish settlers attacked an Israeli army base on Tuesday in the West Bank, stoning Israeli soldiers in retaliation for the army removing “illegal” settlements that Jewish extremists establish wherever they want.
It confuses them to read, as the New Israel Fund reports on its Web site, that “more than 10 years ago, the ultra-Orthodox community asked Israel’s public bus company, Egged, to provide segregated buses in their neighborhoods. By early 2009, more than 55 such lines were operating around Israel. Typically, women are required to enter through the bus back doors and sit in the back of the bus, as well as ‘dress modestly.’”
It confuses them to read a Financial Times article from Israel on Monday, that said: “In recent weeks, the country has been consumed by an anguished debate over a series of new laws and proposals that many fear are designed to stifle dissent, weaken minority rights, restrict freedom of speech and emasculate the judiciary. They include a law that in effect allows Israeli communities to exclude Arab families; another that imposes penalties on Israelis advocating a boycott of products made in West Bank Jewish settlements; and proposals that would subject the supreme court to greater political oversight.”
And it confuses them to read Gideon Levy, a powerful liberal voice, writing in Haaretz, the Israeli daily, this week that “anyone who says this is a matter of a few inconsequential laws is leading others astray. … What we are witnessing is w-a-r. This fall a culture war, no less, broke out in Israel, and it is being waged on many more, and deeper, fronts than are apparent. It is not only the government, as important as that is, that hangs in the balance, but also the very character of the state.”
So while Newt is cynically asking who are the Palestinians, he doesn’t even know that more than a few Israelis are asking, “Who are we?”