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Posts

Ha’aretz says U.S. officials face ‘pro-Israel’ background check

fpStephen M. Walt, 4 December 2009


There is an amazing story in Ha’aretz today on the “pro-Israel” litmus test that determines who is permitted to serve in the United States government. Here’s the sort of lede you’re not likely to read in the New York Times or Washington Post:

Every appointee to the American government must endure a thorough background check by the American Jewish community.

In the case of Obama’s government in particular, every criticism against Israel made by a potential government appointee has become a catalyst for debate about whether appointing “another leftist” offers proof that Obama does not truly support Israel.”

The story goes on to rehearse what happened to Chas Freeman (whose appointment was derailed by the Israel lobby because he voiced a few mild criticisms of Israel’s behavior) and reports that  similar complaints are now being raised against the appointment of former Senator Chuck Hagel. Even more bizarrely, the Zionist Organization of America and other rightwing Jewish groups are complaining about the appointment of Hannah Rosenthal to direct the Office to Combat and Monitor Anti-Semitism. Why? Apparently she’s been involved with J Street and other “leftwing” organizations that ZOA et al deem insufficiently ardent in their support for the Jewish state, and has suggested that progressive forces need to be more vocal in advancing the peace process.

One has to feel a certain sympathy for Ms. Rosenthal, who is forced to defend her own appointment by telling an interviewer:

I love Israel. I have lived in Israel. I go back and visit every chance I can. I consider it part of my heart. And because I love it so much, I want to see it safe and secure and free and democratic and living safely.”

These are fine sentiments, but isn’t it odd that she has to defend her qualifications for a position in the U.S. government by saying how much she “loves” a foreign country? For an American official in her position, what matters is that she loves America, and that she believes anti-semitism is a hateful philosophy that should be opposed vigorously. Whether she loves Israel or France or Thailand or Namibia, etc., is irrelevant. (And yes, it’s entirely possible to loathe anti-Semitism and not love Israel).

But the real lesson of all these episodes is the effect of this litmus test on the foreign policy community more broadly. Groups in the lobby target public servants like Freeman, Hagel, and Rosenthal because they want to make sure that no one with even a mildly independent view on Middle East affairs gets appointed. By making an example of them, they seek to discourage independent-minded people from expressing their views openly, lest doing so derail their own career prospects later on. And it works. Even if the lobby doesn’t manage to block every single appointment, they can make any administration think twice about a potentially “controversial” choice and use the threat to stifle open discourse among virtually all members of the mainstream foreign policy community (and certainly anyone who aspires to public service in Washington).

The result, of course, is the U.S. Middle East policy (and U.S. foreign policy more generally) is reserved for those who are either steadfastly devoted to the “special relationship” or who have been intimidated into silence. The result? U.S. policy remains in the hands of the same set of “experts” whose policies for the past seventeen years (or more) have been a steady recipe for failure. If a few more Americans read Ha’aretz, they might start to figure this out.

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