Monday, May 08, 2006

The Row Over the Israel Lobby By ALEXANDER COCKBURN

The Row Over the Israel Lobby


For the past few weeks a sometimes comic debate has simmering in the American press, focused on the question of whether there is an Israeli lobby, and if so, just how powerful is it?

I would have thought that to ask whether there's an Israeli lobby here is a bit like asking whether there's a Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor and a White House located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC. For the past sixty years the Lobby has been as fixed a part of the American scene as either of the other two monuments, and not infrequently exercising as much if not more influence on the onward march of history.

The late Steve Smith, brother in law of Teddy Kennedy, and a powerful figure in the Democratic Party for several decades, liked to tell the story of how a group of four Jewish businessmen got together two million dollars in cash and gave it to Harry Truman when he was in desperate need of money amidst his presidential campaign in 1948. Truman went on to become president and to express his gratitude to his Zionist backers.

Since those days the Democratic Party has long been hospitable to, and supported by rich Zionists. In 2002, for example, Haim Saban, the Israel-American who funds the Saban Center at the Brooking Institute and is a big contributor to AIPAC, gave $12.3 million to the Democratic Party. In 2001, the magazine Mother Jones listed on its web site the 400 leading contributors to the 2000 national elections. Seven of the first 10 were Jewish, as were 12 of the top 20 and 125 of the top 250. Given this, all prudent candidates have gone to amazing lengths to satisfy their demands. There have been famous disputes, as between President Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin, and famous vendettas, as when the Lobby destroyed the political careers of Representative Paul Findley and of Senator Charles Percy because they were deemed to be anti-Israel.

None of this history is particularly controversial, and there have been plenty of well-documented accounts of the activities of the Israel Lobby down the years, from Alfred Lilienthal's 1978 study, The Zionist Connection, to former US Rep Paul Findley's 1985 book They Dare To Speak Out to Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the US-Israeli Covert Relationship, written by my brother and sister-in-law, Andrew and Leslie Cockburn and published in 1991.

Three years ago the present writer and Jeffrey St Clair published a collection of 18 essays called The Politics of Anti-Semitism, no less than four of which were incisive discussions of the Israel lobby. Jeffrey St Clair described how the Lobby had successfully stifled any public uproar after Israeli planes attacked a US Navy ship in the Mediterranean in 1967 and killed many US sailors. Kathy and Bill Christison, former CIA analysts, reviewed the matter of dual loyalty, with particular reference to the so-called Neo-Cons, alternately advising an Israeli prime minister and an American president. Jeffrey Blankfort offered a detailed historical chronology of the occasions on which the Lobby had thwarted the plans of US presidents including Carter, Reagan, Ford, and Bush Sr.

Most vividly of all in our book, a congressional aide, writing pseudonymously under the name George Sutherland, contributed a savagely funny essay called "Our Vichy Congress". Some extracts:

"For expressions of sheer groveling subservience to a foreign power, the pronouncements of Laval and Petain pale in comparison to the rhetorical devotion with which certain Congressmen have bathed the Israel of Ariel Sharon. Command performances before AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a leading organization in the overall Israel lobby ] have become standard features in the life of a Washington elected official The stylized panegyrics delivered at the annual AIPAC meeting have all the probative value of the Dniepropetrovsk Soviet's birthday greeting to Stalin, because the actual content is unimportant; what is crucial is that the politician in question be seen to be genuflecting before the AIPAC board. In fact, to make things easier, the speeches are sometimes written by an AIPAC employee, with cosmetic changes inserted by a member of the Senator's or Congressman's own staff.

"Of course, there are innumerable lobbies in Washington, from environmental to telecommunications to chiropractic; why is AIPAC different? For one thing, it is a political action committee that lobbies expressly on behalf of a foreign power; the fact that it is exempt from the Foreign Agents' Registration Act is yet another mysterious 'Israel exception'. For another, it is not just the amount of money it gives, it is the political punishment it can exact Since the mid-1980s, no Member of Congress has even tried to take on the lobby directly. As a Senate staffer told this writer, it is the "cold fear" of AIPAC's disfavor that keeps the politicians in line.

"As year chases year, the lobby's power to influence Congress on any issue of importance to Israel grows inexorably stronger.Israel's strategy of using its influence on the American political system to turn the U.S. national security apparatus into its own personal attack dog--or Golem--has alienated the United States from much of the Third World, has worsened U.S. ties to Europe amid rancorous insinuations of anti-Semitism, and makes the United States a hated bully. And by cutting off all diplomatic lines of retreat--as Sharon did when he publicly made President Bush, the leader of the Free World, look like an impotent fool--Israel paradoxically forces the United States to draw closer to Israel because there is no thinkable alternative for American politicians than continuing to invest political capital in Israel."

So it can scarcely be said that there had been silence here about the Israel Lobby until two respectable professors, John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt (the former from the University of Chicago and the latter from Harvard) offered their analysis in March of this year, their paper ,"The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy", being published in longer form by the Kennedy School at Harvard (which has since disowned it) and, after it had been rejected by the Atlantic Monthly (which originally commissioned it) in shorter form by the London Review of Books.

In fact the significance of this essay rests mostly on timing (three years' worth of public tumult about the Neocons and Israel's role in the attack on Iraq) and on the provenance of the authors, from two of the premier academic institutions of the United States. Neither of them has any tincture of radicalism.

After the paper was published in shortened form on the London Review of Books there was a brief lull, broken by the howls of America's most manic Zionist, Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard, who did Mearshseimer and Walt the great favor of thrusting their paper into the headlines. Dershowitz managed this by his usual eruptions of hysterical invective, investing the paper with the fearsome allure of that famous anti-Semitic tract, a forgery of the Czarist police, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Mearsheimer-Walt essay was Nazi-like, Dershowitz howled, a classic case of conspiracy-mongering, in which a small band of Zionists were accused of steering the Ship of Empire onto the rocks.

In fact the paper by Mearsheimer and Walt is extremely dull. The long version runs to 81 pages, no less than 40 pages of which are footnotes. I settled down to read it with eager anticipation but soon found myself looking hopefully for the end. There's nothing in the paper that any moderately well read student of the topic wouldn't have known long ago, but the paper has the merit of stating rather blandly some home truths which are somehow still regarded as too dangerous to state publicly in respectable circles in the United States.

For example, on the topic of what is often called here " America's only democratic ally in the Middle East" Mearsheimer and Walt have this to say:

That Israel is a fellow democracy surrounded by hostile dictatorships cannot account for the current level of aid: there are many democracies around the world, but none receives the same lavish support. The US has overthrown democratic governments in the past and supported dictators when this was thought to advance its interests ­ it has good relations with a number of dictatorships today. 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.

After Dershowitz came other vulgar outbursts, such as from Eliot Cohen in the Washington Post. These attacks basically reiterated Dershowitz's essential theme: there is no such thing as the Israel lobby and those asserting its existence are by definition anti-Semitic.

This method of assault at least has the advantage of being funny, (a) because there obviously is a Lobby ­ as noted above and (b) because Mearsheimer and Walt aren't anti-Semites any more than 99.9 per cent of others identifying the Lobby and criticizing its role.

Partly as a reaction to Dershowitz and Cohen, the Washington Post and New York Times have now run a few pieces politely pointing out that the Israel Lobby has indeed exercised a chilling effect on the rational discussion of US foreign policy. The tide is turning slightly.

Meanwhile, mostly on the left, there has been an altogether different debate, over the actual weight of the Lobby. Here the best known of the debaters is Noam Chomsky, who has reiterated a position he has held for many years, to the general effect that US foreign policy has always hewed to the national self interest, and that the Lobby's power is greatly overestimated.

The debate was rather amusingly summed up by the Israeli writer Uri Avnery, a former Knesset member:

"I think that both sides are right (and hope to be right, myself, too). The findings of the two professors are right to the last detail. Every Senator and Congressman knows that criticizing the Israeli government is political suicide. If the Israeli government wanted a law tomorrow annulling the Ten Commandments, 95 U.S. Senators (at least) would sign the bill forthwith.

"The question, therefore, is not whether the two professors are right in their findings. The question is what conclusions can be drawn from them. Let's take the Iraq affair. Who is the dog? Who the tail?
The lesson of the Iraq affair is that the American-Israeli connection is strongest when it seems that American interests and Israeli interests are one (irrespective of whether that is really the case in the long run). The US uses Israel to dominate the Middle East, Israel uses the US to dominate Palestine.

"But if something exceptional happens, such as the Jonathan Pollard espionage affair or the sale of an Israeli spy plane to China, and a gap opens between the interests of the two sides, America is quite capable of slapping Israel in the face."

Will the debate roused by the Mearsheimer-Walt paper continue? I think so, if only because in the era of George Bush, the influence of the Israel lobby and of the Christian Zionists has become so crudely overt.

And as Avnery concludes, far more colorfully than the two professors:

"American-Israeli relations are indeed unique. It seems that they have no precedent in history. It is as if King Herod had given orders to Augustus Caesar and appointed the members of the Roman senate."

I have to say I'm not 100 per cent on board with NC on this one. The Lobby really does have very hefty clout. Ask Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr. In her excellent book The One-State Solution Virginia Tilley makes a persuasive case that the US strategy and tactics in Iraq have more to do with what Israel wants than any self-interested "realist" US plan.