Blaming the ‘Lobby’


Published March 18, 2009, issue of March 27, 2009.
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This newspaper took no position on Charles Freeman’s suitability as director of the National Intelligence Council, and we’re not about to, particularly now that he’s withdrawn his name. It’s worth looking back at the arguments surrounding the nomination, though. They carry some important lessons about the dangerous direction of this country’s Middle East debate.

Freeman’s opponents claimed his record proves he’s hostile to Israel. They called him a “shill,” as many put it, for Saudi Arabia, largely because he headed the partly Saudi-funded Middle East Policy Council. They said his baggage disqualified him for the sensitive task of overseeing the annual National Intelligence Estimate. For some, it was just another opportunity to embarrass the Obama administration.

Freeman and his allies, for their part, now claim his candidacy was sabotaged by the “Israel Lobby,” a term of ever-growing popularity. They say his withdrawal proves this lobby stifles open debate on American foreign policy and bars critics of Israel from public office.

That’s tough language. Some of it has some merit, but most of it is way off base.

The biggest question, of course, is whether Freeman is hostile to Israel. Snippets of quotes have been thrown around to make that case. A fair reading of what he actually said and wrote, however, seems to put him somewhere between Labor and Kadima. That’s not anti-Israel, and calling it so is outrageous.

As for his Saudi connection, so what? Former assistant secretary of state Martin Indyk once worked for the Israel lobby itself — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The State Department’s special Iran envoy, Dennis Ross, served as chairman of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an offshoot and affiliate of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which has deep institutional ties to the Israeli government. Neither one was prevented from doing distinguished service for the American people.

If anything proves Freeman unfit, it’s probably his comments on his way out the door, blaming the so-called “Israel Lobby” for derailing him. “Israel Lobby” has become the latest version of “round up the usual suspects,” a catch-all epithet for anyone — policy organization, congressional committee or impromptu lynch mob — that’s decided to beat up on anyone else in the name of defending Israel.

There is an honorable field of pro-Israel advocacy in this country, pursued by a community of organizations and individuals who make Israel’s case and fight Israel’s battles because it’s the right thing to do. Israel needs and deserves their friendship — and, at times, their honest opinions.

There’s also a crowd of hangers-on and bullies who bang the Israel drum because it serves their own purposes of self-promotion and messianic crusading. And there are growing ranks of individuals who can’t or won’t tell the difference between Israel’s friends and its hangers-on. They’d rather just lump the whole lot together into some imagined juggernaut and then declare themselves victims of the dread “Israel Lobby.”

It’s an unseemly charade that doesn’t help Israel and doesn’t serve America. And sooner or later it just might discredit the right of Jewish citizens to speak their minds and petition their government. It ought to stop.

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