Washington — The fight is over. Chas Freeman, the outspoken Israel critic appointed to chair the National Intelligence Council, is out. And now, both sides in the explosive firefight that broke out over his appointment are battling to frame the narrative over what it all meant.
For some of Freeman’s critics, the bottom line is what counts. “This shows the pro-Israel lobby is alive and well, and bipartisan,” declared Jonathan Tobin, executive editor of the neoconservative journal Commentary, at a public forum just five days after Freeman’s March 10 withdrawal.
Indeed, with Freeman departing under pressure, pro-Israel activists succeeded in drawing a line in the sand and sending a strong signal to the Obama administration about what is acceptable in Middle East policy. President Obama himself made no effort to defend Freeman. He stressed, as the controversy escalated, that it was his director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, who made the appointment with no White House input.
But critics, interestingly, are celebrating the bright light the Freeman issue shone on their own questioning of American policy toward Israel and on their claims that the pro-Israel lobby routinely uses its clout to ensure that dissenters gain no foothold. They say their attempt to discuss the Israel lobby issue won a legitimacy it never had before.
“Freeman became sort of a martyr,” argued Ian Lustick, political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “The lobby might have won, but they paid a price.”
The eruption of public debate over the role of pro-Israel activists in shaping American policy toward the Middle East comes nearly three years after two leading scholars, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, published their article about the Israel lobby, which later turned into a book, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” One of the authors’ key arguments was that there was a lack of open public debate in the United States over foreign policy issues relating to Israel, because the lobby and its supporters seek to stifle open discussion of the issue.
Thanks in part to the Internet, the Freeman affair made clear that in one respect, this argument is no longer valid. Walt was among those leading the debate through his daily blog, hosted by the prestigious Web site foreignpolicy.com. He has been joined and supported by bloggers and columnists who are well within the mainstream.
Still, the mainstream press was slow to pick up on the issue. And the outcome of the episode indicates that strong critics of Israel may be cut off from government positions of real influence. Several incidents in recent years also suggest that untenured faculty at some colleges may want to consider their career prospects before speaking out too boldly.
Mearsheimer sees the situation as nuanced. “The Freeman issue had a significant influence on how people think; it had some influence on the discourse — and almost none on how policy is made,” he told the Forward.
Mearsheimer praised the Internet as the main force promoting a new sense of openness on this issue. He condemned the mainstream media as “hopeless.”
One of the questions that continues to be debated between pro-Freeman activists and those who oppose Freeman is to what extent the Israel lobby was actually involved in derailing his appointment.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel Washington lobby, issued a statement asserting that it had not lobbied against Freeman. And most large Jewish groups avoided the issue publicly. Still, it is now clear that pro-Israel activists were involved behind the scenes in conveying their displeasure with the choice of Freeman as National Intelligence Council chairman.
“We made our representation to members of Congress and to people in the administration,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Sometimes we talk publicly and sometimes privately.” Foxman, who led the fight against Walt and Mearsheimer when their book first came out, and even published a book rebutting them, stressed that there is nothing wrong with Jewish Americans raising their concerns on the Freeman issue. “If the Jewish community would not express its views, it would be a victory for the bigots,” he said, “I don’t think we should let them intimidate us.”
Though Foxman is skeptical of their sincerity, Mearsheimer and Walt themselves say repeatedly that they agree with him, calling pro-Israel advocacy “entirely legitimate.” They argue instead that some also seek to stifle or penalize those who speak out on the other side. And they insist that the success of the pro-Israel lobby in influencing American policy — though pursued legitimately — has harmed American interests.
Some Jewish activists say the attention given to the issue by critics of the pro-Israel lobby helped only to amplify the lobby’s perceived power. Doug Bloomfield, who served in the past as AIPAC’s chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill, said that if the lobby would have been really active on this issue, “they could get dozens of signatures on a congressional letter overnight.” Instead, he said, AIPAC’s detractors created an image of enormous power “without AIPAC lifting a finger.”
AIPAC’s former director of foreign policy, Steve Rosen, who used his blog to lead the fight against Freeman’s appointment, saw it differently. Rosen, who once famously described the lobby as a night flower that “thrives in the dark and dies in the sun,” made clear that the public exposure did not serve the pro-Israel lobby’s interests. “I’m sure AIPAC was happy when Freeman withdrew, but they might also be worried by the high profile of the Freeman issue,” he said.
Tobin, speaking at a March 15 panel discussion at Queens College, said the lobby’s show of force made clear that Obama will not “fall on his sword” to defend appointees perceived as anti-Israel. He said it also suggested that Obama would not spend political capital on fighting with incoming Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Walt agreed. “The worst aspect of the Freeman affair is the likelihood of a chilling effect on discourse in Washington, at precisely the time when we badly need a more open and wide-ranging discussion of our Middle East policy,” he blogged at foreignpolicy.com.
Rosen, who is now awaiting trial on charges of communicating national security information, and at the same time is suing his former bosses at AIPAC for more than $20 million, stressed that the lobby could not have succeeded in blocking Freeman if similar attitudes did not already exist in Congress. “I was taught that AIPAC cannot do anything against the will of its friends in Congress,” Rosen said, referring to his 23-year experience with the organization.
Critics respond that through their donations to congressional campaigns, organized Jewish contributors and a network of pro-Israel political action committees do much to help shape that will.
It was clear that Freeman had few friends in Congress. The anti-Freeman push came from some of Israel’s strongest supporters. Democratic New York Senator Charles Schumer personally lobbied White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who is also a strong backer of Israel. After Freeman withdrew his nomination, Schumer stated publicly that he “repeatedly urged the White House to reject him” because Freeman’s views on Israel were “way over the top.”
Several other strong supporters of Israel took action on this issue, including Democratic Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman and two congressmen — Democrat Steve Israel of New York, and Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois.
At the same time, several lawmakers, among them House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is a California Democrat, and Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf, came out against Freeman’s appointment because of his views on China.
Washington Post columnist and staunch centrist David Broder deplored the influence of the Israel lobby in this case. He fingered Congress as the critical force that compelled Freeman’s departure. The foreign policy analyst, who speaks Mandarin Chinese and Arabic, was set to ride out the storm when Broder met him for breakfast the day he left. “But after another visit to members of Congress, Freeman was gone,” Broder reported.
In his wake, advocates on both sides of the debate about the lobby agree that public discourse is now more receptive to ideas challenging the lobby’s positions. But despite the lively debate in the blogosphere and in the press, the political echelons are untouched by this trend.
“I don’t see it happening in the near future,” Lustick said. “The last people to change are the politicians.”