Ole Man Lobby Jus’ Keeps on Rollin’

Books

By Eric Alterman

Published May 20, 2009, issue of May 29, 2009.
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Transforming America’s Israel Lobby: The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change By Dan Fleshler Potomac Books, Inc., 272 pages, $24.95.

Every few years, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee goes too far — at least according to its critics. It bullies the wrong congressman. It steps on the toes of the wrong undersecretary. It slanders the reputation of the wrong Jewish peacenik or respected academic. And yet, like the River Jordan, it is still a-rollin’, mightier than ever, flooding Congress with legislation that rewards Israel, punishes Palestinians and generally makes life difficult for anyone who dares to differ. It wins, but it wins ugly, and the people getting rolled predict that next time, it will be different.

Fleshler: His hopes may be ignored.
Fleshler: His hopes may be ignored.

A mark of just how powerful, and infuriating, the lobby has become is that after Charles “Chas” Freeman was forced to withdraw from consideration for chair of the National Intelligence Council, AIPAC claimed it had nothing whatsoever to do with it. This lobby is so damned powerful, it can defeat presidential nominations it doesn’t even oppose!

This is the context addressed in Dan Fleshler’s book, “Transforming America’s Israel Lobby: The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change.”

Perhaps AIPAC representatives are telling the truth, but the anti-Freeman campaign had all the AIPAC trademarks: character assassination, media leaks of confidential information, loud Congressional outrage and precious few fingerprints. When it was over, Freeman was history, and the message was clear to anyone thinking of deviating from AIPAC’s line. The Israel Policy Forum’s director of policy analysis, M. J. Rosenberg, who writes the book’s foreword, predicted that Freeman’s defeat would “come at a cost.” He quoted an “insider,” calling it “a real pyrrhic victory.”

The case against AIPAC is well worn: It does not accurately represent the views of most American Jews; it does not play fair; it invites the charge of “dual loyalty”; it colludes with Likudniks; it seeks to involve the United States in wars, regardless of self-interest; it corrupts the very meaning of “pro-Israel” to imply all of the above.

Rather than rehearse the argument yet again, let’s boil down AIPAC’s effectiveness to a single question: When it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, why is this country different from all others? America’s long-term relationship with Israel is perhaps our single most expensive one, in terms of both blood and treasure. Not only does it cost taxpayers billions in military and economic aid, but it also unarguably inflames much of the Islamic world against us and fuels anti-American violence the world over. No other nation, save Israel, sees the conflict in the same terms as America. And yet, however costly and controversial, the policies continue, largely unchanged, from administration to administration, and Congress to Congress.

Supporters of Israel’s hard line fail to see a problem. Europe’s evenhandedness on the Palestinian problem is driven, they say, by traditional European (Christian) antisemitism mingled with a desire to placate oil-rich Arab regimes. Add to this the fact that the allegedly antisemitic media always sides with the underdog, which they mistakenly believe to be the Palestinians, and presto, you’ve got a de facto pro-Palestinian bias. Ipso facto, we’re not the problem; the rest of the world, that’s the problem.

A sad reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that only people who already share the same opinion can discuss it with one another. Those emotionally invested in the conflict — which, in my experience, includes virtually everyone who pays attention to it — rarely listen with the goal of education or enlightenment. Rather, it’s simply a matter of determining which side the other person is on and expressing either solidarity or contempt.

In The New Republic’s review of the extremely controversial book on the Israel lobby, written by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, to pick just one example, Atlantic Monthly national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg saw fit to compare the arguments of these two extremely respected political scientists to those of Patrick Buchanan, Louis Farrakhan, Charles Lindbergh, the Rev. Charles Coughlin, Mel Gibson and David Duke.

To pick another example, following Jimmy Carter’s publication of an unflattering book about Israel, Martin Peretz, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, predicted that this former president of the United States and lifelong human rights champion would somehow “go down in history as a Jew hater.” Such sentiments are so common in “pro-Israel” circles that they barely merit mention. The actual facts of the conflict — settlement policy, “proportionality,” even effectiveness when it comes to the actions of Israel’s government — are deemed, in almost all cases, irrelevant. It’s motives that matter, and these are easily imputed by those who have arrogated the duty to decide who and what is admissible in the context of this debate.

The Walt/Mearsheimer book is viewed by many as a missed opportunity. Owing to its authors’ blindness to crucial nuances of Jewish politics in the United States, the book misreads the nature of what they call “the Lobby,” and made the case against AIPAC in a fashion that, sadly, gave unnecessary ammunition to their critics. When the two men were blackballed by Jewish organizations on their speaking tour, few Jews rose to their defense, however indefensible the actions of those who sought to silence them.

In a fairer world, Fleshler’s book would occupy the space in our public discourse taken up by Walt/Mearsheimer. Fleshler’s credentials as a nice Jewish boy are not in question. He doesn’t actually reprint his bar mitzvah speech anywhere, but his history of involvement in Jewish causes, and his dedication to what he believes to be Israel’s best interest, give him permission to clarify some uncomfortable truths about just how AIPAC continues to dominate America’s Israel-related politics.

Fleshler’s book offers a veritable cornucopia of common sense about how AIPAC and other “pro-Israel” organizations manage to remain so effective in controlling the debate and securing their aims from Congress despite increasing irritation with their arguments and their methods in virtually every corner of the political arena, including among many Jews. He notes that the lobby’s “nudginess” is part of its genius. Many congressmen simply go along with its program in return for the favor of being left alone.

He also explains that AIPAC’s true victories lie less in the battles it wins than in the choices it stymies. When anyone, from the president down, needs to address the conflict, he must first ask himself whether he wants to pick a fight with AIPAC. Since there is no comparable opposing price to be paid, AIPAC often wins without even having to show up. (It was Thucydides who first observed that “the greatest exercise of power lies in its restraint.”)

Traditional antisemitic stereotypes work simultaneously for the lobby’s success, often in counterintuitive fashion. Where a congressional district has few Jews, candidates are impressed by dreams of Jewish money and secret Jewish control of organizations they understand only hazily — particularly the “elite media.” Where Jews are plentiful, even if they dissent from AIPAC’s politics, they are reluctant to put themselves on the line for a policy that, however sensible, appears risky because it depends on good will from the goyim. In fact, even today there remains a powerful and easily exploited reluctance on the part of many Jews to discuss the issue “in front of the goyim” lest they strengthen the hand of lurking antisemites.

Unfortunately, Fleshler’s book is about as likely to have an effect proportional to its merit as I am to be named chief rabbi of Israel. It is being published by the obscure Potomac Books, and it lacks institutional support. If history is any guide, AIPAC will ignore it and so will most of the organized Jewish community at whose members it is largely aimed.

In recent times, the combination of a new openness in discussing AIPAC among Jews, together with the founding of J Street (a new, politically progressive alternative to AIPAC) has fostered the hope that American Jews will move toward a new definition of “pro-Israel” — one more consistent with their generally humanistic values and the consistent responses they give to public opinion surveys about their support for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

Undoubtedly, one can find signs of hope in some of the new lobby’s success and in the willingness of administration figures and influential politicians to deviate from AIPAC’s preferred script at the organization’s recent annual meeting. Fleshler offers some pragmatic suggestions as to how to extend and one day institutionalize some of the changes, (however minor they may now appear). And if Obama does eventually decide to take on Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line government on the peace issue, he probably can win an extremely costly victory or two. The lobby is not all-powerful; it’s just more powerful than anyone but the president of the United States, who, truth be told, does not need the headache of trying to fight it.

As both a Jew and a historian, I hope for the best but plan for the worst. As for those who feel certain we are entering a new era of truly democratic Jewish politics in support of genuine peace based on strong, unyielding support for steps designed to pave the way for a just, two-state solution that will ensure the continued safety, security and democratic character of the State of Israel, well, I’m told there are other Jews who expect the messiah to arrive any day now. That’s the thing about Jews: there’s always hope….

Eric Alterman, a distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College, writes a column on Jewish issues in Moment. He is listed on JStreet’s Board of Advisors.


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