Defending Israel’s Defenders

Spy scandals, wrapped as they are in mystery and skullduggery, inevitably give rise to conspiratorial speculation. The espionage scandal that’s currently roiling American-Israeli relations offers more mysteries than most, and the conspiracy theories are proliferating accordingly.

When the dust settles and the facts emerge, however, it will become clear that this story is not one of underhanded plotting on either side. What’s at work here is a mixture of shortsightedness and stupidity, in which everyone — the United States, Israel and, most of all, the American Jewish community — comes out a loser.

The allegations seem startling at first glance. The FBI reportedly has spent more than a year tailing a Pentagon analyst, Larry Franklin, who is suspected of passing a classified document to Israel via intermediaries from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the vaunted pro-Israel lobbying group. Press reports, particularly in Israel, suggest that the incident could be more damaging to American-Israeli ties than the 1985 Jonathan Pollard affair. After all, so the thinking goes, Pollard, the civilian intelligence analyst convicted of spying for Israel, was merely a lone operator, while the current scandal involves Aipac, regarded far and wide as the voice of the Jewish community. Moreover, Franklin is described as an associate of neoconservative icons Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz. For anyone seeking to prove a neocon-Jewish-Israeli conspiracy behind America’s invasion of Iraq, this looks like the smoking gun.

On second glance, the story has so many holes that it seems almost a parody of a spy scandal. After following Franklin and his supposed Aipac handlers for more than a year, the Feds have come up with nothing but one mishandled document. It’s not even clear that the alleged misdeed was illegal. As for Franklin’s neocon connections, he’s described as one of some 1,400 people working for Feith. Seen from this angle, the only visible conspiracy is the decision to leak the investigation to CBS News on the eve of a Republican convention where the president’s Iraq policies are at center-stage. Somebody wanted to damage Israel, the neoconservatives or both by making the alliance between them look subversive.

In fact, both views are shortsighted. Trying to turn the Iraq war into a plot by a neocon cabal working for foreign interests is a distortion of known history. It misreads the character of President Bush and overlooks the complex of ideologies and interests within his administration. It also ignores the genuine loathing that Saddam Hussein aroused around the world — even in Paris and Beijing — in the months before the war. The decision to invade was a massive miscalculation, as the president himself seemed to admit in his revealing interview on the “Today” show this week. But it was a decision that Bush and his aides took with their eyes wide open.

As for Aipac, its detractors have been trying for decades to find some sort of skullduggery to explain its lobbying success, and they’ve come up empty time after time. The United States supports Israel not because of trickery, but because most Americans sympathize with the Jewish state. If the pro-Israel lobby has been remarkably successful in marshaling that sympathy, it’s mainly because it can call on a passionate community of engaged citizens. That’s how democracy works.

On the other hand, it’s a serious mistake to try reducing Aipac’s current difficulties to an antisemitic conspiracy theory, as the lobby’s defenders seem intent on doing. It beggars credulity to assume, simply because the accused say so, that the FBI has been pursuing this investigation for a year without any basis. Of all people, the hawks in the pro-Israel community who have spent the last two years defending the administration’s security and counterterrorism policies, in defiance of the Jewish community’s civil libertarian traditions, should be the last ones to resort to name-calling when the elongated arm of the law falls on them.

More important, the name-calling obscures an alarmingly altered landscape of Middle East politics in Washington that is revealed by the current scandal. If it’s true, as Aipac’s defenders suggest, that the accusations reflect a desire to weaken American-Israeli ties, then look how widespread that desire has become of late. Just three years ago, the idea that a strong American-Israeli alliance was bad for America was consigned to the fringes of the far left and right. No serious policymakers paid attention. Now it is a force to be contended with. Three years ago, the notion that advocating Israel’s cause might be a subversive activity was not raised in polite society. Now it is bandied about on talk shows, featured in major magazines and, some say, fuels federal investigations.

If the basic right to petition one’s own government and to advocate one’s views — including the view that Israel must be protected — is being called into question when applied to some American citizens, then Jews in this country are in trouble.

How we got here is not simple. In part it reflects the growing success of Israel’s enemies in the battle for international public opinion. In part, too, it reflects a growing confusion in the United States and the West as our confrontation with Islamic radicalism drags on.

But the crisis is also partly a result of shortsighted strategic decisions by Israel’s advocates. Faced with a shifting landscape, they have gambled on a risky strategy that may be blowing up in their faces.

For years, Israel’s friends in this country have operated on the principle that Israel could not be held responsible for its troubles. They have maintained that whatever Israel’s mistakes, Palestinian hostility could not be blamed on Israeli policies. More recently, they’ve broadened the principle to insist that Arab and Muslim hostility to the United States cannot be blamed on its support of Israel.

Both positions are becoming hard to maintain. Growing numbers of Israelis, up to and including the military chief of staff, are openly acknowledging that Israeli actions can raise and lower the level of Palestinian rage and violence. As for the global terror war, the idea that it is related in part to America’s relationship with Israel is now thoroughly mainstream. You can read it in the report of the 9/11 Commission. Even the Jewish Agency for Israel hinted at it in its recent global policy study.

As the urgency of the discussion grows, resentment seems to mount against those who declare the discussion illegitimate. It’s a dangerous position to be in.

None of this is cause for celebration. The right of Jews to lobby their fellow citizens for Israel or any other cause is essential to the welfare of all of us, not just hawks or activists. No matter what strategic mistakes may have been made by individuals or groups acting in the name of the Jewish community, petitioning the government remains their right, and ours.

Nor should we lose sight of the greater danger: that enemies of Israel will seek to use these squabbles to weaken the American-Israeli alliance. No American of any religion should welcome that.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.
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Defending Israel’s Defenders

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