by Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.
Though everyone knew it was there – there were even exit signs for it on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway — there was a time when politicians and respectable media would never speak of the National Security Agency. NSA stood for “no such agency.”
In much the same way, respectable people would never talk about the Israel lobby. This was still the case less than ten years ago.
John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt, two renounced political scientists, had to publish an essay sketching some of the arguments of a book they were completing about the Israel lobby in The London Review of Books; no American publication would touch it.
Their book appeared in 2007. It was plain, from Day One, that it would change public perceptions, but, at first, it received hardly any media attention. The only thing that seemed newsworthy about it at the time was that its authors, prominent academics — from the University of Chicago and Harvard, respectively — had broken a long-standing taboo.
They were protected by tenure and by their reputations, but exposing the ways and means of the Israel lobby was nevertheless a bad career move. Mearsheimer and Walt were never exactly shunned by their colleagues, though it looked like they might be at first, but they did suffer professionally – among other things, their days advising American politicians and the U.S. government were over.
If anything, they were too kind to the Israel lobby: they attributed its power to the skill with which its major institutions – especially AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affair Committee – play the game of interest group politics.
On their telling, there is nothing sinister involved: it is just a case of citizens who care about an issue – in this case, Israel — attempting to sway the political process in their favor; and doing it very well.
Like, say, the gun lobby, the Israel lobby, they wrote, is just another part of the political scene – a product of, by, and for deeply committed American citizens.
Mearscheimer and Walt avoided labeling any of the lobby’s leading institutions agents of a foreign government; and they never questioned the loyalties of its agents or supporters.
Even so, there was, at first, an effort to marginalize their arguments – and, of course, to brand the authors, or at least their views, as anti-Semitic.
It didn’t work. Charges of anti-Semitism, ridiculous on their face, never caught on; and, in a remarkably short span of time, the central theses of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy became mainstream.
So long as there was any semblance of a “marketplace of ideas” at work, this was inevitable. Once the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis broke through into public awareness, evidence of its soundness was overwhelming.
And so, what had been the case for a very long time was finally acknowledged. But this is not the whole story.
After Barack Obama became President in January of 2009, and Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister of Israel two months later, the Israel lobby, taking direction from Netanyahu’s government, became more brazen.
Perhaps they sniffed out the new President’s weakness; perhaps they despised him for being black. These explanations are not mutually exclusive.
Whatever their reasons, the lobby threw subtlety aside – to such an extent that nowadays, its existence – and its power — is apparent to all.
Just as no one can plausibly deny that the NSA snoops 24/7 on everything that it can, no one can deny that the Israel lobby is a significant factor in the foreign and domestic politics of the United States.
Mainstream media still try to keep news of its machinations to a minimum. But it is a losing battle. The lobby’s activities have become too flagrant, and the word is out.
This is even more the case now than a few weeks ago. Since the successful conclusion of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program between the P5 plus 1 (the United States, Great Britain, France, Russian, China and Germany) and Iran, the Israel lobby has cast discretion aside.
Between now and late September, when Congress finishes “reviewing” the decisions reached in Vienna, AIPAC, along with other leading Israel lobby organizations – working in tandem with reactionary Iranians — will be pulling out all the stops, trying to undo what has been done.
They have declared war on the Obama administration.
It is an act of desperation. Netanyahu discovered long ago that Obama has feet of clay, and he has made the most of it. But times change. What he might have been able to get away with a while ago, he no longer can.
The willfully blind don’t yet see it and those who shamelessly do what Israel orders don’t care, but the conventional wisdom is fast becoming that Obama has had it with Netanyahu and that he is finally growing a pair.
True enough: the old Obama would have represented Israeli interests in the Vienna negotiations as unabashedly as all Republican and some Democratic Senators and Representatives still do; and he would have shied away from the chances of reaching a successful conclusion just as soon as it became clear that the Iranians were not about to surrender unconditionally to Israeli demands.
Obama saw the talks through instead; this is indeed a change for the good. But, so far, not much has changed. More could come, if the process doesn’t stall – but we are not there yet.
Iranian-American relations remain as they were. And what Obama did hardly counts as a profile in courage.
For anyone who accords priority to American national interests over the dictates of the government of Israel, the case for pursuing the deal that was finally struck with Iran is compelling – so much so that Obama would have had a hard time scuttling the negotiations once they were underway or backing out of their results once they concluded.
And despite how utterly dependent Israel is on American diplomatic, financial and military support, the behavior of Netanyahu’s government towards Obama and therefore towards the American government has been flagrantly disrespectful and arrogant. The man is human; there is a limit to how much he can take – especially when he holds all the cards.
The remarkable thing, therefore, is not that the American government is now, ever so meekly, defending American interests. It is that, where Israel is concerned, its meekness is still so extreme.
Weapons still flow into Israel; the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, is still on the American gravy train. And calls for a nuclear free Middle East – in other words, for removing Israel’s two to four hundred nuclear weapons – though rising around the world, and especially in the region, are still greeted by silence in Washington.
There will be activity around this issue at the United Nations this fall. Will the United States for once not take Israel’s side? Don’t count on it.
And when the Iran deal gets through the Congressional roadblock, as it likely will, expect Obama to show up at Netanyahu’s doorstep, abject as ever, with weapons systems in hand, making amends.
* * *
Because liberals are the one thing the American Right is right about, it can be instructive to look at what sane rightwing critics of the Obama administration are saying.
Unlike the flyweights and clowns now seeking the GOP nomination for President in 2016, Pat Buchanan is a thoughtful man and a genuine conservative. If there were a significant clerical-authoritarian current in American politics, as there is in many European and Latin American countries, he would be among its leading figures.
He is a straight shooter too, with a gift for sizing up situations. Unlike liberal pundits, he doesn’t prevaricate, and he seldom pulls his punches.
His comment on the Obama administration’s dealings with the Israel lobby, especially now that the lobby is pulling out all the stops, deserves to be quoted at length:
“One can only imagine what President Eisenhower would have done had he seen Bibi at the rostrum of the U.S. House of Representatives, ripping apart his Middle East policy.
Or had Ike learned that an Israeli ambassador was working the halls of Congress to kill an arms deal he and John Foster Dulles had just negotiated.
Lest we forget, Ike told his wartime colleague, Prime Minister Anthony Eden, to get his army out of Suez or he would sink the British pound. Ike then told Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to get his army out of Sinai or face U.S. economic reprisals.
Eden and Ben-Gurion did as they were told.
That was an America respected by friend and foe alike.
When Harry Truman felt that Gen. Douglas MacArthur had been insubordinate in resisting presidential restrictions on his actions in Korea, Truman fired the general and astounded the nation.
Yet this president and John Kerry have been wimpishly seeking for weeks to placate Netanyahu. And Bibi is no Douglas MacArthur.
Time to stop acting like wusses.”
Buchanan also ventures a few suggestions about what they would do if they weren’t wusses:
“The president should declare Dermer [the Miami born, Israeli-ambassador to the United States] persona non grata and send him packing, then tell the Israeli government we will discuss a new arms package when you have a prime minister who understands that no nation interferes in the internal affairs of the United States. None.”
I would add too, Mearsheimer and Walt notwithstanding, that the time is past due for Obama and Kerry to make AIPAC register as an agent of a foreign government. That is, after all, what it is.
Obama would do well too to enforce Democratic Party discipline – and loyalty. Chuck Schumer, for one, should be made to understand that he cannot expect to succeed Harry Reid as Democratic Party Senate Leader and, at the same time, betray the President on a matter of such importance.
Schumer’s rationale for opposing the Iran deal is preposterous; it is essentially the Israeli government’s rationale. He claims that without regime change – perhaps he envisions a Second Coming of the Shah – Iran will remain a menace to the “international community,” by which he means Israel and the United States.
Schumer said, in effect, that the only deal he could support would be one that deprives Iran of its nuclear program altogether. Iran’s nuclear program is permitted under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Schumer doesn’t mention this inconvenient fact, and neither does he bother to point out that Iran is a party to that treaty while Israel, with its several hundred nuclear weapons, is not.
For good measure, Schumer says that the United States should insist that Iran diminish its stock of conventional weapons too.
No doubt, with an election looming, and with AIPAC and the others breathing down his back, the “liberal” New York Senator is under considerable pressure to do the wrong thing.
However, in his case, outside pressure is almost certainly not the decisive factor. Schumer’s basest impulses are; the man is an Israeli chauvinist and an unreconstructed ethnocrat. Wall Street’s flunky is also Netanyahu’s.
The circumstances are different, but the UK has an Israel lobby too. And, after more than seven decades of a “special relationship” with the United States, the UK has acquired a habit of shameless deference to the demands of others seeking its obeisance.
To be sure, there are still plenty of people there who, like Buchanan here, find this kind of deference appalling. But, where Israel and Palestine are concerned, it seemed, until recently, that with pressure coming from both the United States and Israel (and its lobby), there were not nearly enough of them to stiffen politicians’ backbones.
Nevertheless, for reasons similar to those that bring tens of thousands of Americans to Bernie Sanders rallies — anti-austerity reasons — Jeremy Corbyn is in line to become the Labor Party’s next leader.
And, as it happens, Corbyn’s views on Israel and Palestine are more in line with the requirements of decency and justice than Sanders’ or, for that matter, Obama’s. He is evidently a politician that the UK Israel lobby has failed to capture.
The next elections are far off, so the Forces of Indecency and Injustice can afford to bide their time. But no one is now saying that Corbyn’s views are a serious impediment to his becoming the Labor Party’s leader, or that they disqualify him from someday becoming Prime Minister.
American politicians should reflect on this state of affairs; Bernie Sanders, above all. The lesson is clear: the Israel lobby is more of a Paper Tiger than most people imagined, and there is no need for politicians in the United States and elsewhere to follow its dictates.
They can stop being craven.
Obama does not need to make amends to the Israeli government for doing his job representing the interests of the United States; and Sanders should realize that if he is serious about fighting neoliberal austerity – and not just keeping liberals in the Democratic fold – he is going to have to overcome his inner Schumer.
The vaunted Israel lobby should also take heed: it can happen here, and there is nothing they can do to stop it.
* * *
Buchanan’s problem with politicians who will not stand up to the Israel lobby is not just that they are cowards, though they surely are.
His main reproach is that they are unpatriotic; that they put the interests of another country, Israel, before the interests of their own.
In most cases, opportunism and narrow self-interest make them do it. Sometimes, though, the blame lies with their Zionist convictions; Schumer is a case on point.
It goes without saying that you don’t have to be Jewish to be in the thrall of Zionist ideology; and also that, even among Congressional Democrats, rabid Israeli chauvinism afflicts only a minority of American Jews.
Indeed, in Congress, refractory Democrats like Schumer are not the main problem. That dubious honor goes to the entire House and Senate roster of Republican members. Each and every one of those miscreants puts Israel’s interests, as the Netanyahu government understands them, first.
In a rather more subtle way, Obama and Kerry and the Democrats they bring along in support of the deal with Iran do too. At least, this is how they couch their arguments. They boil down to the claim that the deal struck with Iran in Vienna is Israel’s best hope for retaining its regional nuclear monopoly.
Not only do Obama and the others not question Israel’s “right” to be a nuclear state; they don’t even broach the obvious point that, as long as it is, the world might actually be safer if there were an Iranian deterrent restraining Israeli aggression towards neighboring states and occupied Palestine.
This is why, even if AIPAC loses this battle, as it probably will, it will by no means have lost the war – at least not right away.
Still, whatever happens as the Iran deal is reviewed, Israel will not emerge unscathed. The Israel lobby will be further on its way to becoming damaged goods.
For partisans of the Zionist cause, this is bad news. But, to the extent that they are not blinded by Zionist fervor, even they should realize that this is not why the lobby’s shenanigans are bad for the Jews.
The reason for that is that the lobbies of the self-declared “nation state of the Jewish people,” especially the one in the United States, are working hard to reintroduce classical anti-Semitism.
This may not be their express intention. Indeed, it is likely that they are more stupid and reckless than diabolical. Nevertheless, objectively (as Marxists would say), reviving anti-Semitism is what they are trying to do.
Many, probably most, American Jews give Israel little thought; but, except for the Israel-firsters, those who do, along with their counterparts around the world, generally understand what a dangerous game this is.
Some Israeli Jews do too. This was the point, in fact, of an editorial published last week in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. Even in Israel, it isn’t only leftists who see what is going on.
What the Israel lobbies, are doing is the moral equivalent of reintroducing a disease like polio – formerly a scourge that humanity had, through diligent effort, very nearly eradicated. They are doing their best to bring it back.
Thanks to the “arc of the moral universe” that Martin Luther King spoke of so eloquently, opposition to what the government of Israel does is extremely widespread and growing in the United States and around the world. Understandably – and justifiably — anti-Zionism is on the rise as well.
But genuine anti-Semitism is an historical memory.
Zionists, in and out of Israel, have always labored hard to identify anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. They have so far been unable to make the charge stick; the claim is too much of a howler to survive even casual scrutiny.
But with Netanyahu and his lobbies now making full use of all the financial and political resources they can muster, they just might finally make inroads.
For advancing their goal of turning all of Mandate Palestine into a Jewish state – economically and militarily strong enough to lord it over the entire region — a living version of classical anti-Semitism would help a lot.
Zionism, their version of it especially, feeds on anti-Semitism; it always has.
In its early days, political Zionism had almost nothing to do with any purported two thousand year old yearning for “restoring” a Jewish homeland in Palestine; and neither did it have much to do with what would today be called identity politics.
It had even less to do with Jewish-Arab or Jewish-Muslim animosities, except insofar as the indigenous population Zionist settlers displaced were, as it happened, Arabs and, for the most part, Muslims.
Political Zionism began as an effort of secular, assimilated Western European Jews to provide a safe haven for themselves and for Jews in Eastern Europe, at an historical moment when anti-Semitism was flourishing — along with nationalism and “scientific” racism, and other concoctions of middle and late nineteenth century European and North American thought.
Anti-Semitism drew on longstanding Christian anti-Judaism, but it was not a religious phenomenon. For Christians in an age of faith, Jews played a role in sacred history. By the time modern anti-Semitism emerged, that way of thinking survived only in the most benighted quarters.
For nineteenth and twentieth century anti-Semites, the problem with Jews was not that they denied Christ; it was that they ruled the world – through money and political influence.
This sentiment resonated widely in Eastern Europe and throughout the more “civilized” West. Anti-Semitism, as the great German Social Democrat August Bebel (1840-1913) remarked, was “the socialism of fools.”
There are familiar anti-Semitic stereotypes. The government of Israel – on its own and through its lobbies — has lately been fleshing them out.
Chief among them is the socially unproductive money man who feeds off the honest labor of others, and who, through guile and cunning, causes the mighty of the earth to do his bidding and advance his aims.
Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is as plain an example as anyone could imagine; a character straight out of central casting. Were Hollywood to make a movie based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, he would be a shoe-in for the lead part. He has every leading Republican wrapped around his little finger.
Then there are the underlings — Schumer and others like him – who do Israel’s bidding because their first loyalty is to the Zionist cause.
In official Washington these days – unlike Paris in the 1890s, at the time of the Dreyfus Affair – there are more gentile Israel-firsters than Jews. For every Chuck Schumer, there are a dozen GOP buffoons; good Christians all.
By promoting the idea that the first loyalty of Jews is to world Jewry (or now that there is a Jewish state, to the state of Israel), not to the states in which Jews live, the Dreyfus Affair played a crucial role in crystalizing and fostering anti-Semitic attitudes.
The Zionist movement emerged in reaction to the social and political reality those attitudes encouraged.
Ironically, though, by creating a Jewish state, it created conditions that made those attitudes plausible and, in some cases, justified.
In time, though, for reasons largely unrelated to anything Zionists did, classical anti-Semitism disappeared. The anti-Semitic chapter in human history sputtered out of control in the 1930s and 40s and then, having run its course and with the Axis powers defeated, withered away.
Sensing a need to return their movement to its original mission, if only to keep the Zionist project alive, could Zionists, of the Netanyahu-AIPAC variety now be trying to revive it?
It certainly seems that way. If this is not their intent, the best that can be said in their behalf is that they know not what they do. Their antics are not just unseemly; they are dangerous as well.
But whatever their intent, Palestinians are not the only ones who could rightfully charge Netanyahu and his allies with perpetrating historical crimes against their people; Jews could – and should – too.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).