Page 2 of 2 Is the Israel lobby running scared?
By Robert Dreyfuss
The Israel lobby has regularly denied its own existence even as it has long
carried on with its work, in stealth as in the bright sunlight. In retrospect,
however, l'affaire Freeman may prove a game changer. It has already
sparked a new, more intense mainstream focus on the lobby, one that far
surpasses the flap that began in March, 2006, over the publication of an essay
by John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt in the London Review of Books that was, in
2007, expanded into a book, The Israel Lobby.
In fact, one of the sins committed by Freeman, according to his critics, is
that an organization he headed, the Middle East Policy Council, published an
early version of the Mearsheimer-Walt
thesis - which argued that a powerful, pro-Israel coalition exercises undue
influence over American policymakers - in its journal.
In his blog at Foreign Policy, Walt reacted to Freeman's decision to withdraw
For all of you out there who may have questioned whether
there was a powerful 'Israel lobby', or who admitted that it existed but didn't
think it had much influence, or who thought that the real problem was some
supposedly all-powerful 'Saudi lobby', think again.
Freeman affair brought was unwanted, often front-page attention to the lobby.
Writers at countless blogs and websites - including yours truly, at the
Dreyfuss Report - dissected or reported on the lobby's assault on Freeman,
including Daniel Luban and Jim Lobe at Antiwar.com, Glenn Greenwald in his
Salon.com column, MJ Rosenberg of the Israel Peace Forum, and Phil Weiss at
Far more striking, however, is that for the first time in memory, both the New
York Times and the Washington Post ran page-one stories about the Freeman
controversy that specifically used the phrase "Israel lobby", while detailing
the charges and countercharges that followed upon Freeman's claim that the
lobby did him in.
This new attention to the lobby's work comes at a critical moment, which is why
the toppling of Freeman might be its Waterloo.
As a start, right-wing partisans of Israel have grown increasingly anxious
about the direction that President Barack Obama intends to take when it comes
to US policy toward Israel, the Palestinians, Iran, and the Middle East
generally. Despite the way, in the middle of the presidential campaign last
June, Obama recited a pro-Israeli catechism in a speech at AIPAC's national
conference in Washington, they remain unconvinced that he will prove reliable
on their policy concerns. Among other things, they have long been suspicious of
his reputed openness to Palestinian points of view.
No less important, while the appointments of Hillary Clinton as his secretary
of state and Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff were reassuring, other
appointments were far less so. They were, for instance, concerned by several of
Obama's campaign advisers - and not only Robert Malley of the International
Crisis Group and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who were
quietly eased out of Obamaland early in 2008.
An additional source of worry was Daniel Shapiro and Daniel Kurtzer, both
Jewish, who served as Obama's top Middle East aides during the campaign and
were seen as not sufficiently loyal to the causes favored by hardline,
Since the election, many lobby members have viewed a number of Obama's top
appointments, including Shapiro, who's taken the Middle East portfolio at the
National Security Council, and Kurtzer, who's in line for a top State
Department job, with great unease. Take retired Marine general and now National
Security Advisor James L Jones, who, like Brzezinski, is seen as too
sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view and who reputedly wrote a report
last year highly critical of Israel's occupation policies; or consider George
Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, who is regarded by many
pro-Israeli hawks as far too level-headed and even-handed to be a good
mediator; or, to mention one more appointment, Samantha Power, author of A
Problem from Hell and now a National Security Council official who has,
in the past, made comments sharply critical of Israel.
Of all of these figures, Freeman, because of his record of blunt statements,
was the most vulnerable. His appointment looked like low-hanging fruit when it
came to launching a concerted, preemptive attack on the administration. As it
happens, however, this may prove anything but a moment of strength for the
lobby. After all, the recent three-week Israeli assault on Gaza had already
generated a barrage of headlines and television images that made Israel look
like a bully nation with little regard for Palestinian lives, including those
of women and children. According to polls taken in the wake of Gaza, growing
numbers of Americans, including many in the Jewish community, have begun to
exhibit doubts about Israel's actions, a rare moment when public opinion has
begun to tilt against Israel.
Perhaps most important of all, Israel is about to be run by an extremist, ultra
right-wing government led by Likud Party leader Bibi Netanyahu, and including
the even more extreme party of Avigdor Lieberman, as well as a host of
radical-right religious parties. It's an ugly coalition that is guaranteed to
clash with the priorities of the Obama White House.
As a result, the arrival of the Netanyahu-Lieberman government is also
guaranteed to prove a crisis moment for the Israel lobby. It will present an
enormous public-relations problem, akin to the one that faced advertising
agency Hill & Knowlton during the decades in which it had to defend Philip
Morris, the hated cigarette company that repeatedly denied the link between its
products and cancer. The Israel lobby knows that it will be difficult to sell
cartons of menthol smooth Netanyahu-Lieberman 100s to American consumers.
Indeed, Freeman told me:
The only thing I regret is that in my
statement I embraced the term 'Israel lobby'. This isn't really a lobby by,
for, or about Israel. It's really, well, I've decided I'm going to call it from
now on the [Avigdor] Lieberman lobby. It's the very right-wing Likud in Israel
and its fanatic supporters here. And Avigdor Lieberman is really the guy that
they really agree with.
So here's the reality behind the
Freeman debacle: Already worried over Team Obama, suffering the after-effects
of the Gaza debacle, and about to be burdened with the Netanyahu-Lieberman
problem, the Israel lobby is undoubtedly running scared. They succeeded in
knocking off Freeman, but the true test of their strength is yet to come.
Robert Dreyfuss is an independent investigative journalist in Alexandria,
Virginia. He is a regular contributor to Rolling Stone, the Nation, the
American Prospect, Mother Jones and the Washington Monthly. He is also the
author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash
Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan). He writes the Dreyfuss Report
blog for the Nation magazine.