New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has long epitomized the liberal, pro-Israel pundit. So, it was no surprise that his latest column was an assault on Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy.
But, Friedman shocked many, when he said that Israel puts its own interests first: “…This has also left the U.S. government fed up with Israel’s leadership but a hostage to its ineptitude, because the powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s.”
This is as stark a statement as anything John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt said in their book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, a book for which they were roundly denounced as anti-Semites. Apparently, Walt and Mearsheimer have gone from being ridiculed to being fought, to being accepted as truth. Friedman seems to think so, whether he’d admit to that or not, and so far no one has called Friedman an anti-Semite.
The question of the so-called “pro-Israel lobby’s” influence on US policy is a hot one from all sides. Some of their supporters are “Jewish conspiracy” theorists and others display an almost religious zeal about their theories. The critics of the book, on the other hand, generally attacked the authors personally, rather than debate their ideas.
When their book came out, amidst all that sound and fury, I wrote a response to it with the editor of the Middle East Report, Christopher Toensing. We said that they got some things wrong, but an awful lot right, and that this question is too important to be debated by devoted followers of the authors on one side and paranoid defenders of Israel who see an anti-Semite in every critic of the Jewish state on the other.
Domestic policies in the US are dominated by lobbying groups with big money. It’s not just campaign financing that does it, but also public “education,” or, more properly, propaganda that creates a dynamic in Washington whereby decisions are made based on what are often referred to as “special interests” but really are just groups who are better at getting their message across and who can buy the loyalty of political candidates.
Foreign policy is supposed to be the handled mostly by the executive branch (the President and State Department) in order to protect it somewhat, though not entirely, from lobbying forces. And in many regards, it does work that way. But not when it comes to Israel.
Israel is a domestic issue for many reasons, and the so-called “special relationship” between the US and Israel is driven by domestic politics. It’s a unique circumstance. No other country commands such attention from the US public, has so much media, journal and think-tank material generated about it, and mobilizes as much money in political races as Israel does. The US system is not set up for this.
And that’s why most members of Congress don’t want to rock the boat. There is little reward politically for them to act in America’s (indeed, even in Israel’s) best interest, when that action is not what the Israel Lobby wants.
Most of the money talk is smoke and mirrors. Pro-Israel political action committees’ donations make up only a small percentage of campaign donations. While Jewish money makes up a large portion of Democratic campaign finances, very little of that money would go to Republicans or even alternative Democratic candidates because of Israel-related issues.
But perception is reality in Washington, and, lacking significant political pressure countering the Lobby, the perception is powerful that the political consequences are huge and the benefits non-existent for Congress members to chart a course based on considerations other than the next election. In this space, there will necessarily be much left unexplored on this topic. But let’s take a few myths on.
The Lobby always gets what it wants. Not always, but the hold on Congress is very strong, so it takes a strong President to chart a different course. Both Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush famously did that, and in lesser ways, so did Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. George W. Bush’s administration never considered it because it was, almost entirely, on the same page as the Lobby. And Barack Obama is the classic example of the Lobby getting what it wants. Congressional Democrats have largely disapproved of Obama’s attempts at peacemaking, and they’ve done little to defend Obama (a president who has deepened Israeli-American military cooperation and US defense support of Israel to unprecedented levels and spent just about all of his international political capital to protect Israel from UN resolutions condemning settlements and defending its actions in Gaza and on the high seas) against accusations of being anti-Israel. Obama, who has been a very weak president thus far, has completely caved in to the pressure.
If not for the Lobby, US policy would be very different. This is purely speculative. Walt and Mearsheimer argued that US policy would be guided by strategic thinking if not for the Lobby. That’s true, but the US has proved in many other parts of the world that our strategic thinking leaves much to be desired and that our leaders are not guided by human rights concerns or international law, despite the flowery rhetoric they sometimes use. Israel is a close ally, and any US policy will reflect that, with or without the Lobby. US policy would be different, and would certainly not simply follow Israel’s lead, especially not when it is led by a Prime Minister who is ignoring US interests in his policies, as Netanyahu is. But would it be better? The track record of US foreign policy is not promising.
The Lobby is just a convenient scapegoat for imperialistic US policy in the Middle East. Anyone who has ever worked in Washington knows this is false. The influence on Capitol Hill is tangible, with the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC, generally thought of as the public face of the Lobby) the 800-pound gorilla in every room. In my own conversations with Hill, State Department and White House the course of a decade, “political considerations,” as opposed to strategic ones are resented precisely because they are the decisive concerns.
The Lobby is Jewish and pro-Israel. The bulk of the voter-power of the Lobby is Christian, not Jewish. And the Lobby has, over the years, pursued the interests of the Israeli right, not Israel as a whole. In fact, when Yitzhak Rabin wanted the US to support the Oslo Accords, he expended specific and considerable effort to ensure that the Lobby would not oppose him.
It’s far from certain that US policy would be any better without the Lobby. But individual citizens have more power to blunt the Lobby’s influence than to leverage foreign policy in any other way. It’s a very safe bet that, if we ever did that, things couldn’t get any worse. Apparently, it’s not just Walt and Mearsheimer. Thomas Friedman thinks so too.
Photograph courtesy of Whistling in the Dark. Published under a Creative Commons license.