I was reminiscing recently about a very pleasant conversation I had with Stephen Walt, who, along with John Mearsheimer, wrote the explosive book “The Israel Lobby.” Both authors are aware that I disagree with their thesis, and yet Stephen and I were always able to have respectful conversations about it. Would that more conversations about Israel could be conducted in that manner.
But I also disagree with what I call the Chomsky Thesis. Chomsky, and some other analysts, believe that “The Lobby’s” power derives from its essential rapport with American policy aims, and that if it diverges from those aims, it would not prove much of an obstacle.
Saying “The Lobby” is not a considerable force is as false as saying it is the determinative element in US policy. It
clearly plays a serious role in American politics, and the more prominently domestic concerns play into an American President’s foreign policy decisions, the more powerful it is. (In fairness, I should note that Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s book is rarely understood to encompass this view, though it can certainly be read that way)
“The Lobby’s” field of play is Congress. To the extent Congress can and will push back against a president on foreign policy, “The Lobby” will get it to do so when they disagree with that president’s policies.
It has often been the case that “The Lobby” tries to push the US into a harder line than Israel takes. It has done so again this week.
Letters to Obama
The Senate, almost as a body, has written to the President in full support of Israel’s version of the events aboard the Gaza-bound flotilla over Memorial Day Weekend. It re-states the position that the siege on Gaza is legal and was imposed to stop the import of weapons to Hamas, while ignoring the question of how children’s toys, coriander, mayonnaise and ketchup could be classified as weapons. It also asks the President to consider putting the IHH, the Turkish organization which is most certainly supportive of Hamas, on the list of terrorist organizations.
The letter, at this writing, was signed by 86 senators, and a similar letter is up to 322 signatures in the House.
The letter itself isn’t all that remarkable. It’s actually less shrill than other letters the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC, the focal organization of “The Lobby”) has pushed through Congress with ease over the years.
Still, getting 408 (and counting) of the 535 members of Congress to agree to a letter that is at least a mild rebuke of the President’s policy is a considerable feat. The letters were opposed by J Street, which is often thought of as the anti-LOBBY pro-Israel lobby. J Street merely asked that the letters not be signed without “changes” but it seems that call fell on deaf ears. That is disturbing.
J Street said that the letters “…fail to address the impact of the present closure of Gaza on the civilian population, the deep American interest in resolving this conflict diplomatically, or the urgency of moving forward with diplomacy before it is too late.”
That’s a pretty mild opposition. One might argue that perhaps J Street should have been more forceful about the letters, but in the end, this was probably not the fight for them to spend too much political capital on. Still, one would think, or at least hope, that the J Street objections would have had some impact.
The letters are coming at a time when Israel is bowing to international pressure in easing the siege on Gaza. But AIPAC’s scramble to ease that pressure is as irresponsible as always.
Despite Israel’s promise to ease the siege, changes on the ground remain invisible. Consider the graph below, courtesy of Gisha:
The IDF spokesman recently stated on Twitter that “Following Israeli gov’t decision, Gaza crossing capability increases 30%:120 truckloads(2166 tons) goods + fuel enter 2day.” That comes out to 600 truckloads a week, which, as you can see, is not a significant increase unless one is looking at May, which was a very low month.
Moreover, Israel stated it was going to issue a list of banned items, rather than permitted ones, which would greatly increase the types of goods which could come into Gaza. Such a list has yet to appear, and Israel is continuing the practice of approving certain items, rather than banning others, which leaves an open restriction on goods coming in.
None of this means that the siege won’t really be eased; just that it hasn’t been done yet. International pressure must continue, and AIPAC is clearly working against that.
And we should also look at what J Street said was missing from the letters: the severity of the problem in Gaza, and the need for the US to act with determination to push diplomacy ahead. AIPAC shows no concern for these needs.
With most insiders predicting, and probably correctly, that the Democrats will suffer major losses in November, the Obama Administration is clearly trying to keep a lid on the Israel issue, and this is when AIPAC is strongest.
Still, the administration has not completely changed its course, and this is a positive sign. Indeed, the current turbulence in Washington over Israel can be used by both the “Israel Lobby” and Chomsky Thesis theorists to defend their points—which is why I think it proves both of them to be off the mark and that the truth lies in between.
Let’s face it, however one views Barack Obama, we cannot be so naïve as to think he will stand against the political winds to the detriment of the rest of his agenda and, indeed, his own party, for the sake of resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict.
AIPAC is strong in Congress because that’s the place citizens can have the most influence. It’s weaker with the Executive Branch because that’s where they have to deal with the facts on the ground, but the President has to be concerned with Congressional pressures and political opinions.
I know numerous people in AIPAC, from grassroots activists to some of its national leadership. They play political hardball, but they also passionately believe they are acting in the best interests of Israel and the US. They do not think of this in terms of expansionism or empire-building, but in terms of security for both countries.
And the political hardball AIPAC plays is, for the most part, perfectly legitimate. But, there is another camp here: those who care about peace, justice, Israelis AND Palestinians. Those who see the security and human concerns of both peoples as equally legitimate also must have a voice.
Unfortunately, we have not coalesced that voice with sufficient strength, passion and, yes, money. 80% of Congress supported these letters, whose contents, in the polls most favorable to Israel’s stance on the flotilla fiasco, reflect the views of less than half the country. Something is amiss.
Who is “pro-Israel?”
They may or may not think so, but AIPAC is working against peace and against a secure future for Israelis. There is no such future for Israelis without a permanent solution to the Palestinian question. There is, to put it plainly, no security for Israel without security for Palestinians. When Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem are living as citizens, with rights, a functioning economy and the same hopes for the future that the rest of us expect, Israel will be a safer place, and if Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran continue to fight “the Zionist entity” despite such an achievement, they will find no sympathy from a world that is today weeping at last over the deprivation of the people of Gaza.
That is also the future that AIPAC is working, intentionally or otherwise, to make impossible. They are anything but a pro-Israel lobby in practice. And while they may not actually determine US policy, they are a significant factor. If those of us with a positive vision of a future for both Palestinians and Israelis can counter them, we can still change the course of that policy.