A silent, crippling fear

By Paul Woodward, The War in Context, March 21, 2006

The prospect of American ports being run by an Arab company ignited a firestorm in the blogosphere -- and the mainstream media and Congress. Now two of America's leading political scientists allege that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is being skewed away from U.S. national interests by a "loose coalition of individuals and organisations who actively work to steer U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction." You'd imagine this would provoke, at the very least, a strong reaction.

So far, the response to The Israel Lobby [hereafter TIL], by John J. Mearsheimer (professor of political science, University of Chicago) and Stephen M. Walt (academic dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard), has been predictable scorn from the Pro-Israel Right (typified by Power Line and The American Thinker), with little more than murmurings from the Left (such as these postings out in the quiet backwaters of Daily Kos and TPM Cafe).

Even while leftwing bloggers seem hesitant to discuss the issues raised here, the noteworthiness of the Mearsheimer-Walt paper is evident in mainstream media coverage from UPI and Christian Science Monitor. And at Harvard, law professor, Alan M. Dershowitz (identified in TIL as an "apologist" for Israel) is ready to "debate" against Mearsheimer and Walt who he describes as "liars" and "bigots," while Walt's colleague Marvin Kalb knows how to cut an academic to the quick -- accuse him of engaging in second-rate journalism.

In its opening paragraphs TIL asserts:

Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. interests and those of the other country -- in this case, Israel -- are essentially identical.

There have been times when such a claim would not garner much attention from domestically preoccupied Americans, but right now you'd have to be comatose not to recognize the grave implications as America and Israel speak with one voice on the threat from Iran.

Only yesterday, President Bush confirmed that the U.S. will use military force to defend Israel from Iranian threats, yet neither the administration nor Congress acknowledge that Israel's own nuclear arsenal, its occupation and colonization of Palestinian territories, or its treatment of its own Arab citizens, are critical factors exacerbating Middle East tensions.

It has thus never been more vital to open up debate on where U.S. and Israeli interests truly intersect and where they do not, yet so far the message from the Left is, we'd rather not talk about this sensitive issue.

To understand why the American Left is now largely mute on this subject, I recommend reading The Israel Lobby and the Left: Uneasy Questions, by Jeffrey Blankfort. His article, published in May, 2003, begins:

It was 1991 and Noam Chomsky had just finished a lecture in Berkeley on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was taking questions from the audience. An Arab-American asked him to explain his position regarding the influence of America's Israel lobby.

Chomsky replied that its reputation was generally exaggerated and, like other lobbies, it only appears to be powerful when its position lines up with that of the "elites" who determine policy in Washington. Earlier in the evening, he had asserted that Israel received support from the United States as a reward for the services it provides as the U.S.'s "cop-on-the-beat" in the Middle East.

Chomsky's response drew a warm round of applause from members of the audience who were no doubt pleased to have American Jews absolved from any blame for Israel's oppression of the Palestinians, then in the fourth year of their first Intifada.

Blankfort then points out that:

What is noteworthy is that Chomsky's explanation for the financial and political support that the U.S. has provided Israel over the years is shared by what is generically known as the Israel lobby, and almost no one else.

Well, not quite "almost no one." Among the exceptions are the overwhelming majority of both houses of Congress and the mainstream media and, what is equally noteworthy, virtually the entire American Left, both ideological and idealistic, including the organizations ostensibly in the forefront of the fight for Palestinian rights.

That there is a meeting of the minds on this issue between supporters of Israel and the Left may help explain why the Palestine support movement within the United States has been an utter failure.

A new campaign to silence debate about the Israel Lobby is already following a predictable course. Efforts are being made to marginalize the issue by drawing attention to the fact that TIL has received praise from white supremicist David Duke along with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Nevertheless, Mearsheimer and Walt's effort to push the question of the Lobby's influence into mainstream political discourse is only one of several recent attempts.

One such came from Michael Massing, writing in The Nation, in 2002. Several more came from Michael Lind, writing in The Prospect in April 2002, Newsweek the same month, and again The Prospect in October 2002.

If the participation of the Dean of the Kennedy School of Government can't open up and legitimize this debate, it's hard to imagine what it might take to stir faint-hearted liberals into action -- but this is no time to remain silent.

In recent years, the slogan, "What did you do in the war?", has been used to good effect by many antiwar campaigners, yet as the U.S. and Israel continue gearing up to take on Iran, how many of those same campaigners if asked, "What did you do to challenge the influence of the Israel Lobby?" would now have nothing to say?

A PDF version of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (including 40 pages of endnotes) can be downloaded here. (Right click on the Adobe icon and select "save as...")

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