Articles & Essays

On Israel, America and AIPAC

This article is to appear in the April 12, 2007 edition of the New York Review of Books. PDF is available here [5 mb].

The Bush administration is once again in the process of committing a major policy blunder in the Middle East, one that is liable to have disastrous consequences and is not receiving the attention it should. This time it concerns the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. The Bush administration is actively supporting the Israeli government in its refusal to recognize a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas, which the US State Department considers a terrorist organization. This precludes any progress toward a peace settlement at a time when progress on the Palestinian problem could help avert a conflagration in the greater Middle East.

The United States and Israel seek to deal only with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in the hope that new elections would deny Hamas the majority it now has in the Palestinian Legislative Council. This is a hopeless strategy because Hamas has said it would boycott early elections, and even if their outcome would result in Hamas's exclusion from the government, no peace agreement would hold without Hamas's support.

In the meantime Saudi Arabia is pursuing a different path. In a February summit in Mecca between Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, the Saudi government worked out an agreement between Hamas and Fatah, which have been clashing violently, to form a national unity government. According to the Mecca accord, Hamas has agreed "to respect international resolutions and the agreements [with Israel] signed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization," including the Oslo Accords. According to press reports on March 15, the new government, like the present one, will be headed by Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister, but Hamas will get nine of the government's twenty-four ministries, as well as an additional minister without portfolio; President Abbas and his Fatah party will control six ministries, and independent representatives-some said to be under the control of Hamas or Fatah-and other political factions will fill the nine remaining ministries.

The Saudi government views this accord as the prelude to the offer of a peace settlement with Israel, along the lines of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, a settlement to be guaranteed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, based on the 1967 borders and full recognition of Israel. The offer was meant to be elaborated by Saudi King Abdullah at the Arab League meeting to be hosted by Saudi Arabia at the end of March. But no progress is possible as long as the Bush administration and the Ehud Olmert government persist in their current position of refusing to recognize a unity government that includes Hamas. The recent meeting between Condoleezza Rice, Abbas, and Olmert turned into an empty formality.

Many of the causes of the current impasse go back to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip unilaterally, without negotiating with the then-Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority. This strengthened the position of Hamas. In the run-up to the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Sharon refused to lift a finger to help Fatah's prospects. At the behest of the Quartet-the European Union, the United States, Russia, and the United Nations-James Wolfensohn worked out a six-point plan to assist the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip; among other things, it called for facilitating traffic between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and opening a port and an airport in the Gaza Strip. But not one of the six points was implemented. The Bush administration's official in charge, Elliot Abrams, sabotaged the six-point plan from its inception. Partly as a consequence, Hamas won the elections in an upset victory.

Then came the blunder I am talking about. Israel, with the strong backing of the United States, refused to recognize the democratically elected Hamas government and withheld payment of the millions in taxes collected by the Israelis on its behalf. This caused great economic hardship and undermined the ability of the government to function. But it did not reduce popular support for Hamas among Palestinians, and it reinforced the position of Islamic and other extremists who oppose negotiations with Israel. The situation deteriorated to the point where Palestine no longer had an authority with whom it would have been possible for Israel to negotiate.

This was a blunder because Hamas is not monolithic. Its inner structure is little known to outsiders but according to some reports it has a military wing, largely directed from Damascus, which is beholden to its Syrian and Iranian sponsors and a political wing which is more responsive to the needs of the Palestinian population that elected it to power. If Israel had accepted the results of the election, that might have strengthened the more moderate political wing. Unfortunately the ideology of the "war on terror" does not permit such subtle distinctions. Nevertheless, subsequent events provide some ground for believing that Hamas has been divided between different tendencies. It was not willing to go so far as to recognize the existence of Israel but it was prepared to enter into a government of national unity which would have abided by the existing agreements with Israel. No sooner was agreement reached than the military wing engineered the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, which had the effect of preventing such a government from being formed by provoking a heavy-handed military response from Israel. Hezbollah then used the opportunity to stage an incursion from Lebanon across the internationally recognized border, kidnapping several more Israeli soldiers. Despite a disproportionate response by Israel, Hezbollah was able to stand its ground, thereby gaining the admiration of the Arab masses, whether Sunni or Shia.

It was this dangerous state of affairs -including the breakdown of government in Palestine and fighting between Fatah and Hamas-that prompted the Saudi initiative, which holds out the prospect of a peace settlement. Such a settlement would be very much in the interests of Israel and the United States.

Defenders of the current policy would argue that Israel cannot afford to negotiate from a position of weakness. But Israel's position is unlikelyto improve as long as it pursues its present course of military escalation. Fortunately Saudi Arabia, whose position is also precarious, has a genuine interest in promoting a settlement based on two states. It would be tragic to miss out on that prospect, which would mean both withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank by the Israelis, so that a workable Palestinian state can take power, and acceptance of Israel's existence by Hamas. The outlines of such a settlement are quite well defined. The underlying concepts are not materially different from what they were during President Clinton's time.

The most potent threat comes from Iran. Movement toward a settlement in Palestine would be helpful in confronting that threat. But both Israel and the United States seem to be frozen in their unwillingness to negotiate with a Palestinian Authority that includes Hamas. The sticking point is Hamas's unwillingness to recognize the existence of Israel; but that could be made a condition for an eventual settlement rather than a precondition for negotiations.[1]

The current policy is not even questioned in the United States. While other problem areas of the Middle East are freely discussed, criticism of our policies toward Israel is very muted indeed. The debate in Israel about Israeli policy is much more open and vigorous than in the United States. This is all the more remarkable because Palestine is the issue that more than any other currently divides the United States from Europe. Some European governments, according to reports, would like to end the economic boycott of Hamas once a unity government is successfully established. But the US has said it would not.

One explanation is to be found in the pervasive influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which strongly affects both the Democratic and the Republican parties.[2] AIPAC's mission is to ensure American support for Israel but in recent years it has overreached itself. It became closely allied with the neocons and was an enthusiastic supporter of the invasion of Iraq. It actively lobbied for the confirmation of John Bolton as US ambassador to the United Nations. It continues to oppose any dialogue with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. More recently, it was among the pressure groups that prevailed upon the Democratic House leadership to drop the requirement that the President obtain congressional approval before taking military action against Iran. AIPAC under its current leadership has clearly exceeded its mission, and far from guaranteeing Israel's existence, has endangered it.

The Palestine problem does not have a purely military solution. Military superiority is necessary for Israel's national security, but it is not sufficient. The solution has to be political, as President Clinton recognized. He exerted enormous energy to bring about a peace settlement and his efforts were so successful that it took the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by an Israeli extremist to prevent an Israeli peace initiative with Arafat from being implemented. Even after Ariel Sharon's walk on the Temple Mount in September 2000 set off new violence, Clinton offered a peace deal several months later that was rejected by Arafat but probably suggests the shape of a future settlement.

President Bush has never tried. He has adopted the misleading metaphor of the war on terror and allowed Ariel Sharon to have his way. Sharon did not want a negotiated settlement. He came to realize that the military occupation could not be maintained forever and withdrew from Gaza, in part, it has been argued, to strengthen the Israeli position on the West Bank. But unilateral withdrawal led to the current chain of events. The Bush administration did not just passively acquiesce in the Sharon/ Olmert government's policies; it actively encouraged them. AIPAC must bear its share of responsibility for aiding and abetting policies such as Israel's heavy-handed response to Hezbollah last summer and its insistence on treating Hamas only as a terrorist organization.

The current policy of not seeking a political solution but pursuing military escalation-not just an eye for an eye but roughly speaking ten Palestinian lives for every Israeli one-has reached a particularly dangerous point. After the Israel Defense Forces' retaliation against Lebanon's road system, airport, and other infrastructure one must wonder what could be the next step for the Israeli forces. Iran poses a more potent danger to Israel than either Hamas or Hezbollah, which are Iran's clients. There is the growing danger of a regional conflagration in which Israel and the US could well be on the losing side. With the ability of Hezbollah to withstand the Israeli onslaught and the rise of Iran as a prospective nuclear power, Israel's existence is more endangered than at any time since its birth.

Supporters of Israel have good reason to question AIPAC's advocacy and they have begun to do so. But instead of engaging in critical self-examination, AIPAC remains intransigent. Recently, the pro-Israel lobby has gone on the offensive, accusing the so-called progressive critics of Israel's policies of fomenting anti-Semitism and endangering the very existence of the Jewish state.

The case against those who disagree with Israel's current policy is spelled out in detail by Alvin H. Rosenfeld in a pamphlet published by the American Jewish Committee.[3] After reviewing the rise of new anti-Semitic currents, particularly in the Muslim world and Europe, Rosenfeld equates anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism and asserts that Jewish critics of Israeli policies reinforce both. He acknowledges that criticism by itself is not anti-Semitic; indeed, he writes, "the biblical prophets stood on the side of justice and were never hesitant to denounce their people's behavior when they saw it deviating from the standards of justice." But, he contends, "to condemn Israeli actions and, at the same time, to forego any realistic historical and political frameworks that might account for such actions" is not acceptable. The use of "exaggerated and defamatory terms," he writes, renders Israel indistinguishable from the "despised country regularly denounced by the most impassioned anti-Semites."

To call Israel a Nazi state...or to accuse it of South African-style apartheid rule or engaging in ethnic cleansing or wholesale genocide goes well beyond legitimate criticism.
To talk about victims turning into aggressors falls in his view in the same category.

To buttress his case, Rosenfeld examines the writings of a number of critics. In particular, he focuses on a collection of essays whose authors, in his own judgment, make Noam Chomsky appear as an "almost conservative thinker," but the list also includes Tony Judt, a distinguished historian, whose crime consists of suggesting a possible binational solution for Israel, and Richard Cohen, a Washington Post columnist, who wrote, among other things, that the "sanest choice for Israel is to pull back to defensible-but hardly injurious-borders" and to get out "of most of the West Bank"-a policy often advocated in Israel itself. Rosenfeld resorts, without any personal knowledge of the people he attacks, to primitive accusations of self-hatred, lumping all these critics together as people who are "proud to be ashamed to be Jews." He concludes that "the cumulative effect of these hostile ideas, which have been moving steadily from the margins to the mainstream of 'progressive' opinion, has been to reenergize ugly ideas and aggressive passions long considered dormant, if not dead," i.e., anti-Semitism.

Rosenfeld's argument suffers from at least three elementary errors in reasoning. The first is guilt by association. The fact that constructive critics of Israel say things that, when taken out of context or paraphrased in provocative ways, can be made to sound similar to the comments of anti-Semites does not make them anti-Semitic or supporters of anti-Semitism in any way. Second, there is a lack of factual evidence. Are the expressions used by the critics really "exaggerated and defamatory"? That depends on the facts. What is the more appropriate term, "Israel's still incomplete security fence" or "an Apartheid Wall?" That can be determined only by considering the actual impact the wall is having on the lives of the Palestinians, a subject ignored by Rosenfeld and AIPAC.

Third, the professed respect for criticism is a sham when it is not permitted "to condemn Israeli actions and, at the same time, to forego any realistic historical and political frameworks that might account for such actions." As presented by Rosenfeld, this formula implies that Israel's actions have to be justified, right or wrong. The appeal to a "realistic framework" aims to rationalize the Israeli position. Criticism ought to be considered on its merits and not by any other yardstick. Suppressing criticism when it is deemed to be unpatriotic has been immensely harmful both in the case of Israel and the United States. It has allowed the Bush administration and the Sharon/ Olmert government to pursue disastrous policies.

The pro-Israel lobby has been remarkably successful in suppressing criticism.[4] Politicians challenge it at their peril because of the lobby's ability to influence political contributions. When Howard Dean called for an evenhanded policy toward Israel in 2004, his chances of getting the nomination were badly damaged (although it was his attempt, after his defeat in Iowa, to shout above the crowd that sealed his fate). Academics had their advancement blocked and think-tank experts their funding withdrawn when they stepped too far out of line. Following his criticism of repressive Israeli policy on the West Bank, former president Jimmy Carter has suffered the loss of some of the financial backers of his center.

Anybody who dares to dissent may be subjected to a campaign of personal vilification. I speak from personal experience. Ever since I participated in a meeting discussing the need for voicing alternative views, a torrent of slanders has been released including the false accusation in The New Republic that I was a "young cog in the Hitlerite wheel" at the age of thirteen when my father arranged a false identity to save my life and I accompanied an official of the Ministry of Agriculture, posing as his godson, when he was taking the inventory of a Jewish estate.[5]

AIPAC is protected not only by the fear of personal retaliation but also by a genuine concern for the security and survival of Israel. Both considerations have a solid foundation in reality. The same two factors were at play in the United States after September 11 when President Bush declared war on terror. For eighteen months thereafter it was considered unpatriotic to criticize his policies. That is what allowed him to commit one of the greatest blunders in American history, the invasion of Iraq. But at that time the threat to our national security was greatly exaggerated by the Bush administration. Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney went so far as to warn that the threat would manifest itself in the form of a mushroom cloud. In the case of Israel today the threat to national security, even national survival, is much more real. Israel needs the support of the United States more than ever. Is this the right time to expose AIPAC's heavy influence in American politics? I believe this consideration holds back many people who are critical of the way AIPAC conducts its business. While the other architects of the Bush administration's failed policies have been relentlessly exposed, AIPAC continues to be surrounded by a wall of silence.

I am not insensitive to this argument. It has held me back from criticizing Israeli policies in the past. I am not a Zionist, nor am I am a practicing Jew, but I have a great deal of sympathy for my fellow Jews and a deep concern for the survival of Israel. I did not want to provide fodder to the enemies of Israel. I rationalized my position by saying that if I wanted to voice critical views, I ought to move to Israel. But since there were many Israelis who held such views my voice was not needed, and I had many other battles to fight.

But now I have to ask the question: How did Israel become so endangered? I cannot exempt AIPAC from its share of the responsibility. I am a fervent advocate of critical thinking. I have supported dissidents in many countries. I took a stand against President Bush when he said that those who don't support his policies are supporting the terrorists. I cannot remain silent now when the pro-Israel lobby is one of the last unexposed redoubts of this dogmatic way of thinking. I speak out with some trepidation because I am exposing myself to further attacks that are likely to render me less effective in pursuing many other causes in which I am engaged; but dissidents I have supported have taken far greater risks.

I am not sufficiently engaged in Jewish affairs to be involved in the reform of AIPAC; but I must speak out in favor of the critical process that is at the heart of our open society. I believe that a much-needed self-examination of American policy in the Middle East has started in this country; but it can't make much headway as long as AIPAC retains powerful influence in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Some leaders of the Democratic Party have promised to bring about a change of direction but they cannot deliver on that promise until they are able to resist the dictates of AIPAC. Palestine is a place of critical importance where positive change is still possible. Iraq is largely beyond our control; but if we succeeded in settling the Palestinian problem we would be in a much better position to engage in negotiations with Iran and extricate ourselves from Iraq. The need for a peace settlement in Palestine is greater than ever. Both for the sake of Israel and the United States, it is highly desirable that the Saudi peace initiative should succeed; but AIPAC stands in the way. It continues to oppose dealing with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.

Whether the Democratic Party can liberate itself from AIPAC's influence is highly doubtful. Any politician who dares to expose AIPAC's influence would incur its wrath; so very few can be expected to do so. It is up to the American Jewish community itself to rein in the organization that claims to represent it. But this is not possible without first disposing of the most insidious argument put forward by the defenders of the current policies: that the critics of Israel's policies of occupation, control, and repression on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem and Gaza engender anti-Semitism.

The opposite is the case. One of the myths propagated by the enemies of Israel is that there is an all-powerful Zionist conspiracy. That is a false accusation. Nevertheless, that AIPAC has been so successful in suppressing criticism has lent some credence to such false beliefs. Demolishing the wall of silence that has protected AIPAC would help lay them to rest. A debate within the Jewish community, instead of fomenting anti-Semitism, would only help diminish it.

Anticipating attacks, I should like to emphasize that I do not subscribe to the myths propagated by enemies of Israel and I am not blaming Jews for anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism predates the birth of Israel. Neither Israel's policies nor the critics of those policies should be held responsible for anti-Semitism. At the same time, I do believe that attitudes toward Israel are influenced by Israel's policies, and attitudes toward the Jewish community are influenced by the pro-Israel lobby's success in suppressing divergent views.

-March 15, 2007

Notes
[1] As the highly respected Israeli writer David Grossman, whose son was killed fighting in Lebanon, commented on March 11, "In the present situation any sort of dialogue between Israel and Palestinians is positive and has the potential to change the state of mind of both societies."

[2] It is not the only one. In a letter to the Jewish citizens in America, Jimmy Carter wrote that "the overwhelming bias for Israel comes from Christians like me who have been taught to honor and protect God's chosen people from among whom came our own savior, Jesus Christ."

[3] Alvin H. Rosenfeld, "'Progressive' Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism" (American Jewish Committee, 2006).

[4] See Michael Massing, "The Storm Over the Israel Lobby," The New York Review, June 8, 2006.

[5] See the article by Martin Peretz, "Tyran-a-Soros," The New Republic, February 12, 2007.

Source: The New York Review of Books