A Debate on the Israel Lobby

It appeared that all but a handful of the 300 seats were filled in Room 250 of University of San Francisco’s McClaren Conference Center on a rainy Thursday night for what was probably the first debate on the power and influence of the Israel Lobby held between critics of Israel. And it almost didn’t happen.

A little more than week before the event, those involved in the event: the organizer, Fred Shepherd, of Global Information Services, and the other participants, moderator Khalil Bendib, my debating partner, Dr. Hatem Bazian, of UC Berkeley, and one of our opponents, Prof. Stephen Zunes, of USF, learned that Zunes’ anticipated partner, Prof. As’ad AbuKhalil, of CSU, Stanislaus, was not planning showing up.

Rather than having the courtesy to notify us of his intentions, we had to get the information from people who had written AbuKhalil about the debate and to whom he replied that he was not planning to participate.

When contacted by Shepherd, AbuKhalil wrote that he would not accept to take the “No” side of the debate if the question was, as debated Thursday, “Is the Israel Lobby the Dominant Factor in Determining US Middle East Policy?” but would only participate if the question was changed to “Is the Israel Lobby the Sole and Dominant Factor in Determining US Middle East Policy?” AbuKhalil is smart enough to realize that no one, neither Mearsheimer and Walt, nor anyone with any knowledge of US interests in the region would be willing to argue that the lobby is the only factor in determining US policy. What he was doing, it appeared, was trying to sabotage the debate.

Fortunately, Zunes was able to locate another fellow professor as a partner, Steve Niva, from Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington and the debate went on as planned, of which both a video and a transcript will be available later.

I had particularly looked forward to debating AbuKhalil since he was among the first, along with his East Coast friend and colleague, Joseph Massad, to attack the Mearsheimer-Walt critique of the Israel Lobby from the left. In what he had written on his Angry Arab blog spot, he seemed clearly more angry at the lobby’s critics than at the lobby itself. The problems of the region, insists AbuKhalil, are all the fault of US imperialism and that those who blame the lobby, in a large part, for what has been done to the Palestinians, to his fellow Lebanese, to Iraq, are providing cover for US crimes.

That Stephen Zunes and Steve Niva have been the only ones that I am aware of willing to take on the challenge to defend their opinions is in itself a tribute to the power of the lobby. And the consequences? Having been dismissed as relatively unimportant by the pundits previously mentioned,. the lobby has been allowed, like a professional football team up against a high school opponent, to run up and down the field and score at will. Indeed, they are the ones who have been providing the lobby with protective cover and the anti-war and Palestinian solidarity movements have tragically followed their lead.

Since AbuKhalil’s absence did not afford either myself or Hatem Bazian an opportunity to argue with him in person, I have taken the liberty here to respond to what he wrote in his blog on March 17, 2006, regarding the Mearsheimer-Walt paper..

“I was not thrilled to read the piece,” he wrote since the “authors seem intent on blaming all the ills of US foreign policy on the Israeli lobby.” That is what AbuKhalil may have inferred but it is not what the authors wrote. Their focus was on the Middle East and more specifically, how the lobby was the driving force behind the war on Iraq, a position with which I am in complete agreement and have previously written about.

He writes that the authors “absolve the the US administration, any US administration, from any responsibility” since they are “helpless victims of an all-powerful lobby.” This again is AbuKhalil’s inference and not born out by the article and echoes the black and white, either/or dogmatism of those who argue against (but refuse to debate) the lobby’s power.

AbuKhalil is upset because Mearsheimer and Walt used Israeli sources, implying that the authors are racist because they see the “oppressors and occupiers” as being “credible enough.” and not their victims. This is a straw man, but typical of his approach to the subject. It should, first, be obvious that to a US audience, sources from the Israeli and the American Jewish press will carry more weight than something from Al Jazeera or other Arab media, but more importantly, the issues that M &W wrote about were ignored by the mainstream and discussed only in American Jewish and Israeli publications. Certainly, AbuKhalil was not writing about them and indeed, when I added him twice to my mailing list, much of which is devoted to the lobby’s activities, on each occasion he quickly asked to be removed..

He is further upset because the authors “identify the lobby as ‘comprised of American Jews.'” It isn’t? While there are hundreds of thousands of Christian Zionists who support Israel for religious reasons, only a few of their leaders can be said to lobby, that is, work actively, for Israel. “Now, I am not saying,” AbuKhalil then writes, “that this notion carries a tinge of anti-Semitism, although it may at the hands of some critics of the lobby,” a phraseology that makes one wonder if he is channeling JINSA’s Executive Director Thomas Neumann who said “he was not offended by [Colin] Powell’s reference [to the “JINSA crowd”], although he was surprised that the former secretary of state would single out a Jewish group when naming those who supported the war.’ I am not accusing Powell of anything, but these are words that antisemites might use in the future.'” (Forward, 2/2/07). As’ad AbuKhalil meet Tom Neumann.

JINSA, of course, is the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, correctly described by the Forward as “a hawkish think tank that supported the war.” Think Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen, Stephen Bryen.

AbuKhalil then poses the most remarkable question: “I don’t understand why people don’t see that the most important leaders and implementers of the lobby are the non-Jewish leaders of the US Congress. It is they who empower the lobby and allow it the unprecedented access that it has enjoyed for decades. Reagan, Bush and Clinton are the real power behind the powers of the the pro-Israeli lobby, much more than the particular leaders of the lobby.”

Apart from the fact that he offers no reason for those “non-Jewish leaders and three US presidents to kowtow to the lobby, one must ask, is he serious? Is he that ignorant of how Washington works and of who provides the bulk of the money that feeds the political campaigns year in and year out? Has he never wondered why a member of the US Congress can feel safe publicly criticizing a sitting president but not a present or past prime minister of Israel or why there is no debate on any form of aid or loan guarantees to Israel?

Is he not curious why the Congressional Black Caucus never tried to penalize Israel for selling arms to South Africa or why today, more than a dozen of its members, led by John Conyers, have signed a letter to Jimmy Carter asking him to remove the word, “apartheid” from the title of his book, “Palestine: Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” in its next printing? Is he not aware that AIPAC wrote the Lebanese Sovereignty and Syrian Accountability Act that demanded that Syrian troops leave Lebanon and that Hizbollah be disarmed, opening the door for Israel’s massive bombing of his native country last summer?

“On P.16 [of the M&W paper], there is a disturbing quotation attributed to [former AIPAC chief] Morris Amitay,” AbuKhalil writes. “It speaks of ‘infiltration,’ and it underlines the Jewishness of Hill staffers as if non-Jewish staffers in Congress are any less pro-Israeli.” Although AbuKhalil has not bothered to do the research, why should he think non-Jewish staff members should be pro-Israeli and if so, as much as their Jewish counterparts? He also is probably unaware that AIPAC “volunteers” young Jewish interns to work in the offices of members of Congress who, apart from their personal ambitions, function as AIPAC’s eyes (rhymes with “spies”) in those offices.

AbuKhalil then finds fault with M&W for quoting “a variety of Lobby leaders over the years who spoke about the powers of AIPAC.” “But that is what lobby leaders, any leaders of any lobby, including the lobby for olive growers do. They have to brag and exaggerate their powers. You have to see the leaders of ‘the Arab lobby’ when they speak of their achievements.” Again, one must ask, is he serious or seriously ignorant? The so-called Arab lobby is, as he suggests, little more than a joke, but what lobby, other than AIPAC has half of the members of Congress, including the ranking members of both parties, plus the vice president or secretary of state, coming to address its annual meetings and what lobby, other than AIPAC, receives siren screaming police escorts to convey its guests around the capitol during such gatherings?

What other lobby, I would ask Professor AbuKhalil, can get 76 senators to sign a letter to a sitting president, warning it not to take action against its client, as AIPAC did in 1975 to Pres. Ford, when he announced that he was going to make a major foreign policy address which would include a critical reassessment of US-Israel relations which resulted in Ford canceling the speech?

What other lobby could get a different group of senators, 81 in all, a dozen years later, to sign a letter to Pres. Clinton, warning him not to demand of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that Israel withdraw from 13% of the West Bank, and get him not do so? What does AbuKhalil take his readers for?

It gets worse. When the authors write that “the Lobby’s influence has been bad for Israel,” AbuKhalil declares, “This is it. This shows yet again how the debate in Israel is framed in the US, by those who champion Israel, and by those who are seen as critics of Israel. It is the manifestation of the center of debate on Israel. That even for critics of Israel, the concern or the center of attention is not the victims but the oppressors and occupiers.”

I don’t know either Mearsheimer or Walt, or for that matter, Jimmy Carter, who also expressed his concern for Israel which, whether heart-felt or not, has, thanks largely to the power of the lobby, become a requirement whenever anyone with a career or position in society that might be jeopardized ventures to criticize Israel in any manner and that includes former presidents.

Clearly, from the level of vituperation with which the lobby greeted the M&W paper and the even greater, literally unprecedented level of venom with which its minions attacked and continue to attack Carter, any concern expressed by them for Israel carries no weight with their critics.

AbuKhalil, to be sure, expresses his understanding how, “We, in the pro-Palestinian camp, are so desperate for any mainstream support for Palestinian rights that we are willing to take it from any side, and we are willing to forgive and even not notice the problems that some critics of Israel bring with them.” But that sentence and the one that follows are troubling.

“Yes,” he writes, “one should be pleased that criticisms of Israel has [sic] reached a mainstream corner, but we should be vigilant and not ignore our duty to subject support for AND criticisms of Israel to critical scrutiny lest the baggage come back to haunt us.”

But AbuKhalil doesn’t seemed at all pleased. What is he implying here but that criticism of Israel such as that put forth by Mearsheimer and Walt is “anti-semitic?” Or close enough to it, as I pointed out earlier, to be troubling. Here he sounds like Michael Lerner, who he likes to criticize, like Stephen Zunes (an Episcopalian), like the Jewish Voice for Peace’s Mitchell Plitnick and other Jewish supporters of a two-state solution whose “anti-semitism” detectors seemed tuned to a wider frequency and are far more sensitive than those they employ in behalf of Palestinian rights.

AbuKhalil concludes with a rant against former foreign service officers who since retiring have become critics of the Israel lobby and who founded the Council for the National Interest (CNI), the only organized anti-lobby group (which the left, in its traditional narrow-mindedness, ignores) and suggests that M&W’s paper “does not deviate from the book by the former member of Congress, Paul Findley….They Dare to Speak Out. Having said all that, this piece should be recommended reading for people who are new to the subject, although the shortcomings should be pointed out.”

Findley’s landmark book was published 22 years ago and should be required reading for anyone concerned with the subject. It is not evident from his comments about the Mearsheimer and Walt paper that AbuKhalil has actually taken the time to read it.

I do wish that he had had the courage to join the debate. Or at least to read the book.

JEFFREY BLANKFORT is a long-time pro-Palestinian activist and a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He an be contacted at jblankfort@earthlink.net


Jeffrey Blankfort is a radio host and journalist in Northern California and can be contacted at jblankfort@earthlink.net.