Tel Aviv –like all of Israel– is a stridently nationalist place. Israeli flags loom everywhere: over buildings and roads, city parks and beaches. They’re mounted on cars and motorcycles. In residential areas, on the city’s narrow tree-lined streets, you see them draped over balconies, painted on ledges, growing in the bougainvillea. Some of the flags are festooned with lights. A fruit vendor may have so many flags bunched around his stand that you might not know if he is selling fruit or flags.
Like Cape Town in the 1980s, Tel Aviv is a classic apartheid city. Both places are wealthy and urbane port cities with vibrant art scenes and large gay communities. Like Cape Town (compared to its inland counterpart Johannesburg/Pretoria), Tel Aviv is relatively unburdened by the right-wing fervor that marks Jerusalem. At early stages, both Cape Town and Tel Aviv were cleansed of their unwanted populations, making it easier for the remaining residents to pretend that they live in normal places. Only about five thousand Palestinians live in Greater Tel Aviv; they are largely invisible, mostly confined to the ancient city of Jaffa, where they once numbered 100,000.
I was in Tel Aviv last Thursday when John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt –authors of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy– spoke at a forum organized by the peace group Gush Shalom. The forum was held at the Bet Sokolov Press Club, a few blocks south of Rabin Square in the heart of the city. Just on the other side of Rabin Square, billionaire Uzbek oligarch and settlement builder Lev Leviev’s Africa Israel Group is putting up a new mixed-use development boasting 970 residential units and 220,000 square feet of office space. The project will be called Sumayil, to “honor” the Arab village that was there until 1948, though many Palestinians refer to the village by the name Al Mas’udiyya.
Tel Aviv is considered the most liberal city in Israel, which might explain why Mearsheimer and Walt were greeted by a standing-room only crowd. Many in the audience were middle-aged, bespectacled locals curious about the lobby that claims to represent them. But not everyone welcomed the American professors. There were a handful of protesters stationed in front of the building, passing out English-language booklets, eight pages-long, to “counter the misinformation.” Except for one young man, the protesters were not Israeli. They were Americans from StandWithUs, a US-based organization which, according to its website, “ensures that Israel’s side of the story is told in communities, campuses, libraries, the media and churches.” The group’s educational mission extends to educating Israelis themselves.
The forum lasted for more than two hours. Mearsheimer and Walt spoke for an hour and spent the rest of the time answering questions. There were no interruptions, only a series of coughs and friendly laughter that cued up every few minutes. After the talk, there was an avalanche of questions:
· What part does the Christian evangelical lobby play in Israel?
· Do you know how AIPAC is financed? Are they perhaps only representing a few millionaires?
· Is there evidence that the AIPAC leadership in the US undermined peace negotiations and the Oslo accords during the Rabin era?
· Don’t you think that your book helps to perpetuate the hatred already existing in the world against Israel and the Jews?
· Obama’s pandering to AIPAC shows that you are right. Do you think Obama will change if he is elected?
· Even President Bush, the most pro-Israel president, supports the Palestinian demand for a Palestinian state. Does this sound like unconditional support for Israel?
· Why does the US give as much aid to the terror state of Israel as all other countries in the world combined? What role did the Israel lobby and the other neocons play a role in the terror attack on Lebanon in 2006?
· Do you think that your papers and book meet academic requirements and standards?
· In outlining future negative results of Israel’s continual policy against viable Palestinian settlement, how do you relate to the certain medium-term future when groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction with delivery capability?
· Is the Israel lobby influential also because American non-Jewish interests are served well by the violence and conflict generated by the (mainly militarist) support?
· Why do you think that you and Gush Shalom know better than we (~1/3 of the Israeli population) and evangelicals about the national interests of America and Israel?
· Is the Israel lobby perhaps providing a nice cover for oil interests?
· Where was this lobby, if it is so powerful, between 1939 and 1945? Why was it not possible for American Jews to let the extermination camps be bombed?
Uri Avnery, founder of Gush Shalom, wasn’t surprised by the interest in Mearsheimer and Walt. “Tel Aviv is the capital of the good Israel,” he said. If there were any Palestinians at the event, they weren’t around to comment.
On the way out, I overheard a number of people saying that the arguments put forth in The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy were “mainstream” and “obvious.” In the foyer a StandWithUs activist was appealing to an older Israeli man, saying, “Mearsheimer and Walt can’t just sugarcoat anti-Semitism.” The man, Shmuel Darel, who looked in his late sixties, turned away from the young man and said, “The ‘Israel Lobby’ book won’t convince me. He won’t convince me (pointing to the activist and his StandWithUs pamphlets). And you won’t convince me (his forefinger an inch from my face). I believe only what I see with my own eyes. So much money the Israel lobby has. So much money, still they can’t make peace. They are playing with us like little fools.”
LINDA MAMOUN is a freelance writer, currently in Jerusalem.