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Is This Last Gasp for the Israel Lobby and the Neocons?

After sinking intel chief Chas Freeman, pro-Israel hardliners are celebrating. But they may have overplayed their hand on this round.
 
 
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Is the Israel lobby in Washington an all-powerful force? Or is it, perhaps, running scared?

Judging by the outcome of the Charles W. ("Chas") Freeman affair this week, it might seem as if the Israeli lobby is fearsome indeed. Seen more broadly, however, the controversy over Freeman could be the Israel lobby's Waterloo.

Let's recap. On February 19th, Laura Rozen reported at ForeignPolicy.com that Freeman had been selected by Admiral Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, to serve in a key post as chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC). The NIC, the official in-house think tank of the intelligence community, takes input from 16 intelligence agencies and produces what are called "national intelligence estimates" on crucial topics of the day as guidance for Washington policymakers. For that job, Freeman boasted a stellar resumé: fluent in Mandarin Chinese, widely experienced in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, and an ex-assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration.

A wry, outspoken iconoclast, Freeman had, however, crossed one of Washington's red lines by virtue of his strong criticism of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Over the years, he had, in fact, honed a critique of Israel that was both eloquent and powerful. Hours after the Foreign Policy story was posted, Steve Rosen, a former official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), launched what would soon become a veritable barrage of criticism of Freeman on his right-wing blog.

Rosen himself has already been indicted by the Department of Justice in an espionage scandal over the transfer of classified information to outside parties involving a colleague at AIPAC, a former official in Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, and an official at the Israeli embassy. His blog, Obama Mideast Monitor, is hosted by the Middle East Forum website run by Daniel Pipes, a hard-core, pro-Israeli rightist, whose Middle East Quarterly is, in turn, edited by Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute. Over approximately two weeks, Rosen would post 19 pieces on the Freeman story.

The essence of Rosen's criticism centered on the former ambassador's strongly worded critique of Israel. (That was no secret. Freeman had repeatedly denounced many of Israel's policies and Washington's too-close relationship with Jerusalem. "The brutal oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli occupation shows no sign of ending," said Freeman in 2007. "American identification with Israel has become total.") But Rosen, and those who followed his lead, broadened their attacks to make unfounded or exaggerated claims, taking quotes and emails out of context, and accusing Freeman of being a pro-Arab "lobbyist," of being too closely identified with Saudi Arabia, and of being cavalier about China's treatment of dissidents. They tried to paint the sober, conservative former U.S. official as a wild-eyed radical, an anti-Semite, and a pawn of the Saudi king.

From Rosen's blog, the anti-Freeman vitriol spread to other right-wing, Zionist, and neoconservative blogs, then to the websites of neocons mouthpieces like the New Republic , Commentary, National Review , and the Weekly Standard , which referred to Freeman as a "Saudi puppet." From there, it would spread to the Atlantic and then to the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal , where Gabriel Schoenfeld called Freeman a "China-coddling Israel basher," and the Washington Post , where Jonathan Chait of the New Republic labeled Freeman a "fanatic."

Before long, staunch partisans for Israel on Capitol Hill were getting into the act. These would, in the end, include Representative Steve Israel and Senator Charles Schumer, both New York Democrats; a group of Republican House members led by John Boehner of Ohio, the minority leader, and Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican Whip; seven Republican members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; and, finally, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who engaged in a sharp exchange with Admiral Blair about Freeman at a Senate hearing.

 
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