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.
Though Blair strongly defended Freeman, the two men got no support from an anxious White House, which took (politely put) a hands-off approach. Seeing the writing on the wall — all over the wall, in fact — Freeman came to the conclusion that, even if he could withstand the storm, his ability to do the job had, in effect, already been torpedoed. Whatever output the National Intelligence Council might produce under his leadership, as Freeman told me in an interview, would instantly be attacked. "Anything that it produced that was politically controversial would immediately be attributed to me as some sort of political deviant, and be discredited," he said.
On March 10th, Freeman bowed out, but not with a whimper. In a letter to friends and colleagues, he launched a defiant, departing counterstrike that may, in fact, have helped to change the very nature of Washington politics. "The tactics of the Israel lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth," wrote Freeman. "The aim of this lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views."
Freeman put it more metaphorically to me: "It was a nice way of, as the Chinese say, killing a chicken to scare the monkeys." By destroying his appointment, Freeman claimed, the Israel lobby hoped to intimidate other critics of Israel and U.S. Middle East policy who might seek jobs in the Obama administration.
On Triumphs, Hysterias, and Mobs
It remains to be seen just how many "monkeys" are trembling. Certainly, the Israel lobby crowed in triumph. Daniel Pipes, for instance, quickly praised Rosen’s role in bringing down Freeman:
"What you may not know is that Steven J. Rosen of the Middle East Forum was the person who first brought attention to the problematic nature of Freeman’s appointment," wrote Pipes. "Within hours, the word was out, and three weeks later Freeman has conceded defeat. Only someone with Steve’s stature and credibility could have made this happen."
The Zionist Organization of America, a far-right advocacy group that supports Israel, sent out follow-up Action Alerts to its membership, ringing further alarm bells about Freeman as part of a campaign to mobilize public opinion and Congress. Behind the scenes, AIPAC quietly used its considerable clout, especially with friends and allies in the media. And Chuck Schumer, who had trotted over to the White House to talk to Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff, later said bluntly:
"Charles Freeman was the wrong guy for this position. His statements against Israel were way over the top and severely out of step with the administration. I repeatedly urged the White House to reject him, and I am glad they did the right thing."
Numerous reporters, including Max Blumenthal at the Daily Beast website and Spencer Ackerman of Firedoglake, have effectively documented the role of the Israel lobby, including AIPAC, in sabotaging Freeman’s appointment. From their accounts and others, it seems clear that the lobby left its fingerprints all over Freeman’s National Intelligence Council corpse. (Indeed, Time’s Joe Klein described the attack on Freeman as an "assassination," adding that the term "lobby" doesn’t do justice to the methods of the various lobbying groups, individuals, and publications: "He was the victim of a mob, not a lobby. The mob was composed primarily of Jewish neoconservatives.")
On the other hand, the Washington Post, in a near-hysterical editorial, decided to pretend that the Israel lobby really doesn’t exist, accusing Freeman instead of sending out a "crackpot tirade." Huffed the Post, "Mr. Freeman issued a two-page screed on Tuesday in which he described himself as the victim of a shadowy and sinister ‘Lobby’… His statement was a grotesque libel."
The Post’s case might have been stronger, had it not, just one day earlier, printed an editorial in which it called on Attorney General Eric Holder to exonerate Steve Rosen and drop the espionage case against him. Entitled "Time to Call It Quits," the editorial said:
"The matter involves Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, two former officials for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC… A trial has been scheduled for June in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Mr. Holder should pull the plug on this prosecution long before then."
In his interview with me, Freeman noted the propensity members of the Israel lobby have for denying the lobby’s existence, even while taking credit for having forced him out and simultaneously claiming that they had nothing to do with it. "We’re now at the ludicrous stage where those who boasted of having done it and who described how they did it are now denying that they did it," he said.
The Israel lobby has regularly denied its own existence even as it has long carried on with its work, in stealth as in the bright sunlight. In retrospect, however, l’affaire Freeman may prove a game changer. It has already sparked a new, more intense mainstream focus on the lobby, one that far surpasses the flap that began in March, 2006, over the publication of an essay by John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt in the London Review of Books that was, in 2007, expanded into a book, The Israel Lobby. In fact, one of the sins committed by Freeman, according to his critics, is that an organization he headed, the Middle East Policy Council, published an early version of the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis — which argued that a powerful, pro-Israel coalition exercises undue influence over American policymakers — in its journal.
In his blog at Foreign Policy, Walt reacted to Freeman’s decision to withdraw by writing:
"For all of you out there who may have questioned whether there was a powerful ‘Israel lobby,’ or who admitted that it existed but didn’t think it had much influence, or who thought that the real problem was some supposedly all-powerful ‘Saudi lobby,’ think again."
What the Freeman affair brought was unwanted, often front-page attention to the lobby. Writers at countless blogs and websites — including yours truly, at the Dreyfuss Report — dissected or reported on the lobby’s assault on Freeman, including Daniel Luban and Jim Lobe at Antiwar.com, Glenn Greenwald in his Salon.com column, M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Peace Forum, and Phil Weiss at Mondoweiss. Far more striking, however, is that for the first time in memory, both the New York Times and the Washington Post ran page-one stories about the Freeman controversy that specifically used the phrase "Israel lobby," while detailing the charges and countercharges that followed upon Freeman’s claim that the lobby did him in.
This new attention to the lobby’s work comes at a critical moment, which is why the toppling of Freeman might be its Waterloo.
As a start, right-wing partisans of Israel have grown increasingly anxious about the direction that President Obama intends to take when it comes to U.S. policy toward Israel, the Palestinians, Iran, and the Middle East generally. Despite the way, in the middle of the presidential campaign last June, Obama recited a pro-Israeli catechism in a speech at AIPAC’s national conference in Washington, they remain unconvinced that he will prove reliable on their policy concerns. Among other things, they have long been suspicious of his reputed openness to Palestinian points of view.
No less important, while the appointments of Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state and Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff were reassuring, other appointments were far less so. They were, for instance, concerned by several of Obama’s campaign advisers — and not only Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who were quietly eased out of Obamaland early in 2008. An additional source of worry was Daniel Shapiro and Daniel Kurtzer, both Jewish, who served as Obama’s top Middle East aides during the campaign and were seen as not sufficiently loyal to the causes favored by hardline, right-wing types.
Since the election, many lobby members have viewed a number of Obama’s top appointments, including Shapiro, who’s taken the Middle East portfolio at the National Security Council, and Kurtzer, who’s in line for a top State Department job, with great unease. Take retired Marine general and now National Security Advisor James L. Jones, who, like Brzezinski, is seen as too sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view and who reputedly wrote a report last year highly critical of Israel’s occupation policies; or consider George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, who is regarded by many pro-Israeli hawks as far too level-headed and even-handed to be a good mediator; or, to mention one more appointment, Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell and now a National Security Council official who has, in the past, made comments sharply critical of Israel.
Of all of these figures, Freeman, because of his record of blunt statements, was the most vulnerable. His appointment looked like low-hanging fruit when it came to launching a concerted, preemptive attack on the administration. As it happens, however, this may prove anything but a moment of strength for the lobby. After all, the recent three-week Israeli assault on Gaza had already generated a barrage of headlines and television images that made Israel look like a bully nation with little regard for Palestinian lives, including those of women and children. According to polls taken in the wake of Gaza, growing numbers of Americans, including many in the Jewish community, have begun to exhibit doubts about Israel’s actions, a rare moment when public opinion has begun to tilt against Israel.
Perhaps most important of all, Israel is about to be run by an extremist, ultra right-wing government led by Likud Party leader Bibi Netanyahu, and including the even more extreme party of Avigdor Lieberman, as well as a host of radical-right religious parties. It’s an ugly coalition that is guaranteed to clash with the priorities of the Obama White House.
As a result, the arrival of the Netanyahu-Lieberman government is also guaranteed to prove a crisis moment for the Israel lobby. It will present an enormous public-relations problem, akin to the one that faced ad agency Hill & Knowlton during the decades in which it had to defend Philip Morris, the hated cigarette company that repeatedly denied the link between its products and cancer. The Israel lobby knows that it will be difficult to sell cartons of menthol smooth Netanyahu-Lieberman 100s to American consumers.
Indeed, Freeman told me:
"The only thing I regret is that in my statement I embraced the term ‘Israel lobby.’ This isn’t really a lobby by, for, or about Israel. It’s really, well, I’ve decided I’m going to call it from now on the [Avigdor] Lieberman lobby. It’s the very right-wing Likud in Israel and its fanatic supporters here. And Avigdor Lieberman is really the guy that they really agree with."
So here’s the reality behind the Freeman debacle: Already worried over Team Obama, suffering the after-effects of the Gaza debacle, and about to be burdened with the Netanyahu-Lieberman problem, the Israel lobby is undoubtedly running scared. They succeeded in knocking off Freeman, but the true test of their strength is yet to come.
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