Pro-Israel lobby: helping or hindering policy making?

Jul 19, 2006 | Ted Lapkin

Reporter: Tony Jones

Australian Broadcasting Corporation



Broadcast: 19/07/2006


TONY JONES: Well, to discuss the role of the pro-Israel lobby and its degree of influence and whether it exists here in the same way as the US, we’re joined now by Ted Lapkin, director of policy analysis at the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. He’s in our Melbourne studio. And with me in Sydney is the author of My Israel Question, Antony Loewenstein. Thank you to both of you for joining us.

Can I just say at the beginning, this whole debate is happening in the context of the whole crisis. Both of you have also recently written opinion pieces on that. Let me start with Antony Loewenstein and can I put this to you: the Lebanon crisis began when Israel was attacked by Hezbollah. Israeli soldiers were killed and others were kidnapped. At the same time Hezbollah began a barrage of missiles on northern Israeli towns. Do you accept that Israel has the right to defend itself and use military force to destroy or disarm Hezbollah militias when no one else is prepared to do it?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Israel has the right to self-defence. No one is questioning that. I’ve never questioned that and that’s a statement of fact. My point is, and I think what the international community is increasingly feeling, is that Israel’s response has been so disproportionate to the point of up to 300 civilians have been killed, the airport has been bombed numerous times, there has been an attempt to, essentially, collectively punish the Lebanese people for in some way, in the Israel’s view, supporting Hezbollah, many of whom do not support that. So the idea that Israel hasn’t got the right to self-defence, of course it does. But to suggest that that gives Israel the right to do anything it wants within Lebanon, which is a sovereign country, I might add, is completely unacceptable.

TONY JONES: Ted Lapkin?

TED LAPKIN, AUSTRALIA/ISRAEL AND JEWISH AFFAIRS COUNCIL: Israel is a sovereign country too. This was a cross-border violation of Israel’s sovereignty. There’s no collective punishment going on. What the Israelis are doing is they are going after Hezbollah positions and they are going after infrastructure that’s been used by Hezbollah to move these rockets from their storage sites to the launch sites and also there has been an attempt last night to resupply Hezbollah with additional rockets. They have a lot of rockets. They have fired a good many of them, about 1,500. The Israelis have destroyed others. But the Israeli military wants to avoid a situation where their stocks of rockets will be replenished and, therefore, they are attacking targets out of military necessity. These are strategic targets and what Israel is doing is recognised and justified by international law and the law of war.

TONY JONES: Now, Ted Lapkin, in your recent opinion piece you wrote that war is a dirty business. The innocent bystanders, essentially, are bound to get killed. Does that extend to Australian tourists who are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time?

TED LAPKIN: Well, again, this started when Hezbollah violated Israel’s border and violated Israel’s sovereignty in a completely unprovoked and pre-meditated attack. It is very, very unfortunate that any non-combatants are being hurt. My point in the piece is there are times when a resort to arms is the lesser of both evils and I cite the example of the allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. 20,000 French civilians were killed during the liberation of France from Nazi oppression. So, would humanity have been better served had that not happened? War is a dirty business, but sometimes it is the only moral option and certainly that is the case in a situation where you are subjected to an unprovoked cross-border attack.

TONY JONES: What about – let me bring in Antony Loewenstein who wants to jump in.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: I find this kind of idea about morality quite extraordinary. We have a situation where one country is bombing from the air another country, killing hundreds of civilians, bombing infrastructure. Are we honestly – is Mr Lapkin honestly suggesting, and is Israel honestly suggesting, that an idea of bombing roads, bridges, airports numerous times, bombing apartment blocks from the air, is actually going to cause anything but collective punishment? To suggest that there is a morality about doing that is ridiculous.

TED LAPKIN: It is not collective punishment.


TED LAPKIN: It is not. Evidently Mr Loewenstein would like the bridges and the airport to remain open so that it would be easier for Hezbollah to be resupplied with rockets and for them to move their rockets from storage sites to launching sites. His consideration for the lives of civilians tends to be somewhat one-sided. I don’t see any instance of him giving particular sympathy for the Israelis who are being victimised by 1,500 rockets being fired, that are pounding northern Israel.

TONY JONES: Let’s just – we’ll put it into perspective. Reuters are reporting today that Israeli air strikes have killed 49 civilians and one Hezbollah fighter in Lebanon. That brings the total conflict death now in Lebanon to 285 Lebanese, 25 or 27 Israelis. So, there is this – you don’t want to put it this way, but there’s this dreadful balance that we can see now is weighed very heavily against the Israeli air strikes.

TED LAPKIN: So the Israelis are to be penalised because they have a better civil defence system and better bomb shelters?

TONY JONES: It’s not a question of penalties. I guess what I was leading to is this: your group obviously has some influence in Australia and connections back to Israel. Would you consider at this point using that influence to try and get the Israelis to stop bombing so that civilians can leave the area, particularly Australian civilians – like the woman we heard earlier in the program – can leave the area in safety and be evacuated?

TED LAPKIN: Well, I do know as a matter of fact that the Australian Foreign Ministry has been in direct contact with the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Israeli military. I can’t go into details, but they are working together to try and ensure the safe repatriation of those Australians. But, Israel at this point can’t go to a ceasefire because all that would do would be to give Hezbollah respite to renew its stocks of rockets. It has over, it had over 10,000 rockets that it has been using to bombard northern Israel and Israel is not about to allow that situation to persist and allow them to replenish their stocks of rockets. I don’t think any country would be willing to endure that kind of threat on its border.

TONY JONES: I just want to stick with you just for one moment because I want to address this particular point and it is I think almost a first time in a conflict that Israel has been involved in in this way where large numbers of foreign tourists are actually caught under an Israeli bombardment and it seems to be changing the dynamic of the way the public, certainly here in Australia and one would presume in Canada where Canadian tourists have actually been killed, are perceiving what Israel is doing. Do you accept that it has changed the dynamic?

TED LAPKIN: I’m not sure. I do think that the death of any civilian, whether a foreign or Lebanese or Israeli, is tragic and I do know as a matter of fact, I’m a former Israeli military officer myself, that Israel is doing what it can under these circumstances to hit strictly military targets. The problem is, and that task is made much more complicated by Hezbollah’s and the Palestinians’ habit of deliberately situating their military installations within civilian populations. So that presents the Israelis with really a Hobson’s choice. They either sit back and do nothing or they strike back when they are attacked and they make every effort only to hit military targets and tragically and unavoidably civilians are killed and then the pro-Hezbollah cheerleading squad comes out, including Mr Loewenstein, and pillories Israel. So Israel is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t and it is going to do because its first priority and the first responsibility of the Israeli Government is to protect its citizens, especially from this kind of unprovoked external cross-border attack.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: I need to respond to that. I mean to suggest that I’m pro-Hezbollah because I question civilians being murdered is the kind of rhetoric that we expect from the pro-Israeli lobby. “You are either with us or against us.” The Lapkins and their cronies, their world view very much is the George Bush view of the world – you are either with us and “us” being this sort of amorphus definition of the West, which is we invade, we occupy, we continually bombard or them which supposedly is terrorists. I mean, in the latest edition of Quadrant magazine, Mr Lapkin accuses me essentially of being no better than Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Now, that kind of rhetoric, that kind of extremism, which AIJAC unfortunately is very much a part of, means any kind of debate is next to impossible. But, more importantly, it leaves the sense of people who actually understand what that kind of language is about, that to suggest that an individual who questions Western policies, US policies, Israeli policies, is no better than a Hamas militant or a Hezbollah militant is ridiculous.

TONY JONES: Let me bring Mr Lapkin back in here. You’ve read Antony Loewenstein’s thesis. You’ve actually read his book, My Israel Question.

TED LAPKIN: Correct.

TONY JONES: How do you respond to it coming from a young Australian Jewish person?

TED LAPKIN: Well, I think that it is a far-left anti-Zionist book. It’s rife with factual errors, beginning with the map that appears on page nine of the preface even before you get into the meat of the book. If you look at that map, Antony Loewenstein has Lebanon placed midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, so he suffers from some geographical confusion. But even worse are the factual errors and the factual confusion that really renders the book a piece of very shoddy scholarship at best.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: It is interesting how I was expecting this kind of response. This is exactly the kind of response that Mearsheimer and Walt got in the US. They were accused of being extreme. They were accused of making factual errors. They were accused of being anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic. This is the kind of tactics that we expect. The reality is that my book, My Israel Question simply is asking a question: is the Australian Jewish community happy to accept a Jewish state in the Middle East which conducts itself, especially since 1967 when the occupation began of the West Bank and Gaza, in a way that has Jewish only roads, a wall that essentially does not allow children to get from one part of the country to another, a situation where there is bombardment from the air of civilian infrastructure, a situation where the Israeli state is more than happy to allow olive groves from settlers to destroy them? I mean, I was in Israel last year and in Palestine last year, in the West Bank and Israel proper. If you go to a town like Hebron, which is of religious significance to both Islam and also for Judaism, there’s a situation where you see literally Palestinians are not actually allowed to leave their own house. They are actually told they have to leave their house another way. This is an Israeli Army directive. You have roughly 1,000 Jewish settlers who are extremists and over 100,000 Palestinians living there. That kind of dynamic and that kind of apartheid is something the world needs to understand.

TONY JONES: OK. Ted Lapkin, it’s a really fundamental critique of the Jewish state from beginning to end with an historical context. What’s your response?

TED LAPKIN: If I can point out that I haven’t uttered the word anti-Semitism tonight. The only person who has been uttering it is Antony Loewenstein. You talk about factual errors – he talks about Jewish only roads. That’s one of the errors that he makes in the book. What you have in the West Bank are roads that are limited to Israelis and Arab Israelis can use them and the reason why they were built is because Israelis driving through the West Bank were subjected to gunfire and sniping attacks and so to portray this as some kind of apartheid when, in essence, these roads were built after many Israelis, including Israeli Arabs who were using them, were shot to death using the regular road system I think is just absurd and it’s factually incorrect. These are not Jewish only roads. They are roads that are limited to Israelis for security reasons.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Exactly. This is the thing – everything is for security. In other words, when there is a town which is cordoned off, it’s for security. When there are roads only for Israelis, it is for security. My point is, this kind of rhetoric is always used to justify security measures, which in reality means that the Palestinian people don’t actually have…

TED LAPKIN: Do you concede your error that these are not Jewish only roads.


TED LAPKIN: I’m sorry but you are mistaken.


TED LAPKIN: Israeli Arabs use them all the time.

TONY JONES: Can I just intercede with a question for Antony Loewenstein because I’ve read the book as well. I want to ask you this: if your book were the only source they had a reader might well conclude that the original state of Israel was built on a legacy of ethnic cleansing, rape and massacre. Now, you don’t state it outright, but are you actually questioning or attempting to question the legitimacy of the state of Israel?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: What I’m questioning in my book is quite simple. I’m simply saying when Israel was formed after the war, which was a lot to do with European Holocaust guilt, was talking about that it was formed on the back of another people. In other words, Jews had history on that land. No one is questioning that and I haven’t questioned that in my Israel question. What I have questioned, however, is the way in which Israel was essentially formed on the back of another people. So, in other words, Palestinians who had been living there for generations were told to leave. There’s an argument – the issue about what happened in 1948 we could argue about indefinitely, but my point is that I am not saying that Israel was formed in sin. My point is that ideology, which is the right to a Jewish homeland for Jewish people is formed and has become a perversion of what it maybe once was because it has allowed an occupation to continue for nearly 40 years.

TONY JONES: OK. I want to bring Ted Lapkin back in. The whole questioning of the origins of the Jewish state – your response?

TED LAPKIN: My response is there have been Jews living there since time immemorial. In 1947 you had 660,000 Jews living there and about 1.3 million Arabs. The United Nations came and looked at the problem and said, “Look, here you have a situation where you have two peoples fighting over the same piece of land. The only way to solve this problem is through partition,” so they suggested a partition revolution which was accepted by the Jewish community. The Arabs wall-to-wall rejected it and went to war, openly declaring their ambition to completely destroy and annihilate every last Jewish man, woman and child who is living in the British mandate of Palestine at the time. What you had was a genocidal war that was waged by the Arabs, the Palestinians, and who were joined by the armies of five Arab states to try and wipe out the Jews. They lost and during the course of that conflict some of the Palestinians fled and others who were living in strategic areas that threatened Israel’s security were expelled. This isn’t the only time that things like that have happened. After World War II you had about 12 million ethnic Germans who were expelled after they redrew the borders of Eastern Europe. You had the whole dynamic of India and Pakistan. After World War I, you had a million-and-a-half Greeks who were expelled from what is now Turkey. Nobody is talking about the right of return for ethnic Germans to Poland or for Greeks who are living in Anatolia to Greece. So, I think that the application of this kind of double standard and the selective outrage that people like Mr Loewenstein apply to Israel, I think puts into question the purity of their motives.

TONY JONES: I’m afraid we can’t delve into the purity of their motives any longer. This debate could go on all night. Obviously we’ve had a very busy night on the program. That’s all we have time for. We thank you both for joining us. Antony Loewenstein and Ted Lapkin, thanks for being there.



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