Obama, Israel and the “Jewish Lobby”

Apr 4, 2013 | Talia Katz

Obama waves to the audience in Jerusalem

Barack Obama’s first visit to Israel as President last month has been widely analysed in the context of the Israel-Palestinian peace process and in terms of other regional security concerns, with a particular focus on the sometimes rocky relationship he shares with Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu. However, both Obama and some of Australia’s less-informed commentators chose to emphasise what the visit tells us about the overall Israel-US relationship, above and beyond any personal issues between individuals.

Obama’s address to an audience of 600 students in Jerusalem on March 21 made it clear that the connection between Israel and the US goes far beyond democratic, security or economic interests and pre-dates the current political leadership, back to the creation of the State.

“Those ties began only 11 minutes after Israeli independence, when the United States was the first nation to recognize the State of Israel. As President Truman said in explaining his decision to recognize Israel, he said, “I believe it has a glorious future before it not just as another sovereign nation, but as an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization.” And since then, we’ve built a friendship that advances our shared interests,” he said.

In his wide-ranging speech, which was well received by both commentators and the students who attended, Obama went into detail about the US/Israel alliance:

But the source of our friendship extends beyond mere interests, just as it has transcended political parties and individual leaders. America is a nation of immigrants. America is strengthened by diversity. America is enriched by faith. We are governed not simply by men and women, but by laws. We’re fueled by entrepreneurship and innovation, and we are defined by a democratic discourse that allows each generation to reimagine and renew our union once more. So in Israel, we see values that we share, even as we recognize what makes us different. That is an essential part of our bond.

But despite the President’s eloquence, some media commentators and pundits outdid themselves in attempting to use the visit to push the ugly but increasing well-worn argument that it is only because of the undue and often insidious impact of the “Israel Lobby” (or more crudely the “Jewish Lobby”) that the US has the policy positions that it does on Israel, and the US-Israel alliance endures. Some go as far as to suggest that Israel somehow has direct control over the American government.

Paul McGeough, for example, in his March 17 Canberra Times article covering Obama’s first visit to Israel simply assumed that the US was stupidly failing to follow its own interests by not ditching Israel and ending all aid. Instead, he presented a diatribe about the “Pussyfoot President”, who he classed as “manager-in-chief of the Israeli Occupation” and “passive aggressive.” McGeough implied the President was weak and subservient to Israel in failing to end the “madness” of US support.

Bizarrely, according to McGeough’s warped sensibilities, joint Israel-US investment in an air force security facility was nothing more than a ruse to deny beleaguered Palestinians working permits on the secure site.

It’s part of a deal in the so called peace process, by which Israel got about $500 million for new bases to make up for those it would give up in the Occupied Territories. Nice, eh? They’re still occupying; Washington’s still paying.

To keep writing blank cheques on a cash-strapped US Treasury to cover ballooning costs, and at the same time do nothing to bring about, or impose, a peace that might reduce that cost is, well, it’s madness.

His thesis, that the US is unable to extricate itself from its “mad” relationship with Israel, seemed utterly ignorant and uninterested in the shared interests, ideas, innovations and industries that Israel and the US enjoy (for more on this see my previous post on the subject of the shared interests underpinning the US-Israel partnership.)

Similarly, Michael Brissendon’s reportage for the ABC during the 2012 US Presidential election campaign presented Israel’s foreign policy interests, and the lobby that represents them in Washington, as the fulcrum upon which the election hinged.

Brissendon began his 7.30 news story on March 21 with news of Iran’s rapid movement towards weapons grade fuel production and the increasing calls for a military strike. He then moved on to suggest that Israel and “the most powerful Jewish lobby group in the United States: the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee” was the cause for the increasingly enthusiastic “chest thumping” about Iran, saying “the factors driving the hawkish rhetoric have as much to do with the politics in Washington as anything else.”

In this country the depth of a presidential candidate’s support for Israel is often seen as a guide to their overall policy strength. But some have interpreted support for Israel as support for AIPAC, even if strangely enough sometimes the policy positions are at odds with the vast majority of American Jewish voters.

Interviewed by Annabelle Quince for ABC Radio National “Rear View” program in March 2012, US academic and “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theorist John Mearsheimer also made the case that the Israel Lobby (Mearsheimer is careful to avoid the crude “Jewish Lobby” language of Brissendon) drives US foreign policy towards a pro-Israel stance via money, as well as votes and control over the media.

[To] be even more specific, a lot of the lobby’s power comes from money. Everybody in this country who runs for congress or runs for the president understands full well that it would be a huge mistake to cross the lobby, because not only would you not get any money from organisations in the lobby, but your opponent would get lots of money, and that would not be good. So money is a very important source of power.

Votes also matter. American Jews are probably about two per cent of the population, but their turnout on Election Day is very high and they’re located in a number of very important states. Just take Florida, for example. In the 2000 presidential election, it all came down to a handful of votes in Florida. Well, Florida has a large number of Jews …

It’s also important to recognise that supporters of Israel have great influence in the American media: The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, The Washington Post, these are media outlets that are effectively in a position where they defend Israel at almost every turn. And that coupled with all those factors allows the lobby to be very powerful.”

Likewise, several letters to the editor by Chris Williams, published in the Canberra Times, have presented theories about a Mossad controlled US government, about infiltration by Israeli intelligence officers into high ranking positions in the US and Australian governments, and general conspiracy related to foreign policy decision making.

This individual, and anyone who thinks like him or feels he may have a point, needs to read the recent discussion of the American “Israel Lobby” by top American writer, academic and pundit on US foreign policy Walter Russell Mead. 

Mead accurately describes where these people are coming from according to a mindset he encountered in many of the countries to which he travels:

Why, people ask, does the United States incur such risks and costs for the sake of this small country? Why does the United States direct so much foreign aid to it? Why does the United States take its part at the United Nations at such diplomatic cost?

The answer most people around the world give is a very simple one: America takes the positions it takes on Israel because of the power of “the Jews.” By their campaign contributions, by their (alleged) control of the media, by their (alleged) single-minded focus on Israeli interests, America’s supposedly well-organized, well-funded, and very determined Jews succeed in controlling American opinion and American policy. The Jewish tail wags the American dog.

In much of the world this kind of “analysis” sounds like the most banal conventional wisdom. It is so widely accepted, even by many people who think of themselves as seasoned and sophisticated observers of the international scene, that it is hardly worth discussing.

Mead notes that the power of pro-Israel interest groups is predicated on how that bond is expressed in a policy sense – but only when the goal is being pursued with the support of the general public.

“The Jews” do not run America, and they do not run American foreign policy in the Middle East. Recent Pew polls found that Americans sympathize more with the Israeli cause than with the Palestinian one by a margin of 49 percent to 12 percent, and they have consistently favored a “pro-Israel” foreign policy. When the House and the Senate overwhelming endorse pro-Israel resolutions, and when they tell presidents that they can’t cut Israel’s aid, those politicians are responding to the will of their constituents. Over time, and especially since 9/11, American public opinion has become significantly more pro-Israel….

The reality is that the “Israel lobby” is extremely powerful when its goals accord with non-Jewish American public opinion, but it runs out of steam when it goes against that opinion. It is irresistible when its demands accord with the general disposition of non-Jewish Americans to support the Jewish state; it immediately becomes feeble if it takes up an issue (like a pardon for Pollard) that this public opinion dislikes.

If American Jews actually controlled American policy in the Middle East, it’s likely that our policies would be much more dovish and much more nuanced. American Jews by and large are more liberal than the general public on almost every issue, and that emphatically includes the Middle East. While there are some prominent Jewish hawks, there are many more prominent Jewish doves. Barack Obama received far more electoral and financial support from Jewish donors than Mitt Romney in 2012, just as he received far more financial and electoral support than John McCain in 2008.

The American public has demonstrated their preference for the policy positions of their leaders, including Obama, through democratic elections. And in the US, as in Australia, democratic government that does not reflect the will of its electorate is summarily voted out of office.

Mead then takes on the fallback position of the “lobby” conspiracy theorists – that the American public may back Israel, but that is only because the “lobby” controls the media:

Some are ready to concede this point but think they can still attribute American policy to those cunning and all-powerful Jews. Their answer is “the media.” American public opinion supports Israel because the clueless and idiotic Americans-so much less sophisticated, so much more poorly educated, so much less rational in their thinking than the enlightened publics of Egypt, Pakistan, Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and Argentina, where a vigilant populace is alert to the insidious plots of the Jews-are fooled by the “Jewish media” into backing the Jewish state.

Once again, this approach betrays a weird combination of anti-Semitic assumptions about Jewish power and cohesion with profound ignorance about American life. The producers of mainstream media coverage in the United States are much closer in their editorial view to what we might call the conventional European vision of the conflict than to the right-wing Israeli view. Ask most correspondents and editors in the media for their private views of the conflict, and they will tell you pretty much what their colleagues in European media would say. That isn’t just true of the working stiffs; generally speaking (with some exceptions at Fox), the upper management of these media outlets is closer to the European than to the Likud view.

But news outlets need eyeballs, and the American public doesn’t want to watch harrowing stories of Palestinian suffering, and it tunes out the ‘blame Israel’ narrative. The public likes Israel, thinks it is a good thing, and rejoices when it does well.

Mead argues that an antisemitic outlook, that does not even remotely reflect reality, warps the perception of who controls the political leadership. And he sets the record straight. The “Jewish lobby” and “Jewish media” do not control the government (though the latter has been pointed to in the US and across the pond as the scapegoat for all misfortunes by Israel’s detractors). It may not be as sexy as conspiracy and intrigue, but the truth is that the American public votes with their feet, and their television remotes, and largely gets the policies and media coverage they want. 

According to McGeough and his contemporaries, the strings of world super power the US are being pulled by the small regional power Israel, through its lobby in Washington, through the media and through accruing Jewish votes for pro-Israel candidates. It is the sort of rhetoric that might be expected from Press TV, or al Jazeera, but it does not belong in mainstream media organisations like Fairfax and the ABC.

The reality of US/Israel relations is far more collaborative and interactive. As Obama noted last week, “innovation is just as important to the relationship between the U.S. and Israel as our security cooperation.”

In the Wall Street Journal, Eisenstadt and Pollock agreed that Israeli researchers, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and others are helping create US sustainability and security at home and abroad:

“Why did President Obama visit Israel this week, on the first foreign trip of his second term? The U.S. and Israel share democratic values, of course, and there were pressing issues to discuss publicly and privately, including peace with the Palestinians, the civil war in Syria, and Iran’s march to nuclear-weapons capability. But there is an additional consideration that is too rarely emphasized: Israel is helping the U.S. meet the economic, environmental and non-military security challenges of the future,” they wrote.

The U.S.-Israel relationship isn’t symmetrical, as the U.S. provides Israel with indispensable diplomatic and military assistance. But it is a two-way street.

The concerning element of the Israel-as-puppet-master argument is that while it may serve the narrow world view of those like McGeough, it requires a deliberate and willful ignorance of the wide-ranging interactive relationship enjoyed by Israel and the United States, which is clear to see.

– Talia Katz



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