Blogs > HNN > Murray Polner: Review of Dan Fleshler's Transforming America's Israel Lobby: The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change (Potomac Books, 2009)

May 12, 2009 3:56 pm

Murray Polner: Review of Dan Fleshler's Transforming America's Israel Lobby: The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change (Potomac Books, 2009)

Dan Fleshler, an American Jewish “media and public affairs strategist” and a dove on Israel and American foreign policy believes that more American Jews have come to the conclusion that the Jewish establishment’s old line organizations, the heart of Israel’s American lobby, do not act or speak on their behalf.

In “Transforming America’s Israel’s Lobby,” Fleshler’s incisive and thoughtful book, he asks why American Jews, overwhelmingly liberal to moderate (e.g., 78% voted for Obama and at least 70% support a “two-state solution”), have permitted right-wingers, hawks and neocons to speak for them. “Precisely where have all the Jewish doves been hiding all these years?” he asks. “What accounts for their collective tongue-biting”?

In general, long-established American Jewish mainstream organizations (Fleshler prefers describing them as “conventional”) view Israel as the main item on their agendas. Because of that, almost without exception they have been silent about recent American wars. LBJ shut them up by threatening to withhold U.S. aid to Israel. The hundreds of thousands who protested against an invasion of Iraq in New York City on a frigid day in February 2003 (Fleshler says he was there) included many Jews yet the pro-Israel establishment (“pro-Israel” is a bogus term so critics can be thought of as anti-Israel) remained mute. Fleshler notes that even “liberal Jewish organizational officials made no efforts to publicly refute or definitely peel themselves away from the neoconservatives whose reflexive contempt for conciliation was the dominant emotion of the Bush administration."

This view was never more evident than in the nearly universal assault on a book, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” Given the overwhelmingly negative response it received one would think latter day Cossacks had arrived to pillage and rape Israel and its Jewish allies. Yet the authors are scholars associated with the “realist” school of foreign policy, Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago and Walt at Harvard. Their sin was asking if unquestioned support for Israel was always in the American national interest.

Oddly enough, Mearsheimer and Walt would agree with much of Fleshler’s criticisms save his contention that the power of the Israel Lobby is overrated. Though hardly monolithic, it behaves much like every other lobby in fighting for their client’s interests. AIPAC, for example, works the Congress, not that most members require much persuasion. It would be hard to find a national politician who dares tangle with them. At every one of AIPAC’s annual meetings politicians rush to declare eternal love for Israel.

“Transforming America’s Israel Lobby” contends that things may be changing and points to several possible trends. Still, the election of Benjamin Netanyahu and the naming of Avigdor Lieberman as his Foreign Minister means that two authentic hardliners, the latter more so than the former, will never allow “two states for two peoples” as U.S. policy favors.

With the coming of Obama it’s possible we may see a reduction of the lobby’s influence and power but there is certainly no reason to be overconfident. Fleshler, though, thinks the lobby appears more powerful than it really is, and cites an occasional denial of Israel’s requests, recently Bush 2’s refusal to allow Israeli bombers the right to fly over Iraq to attack Iran. There are a few –very few—similar refusals, such as Bush 1’s insistence that either Israel cease building additional settlements in the occupied West Bank or else forego American money. Infuriated, more than one thousand lobbyists arrived in Washington and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was “reassured by AIPAC and Likud operatives in Washington that Israel could win a fight in Congress.” Bush 1 tried to fight back, but was overwhelmed, famously complaining in one his memorable press conferences, “We’re got one little guy [himself] over here. I think the American people will support me.” But following strong protests he did back down.

There are, however, less publicized instances where efforts have been made to silence critics. The historian Tony Judt’s scheduled lecture at a Polish institute in Manhattan was abruptly cancelled when lobbyists pressured the institute. Bishop Tutu’s talk at a Catholic college in Minnesota was called off and only restored after outraged faculty and students vigorously protested. Fleshler mentions that Mearsheimer and Walt’s scheduled talk at a Chicago meeting was cancelled. Jimmy Carter, who did more for Israel than any other President, was condemned as anti-Israel because he dared use the word ‘Apartheid’ in the title of one of his books about Israel. When Carter’s speech and Q&A at Brandeis University ended C-Span’s coverage showed the former President receiving a huge ovation from his Jewish audience, lending some credence to Fleshler’s belief that things are changing.

But then there’s the more recent example of the lobby’s strength: The nomination of Charles Freeman, a thirty year veteran of the diplomatic corps and the Pentagon, to the National Intelligence Council which manages the National Intelligence Estimates (which infuriated Israel and its allies in November 2007 when it claimed Iran was not in the nuclear weapon business) was promptly shot down by the lobby and its friends and Freeman’s name withdrawn by a new Obama administration.

Reform Rabbi and WWII veteran Alexander Schindler (a recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star), one of the last fearless, and liberal national Jewish leaders, once portrayed his generation’s loyalty as grounded on a “kidney machine,” which he defined as the Holocaust and Israel. Newer generations are now more acculturated, more assimilated, and public anti-Semitism is at its lowest ebb in U.S. history. “Why should we care about all those old institutions? We need our own institutions” an anonymous (why anonymous?) young activist told Fleshler. And Tom Dine, an early leader of AIPAC who now rejects its approach and consults for the Israel Policy Forum, told Fleshler he rejects the leadership of the traditional organizations, “These people have to go. These people have stayed too long.”

Technology has spawned a trickier challenge to the lobby. A growing number of outspoken bloggers and websites like Jeremiah Haber’s “Magnes Zionist,” Richard Silverstein’s “Tikkun Olam,” Bernard, Philip Weiss’ “Mondoweiss,” Shammai Leibowitz’s “Pursuing Justice,” Tony Karon’s “Rootless Cosmopolitan,” the magazine Tikkun, columnists M. J. Rosenberg and Rabbi Henry Siegman, once head of the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America, offer alternative views and sharp critiques. New American Jewish organizations such as J Street, which supports political candidates, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a grassroots group. which claims 35,000 members including 1500 rabbis, the think tank Israel Policy Forum, American Friends of Peace Now, Jewish Voices for Peace, and others have emerged.

Where their predecessors Beira, New Jewish Agenda, and the Jewish Peace Lobby were excoriated as anti-Israel and driven to cover, the new groups are able to raise money (though not nearly as much as the older ones), lobby Congress, become involved in political races (as J Street does) and use the Internet to spread their messages. Their members tend to be younger, better educated and more secure than their parents and grandparents. They are the people who can build a different American Jewish community which can help shape a more realistic policy in the Middle East, opposing settlements, working for a sovereign Palestine alongside Israel, and avoiding a war with Iran.

The last word is by M.J. Rosenberg in his Foreword. Rosenberg is a onetime congressional aide, a former editor of AIPAC’s “Near East Report” and is now with Israel Policy Forum. Given the will and determination, he argues, “any president can pursue Middle East peace without fear of the lobby, because the overwhelming majority of American Jews are not hard-liners, advocates of the lobby’s line, or single issue voters. American Jews are Americans and treating us as if our only concern were sustaining the status quo in Israel is both insulting and wrong. Few of us take our cue from the lobby.”

If Fleshler, Rosenberg and the newcomers are right, then change may be coming. But it’s a huge “if.”

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Elliott Aron Green - 6/2/2009

Polner makes it seem as if the only fault of the Walt-Mearsheimer tract against Israel was that it "questioned" whether support for Israel were in the US national interest. Actually, though W & M are recognized international relations experts, the book itself was a propaganda tract itself, full of falsehoods, omissions [such as the Nazi and Holocaust collaboration of Haj Amin el-Husseini, British-appointed mufti of Jerusalem, chief leader of the Palestinian Arabs in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s], non sequiturs, shoddy research, weak arguments. Of course, in a democracy, everyone has a right to his opinion, whether that opinion be right or wrong. But if Polner and Fleshler intend to use the W-M book as a scholarly reference, then they are hanging on to a weak reed indeed.

omar ibrahim baker - 5/25/2009

IT is NOT a huge "IF" as much as a resounding "WHEN ?”

It may be, though, sooner than later and could well be , not unexpectedly, the inevitable outcome of a rash Israeli, Netanyahu/Lieberman, action re Iran or their failure to act if called upon to do so seriously by a determined US Administration re the Arab/Palestinian –Israeli conflict.

The Iran A bomb affair to a considerable degree, and the Palestinian/Israeli issue to a lesser degree, may be the moment of truth for both the USA and Israel and their security and other alliances which has hitherto:
A-Failed to deter Iran from embarking on it s ambitious nuclear know how acquisition and development program
B-Failed from resolving the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict
While on the other hand not only providing the USA with new enemies but also :
C –Tying American hands from coming forth with the only proposal (s) with a reasonable chance of success namely:
1 -a nuclear free Middle East for the prospective Iranian A Bomb
2 - for an “equitably” divided Jerusalem, full withdrawal from and total evacuation of all Settlements in 1967 Israeli occupied Palestinian lands .

All being notions few American Presidents dare broach with Israeli power inside the USA being what it is presumed to be !
While on the other both issues could be resolved in an American interests serving manner if the authors’ premise hold true.

The Palestinian /Israeli and the Iran A-bomb impasse(s) could be as good an opportunity as any for the USA to reevaluate an alliance that is not only superfluous and uncalled for for the defense and maintenance of American interests but that equally ties down the USA from assuming a constructive role in the resolution of the multifaceted Middle East quandary.
Far from serving both parties this alliance has only served to make of the USA an instrument in Israeli hands at the service of Israeli designs at the cost of American interests.

NOW could well be the time when an Obama Administration brought to power on the promise of change could well test its ability to implement some genuinely American interests serving changes in this realm where internal and foreign US policy forming factors curiously co live in a manner that does NOT serve American interests as much as Israel’s.