- The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pp.
The Bully of the Middle East
One of the myths surrounding the creation of the State of Israel is that the Zionists fought a war of independence in 1948, and won against heavy odds. The Israeli narrative has been that Israel was a David struggling for its independence against the Arab Goliath. It is a great story, but that is exactly what it is—a story. As Mearsheimer and Walt detail in their book on the Israel Lobby, the Zionist armies outnumbered the Arab armies, they were better trained and had better equipment and weapons.
What is more accurate historically is that Israel became the bully of the Middle East, starting even before May 15, 1948, when it declared itself a state. The full details of what the Zionist movement did to grab the Palestinians’ land are outlined in Ilan Pappe’s book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, from which Mearsheimer and Walt quote in their narrative on the Israeli Lobby.
My real Middle East education began during a trip I took through the Middle East in 1973. When I returned from the trip in early 1974, I held a press conference at the Federal Press Club in Washington, D.C. I related to those gathered there that every single Arab leader I met with, including Yasir Arafat, told me that each was ready to make peace with Israel, to begin commercial trade with it, on the condition that Israel withdraw to the pre-1967 borders, and allow a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
Amazingly, the Arab leaders I talked to, including Arafat, were willing to concede the land that Israel had already taken by force in 1947 and 1948. That was the same offer King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia made to Israel last year—an offer that was scoffed at by Israel and ignored by the United States.
When I related what I had heard in the Arab countries to the gathered journalists and others interested in the issue at the Press Club, a short reporter rose to ask me a few hostile questions, after which he left. His name was Wolf Blitzer, at that time a writer for the AIPAC newsletter, The Near East Report. The headline of his story was, “Abourezk Sells Out to the Arabs.”
Israel Critics Begin on the Defensive
Mearsheimer and Walt have written an excellent exposition of the Israel Lobby, both in articles and in their most recent book. But they have had to spend a great deal of words and time assuring their readers that they are not anti-Semites, an accusation that has been the main force of the attack on them by the Israel Lobby. There is a well-rehearsed chorus of Israel supporters lying in wait for whoever dares to criticize Israel’s policies, ready to pounce, catlike, and with great force on the unfortunate miscreant. What is interesting is that I have yet to see any of Mearsheimer and Walt’s pro-Israel critics challenge the accuracy of what they have written. Those critics rely on the charge of anti-Semitism, as well as vague, unspecified allegations of inaccuracies in what they have written.
To most people, the charge of racism is a frightening thing, something which no self-respecting person wants attached to them, a feeling of which defenders of Israel are well aware. In America, academics, journalists and politicians have been trained to tip-toe around the subject lest they have to spend all their time denying the allegations of racism against them. The attacks from the Lobby’s hit men come at a fast and a vicious pace, which results in the unfortunate writer spending as much time defending himself or herself as the time spent on the original writing itself.
I read Alan Dershowitz’ screed against Mearsheimer and Walt’s original paper. Dershowitz selects a few points in their paper, then focuses his attack on those few points. Even then he doesn’t get it right. Dershowitz has the same problem here as he has had over the years. He has difficulty with telling the truth in his criticism of the two authors.
For a number of years I was the target of the same accusations because I’ve expressed my strong disagreement with Israel’s actions.
Joe Rauh, the celebrated civil rights attorney in Washington, D.C., once patronized me with an unsolicited comment, “Jim I never let them call you an anti-Semite.” Joe never stayed around long enough to learn that I never let “them” call me a racist. I am emotionally secure enough know that I am not a racist, and I refuse to allow Israel’s supporters to brand me as such. I cannot agree that criticism of Israel’s policies equals racism, as the Anti-Defamation League is fond of telling us. I feel a responsibility to continue to discuss both America’s and Israel’s failed policies in the Middle East.
The distraction caused by personal attacks on critics of Israel is, of course, intended to get everyone off the subject of whether or not America’s overdone support for whatever Israel does is good for America. That is something no one in the Lobby wants to hear—a real debate on the issue. As someone once said, the Lobby does its best work out of the public’s eye. That kind of anonymity disguises the kind of work done by the Lobby—frightening and intimidating officeholders in order to keep American taxpayers’ money flowing to Israel.
Mearsheimer and Walt’s main argument is that American support for Israel is not in America’s best interests.
Seeking to Justify the Money Sent To Israel
The authors have done a bang-up job of research. Their book is packed, no, it is crammed, both with the manner in which America supports Israel’s aggressions, as well as with the negative consequences to our country of such support. The facts they include in their book are almost overwhelming, but they are necessary for people to understand what is at stake.
In order to mask the kind of mugging the Lobby undertakes on members of Congress, it’s necessary for supporters of Israel to explain American generosity in ways other than how the Lobby intimidates members of Congress, and presidential candidates as well.
I saw an example of that during the 1970s. While I was waiting my turn to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I listened to a State Department official struggling to answer questions from New York’s Senator Jack Javits, a member of the Committee.
“I want you to tell this committee the ways in which Israel is a strategic asset to the United States,” Javits told the official.
The bureaucrat stumbled over his words, finally admitting that he was unable to think of any such ways. Remember, this was during the 1970s, at the height of the cold war with the Soviet Union when Israel was heralded by its supporters as a bulwark against the Soviets.
Javits continued to press him. “I’m going to ask you again. Tell us how Israel is a strategic asset to the United States.” The hapless bureaucrat continued to stutter, eventually giving up, as did Javits. This was a time when some were questioning the value of our financial, military and political support of Israel. The lack of a proper answer by the bureaucrat didn’t really matter, as Congressional support for Israel was maintained at a high level, despite the pitiful State Department fellow who couldn’t think of a reason to justify our aid. The Mearsheimer/Walt book does outline some of the help Israel has given the United States. However, they point out, what little help we have received has come at an almost unbearably high price to America.
Israel provided us with embarrassingly little intelligence on the Arab countries, but they did report to the U.S. what they were told by Russian Jewish immigrants. And, as the 1991 Gulf War showed, we refused Israel’s military help against Saddam Hussein for fear of alienating Arab allies who had joined the coalition against Saddam Hussein.
Israel has had a practice for years of trying to empty out the West Bank of its young Palestinian men. When a young Palestinian would leave home to go to college in another country, the Shin Bet would visit the young man’s parents, telling them that their son was wanted for unspecified crimes that were made up on the spot. The reaction of the parents was predictable. They would get word to their son that the Shin Bet was looking for him, and that he should never come back to Palestine.
One such Palestinian, Sami Ismail, who was attending college in Michigan in the 1970s, learned that his father was seriously ill. He immediately made plans to return to the West Bank for what he was certain would be his father’s funeral. The FBI, which obviously had been watching Sami, informed the Shin Bet that he was on his way back to Israel. He was arrested at the Tel Aviv airport and put in prison. After being beaten and tortured, he was, a few years later, released and is now back in Michigan.
During a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee with the FBI counterterrorism director at that time, I asked him to meet with me privately in an office behind the Committee room. There he admitted to me that the FBI had sent information on Sami Ismail’s travel plans to Israel, which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment when he arrived.
The price America has paid for America’s support for Israel is reflected in the almost universal hatred for our government both by Arabs in the Middle East, and by Moslems around the world. There is no question that we are blamed for the bombings and invasions of Lebanon and Syria—which are accomplished with American weapons. Although the average American may not know why we are so unpopular around the world, every single person in the Middle East is able to discuss at length the cluster munitions and other American weapons that Israel drops in civilian areas. Cluster bombs are a particular cruel weapon, maiming and killing small children who pick up the bomblets, as well as the American made jets and bombs that routinely kill Arabs. Beyond cluster weapons, when Israel occupied Southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, it planted land mines throughout the area it controlled, and to this day refuses to provide a map to the Lebanese government of where they are planted. Periodically, Lebanese farmers come away with their legs blown off, or they are killed by the hidden exploding mines.
During my first trip to Lebanon in 1973, while on my way by car for my first visit to my parents’ village in the South, we stopped at the neighboring village of Mimas, where the Mayor had caused a banner to be stretched across the road, adjacent to a bomb crater. The banner read, in Arabic, “Welcome Sheikh Senator James Abourezk,” and in English, “Fantome Jets Made in USA.”
The mayor’s speech articulated what the villagers were obviously thinking. “We used to think of America as a haven for those of us from Lebanon who went there from this village. We always loved America. Now we think of it as an oppressor.”
A Long Line of U.S. Support for Israel’s Aggressions
Our governments, from the time of Lyndon Johnson up to the present, have sent weapons to Israel with which to bomb Arab lands, have vetoed United Nations Security Council resolutions calling Israel to account for its aggressions, and have sent American taxpayers’ money for their weapons stockpile. The money sent by our Congress has created a higher living standard in Israel than many people in America enjoy.
It was President Lyndon Johnson who, when the U.S.S. Liberty came under deadly attack in 1967 by the Israeli military, killing 134 American sailors and wounding many more, prevented American fighter jets from going to the crew’s rescue. Following the killing and wounding of so many American sailors by Israeli jets and torpedo boats, the crew was ordered not to speak of the assault. Although the Liberty incident is one of the more shameful in our country’s history, there has never been an official U.S. government investigation of the attack, despite the many requests by the surviving crew members.
Although Nixon had no love for Israel, he did have Henry Kissinger pulling his strings, convincing Nixon that an Israeli defeat during the 1973 War would embolden the Soviet Union. Israel had run out of equipment and weapons during the War, and Kissinger’s intervention resulted in Nixon ordering a massive airlift of replacement weapons, allowing Israel to defeat both Egypt and Syria.
George W. Bush, an evangelical who is disguised as a President, has provided whatever support Israel might want, including the disgusting delay of a requested cease fire in the 2006 Lebanese War, betting that Israel would demolish Hizbollah’s military if only it were allowed more time. The time given to Israel by Bush resulted only in additional destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure, with Israel giving up in the end, without the victory both it and Bush had hoped for.
In one of the more disgusting moments of pandering to Israel’s supporters, at the time that Prime Minister Sharon had ordered destruction of the West Bank village of Jenin, Bush announced that Sharon was “a man of peace.”
Some U.S. Senators have been unable to wait for weapons’ requests from Israel before swinging into action, as Senator Scoop Jackson did in 1972. He offered an amendment to Israeli aid legislation that was being considered on the Senate floor, an amendment that was neither solicited by Israel nor by the State Department, which added $500 million to the appropriation for fighter jets. Of course, it passed with no opposition.
The power of the Israeli Lobby is legendary on Capitol Hill. During the 1970s, when Gerald Ford was president, both he and Kissinger ordered that weapons shipments to Israel be stopped, hoping to force Israel to accede to Ford’s wishes during a set of peace negotiations. The Israeli Lobby circulated a letter to Ford, threatening him with unspecified political consequences, signed by 76 U.S. Senators.
On the night before the letter was released to the press, I had dinner with one Senator who told me that he was not about to sign it, as he knew how it would be used. The next day I saw his name on the list, and I asked him what had happened to change his mind. “I began getting calls from my home state. They were lawyers, doctors and other professional people who had actually taken time off from their practice to campaign for me. They were not just ordinary citizens, but people who had sacrificed to help me get elected. There was no way I could turn them down.”
In the privacy of the Senate cloakroom one can hear the animosity that surfaces against the Israeli Lobby. But in public these same Senators will pander in the most undignified manner.
For most members of Congress a vote for Israel is counted as a throw away vote. It has been all benefit for them, with no cost, as the Arabs had no effective lobby, and a vote for Israel would cost the Congressperson very little, if anything at all. Conversely, a vote against legislation that Israel’s Lobby wants brings political threats and retaliation that no one in Congress wants to deal with.
With the exceptional success the Lobby has enjoyed over the years comes a certain amount of arrogance. It was that arrogance that resulted in the arrest and indictment of two of the principal lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). They have been accused of receiving highly classified information on Iran that was given to them by Larry Franklin, a U.S. government official. Franklin has been convicted and is serving time in prison, but the trial of the two Israeli Lobbyists has been delayed, and delayed again.
Years ago, Michael Saba, a blond haired Lebanese from North Dakota sat in the coffee shop of a Washington, D.C. hotel, listening to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer imparting what he believed was classified information to two Israelis. Saba has written a book about the effort to get the Justice Department to take some kind of action. The staffer was eventually terminated from his job on the Senate staff, but he is still around Washington.
Jonathan Pollard, an employee of the U.S. Navy, was convicted of selling a truckload of America’s secrets to Israel. Pollard is now serving a life sentence, with little hope of parole. That has not stopped Israel and its supporters from requesting that he be released and sent to Israel to finish his sentence, a request that has been refused by the U.S. government. One of the Justice Department’s parole attorneys told me, several years ago, that releasing Pollard would bring about a revolution inside the U.S. government by people whose departments were injured by his spying.
America Fighting Israel’s Battles
One of the main lines of attack on Mearsheimer and Walt is their proposition that Israel manages to get America to fight its battles for it, with Iraq being a prime example. As with Iran today, the Israelis are neither shy nor secretive about trying to push America into invading that branch of the Axis of Evil. Now that Iraq has turned to mush, Israel and its Lobby are pulling back from its support of that war. But we can tell what the Israeli government is thinking when we listen to Senator Joe Lieberman, who has been shouting from tall buildings that America must forcibly and violently deal with Iran now. Both Lieberman and President Bush have called forth the image of a mushroom cloud if something is not done to stop the Iranians. The warnings have a familiar sound to them, very much like the warnings Bush trumpeted before he ordered the invasion of Iraq.
Double Standard in the Middle East
What neither Lieberman, nor Bush, nor the other components of the Lobby want the public to know is that both Iran and Syria have proposed a nuclear weapons free Middle East. One supposes the reason that proposition has never seen the light of day is that Israel would have to give up the 200 plus nuclear warheads that it has stockpiled in recent years. But despite such a proposal being the answer to stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions, neither the Bush Administration nor the American media have given this proposal anything but silence.
The ferocity of President Bush’s attacks on Iran and its nuclear potential is noticeable because of the President’s, and the media’s, total silence on the issue of Israel’s nuclear weapons, which are most likely the reason Iran wants to enter into a Middle East nuclear arms race. Here, the double standard is most obvious. Israel, known for its aggressive behavior in the Middle East, beginning with its 1948 capture of Palestine by force of arms, is rarely mentioned either by American politicians or by the American media as a danger to peace. Assuming that Iran is indeed developing a nuclear weapon, the country can hardly threaten the United States for the reason that it, like Iraq before it, has no means of delivery beyond its immediate neighborhood. Even though there is a limited threat to its neighbors, including Israel, it is important to contain the development of nuclear weapons, but unless we are willing to contain Israel’s nuclear threat, it will be impossible to do anything with Iran, short of a war. Despite what Israel wants, Americans have no need for another quagmire, which surely would be the result of an attack on Iran.
Nancy Pelosi earlier addressed the recent AIPAC convention in Washington, and was booed by the audience when she opposed Bush’s escalation of the Iraq War. Not long after that disapproval, a harrowing experience for a Congressperson, she withdrew a requirement that had been tacked onto legislation requiring the President to get Congressional permission to make war on Iran. Obviously, Pelosi knew what was good for her and for her political party.
How To Keep Congresspeople in Line
The Lobby will not tolerate even one dissenting voice against Israel in the Congress. When members of Congress are silent on this issue, the press is unable to write a story quoting officeholders. That is the major reason there is little official criticism of Israel’s actions, and criticism comes only from non-official voices, which deprives the media of an official source for their stories. Thus, any such dissenting voice is a prime candidate for silencing at next election time. Both Congressman Earl Hilliard and Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney learned this lesson the hard way. Money from contributors all over the country poured into the campaign treasuries of their opponents, a great deal of the money directed by the Lobby. And they both lost. Of course, Congresswoman McKinney did not help herself when she tried to humiliate a capitol policeman before she was once more turned out of office.
When someone wants to run for Congress and is looking for campaign money, the potential candidate is inevitably directed to AIPAC or to one of the other components of the Israel Lobby. Both political parties know that there is money readily available from the Lobby, depending on how cooperative the candidate will be.
But the money does not come free. The Lobby first demands that the candidate give them something in writing detailing how the candidate might vote on issues important to Israel, such as appropriating money for Israel from the U.S. Treasury. Very few candidates refuse to provide such commitments, and those who do refuse have difficulty raising early money from other sources.
The initial commitment is the beginning of the slippery slope for candidates who get elected and are sworn in. Ever after, when a vote critical to Israel comes up, the officeholder is paid a visit by one of the Lobby’s operatives on Capitol Hill, with a reminder of his or her commitment. This was the treatment I was given when I first ran for the U.S. Senate, and I’m told that very little has changed since then.
Those officeholders who stray from the reservation are threatened with defeat, and if that doesn’t work, money directed by the Lobby flows to their opposition in the next election cycle. Cynthia McKinney no doubt can tell stories about this very effective method, as can Paul Findley and a few others.
The leaders of the Lobby spend a great deal of time denying that theirs is a powerful force on Capitol Hill, but occasionally the arrogance of some of the staff people breaks through to make their boasting public. But whoever denies the power of the Lobby is not being truthful, especially when one considers that if any other country oppressed and colonized other people, the U.S. would seriously consider sending in troops to remedy the situation. In Israel’s case, the U.S. happily sends taxpayer’s money to enable its occupation of Palestinians, with all the brutality that comes with such an occupation. Those who deny the political reach of the Lobby overlook the unbelievable pandering by Congresspeople to Israel. At times, these panderers appear to love Israel more than they do their own country.
I served in Congress at a time when I.L. “Sy” Kenan was the head of AIPAC. He would constantly send a message with people who he knew were my friends that, “Tell Abourezk I’m going to get him.”
And Spencer Rich, a Washington Post reporter, followed up on a story that the Lobby had fed to a small weekly newspaper in Maryland, edited by a defrocked Episcopal priest named Lester Kinsolving. The story was about my oldest son, then a teenager, who had left home and was living on food stamps on one of South Dakota’s Indian reservations. Spencer called me several times at home wanting me to comment on his story in the making, but I refused. When the story appeared in the Post, headlined “Senator’s Son On Foodstamps,” it set off an uproar that did not quickly die down. Senators McGovern and Ribicoff took to the Senate floor to denounce the Post, accusing the newspaper of trying to damage the food stamp program, which both Senators had championed.
One of the Post’s editors, a friend of mine, complained to Ben Bradlee, to no avail. Then a writer for the Style Section of the paper, Tom Zito, called me to tell me how repulsed he was by the story. I had never met Mr. Zito before that, but his actions were most admirable. When he complained to Bradlee, he was told that to even things out, Zito should find children of other famous people who were on food stamps and write a story about them. Zito found that Bradlee’s daughter had been living in Oregon on food stamps, which promptly ended that search for justice.
But there were times when I turned the Lobby’s animosity to my own benefit. In 1974, when Sen. Sam Ervin retired, there was an open seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee to which I wanted to be assigned. I sought out Dave Brody, one of the Israeli Lobbyists working the Senate, and told him that I was thinking of asking for assignment to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, unless, that is, he might help me get the assignment to the Judiciary Committee. My rival for the assignment was Senator Jim Allen of Alabama, who was not to the taste of the Lobbyists, so Brody and his colleagues campaigned hard, resulting in my appointment to the Judiciary Committee.
After having read Israeli historian Ilan Pappe’s book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, then reading an inept attack on Mearsheimer and Walt by Alan Dershowitz, I’m led to wonder when the truth will finally out on the issue of Israel’s transgressions. I have to believe that the ferocity of the Lobby’s attack on President Jimmy Carter for his book outlining Israel’s apartheid in the Occupied Territories has helped the sales of the book. Similarly, I prefer to believe that Dershowitz cannot help but realize that his public opposition is making the Mearsheimer-Walt book a hot item. But for someone who is presumably smart enough to teach law at Harvard University, his assault on the authors is a major public relations error.
In his attack, Dershowitz claimed that Ben Gurion and his minions were trying, in 1947 and 1948, to be very fair to the Palestinians, but the Palestinians instead chose militancy when they refused to agree to the 1947 partition of Palestine as suggested by the UN General Assembly. (UN General Assembly resolutions are non-binding, but Israel and its supporters continue to claim—wrongly–that the UN created Israel). That position puts Dershowitz’ arrogance on display. Who but a blind supporter of Israel would convince themselves that taking 56% of Palestine for the Yishuv and leaving 44% for the native Palestinians is a fair division? Who but a blind supporter of Israel would be surprised that the Palestinians would resist such a land grab in any way they possibly could?
As Ilan Pappe pointed out in his well researched book, Ben Gurion and his followers executed a plan of ethnic cleansing—Plan Dalet– a plan that was years in the making by the Zionist movement, the result of which would be a State of Israel with few or no Palestinians remaining in it to muck things up. The brutality with which the Zionist armies and terror groups both killed and chased the Palestinians out of Palestine is matched only by the brutality of Israel’s current occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (which is the largest open air prison in the world).
Pappe relates how the Zionists poisoned the water in one Palestinian community, as well as the terror tactics used by the Irgun and Stern Gang to frighten Palestinians into leaving Palestine.
In his review of The Israel Lobby in the New Yorker Magazine, David Remnick writes that the authors failed to talk about Palestinian terrorism, and Arafat’s refusal to accept a valid offer of land and peace by Israel.
Palestinians, as Ilan Pappe has recorded, were generally a peaceful people, most of the time failing to rise to the bait laid out by the Zionist military during its ethnic cleansing operations. Pappe records that Ben-Gurion wanted the Palestinians to resist, thereby giving his army an excuse to cleanse them either by killing or by deportation. Palestinians were so docile for the most part that Ben-Gurion ultimately ordered that the cleansing should take place even if there were no provocations by the Arabs. It was only after the nations of the world acceded to Israel’s wishes on taking their land that eventually the Palestinian liberation groups took form. Although Middle East terrorism was invented by the Zionist groups, namely those led by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, (both were elected as Prime Ministers of Israel) terrorism that helped them gain the land they stole from the Palestinians, one only hears about Palestinian resistance, with the United States cooperating by naming the Palestinian resistance groups as “terrorists.”
With respect to Arafat’s declining the so-called offer from Israel to settle the matter, I refer the readers to Clayton Swisher’s well documented account—The Truth About Camp David–of the Camp David and Syrian-Israeli summit meetings in which Prime Minister Barak backed away from agreements he had earlier committed to President Clinton, making the meetings failures. Swisher reports that Dennis Ross, ostensibly a neutral American mediator at the meetings, managed to convince the media that it was the Syrians and the Palestinians who refused these, “excellent offers.”
Arafat knew that if he accepted the deeply flawed offer by Israel, his own people would have killed him. The offer amounted to a complete surrender by the Palestinians.
The benefit of the Mearsheimer-Walt study of the influence of the Lobby on American foreign policy is that hopefully enough Americans will read it so they can convince their representatives in Washington, D.C. to stop enabling Israel’s aggression and brutality. Only when the U.S. stops sending money, arms and giving political support to Israel will that brutality end.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am an Arab American. My parents immigrated to America from South Lebanon, eventually settling in South Dakota on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, where I was born. I was the founder and for many years the Chairman of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
My education on the Middle East did not start at my father’s knee. I began learning about the Arab-Israeli conflict after I took office as a U.S. Representative in 1971. As a U.S. Senator, I made a trip through the Arab Countries in late 1973, after the Arab-Israeli war of that year, meeting with the leaders of all the major Middle East countries, with the exception of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. I visited Egypt but not the other Arab countries in North Africa. I also visited Israel, but it was a short, and very unsatisfying visit.