الخميس، 19 مارس 2009

Is the Israeli Lobby Running Scared?

Is the Israeli Lobby Running Scared?

Or Killing a Chicken to Scare the Monkeys

By Robert Dreyfuss
March 16, 2009


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 resum??: 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

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

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

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

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

"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.

Running Scared

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

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

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.

Robert Dreyfuss is an independent investigative
journalist in Alexandria, Virginia. He is a regular
contributor to Rolling Stone, the Nation, the American
Prospect, Mother Jones, and the Washington Monthly. He
is also the author of Devil's Game: How the United
States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry
Holt/Metropolitan). He writes the Dreyfuss Report blog
for the Nation magazine.

[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a
weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady
flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom
Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder
of the American Empire Project, author of The End of
Victory Culture, and editor of The World According to
Tomdispatch: America in the New Age of Empire.]