The July 16 Magazine cover story about U.S.-Israeli relations misstated the names of two organizations: The PAC founded by Morris Amitay is the Washington Political Action Committee, and CAMERA stands for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. The article also incorrectly said that historian Michael Oren received his PhD from Hebrew University in Jerusalem; it was actually Princeton University in New Jersey.
A Beautiful Friendship?
All David Ben-Gurion wanted was 15 minutes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's time.
Israel's founding father, one of the indomitable political leaders of the 20th century, came to Washington in December 1941 yearning to present the case for a Jewish state directly to the American president. He took a two-room suite at the old Ambassador Hotel at 14th and K for $1,000 a month and cooled his heels for 10 weeks, writing letters and reports and making passes at Miriam Cohen, his attractive American secretary. But Ben-Gurion didn't get the meeting. Not then, not ever. Not even a pair of presidential cuff links.
Now let's fast-forward 64 years to late May and a news conference in the East Room of the White House. That tall, freckled, slightly nervous-looking man with the rust-colored hair standing alongside President Bush at matching lecterns is Ehud Olmert, 12th prime minister of Israel. The two leaders and their advisers have just spent two hours together in the Oval Office. Bush is reaffirming the "deep and abiding ties between Israel and the United States" and praising Olmert's "bold ideas" and commitment to peace. Afterward, they'll adjourn for a private session without aides or note-takers and then go to dinner together. And the next day Olmert will address a joint session of Congress, whose members will interrupt his speech with 16 standing ovations. Ben-Gurion, whose remains rest in a simple grave overlooking the Negev Desert, would be stunned.
It's not that Olmert is a more commanding figure than Ben-Gurion. Far from it. No, it's about power. And not just Israeli power. It's really about the perceived power of the Israel lobby, a collection of American Jewish organizations, campaign contributors and think tanks -- aided by Christian conservatives and other non-Jewish supporters -- that arose over the second half of the 20th century and that sees as a principle goal the support and promotion of the interests of the state of Israel.
Thanks to the work of the lobby and its allies, Israel gets more direct foreign aid -- about $3 billion a year -- than any other nation. There's a file cabinet somewhere in the State Department full of memoranda of understanding on military, diplomatic and economic affairs. Israel gets treated like a NATO member when it comes to military matters and like Canada or Mexico when it comes to free trade. There's an annual calendar full of meetings of joint strategic task forces and other collaborative sessions. And there's a presidential pledge, re-avowed by Bush in the East Room, that the United States will come to Israel's aid in the event of attack.
On Capitol Hill the Israel lobby commands large majorities in both the House and Senate. Polls show strong public support for Israel -- a connection that has grown even deeper after the September 11 attacks. The popular equation goes like this: Israelis equal good guys, Arabs equal terrorists. Working the Hill these days, says Josh Block, spokesman for the premier Israeli lobbying group known as AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, "is like pushing at an open door."
Not everyone believes this is a good thing. In March two distinguished political scientists -- Stephen Walt from Harvard and John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago -- published a 42-page, heavily footnoted essay arguing that the Bush administration's support for Israel and its related effort to spread democracy throughout the Middle East have "inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized U.S. security."
The professors claim that our intimate partnership with Israel is both dangerous and unprecedented. "Other special interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest," they argue. They go on to say that the war in Iraq "was due in large part to the Lobby's influence," and that the same combine is "using all of the strategies in its playbook" to pressure the administration into being aggressive and belligerent with Iran. The bottom line: "Israel's enemies get weakened or overthrown, Israel gets a free hand with the Palestinians, and the United States does most of the fighting, dying, rebuilding and paying."
A sweet deal for Israel, in other words, but a very bad one for America.
Some of the lobby's critics hailed the essay as a much-needed breath of fresh air and praised Walt and Mearsheimer for their courage and -- dare we say it -- chutzpah. Their paper, wrote antiwar activist and media critic Norman Solomon in the Baltimore Sun, "is prying the lid off a debate that has been bottled up for decades."
But the two professors knew they were treading on delicate ground. For generations, the idea of a cabal of powerful Jews hijacking the national interest for its own purposes has fueled anti-Semitism around the world. Supporters of Israel argued that the essay echoed those claims.
Alan Dershowitz, author, lawyer, celebrity and Harvard professor, said the essay is rife with "bigoted comments" and "the smell of singling out Jews and singling out Israel." Abraham Foxman, longtime director of the Anti-Defamation League, told me the paper