Post Magazine: Is the Israel Lobby Too Powerful?
Monday, July 17, 2006; 12:00 PM
Yesterday in The Washington Post Magazine , Glenn Frankel , a longtime observer and chronicler of the Middle East conflict, posed some difficult questions as he searched for the truth about the influence of the American Israel lobby on politics in Washington and on U.S. foreign policy.
Today, he will be online to field questions and comments.
Glenn Frankel is a Magazine staff writer and a former Jerusalem bureau chief for The Washington Post.
Glenn Frankel: Hi everyone. On a day of continued warfare in Lebanon and Gaza, the question of the Israel lobby's power is as relevant as ever. There's a vast sea of questions and comments, so let's dive right in.
Washington, DC: As a Jewish American with deep connections to Israel, I began your article expecting to be outraged and finished only mildly annoyed. But what has me most upset is the cover art on the magazine itself. The Washington Post gave every anti-semetic organization in the nation their new poster image. It is like something straight out of The Elders of Zion. I expect more from the Post.
Glenn Frankel: I understand your concern but I can't agree with your comment about the cover. Yes, it's a strong image, but if you look at AIPAC's own logo, it's a Star of David with American stripes going through part of it. Symbols do have power, and extremists often seek to hijack them for their own purposes. But that shouldn't stop us from engaging in free expression.
Washington, D.C.: I think one of the most concerning parts of your article is how AIPAC responds to criticism, not with reason but with accusations of anti-Semitism. Have we reached a point where any disagreement with the actions of the Israeli government is tantamount to being anti-Israel or anti-Semitic? That's a dangerous precedent to set.
Glenn Frankel: One of the main complaints of Israel's critics, especialy in America, is that they get branded as anti-Semites by supporters of Israel. The line between legitimate criticism and anti-Semitism is murky: in talking to people on both sides, the only consensus I could see was tat it's okay to say that there's an Israel lobby, that it's influential and certainly to criticize its support for various administrations and Israeli policies. But to depict Israel's American supporters as part of a cabal that secretly dictates U.S. policy and that consciously supports Israeli interests at the expense of American ones begins to imply an international Jewish conspiracy that has anti-Semitic overtones.
Cleveland, Ohio: In your article, you wrote, "The prime minister of Israel was a hard-liner named Yitzhak Shamir, who in pre-independence days was the gun-wielding leader of the smallest and most extreme of militant Zionist factions." How come you did not call Shamir a "terrorist," a "former terrorist," etc? I am sure you see where I am leading with this. Arafat, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc are always called terrorists by the American media, but we never call Israelis the same buzz words that psychologically upset the American citizenry. You reply is appreciated.
Glenn Frankel: The fact is that we in the purported mainstream media, at least at the Washington Post, were careful not to brand Yasser Arafat, et al, as a terrorist. We believe it's best to describe someone's actions as accurately as possible, then let our readers make the conclusion. Some events are clearly designed to provoke terror---especially attacks aimed at purely civilian targets---and there's no doubt that those acts are terroristic. But many others are murkier. Rather than join the debate over who's a freedom fighter versus who's a terrorist, we frequently try to opt for description, and leave the labels to others.
Washington, DC: Would you not say that current events both at home and in the Middle East are making the warnings of our first Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, look wise and prescient. This is from page 477 of "Driven Patriot, the Life and Times of James Forrestal," by Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley:
In the Palestine affair, Forrestal was, along with the entire leadership of the State Department and the military services, concerned with the protection of U.S. interests in the Middle East, which they felt would be seriously jeopardized by American sponsorship of a Jewish state. His innate patriotism led him to believe American Jews would, or should, be U.S. citizens first and thus ready to recognize and support evident national interests. He had always despised his immigrant father's pro-Irish stance and had severed his own residual ties of sentiment to the Old World. This seemed to him the clear civic duty of every American, but he paid dearly for his lack of sophistication on that point. Beyond the substantive issue, he was troubled and alarmed by the messy, sordid, fantastically disordered way in which American policy on Palestine was determined, for he was passionately devoted to orderly process.
Forrestal, -Secretary of State George C.] Marshall, -Under-Secretary of State Robert] Lovett, the State Department, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were all agreed that a war in the Middle East into which American troops might be drawn, loss of Arab friendship, and long-range turbulence in the whole region were too high a price to pay for a Jewish state.
Glenn Frankel: That passage ably sums up the dominant perspective among the foreign policy establishment in 1948. President Truman overrode those views to support the creation of the state of Israel (as did the Soviet Union, incidentally, which voted for the UN resolution creating Israel).
Raleigh, NC: You lightly touched upon the diversity of opinion vis-a-vis Israeli policy within the American Jewish community which seemed to create the impression that most Jews were in line with AIPAC marching orders. Far from being true! Take Amy Goodman and Chomsky for example. In Israel the debate is more robust. I suspect AIPAC applies its pressure on such jewish individuals and groups whose efforts contradict AIPAC's.
Glenn Frankel: You're absolutely correct that there's a broad range of opinion in the American Jewish community, and many polls suggest the community as a whole is more liberal than the Jewish establishment and the Israel lobby. I touched on the subject briefly, but it's worthy of an entire article itself.
Washington, DC: Why did you cite the harsh comments by Alan Dershowitz but ignore his substantive critique as well as critiques by scholars (like Benny Morris) who Walt and Mearsheimer quote with approval?
Glenn Frankel: I interviewed Alan Dershowitz, Abe Foxman of the Anti Defamation League and many other critics of the piece, as well as many supporters, and they all helped me come to my own analysis and conclusions. As usual, I wound up with tons more material than I culd possibly use, and I felt that for the purposes of the piece, the critical remarks of Michael Oren, Shai Feldman, Dennis Ross, etc. were the most useful. Another writer might have made different choices. I'll post below some of Benny Morris's comments, as offered by another respondent.
Washington, D.C.: Did you consider the criticism of the Mearsheimer-Walt article written by noted Israeli historian Benny Morris? Morris, one of the critical "new historians" of Israel, focuses on the inept scholarship of the M-W article, "a nasty piece of work."
Writing in the May 8 issue of the New Republic, Morris calls the piece a "travesty of the history that I have studied and written for the past two decades. Their work is riddled with shoddiness and defiled by mendacity. Were -the article] an actual person, I would have to say that he did not have a single honest bone in his body."
At the end of his 7 page article , Morris writes that "the 'facts' presented by -the authors] suggest a fundamental ignorance of the history with which they deal, and that the 'evidence' they deploy is so tendentious as to be evidence only of an acute bias."
If M and W's venture into history is such an embarrassment, how can readers take seriously their "analysis" of the so-called Israel lobby today? Don't they deserve Morris's comparison of them to pro-Arab propagandists?
Glenn Frankel: Here are the Morris comments.
Karachi, Pakistan: I read your article yesterday and the comment about the article was an enquiry of your own view whether this Israeli influence (and it is quite strong) is good or bad for USA. Another point that I have always seen in similar articles is the human element where writers/columnists (like you) miss out (or are forced to miss out) the loss of thusands of human lives because of this influence in the middle east. America is the only country which vetoes all resolutions in UN against Israel and that is true because of this influence. The result is a continuous loss of human lives (mostly on the Palestinian front) in the region. Therefore this influence is directly responsible for loss of innocent civilians (including children) who lose their lives because of Israeli atrocities. The number of human deaths is disjointly in favor of Palestinians. Please elaborate this human element in your articles when you write on similar topics.
Glenn Frankel: A perspective from a reader in an important Muslim country.
Rockville, Md: Why does this discussion on "the influence of the Israel lobby" seem to ignore the tangible benefits aiding Israel brings to the US. Israel is the first line of the defense in the "War against Terror." Israel's aid is a bargain in that provides tremendous benefits to both the United States and Israel. Aid to Israel maintains the deterrence strength of our reliable ally and projects American power without risking U.S. soldiers. Why is this not being mentioned as, at least, a part of the story? America would not act to support Israel if it wasn't for the benefits America receives for this support. No country supports another country or interest, no matter how powerful an interest lobby, if it doesn't support some tangible self-interests. Walt and Mearshimmer simply ignored this by claiming that supporting Israel does not serve American interests but that statement was not justified and is easily falsiable (in scientific terms) and refutable.
Glenn Frankel: Here's another perspective, from a reader much closer to home.
Fairfax, Va: A general comment about a less-than-forthrightly journalistic device: Whenever a journalist does not have the facts to support an assertion, the easy way out is to put it in the form of a question ("Is the Washington Post Too Cowardly to Take a Stand?"). Would you, Mr. Frankel, have published this piece under the headline "The Israel Lobby Is Too Powerful!"? If not, what does that tell us?
Glenn Frankel: Less than forthright? (There I go, using question marks again) I set out to ask the question, got a variety of compelling answers, and published the results. What I didn't do was write a screed or an op ed piece that endorsed or condemned Israel and its American supporters. There are plenty of places you can go to read that kind of piece. Successfuly or not, I was trying to do something else.
Baltimore, Md: what i find disconcerting about your piece was not the article -- i thought that it was fairly neutral and balanced - but its timing. I belive that one motivating factor of the recent Islamist violence is an attempt to turn American opinion against Israel in the face of upcoming election. (By pulling Israel into conflict against defenseless civilians.) And I believe that Walt and Co. share the same animus. The publication of your piece about something that occurred a while back could not have had a more unfortunate timing, as it plays perfectly into the hand of the "cabalists" who scream "world domination" at every turn at a time that Israeli military strength is disproportionately portrayed by the world media.
Glenn Frankel: The magazine has a three-week lead time between the time we finish editing a piece and when it actually appears on your doorstep. Which is why my piece makes no mention of the current warfare. But I would argue that this is the correct time for a discussion of all these matters. Tragic news events sometimes put everything in a stark, new perspective. Those fighting the war are preoccupied and overwhelmed. But those of us sitting on the sidelines can be talking, debating, and thinking about why the Middle East is exploding again and what role we have played and ought to play.
unbelievable!: To the reader that wrote:
Why does this discussion on "the influence of the Israel lobby" seem to ignore the tangible benefits aiding Israel brings to the US. Israel is the first line of the defense in the "War against Terror."
Right, what benefits do we get again? The terror is a result of our support for Israel. Anyone with an open mind understands that. Why do Islamic miltants not go after Japan or Canada? I assure you if the U.S. left the mid east all together and let Israel fend for itself our country would be much better off and we wouldn't have to ever worry about terrorism again.
Glenn Frankel: Another perspective. I can;t help but ask, however: the 2003 bombings in Morocco, the 2004 train bombings in Spain, the bombings of night clubs in Indonesia, and, for that matter, the 2005 London train bombings: Can all of these be laid at Israel's door? (yes, I know, more question marks).
Bethesda, Md: Glenn, your article was even-handed and insightful. I can't say the same thing about the cover headline, however.
There are two issues here:
(1)Should American foreign policy toward Israel be modified? This is an entirely legitimate question and deserves ongoing and robust debate.
(2)Is the pro-Israel lobby somehow different than any other lobby trying to influence the U.S. government? The answer, as I think the article pretty much demonstrates, is no. Unfortunately, the headline used to market an otherwise excellent article compounds the problem by continuing to advance the possibility that the pro-Israel lobby is somehow different than other political lobbies.
What troubles me about the Post Magazine's cover headline and what I and many found offensive about the Walt-Mearsheimer article was the suggestion that the pro-Israel lobby (ominously termed "The Lobby" by Walt and Mearsheimer)was somehow sinister and unsavory. The unfair impression created by the Walt-Mearsheimer article was reinforced by the authors' distortion of quotes and by their periodic use of discredited sources to make their case, as pointed out by Alan Dershowitz and others.
Especially troubling was Walt and Mearsheimer's redefinition of the identity of the pro-Israel lobby mid-way through the piece, by incorrectly equating all supporters of Israel with the members of the Bush Administration who favored war in Iraq. This tactic might lead many readers to believe that the Jewish community pushed America into Iraq-- a fallacy unsupported by the actual data, which shows that the American Jewish community was slightly less supportive of the war in Iraq than the American public as a whole.
The tragedy of the Walt-Mearsheimer piece is that it has been embraced by David Duke and other anti-Semites as an excuse for additional anti-Jewish canards. I hope that the Post's headline is not used in a similar way.
I do not believe that Walt and Mearsheimer are anti-Semitic and have had a cordial correspondence with Professor Walt detailing my concerns about his article. That said, it is unfortunate to hang policy debate on America's stand on Israel on the highly flawed Walt-Mearsheimer piece.
I urge the Post's readers to separate the question of whether U.S. Middle East policy is appropriate from unfair portrayals of pro-Israel lobbyists and the American Jewish community. Sadly, headlines such as that accompanying the Post Magazine article do nothing to draw this crucial distinction.
Glenn Frankel: Thanks for that strong critique. My belief was that the headline raised the relevant questions and then the piece atempted to present the answers that I gathered.
Dubai, UAE: Hello Mr. Frankel,
First I'd like to thank you for a well-written, insightful article. I am a Palestinian-American who can see exactly how much of my hard-earned tax dollars go to support Israel. I believe this is hugely against American interests. How do you explain to people who see American-made missiles, jet fighters, helicopter gunships, bullets kill their own (mostly innocent) family members or demolish their homes - that we (Americans) are an 'honest-broker' in the peace process? These hegemonous actions create desperation and extremism. Most Palestinians/Arabs and Muslims view Israel as the US's 51st state and this is in no way in our interest. Will our leaders ever see the 'other side' and how much of the time supporting Israel does not benefit the US?
With our increasing support we seem to reduce our security (and popularity) around the world... Just my $0.02. Thx.
Glenn Frankel: Another strong perspective, from someone with a personal stake.
Washington, DC: Mr. Frankel:
John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's thesis, first published in the London Review of Books, is that the pro-Israel lobbying organs such as AIPAC have a disproportionate amount of influence on U.S. foreign policy, even at the expense of U.S. national interests, but purposefully disavows any possible comparison to supremacists' fantasies of "Elders of Zion" paranoia and other garbage.
Mearsheimer and Walt's line of argument was picked up by Foreign Policy magazine, in which the authors clarify that their "goal was to break the taboo and to generate a candid discussion of U.S. support for Israel," while opponents to their thesis, say Shlomo Ben-Ami, say that "petitioning the government in favor a given foreign policy is the not the same as manufacturing it". Fair enough.
And in response, the authors say that they "are critical of some Israeli policies" and "categorically support Israel's existence," adding that "the lobby's influence harms U.S. and Israeli interests." Any racist, anti-Semite or whoever of that persuasion would just reject Israel's existence and not at all be content with simply criticizing state policy, which is something for reasonable people to do.
Certainly, the U.S.-Israel relationship is worth talking about, as is the U.S.-Egypt relationship; the U.S. gives the same block of aid for similar security arrangements to that state, too. Does raising that question therefore become tarred as anti-Egyptian?
To add, I think most people support the idea of a democratic Middle East, in which Israel has remained precariously positioned as the sole reservoir of representative government. Yet all states deserve criticism if they are to be held to account for deviations from their peoples' ideals.
So, in light of what you've researched and what Mearsheimer et al actually said, Why do AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) equate criticism of Israeli state policy, or in this case that and the connections to the U.S. foreign policy establishment, with anti-Semitism? Such thinking sounds, at very best, spurious.
Glenn Frankel: Some of the critics of the Walt-Mearsheimer essay raised the anti-Semitiasm charge, while others simply argued that the essay was mistaken in its claims, assumptions, definitions, etc. All I'd add: given the fact that the two sides supporting Israel and the Palestinians believe they are involved in an existential struggle, it's not surprising that each attempts to invoke history, symbols and language to support their cause. The anti-semitism charge is a powerful weapon and some of israel's supporters are quick to use it.
Philadelphia, Pa: Why were there no Arab-American or pro-Arab lobbyists quoted in the article? Why was there an omission of the relentless pressure the pro-Israeli lobby mounts against the media, including against the Washington Post in the 1980's and 1990's? NPR has recently taken special steps as a result of the relentless pressure from this lobby. Why no mention?
Glenn Frankel: I only had 8,000 words! I did mention the recent campaign against NPR. I was the Post's Jerusalem bureau chief for part of the 1980s and worked on the foreign desk during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and I can testify personally that passions were high and the criticism was intense from both sides. I don't mean to excuse some of the unfair and hateful things that were said, but I do believe that a large part of our value as a mainstream newspaper is that we reported as fairly and evenhandedly as we could, despite the intense pressure. Scott Wilson and Anthony Shadid, my successors both in Jerusalem and Beirut, continue to do so, bravely, today.
Re: unbelievable!: To the writer who brings up the old canard that the terrorists attack us because we support Israel: Do you honestly believe Osama & Co. would say, "Go ahead West, live in peace you sold out Israel."?
This is where everyone gets pulled in by the most simplistic and misleading rhetoric. These people are against the West and they don't like what we do in their countries. I'm not saying they're justified in that, but it's naive to believe that Israel is the cause of all these problems. They use the Israel line because it's an easy way to tap into anger and because they know people will buy it. What a useful way to deflect anger from your own regime's misdeeds - blame Israel.
Glenn Frankel: I've received dozens and dozens more comments and not much time left, so I'll post a variety without much comment on my part.
Washington, D.C.: I enjoyed reading your article precisely because it asked more questions than it answered.
The bottom line is this: the US-Israel relationship is costing the US money, lives, and reputation. Some would argue that it's worth it, as Israel is a true democracy in danger of being destroyed by hostile Arab neighbors. I would disagree. But regardless, your article indicates that it's open for discussion, that Israel shouldn't take our support for granted (just as ANY ally shouldn't take our support for granted).
Glenn Frankel: Another perspective.
Anonymous: Mr. Frankel,
You write above, "What I didn't do was write a screed or an op ed piece that endorsed or condemned Israel and its American supporters." I would agree that your piece isn't a screed--but rhetoric such as, "On Capitol Hill the Israel lobby commands large majorities in both the House and Senate" suggests your piece is less than objective. The Israel lobby does not "command" anyone in Congress any more the the Elders of Zion "rule" the world.
Glenn Frankel: You're reading too much into one verb. Command can mean to give an order to, but it also means "to deserve and get."
Washington, D.C.: Correction and Comments by Morris J. Amitay
Glenn, the PAC that I founded and run is the Washington Political Action Committee, not the "Washington Public Affairs Council" as cited in your article, which may or may not exist. The Washington PAC is one of approximately 4,000 PACs currently operating, which represent a plethora of interests and support federal candidates of all stripes.
The whole premise of the existence of an all powerful pro-Israel "lobby" is almost laughable if one examines U.S. policies in the Middle East for the past 60 years. These policies have invariably been more "even-handed" than Israel critics Walt and Mearsheimer allege. A secure Israel continues to be in the best interests of the United States. This is reflected in the strong support Israel continues to earn from the American people and by large majorities of both parties in the U.S. Congress.
Shared values, a commitment to civil society, and real democracy, and facing common foes and threats make for the close U.S.-Israel relationship. These are the factors which guide American policies, not the supposed inordinate power of American citizens exercising their constitutional rights. At times, I wish that the power and influence attributed to the pro-Israel community were indeed true.
My comments above constitute "the critical letter to the editor" I promised at the end of our interview. I would not be surprised if you receive a large number of responses to your piece.
Stay in touch,
Glenn Frankel: I knew I'd hear from Morris Amitay. I'll check into his complaint as soon as this chat ends.
Atlanta, Ga: Thank you for your article. The reactions to the original paper, both from the authors and their critics, are very revealing, and your effort was nicely balanced, a difficult feat for anyone writing about the Middle East. You mentioned that some believe the "Israel Lobby" is harming this country by their efforts. Did some of the folks you talked to think it was harming Israel? I'm wondering how Israel can survive in the long run (say the next 100 years) if they just keep punishing the Arabs. I grew up in the rural South 60 years ago, I'm white, and I can testify to the way an ancient grievance can drive a community to throw away chances for peace and prosperity. Israeli Arabs have much more to complain about than white Southern Americans. What will Israel do when the Jewish percentage of their country falls to 50% or lower? Bismarck was able to create the modern German state in part by encouraging France to quarrel with all the other great powers of the time. Will Israel's dismissal of world opinion outside of North America as anti-Semitic doom it in the long run?
Glenn Frankel: There are a number of Israelis who argue that the Israel lobby's unequivocal support of their government has been harmful to the country's long-range interests. The majority of Israelis would passionately argue that they need that support.
Anchorage, Alaska: It seems that there has been a pervasive over support of Israel in the US Congress and the executive branch. In fact our own politician are less critical of Israel than the policies and politicians of our own country.
Do you think that this blind support, that goes far beyond supporting the sane notion of Isarel's right to exist is actually harming the middle east situation and US intersets there? In other words by not holding Israel acountable and only blaming the Arabs for atrocities and indescriminate attacks are we making things worse and dimming the prospect for peace and security?
Glenn Frankel: Another perspective.
McLean, Va: Why do think any criticism of Israel and its policies automoatically brands the critic an anti-Semite? Is it truly impossible to have a clear-headed discussion devoid of such name-calling? Why would the same type of critical look at any other country's lobbying efforts not elicit the same defense mechanism? We're long past a time when this country needs to look dispassionately at our foreign policy and how it has been influenced by the agenda of others. Yes, we can have some compatible goals, but ultimately we are a SEPARATE country from Israel with our own national interest to look after. Just because a policy is good for Israel DOES NOT mean it is good for the U.S. Why is this statement heresy?
Glenn Frankel: And another.
Sanibel, Fla: Congratulations on an excellent piece. As a former Hill and White House staffer (and lobbyist), I knew I.L. ("Sy") Kennen and Morrie Amitay. From its very beginning, both Sy and Morrie understood the power of truly committed "grass roots" support. Today's $20 billion DC lobby industry runs on dollars and paid-for "access." Amitay could take them all to school.
Glenn Frankel: And another.
Chantilly, Va: Thank you for your thoughtful piece in Sunday's Magazine. One sensitive issue you do not really touch on is the concept of a group of American citizens forming powerful lobbying groups on behalf of a foreign country. Few of us can actually trace our roots to the original inhabitants of this country and therefore find ourselves with different national origins in our genes. I am proud of my family's heritage tracing its roots to both sides of the often inflammatory issues in Ireland. I am an American with only a passing interest in the politics of Ireland. Why does this seem to differ with many Jewish folks?
Glenn Frankel: It's not only Jews who form ethnic lobbies to support their homeland. Cypriots, Indians, Turks, Greks, Armenians, Latvians, etc. etc. have all done the same, with varying amounts of success. Indeed, those in favor of a united Ireland have also lobbied had over the years. In Israel's case, the fact that it's a relatively new country in a volatile region and has fought at least a half dozen wars beginning with its birth is clearly one factor mobilizing its supporters here.
Ohio: First of all, I would like to thank you for writing an insightful article on a subject that seriously needs to be discussed openly and without fear.
How is AIPAC regarded by younger generations of Jewish-Americans? My husband and his colleagues (who are thirty-something Jewish-Americans) believe that organizations like AIPAC and WZO are no longer relevent to them and tend to hold a dim view of them politically, regardless of what goes on in Israel. What are your observations?
Glenn Frankel: AIPAC's working hard on college campuses to develop a new generation of supporters. Its leaders say they are aware that the group has been branded as moving too far to the right and are seeking to appear more mainstream and bipartisan. I can't cite you specific data, but polls over the years have suggested that many younger American Jews are losing their link and sense of identification with Israel. This is a matter of great concern for the American jewish establishment, whose ties to Israel are close.
Glenn Frankel: Thanks for participating and for at least being willing to listen to my hasty and not always thoughtful replies.
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