By Philip Weiss
Six years ago when Walt and Mearsheimer published their landmark paper on the Israel lobby and U.S. foreign policy in the London Review of Books, I thought there was going to be a vigorous democratic debate of their assertions, including a lot of investigative reporting on campaign donations. I ran around my house shooting off an imaginary six-gun and shouting, It’s high noon! Boy was I wrong. It didn’t happen then– no, the two prestigious professors got smeared as anti-Semites.
But it’s happening now.
Today Tom Friedman writes, “I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Echoing Walt and Mearsheimer’s phrase, he upped the ante on his statement a few weeks back that a “powerful pro-Israel lobby” holds Obama “hostage” on settlements. The other day Andrew Sullivan had a big post about whether the lobby is Jewish or if Christian Zionism is at its core. (Sullivan and Spencer Ackerman said Christians’ Jeffrey Goldberg said, No it’s Jews, and Goldberg is right. One proof: When has Obama or the Democratic Party ever cared what rightwing Christians had to say about abortion? Yes and why are Steve Israel and Debbie Wasserman Schultz Democratic fundraising principals?)
Another item: the Center for American Progress this week stood by journalists who are critical of Israel despite a smear campaign by a former AIPAC staffer. That staffer’s own fancy appointments are now at risk; and even a lobby stalwart, Lanny Davis, is calling for open debate of our Israel policy.
And New Yorker editor David Remnick, who scoffed at Mearsheimer and Walt back in ’07, has lambasted the Republican “panderfest” in an interview with one Israeli journalist and in another interview with an Israeli averred that American Jews are no longer going to be “a nice breakfast at the Regency” sustaining the Israeli occupation. I think we can count on Remnick to publish investigative pieces about the lobby in months to come.
So why did it take so long for the media to surround this whale of a story? And will the men who threw the harpoon ever get the credit?
The answer to the first question is that the Walt and Mearsheimer criticism was a radical one, in that it upended the entire media establishment. It accused these journalists of going along with the occupation and going along with the Iraq war plans because of the influence of the Israel lobby in their ranks. Why were these same journalists going to pat them on the back for developing a theory of their own corruption? No way.
What has happened in the last six years is that the political-journalistic establishment has at last split in the way that Walt and Mearsheimer and J Street wanted it to split. There are finally two sides over the occupation. One side is for Greater Israel, the other side is against the settlements. And the Republican Party is almost completely on the Greater Israel side. Having the Republican Party as an antagonist is something good liberal meritocratic journalists like Tom Friedman and David Remnick want. Both these men can say with some honor that they are against the settlement enterprise. And many other journalists will join them, including I am sure, Hardball commentators Howard Fineman and David Corn. Eric Alterman has been there for a long time. So has Peter Beinart. Jeffrey Goldberg has also sometimes come out hard against the settlers (sometimes not).
The struggle that Walt and Mearsheimer and J Street called for– to give Obama support in opposing the settlements– is at last forming inside the Establishment. The issue will surely arise in the presidential campaign, and if Obama wins, he will come out against settlements bigtime.
All those prominent journalists I named who will take this issue on are Jewish, and that’s another part of the Walt and Mearsheimer thesis that made them rejectable. The authors made the horrible mistake of not being Jewish. Many brave honest Jews came to their side, including Tony Judt, Jerome Slater, Uri Avnery, Jack Ross, and M.J. Rosenberg, but our pack was not very big, we weren’t the establishment, we were not the conferrers of prestige and conventional wisdom; and branded by Jeffrey Goldberg and Richard Haass, the Walt and Mearsheimer thesis was regarded as a discussion of Jewish influence. As someone who believes that Jews are highly influential, I had no problem with this part of the thesis, but it made Establishment Jews uncomfortable. Bill Kristol seemed actually fearful of the argument. Dana Milbank at the Washington Post smeared Walt and Mearsheimer by saying they were white-knuckled and had Germanic names.
The sad inescapable truth was that the Jewish establishment was monolithically supportive of Israel, and that included journalists. As Alan Dershowitz said, American Jews regarded it as their sacred mission in the wake of the Holocaust to protect Jewish lives in Israel. At AIPAC, Chuck Schumer bragged that his name means Guardian in Hebrew, and he was Israel’s guardian.
And that has been the most significant change of the last six years. Maybe because their own children are rejecting Israel, maybe because Israel has swung so far right and crazy, maybe because of Gaza, the Jewish establishment has at last shown some diversity on the Israel/Palestine issue. And no one can say, as they could a few years ago, “The Jews support Israel.” No, American Jews are finally having the beginnings of an open conversation. We’ve seen this at the grassroots with many synagogue debates– replacing debates that used to take place at Lutheran churchs, featuring excommunicated Jews. In the weeks and months to come we are going to see more and more angry political clashes between pro-occupation Jews and anti-occupation Jews. And this Jewish diversity will license the media to take the issue on. Already this morning Elliott Abrams has gone haywire against Tom Friedman, saying he’s talking about the “Jewish lobby.” Memo to Chris Matthews: you have political cover from Jews.
We are also going to see prominent Jews oppose the Iran attack plans, and other prominent Jews support the Iran attack, on the ground of the American people’s interests. These Jews will thereby wave a wand and disappear the most embarrassing aspect of the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis: Jewish organizations and journalists lined up to support the Iraq war, surely in some measure because they regarded it as ensuring Israel’s security (Saddam was funding suicide bombers, Israel’s war is our war). Now many of the journalists who supported the Iraq war a long time ago can come out righteously against the war on Iran, and feel like leaders.
The issue is being stripped of the monolithic-Jewish-influence-and-confused-loyalty analysis and at last becoming another American debate, hard-core Zionists versus liberal Zionists. Newt on one side, Tom Friedman on the other.
And that’s the problem. Let’s be clear, Walt and Mearsheimer were once liberal Zionists. They believed in the need for a Jewish state and the right of Israel to be that place, and their article and book were designed to save both the American interest but also the Israeli one, to preserve a Jewish majority behind the 1949 Green Line. Jimmy Carter too. They all mounted their arguments five and six years ago, trying to save the two state solution. And they were ignored. Walt and Mearsheimer were smeared as the latter-day Protocols, their book never reviewed in the New York Review of Books. While Terry Gross and Wolf Blitzer were all over Jimmy Carter for using the word apartheid. Bad boy. When Charney Bromberg and Stephen Robert, two good Jews, have used that word openly– Robert in a landmark Nation piece, Apartheid on Steroids.
But history doesn’t sit on a bench whittling. No it’s a horse running by the window, as some Zionist leader used to say. And the refusal by the media to take on a serious argument when it was framed, urgently, means that when historians ask Who lost Israel? they will have to look at the American media. So much has changed in Israel and Palestine and the Arab world, I don’t think John Mearsheimer believes in a two-state solution any more. The guy is a realist, he’s been to the West Bank. Realism has brought Daniel Levy to urge J Street to at least talk about a single state, and realism has brought Peter Beinart to call for voting rights for Palestinians under the unending occupation.
As the two-state paradigm dies, the battle between liberal Zionists and hardcore Zionists, in essence another scene in the Israel lobby rondelet, is going to fade away into larger and deeper questions: Why is there a need for a Jewish state when western Jews are faring so well in liberal democracies? Why should western Jews devote so much political energy to a militant discriminatory country that they would hate to live in themselves, as a majority let alone a minority? By what right do we maintain the American commitment to a faroff Jewish homeland if it means that promising young men like Mustafa Tamimi have to be murdered because they dedicated their lives to the right of an occupied village to have access to its water supply? The Arab spring means Palestine too.
In short, the question of the Israel lobby will at last morph into questions of Jewish political identity. And because we are so influential in American politics, inevitably, this will become a conversation about how Jews see our role in western society. Are we safe here? And why, daddy, did you support those endless wars in the Middle East?
As to the second question at the start of this piece, I don’t think Walt and Mearsheimer will ever get the credit they deserve. People are vain, even strivers in the Establishment who you’d think have secure ego structures. They don’t like being told that they are wrong, they don’t like having their motives questioned, they don’t like having to own up to a stupid decision on the most important question of their time (Iraq). No. They want the Iraq war to fade over the horizon.
They love these new battle lines on settlements and Iran that allow them to be righteous. They like to be at the head of the parade!
Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.
Thanks to Peter Voskamp, Scott McConnell, Mike Desch and Alex Kane for help on this post.