Six Big Lies about How Jerusalem Runs Washington: From the Jewish cabal to the Capitol Hill Knesset, the worst leaps of logic when it comes to Israel, U.S. politics, and the Middle East.
March 23, 2012
Several years after leaving government, I wrote a piece in the Washington Post titled “Israel’s Lawyer.” The article was an honest effort to explain how several senior officials in U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration (myself included) had a strong inclination to see the Arab-Israeli negotiations through a pro-Israel lens. That filter played a role — though hardly the primary one — in the failure of endgame diplomacy, particularly at the ill-fated Camp David summit in July 2000.
Unsurprisingly, the piece was hijacked in the service of any number of agendas, especially by critics of Israel only too eager to use my narrow point about the Clinton years to make their broader one: America had long compromised its own values and interests in the Middle East by its blind and sordid obeisance to the Jewish state and its pro-Israeli supporters in the United States.
Here we go again. Election years seem to bring out the worst — not only in politicians, but in advocates, analysts, and intellectuals too. Nowhere are the leaps and lapses of logic and rationality greater than in the discussion of Israel, the Jews, domestic U.S. politics, and the Middle East. Once again, we’re hearing that a U.S. president is being dragged to war with Iran by a trigger-happy Israeli prime minister and his loyal acolytes in America.
Before we lose our collective minds (again), it might be useful to review some of the myths and misconceptions about domestic U.S. politics and America’s Middle East policies that still circulate all too widely in Europe and the Arab world — and sadly in the United States too. Here are a half-dozen of the worst ones.
1. The White House is Israeli-occupied territory.
The idea that American Jews in collusion with the Israeli government (and, for some time now, evangelical Christians) hold U.S. foreign policy hostage is not only wrong and misleading but a dangerous, dark trope. It coexists with other hateful — and, yes, anti-Semitic — canards about how Jews control the media and the banks, and the world as well. It’s reality distortion in the extreme, with little basis in fact. The historical record just doesn’t support it. Strong, willful presidents who have real opportunities (and smart strategies to exploit them) to promote U.S. interests almost always win out and trump domestic lobbies.
Indeed, when it counts and national interests demand it, presidents who know what they’re doing move forward in the face of domestic pressures and usually prevail. Whether it’s arms sales to the Arabs (advanced fighter jets to Egyptians or AWACS to Saudis) or taking tough positions on Arab-Israeli negotiating issues in the service of agreements (see: Henry Kissinger and the 1973-1975 disengagement agreements with Israel, Egypt, and Syria; President Jimmy Carter, Camp David, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1978 and 1979; and Secretary of State James Baker and the 1991 Madrid peace conference), administrations have their way. The fights can be messy and politically costly, but that doesn’t preclude policymakers from having them.
No U.S. president would pick a fight with a close ally, particularly one that had strong domestic support, without good reason and a clear purpose. To wit, President George H.W. Bush and Baker’s decision to deny the Israelis billions of dollars in housing-loan guarantees because of settlement construction on the eve of the Madrid conference made sense. It sent a powerful signal to the Israelis and Arabs at a critical moment that America meant business. President Barack Obama’s war with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over a settlement freeze didn’t: One was a productive fight with a purpose, and the other was an unproductive one with no strategy. At the end of the day, Obama got the worst of all outcomes: He pissed off the Israelis and the Palestinians, and he got no negotiations and no freeze. That Obama was seen to have backed down in the end only made matters worse, making it appear that he lost his nerve with Netanyahu. Even so, none of this means the Israelis run the White House. Obama’s failure was much a result of a self-inflicted wound.
2. The U.S.-Israel relationship rests on shared values alone.
Israel’s critics believe that without domestic politics, there would be little to the U.S.-Israel special relationship. Israel’s supporters, meanwhile, like to believe that politics has little to do with it. Neither is right. The U.S.-Israel relationship is a curious marriage of shared values, national interests, and domestic politics.
Sure, common values are at the top of the list. There’s no way the bond between Washington and Jerusalem would be as strong and as durable these many years without broad public belief that it was in America’s national interest to support a fellow democracy. These shared values more than anything else — not Israel’s importance as an strategic ally — is the foundation of the bond.
Since 1950, only 22 countries have maintained their democratic character continuously — and Israel’s one of them. That the Jewish people have a very dark history of persecution and genocide and that millions of Americans have powerful religious connections to Israel and the Holy Land has only made the sell easier and the bond stronger.
But let’s not kid ourselves — and activists at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other Jewish organizations don’t. Without the strong vocal support of a unified American Jewish community that brings pressure to bear in Congress, assistance levels to Israel would not be nearly as high as they have been for so long. AIPAC not only assiduously guards the pre-existing pro-Israeli tilt among the American public, but it also defines for much of the Jewish and political establishment what it means to be pro-Israel in America today. Its clout on Capitol Hill sends a powerful message to elected officials, many of whom already share general sympathy with Israel and who have no desire to cross swords with a powerful lobby that might jeopardize what they’ve come to Washington to do: advance their constituents’ interests…