Sunday, April 12, 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 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 resumé: 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 story.


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 "fanatic."


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 hearing.


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 views."


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 bluntly:


"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 again."


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, Glenn Greenwald in his

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 with."


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.


This article first appeared on, 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.

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