Israel's Fraying Image

Israel's Fraying Image

Mini Teaser: There are growing signs of a divergence in American-Israeli relations and interests. 

by Author(s): Jacob Heilbrunn

WHEN THE American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) holds its annual spring meeting in Washington, DC, the organization takes elaborate measures to present a portrait of overwhelming political clout. Huge video screens featuring footage on Israel’s geopolitical perils, thousands of attendees, rousing speeches, a steady stream of Democratic and Republican politicians proclaiming their undying fealty to Israel—all are meant to suggest an irrepressible organization on a roll. This year, as in previous ones, Iran was the dominant topic. “Words alone will not stop Iran,” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the conference by satellite. “Sanctions alone will not stop Iran.” He then admonished his American audience: “Sanctions must be coupled with a clear and credible military threat if diplomacy and sanctions fail.” At the same time, Senator John McCain excoriated the Obama administration for not being sufficiently friendly toward the Jewish state, while Vice President Joe Biden sought to assuage lingering unease about the administration’s stance by declaring that Obama is “not bluffing” when he threatens Iran with military action to forestall its nuclear-weapons development.

But, as AIPAC once again tried ostentatiously to display its influence, distant drumbeats raised new questions about America’s relationship with the Jewish state—and whether AIPAC’s influence is perhaps not always exercised strictly in Israel’s or America’s interest. Washington’s local metro system displayed ads, sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace and the Avaaz advocacy group, that featured various ordinary American Jews denouncing AIPAC as antithetical to peace and not speaking for them. Although such protests by left-wing Jewish organizations may have only slight influence, they reflect a broader reality: Israel’s image seems to be under challenge as never before, in Europe as well as in America.

A number of incidents suggest a cultural shift is emerging that could presage a reexamination of the nature of America’s political ties to Israel. This shift is rooted in a mounting perception that Israel cannot be exempted from culpability for its current predicament; that it is isolating itself from its neighbors in ways that are problematic for itself and for its one staunch ally, America; that its robust and illegal expansion of settlements—including in East Jerusalem, where more than five hundred thousand Israelis live—is inimical to any chance of peace; that its recent initiative to segregate Israelis and Palestinians on separate buses represents just another step toward colonization; and that it must strike out on a new course or risk becoming an international pariah. President Obama did not really deviate from this position during his recent visit to Israel in March. Obama made it clear that America supports Israel, and he brokered renewed diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey. But he also emphasized that it is up to Israelis themselves to take back their country from the retrograde forces that are driving it into the abyss. Obama even went on to take a swipe at Netanyahu and his coterie: “Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must want to create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.” Essentially, Obama was telling Israelis to perform an end run around their own government—to view the conflict not just from their own perspective but also that of the Palestinians.

Obama’s remarks were impassioned, friendly and moving. Their import could not be clearer. He offered both promise and admonition. And in uttering obvious truths, Obama exemplified a broader phenomenon—namely, the crumbling of a longtime taboo in America on criticizing Israel. Glenn Greenwald, writing as a Salon columnist a few years ago, put it starkly when he referred to the “mainstreaming” of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s depiction of a powerful Israel lobby that is undermining American foreign policy. The University of Chicago’s Mearsheimer and Harvard’s Walt—both “considered A-list scholars,” according to NPR—were excoriated in the media in 2006 when they published in the London Review of Books (after the Atlantic , which initially commissioned the piece, declined to publish it) their now-famous article suggesting that the United States frequently subordinates its own interests to the wishes of Israel, in part because of “the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby.” The duo expanded their argument into a book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy , the following year.

Their scholarship unleashed a concerted effort on the part of many academics and journalists to portray the two professors as lurking outside the confines of respectable thought. Johns Hopkins University professor Eliot Cohen flatly labeled the article “anti-Semitic” and a reflection of “bigotry,” while Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz declared Walt and Mearsheimer to be conspiracy theorists as well as anti-Semites. Words such as “smelly,” “nutty” and “oddly amateurish” were bandied about. The aim was to marginalize the authors. The truth is that Walt and Mearsheimer’s book, as a 2007 National Interest symposium noted, did suffer from some serious flaws, including a failure to appreciate that it is possible to side with Israel without being pressured by an Israel lobby. Further, the authors elide any Palestinian responsibility for the failure of the peace process.

Image: Pullquote: Does Israel really want to rely only on the United States, bereft of all other allies, for its security at a moment when Washington’s attentiveness to foreign affairs appears to be waning?Essay Types: Essay