Comment Is the Israel Lobby Doing More Harm Than Good?

Israel lobbyists are now trying to stifle criticism of Israel and the IDF even within the local media.

Three years ago I was invited, along with 30 other guests - mainly politicians and journalists - to a private dinner party given by one of Britain's richest Jews at a Jerusalem hotel. After a mediocre steak and some fantastic wine, we were addressed by our host. The British media were a disgrace, he told us, "real Goebbels-style." Their coverage of the Second Lebanon War had totally ruined his summer holiday. And the British politicians, many of whom he had donated to in the past, were with few exceptions "all pusillanimous hypocrites" who had criticized Israel's "disproportionate" response to Hezbollah's attacks.

What was needed, he said, was a new "crack team" of media specialists to be based in London, to compile information, brief journalists and prepare instant responses to all the mendacious lies issued by the hostile press. He expected us all to applaud and congratulate him on his visionary idea, which he assured us he was willing to fund handsomely. Some did applaud, whether out of agreement or sycophancy, but he was perplexed when he discovered that not all of us were so certain that the war had been Israel's finest hour. How could we be giving succor to Israel's haters, he asked.

The millionaire flew back to England on his private jet and to the best of my knowledge his media attack team was never formed. "With the price of a meal, he bought you as a captive audience for three hours," said a friend familiar with these events. "He does the same thing back home every month and gives the same speech. The politicians all come because they know there's a good chance they will get a check out of it for their campaigns."

Last year I saw it happening on British soil. I covered the Conservative Party convention in Birmingham and attended a luncheon organized by the Conservative Friends of Israel in a room packed with senior party members and donors. Upon hearing I was an Israeli journalist, the shadow minister I was seated next to launched into an off-the-record attack on Conservative Leader David Cameron for being "much too wishy-washy about Israel," instead of supporting it outright. For all public and political purposes, my lunch companion is a staunch Cameron ally, but he obviously assumed that as an Israeli at a Conservative Friends event, that's what I expected to hear from him.

Having had these and other brief glimpses of the pro-Israel lobby in Britain, I was intrigued by the title of the documentary on Channel 4 this week - "Inside Britain's Israel Lobby" - and bitterly disappointed after watching it.

You'd have to be particularly ill-informed to be surprised that well-connected, pro-Israeli groups try to lobby the main British political parties and that wealthy individuals connected to such groups donate large sums to the parties and many members of Parliament. It's also well known that they also fly many MPs over to Israel on fact-finding visits and that some believe that this influences these politicians' attitudes and their parties' policies regarding Israel and the Middle East conflict. Hardly surprising.

Aside from this, the program's host and producer, Peter Oborne, had so little new information he had to dedicate a third of the show to a description of how pro-Israel organizations monitor the British media, generating massive email- writing campaigns over any criticism of Israel, often portraying these as anti-Semitic. Nothing really new there, either.

Oborne used the classic follow-the-money tactic, but as he had to admit at the end of the program, he'd failed to discover any evidence of a conspiracy or illegality.

But the real problem with today's Israel lobby, in Britain and the United States, is not with its finances and their lack of transparency but with its entire mind-set. The basic fact is that by its actions, the lobby is now causing Israel more harm than good. That's the point Oborne almost totally missed. On every level - moral, political, diplomatic, economic, military and religious - this country is being rapidly corrupted and damaged by the continuing occupation of the West Bank. By granting blanket support to all policies of whatever Israeli government happens to be in power, and by branding critics of these policies as either self-hating Jews or anti-Semites, they're contributing to Israel's siege mentality and delaying the day when Israelis will finally realize that there's only one practical and ethical alternative.

In this sense at least, Oborne was right to make the connection between the political lobbying and the relentless pressure on the media which has totally blurred the lines between legitimate criticism and real bias. These knee-jerk reactions to any form of criticism have become so second nature to the Israel lobbyists that they're now trying to stifle debate even within the Israeli media. Their shrill reactions to the eyewitness accounts of soldiers who fought in Gaza and were brave enough to say that the IDF did not always act there as "the most moral army in the world" are a good example.

We are at a pivotal point. The rise of the right in Israel's last election does not signal that the voters are opposed to territorial compromise and a two-state solution. On the contrary, polls consistently show a clear majority of Israelis favoring this outcome, but they seem to prefer a right-wing prime minister to carry out a leftist policy. In effect, Israelis voted for Benjamin Netanyahu hoping that he'd go against his party's manifesto. All the signs point to a prime minister on the brink of a decision. He could take the plunge or he could retreat back into his ideological and political comfort zone. International pressure will play a major role in persuading him to make a necessary decision, but the message emanating from the Israel lobby is that should he decide to hold out and play for time, he will continue to receive their unreserved support.

Such support could prolong Israel's procrastination - with deadly consequences.