WASHINGTON - Even if the United States had five CIA's, it would not be able to get the high-quality information it received from Israel. That's what General George Keegan, a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence chief, said in 1986, in the midst of the Cold War.
"The ability of the U.S. Air Force in particular, and the army in general, to defend whatever position it has in NATO owes more to the Israeli intelligence input than it does to any single source of intelligence," he said.
This is a winning quote, dropped into the battle that will shortly break out once more over the nature of the strategic relationship between Israel and the United States. Those who argue that Israel is weighing down the superpower will have to contend with the general's statements. That comment and many similar ones appear in a new position paper published by Dore Gold, the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and political adviser to then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who now heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Gold recently hired the services of American public relations firm Shirley and Bannister to market his wares in Washington. He will be visiting the United States next week to talk about his position paper, a comprehensive defense of Israel's contribution to American security. Think of it as a preemptive strike ahead of the publication of the controversial book "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," by two political science professors, Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer.
Gold will not be alone. September 4th will see the American release of a book by Anti-Defamation League national director Abe Foxman called "The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control." In his book, Foxman warns of the possible consequences of theories of Jewish influence such as those proposed by Walt and Mearsheimer, which the ADL director describes as the repetition of an "old anti-Semitic canard" in respectable disguise. Foxman succeeded in getting former U.S. secretary of state to write an introduction to the book that knocks down the basis of the professors' argument.
"The United States supports Israel, not because of favoritism based on political pressure or influence, but because both political parties and virtually all our national leaders agree with the American people's view that supporting Israel is politically sound and morally just," Shultz wrote. "Scholars at great universities should be ashamed to promulgate it."
Walt and Mearsheimer - who are said to have received more than $700,000 as an advance for their book from respected publishing company Farrar, Straus & Giroux - do indeed work at highly esteemed universities. Mearsheimer teaches at the University of Chicago and Walt is at Harvard, proving once again that an academic seal of approval is no guarantee of wisdom.
The two authors have been here before. Their Israel lobby argument won exposure last year, when they published what they called a "study" article in the London Review of Books. They said they had to get the material published in England because no respectable American magazine would publish their article, out of fear of the "lobby." It later turned out that they were rejected by only one magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and quickly gave up on the entire U.S. market. This did nothing to dampen the furor over the article, which was also posted on the Web site of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where Walt is a faculty member. The media loved the controversy and spent months on the topic.
Walt and Mearsheimer's basic argument is simple: The U.S. lobby that supports Israel - a Jewish lobby as well as an evangelical Christian one - is very powerful and is charting a foreign policy for the United States that is favorable to Israel, but is not in America's interests. The professors included in their definition of the Israel lobby organizations, individuals and institutions that have different, and even contradictory, worldviews, from both the right and the left.
The authors had difficulty finding supporters of their argument - even among major critics of the policies of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby - because they lumped groups and individuals far to the left of AIPAC in the same basket, thereby destroying any possibility of a detailed analysis of the policies of a specific lobby group. The most serious charge the authors made was to blame Israel's supporters for the war in Iraq. This mendacious argument is based on the Jewish identity of some Bush administration officials and presidential advisers.
The article notes that since 1967, "the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy has been its relationship with Israel," completely ignoring the American interest in oil. Former administration officials, experts and columnists have poked holes in this dubious argument, but all the same, the identity of the authors - who come from the heart of the academic establishment - has left readers of the article in shock. Much has been written about the authors' motives. U.S. State Department counselor Eliot Cohen didn't hesitate to come out and say that the article was anti-Semitic, pure and simple. Others were more forgiving, saying that Walt and Mearsheimer were simply venting their frustration at having no one heed them.
There were some who hoped that the book would redress some of the distortions, but the chapters I have read indicate that this didn't happen. For instance, while performing intellectual somersaults more suitable for a circus, the authors blame the Israel lobby - and indirectly, Israel itself - for thwarting American-Syrian dialogue. This argument is made as though it wasn't the Bush administration emphasizing that it would be best if Israel did not talk to Syria, as though it wasn't Syrian President Bashar Assad's activities in Lebanon and Iraq that were hindering an improvement of relations between the United States and Syria.
Of course, Walt and Mearsheimer are not the first to come up with this approach, nor are they the only ones who have benefited from it. Many others before them have come to the realization that a convincing theory is not necessary to get attention, as long as it is controversial. Over the past year, Israel has borne the brunt of other examples of this method, like former U.S. president Jimmy Carter's book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," which became a bestseller. Now the two professors are hoping to repeat that success. (Maybe Foxman will also profit from it, since his book, including Shultz's introduction, presents Carter's book and "The Israel Lobby" in a similar light.)
It's hard to predict how well "The Israel Lobby" will do. Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior editor at the conservative Jewish magazine Commentary, said "there is reason to think that the Walt-Mearsheimer phenomenon has already peaked," since the book doesn't go much beyond the original article, which has already made its mark. But others are less optimistic. The professors have managed to get a new wave of articles about being silenced, as they put it.
This week the target was the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which decided at the end of July to cancel a promotional event for Walt and Mearsheimer's book that had been scheduled for September. The professors sent an accusatory letter, saying that the council president "explained that his decision was based on the need 'to protect the institution.'" Protect it from what and whom? Readers are meant to understand that "the lobby" is to blame. After all, if it managed to get the United States to fight in Iraq, surely it would have little trouble getting a promotional event canceled.
The Forward, a Jewish American liberal newspaper that cannot be accused of excessive support for the organized Jewish establishment, will publish an editorial in today's edition that succinctly describes the tactics of Walt and Mearsheimer on their way to cashing in on the book.
"The trick follows a typical pattern," writes The Forward. "Step one: Publish your views in as provocative a manner as possible. Use words like 'apartheid,' as Jimmy Carter did in his book, or paint Jewish lobbying efforts in darkly conspiratorial terms, as Walt and Mearsheimer did in a paper published last year. Step two: Dare the Jewish community to lash out at you, then whine about being victimized by bullies. Step three: Implore fair-minded liberals to line up behind you, forcing them to choose between endorsing your vision - however skewed - or becoming part of the censorship juggernaut."
The Forward also refused to sponsor a program in which, the paper stated, "the professors would present their views, unopposed."
The professors, in their anger at the Israel lobby, caused a fair amount of damage to themselves since the initial publication of their article. They made basic factual mistakes in public appearances, and were ridiculed in The Washington Post for mispronouncing the names of senior officials. They also participated in an event held by the extremist Council on American-Islamic Relations, confirming the suspicion that they had gone from being academics to being lobbyists in their own right. They did not criticize the council, even though it leverages its influence thanks to financial assistance from countries like Saudi Arabia, which also have a well-known interest in American policy in the Middle East.
Capitol Hill. Power.
Last week AIPAC workers celebrated an insignificant event: The men's magazine GQ included their executive director, Howard Kohr, on its list of the 50 most influential people in Washington. Kohr, along with three other key lobbyists, came in sixth. The only people who preceded him were Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
"Don't expect any big changes to our Israel or prescription-drug policies in coming years," the magazine wrote.
Walt and Mearsheimer can add this as a footnote to their next book. In any case, most of their work is based on newspaper clippings and fragments of rumors (quite a few of them, it must be said, from Haaretz). There is no denying that the Israel lobby does have a lot of power, and AIPAC policy is occasionally controversial. That will presumably be the argument against Dore Gold's new position paper.
In essence, there is a built-in dilemma that disturbs Israel supporters in Washington: Should they be strong, or well-liked? It's hard to be both in such a power-oriented city. In order to be strong, you also have to be aggressive, and those who become aggressive necessarily lose supporters and leave frustrated and offended people in their wake.
AIPAC is a regular target of such accusations. The organization hasn't had many reasons to celebrate in the last few years. The sword of the court hangs over its head; in January the court will decide the fate of two former AIPAC lobbyists accused of receiving and handing over confidential security-related information. Rumors that its status has eroded have flooded the capital, despite the group's success in increasing the number of participants in its annual conferences and getting high-profile figures to speak. Apparently the rumors haven't reached the editors of GQ.
Some senior officials at the Israeli Embassy in Washington this week watched CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour profiling Jewish extremism in the first episode of the monumental but problematic series, "God's Warriors," which artificially compares Jewish, Muslim and Christian extremists.
The episode showed Sandra Oster Baras, an Orthodox Jew going to an evangelical church to raise money for settlements, and televangelist John Hagee making a controversial appearance at the last AIPAC conference. The embassy officials are quite familiar with the evangelical community; it must be acknowledged that the security of Israel sometimes depends on their support.
There is some comfort to be found in the gloom that disturbs, among others, Israeli representatives stationed in Washington. Walt and Mearsheimer's view has not yet trickled down to public opinion. Opinion polls show the Israeli position to be as stable as ever, and the administration and Congress are no less friendly than before. Only a week has passed since a new, generous, 10-year aid agreement was signed. In the meantime, the 2008 presidential candidates are competing over expressions of support for Israel. It's hard to find a crack, or even the hint of a crack, in the steadfastness of their interest in preserving the "special relationship" between Israel and the United States that has continued from the Lyndon Johnson (some say John F. Kennedy) era to that of George W. Bush.
Former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, as Gold notes in his position paper, was the first to refer to Israel as a "strategic asset." Reagan was a popular president whose legacy even Democrats are happy to rely on occasionally, in recognition of the value of his stock in the political market. In addition, the introduction to Foxman's book that was written by Shultz, Reagan's secretary of state, is particularly important. That's because if there is anything that is worth doing better than it was done in the previous round of the war over the good name and position of the Israel lobby, this is it: It is appropriate that the Jews themselves are not the only ones to fight the battle.