Monday, September 19, 2011

Israel is not alone: Thomas Friedman and The Israel Lobby

Rarely, these days, do I bother with the NYT's Tom Friedman. (While he occupies a lofty perch in the punditocratic universe, he is essentially the master of myopic, self-absorbed ignorance masquerading as sophisticated internationalism. And I say that as someone who occasionally agrees with him.)

But let's take a look at his column from Saturday, a piece on the current state of Israel:

I've never been more worried about Israel's future. The crumbling of key pillars of Israel's security — the peace with Egypt, the stability of Syria and the friendship of Turkey and Jordan — coupled with the most diplomatically inept and strategically incompetent government in Israel's history have put Israel in a very dangerous situation.

This has also left the U.S. government fed up with Israel's leadership but a hostage to its ineptitude, because the powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America's.


I have great sympathy for Israel's strategic dilemma and no illusions about its enemies. But Israel today is giving its friends — and President Obama's one of them — nothing to defend it with. Israel can fight with everyone or it can choose not to surrender but to blunt these trends with a peace overture that fair-minded people would recognize as serious, and thereby reduce its isolation.

Unfortunately, Israel today does not have a leader or a cabinet for such subtle diplomacy. One can only hope that the Israeli people will recognize this before this government plunges Israel into deeper global isolation and drags America along with it.

Well, sure. As Greenwald notes, here's an influential pro-Israel commentator (if not not on the right), "one of Israel's most stalwart American supporters," basically advancing the controversial view, most notably advanced by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, that "that there is a very powerful lobby in the U.S." -- The Israel Lobby, to take the title of their book -- "which is principally devoted to Israel and causes U.S. political leaders to act to advance the interests of this foreign nation over their own." While I do not accept this view in its entirety, I find it refreshing that a commentator of Friedman's stature and reputation is more or less making it his own. Greenwald:

Walt and Mearshiemer merely voiced a truth which has long been known and obvious but was not allowed to be spoken. That's precisely why the demonization campaign against them was so vicious and concerted: those who voice prohibited truths are always more hated than those who spout obvious lies. That the foreign affairs columnist most admired in Washington circles just expressed the same point demonstrates that recognition of this previously prohibited fact has now become mainstream. 

Indeed. And you don't have to be in any way anti-Israel to accept that truth and, like Friedman, to note how this powerful lobby is polluting American political life and preventing the U.S. from taking a more balanced approach to Israel (an approach Obama has certainly been taking, meeting strong resistance at every turn, including in Congress).

But does any of this mean that Israel is somehow in grave existential danger, as Friedman suggests? I would say not. The Netanyahu government is certainly "inept" and "incompetent," and its extremism is certainly a major obstacle not just to peace with the Palestinians but to Israeli security generally, and it is extremely difficult for Israel's more sensible defenders, including Obama (and I'd put myself in there too), to defend it, but when push comes to shove, as they say, Israel's friends, and particularly the U.S., no matter who occupies the White House, will protect it. And that's partly because the Israel Lobby is so powerful, and will remain so even with the likes of Friedman criticizing it.

In other words, nothing is about to change anytime soon.

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