Feature

The Israel lobby: Does it have too much power?

Questions about the Israel lobby arose last week when Charles Freeman blamed it for destroying support for his nomination to head the National Intelligence Council.

Talk about an “intelligence failure,” said the New York Daily News in an editorial. President Obama’s poorly vetted choice to head the National Intelligence Council, Charles Freeman, withdrew from consideration last week, “ranting” that he had been destroyed by that supposedly sinister force he called “the Israel lobby.” In fact, Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and to China, was done in by his own startlingly “ill-considered” views. Freeman has repeatedly said that the key barrier to Middle East peace is “Israeli violence against Palestinians,” and he has even accused the U.S. of “embracing Israel’s enemies as our own”—as if the fanatics out to destroy Israel are not our enemies. Freeman has also publicly downplayed China’s 1989 violent crackdown on democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square as an excusable overreaction. Freeman and his backers are now essentially “blaming the Jews” for his downfall, said Wesley Pruden in The Washington Times. But what really infuriates them is that “he was recognized for who he is”—an “enemy” of Israel. That’s completely unfair, said David Broder in The Washington Post. Freeman’s critics skillfully highlighted his sometimes “inflammatory” rhetoric, but it hardly reflects his true nature. A foreign-policy veteran with experience in Africa, Asia, and Europe, Freeman is “low-key, thoughtful, and obviously smart as hell.” In short, he’s just the sort of person we need analyzing foreign intelligence, which happens to be what his job would have entailed—not making Middle East policy. His only crime was daring to question America’s blindly pro-Israel stance, said Ron Smith in the Baltimore Sun. Barack Obama himself once seemed to want to “turn away from uncritical support” of Israel. But when the knives came out for Freeman, Obama was nowhere to be found.  Freeman’s merits notwithstanding, said Andrew Sullivan in TheAtlantic.com, no one involved in this regrettable episode behaved very well. The charge by Freeman and his defenders of a “conspiracy” involving supporters of Israel is simply absurd, as is any implication that the pro-Israel lobby is somehow “more nefarious than, say, the Cuba lobby, or many other lobbies.” At the same time, the notion that anyone who expresses sympathy for Palestinians or who wants a more evenhanded Mideast policy is anti-Semitic or “hostile to Israel” strikes me as equally wrongheaded. “The two paranoid generalizations, of course, feed on each other. That cycle needs to be broken. There is too much at stake for this debate to be about us.”

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