Setback for America’s pro-Israel hawks

By Bernd Debusmann
March 5, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

“The brutal oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli occupation shows no sign of ending … Israel no longer even pretends to seek peace with the Palestinians, it strives to pacify them … American identification with Israel has become total.”

These are excerpts from a 2007 speech by Charles (Chas) Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, whose appointment as chairman of the National Intelligence Council was announced on February 26 and is turning into a test case for the strength of Washington’s right-wing pro-Israel lobby.

Signs are that its influence might be waning under the administration of President Barack Obama. Does that mean the days of unquestioning American support for Israel are coming to en end? Probably not.

But the furious reaction to Freeman’s appointment from some of the most fervent neo-conservative champions of Israel points to considerable concern over the possible loss of clout.

In his new job, Freeman will be responsible for compiling intelligence from the the United States’ 16 intelligence agencies into National Intelligence Estimates, detailed and lengthy analyses that play a key role in shaping U.S. foreign policy.

The initial drumbeat of criticism came from conservative pro-Israel bloggers, including Steve Rosen, former policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Rosen has been indicted for giving “national defense information to persons not entitled to receive it,” legalese for spying.

“Freeman is a strident critic of Israel and a textbook case of the old-line Arabism that afflicted American diplomacy at the time Israel was born,” Rosen wrote.

While remarks critical of Israel are common coin among human rights groups and independent scholars, they are virtually taboo in official Washington, whose elected leaders – or those running for office – tend to stress unflagging support for the Jewish state.

Even small departures from the standard line can prompt the ire of the Israel-right-or-wrong camp. During his election campaign, Obama learned how tricky seemingly innocent remarks can be when he said “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” There was so much criticism, he later “clarified” the remark.

The initial blogger assault on Freeman, whose lengthy and impressive resume of public service includes Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan, then moved to the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the conservative Washington Times. The attacks widened to suggest that he is beholden to the Saudi government.

That allegation stems from the time he ran a Washington-based think tank, the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC), whose donors include Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a member of the Saudi royal family and billionaire entrepreneur, who gave the council $1 million.

CRITICISM THREATENS PEACE?

The appointment has been made but the quest to dislodge or discredit him is not over. Nine Republican members of Congress wrote to the inspector general in the office of the Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, demanding “a comprehensive review of Ambassador Freeman’s past and current commercial, financial and contractual ties to the Kingdom to ensure no conflict of interest exists in his new position.”

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor has urged Obama to reconsider the appointment, saying that Freeman’s comments about the U.S.-Israel relationship “raise serious concerns about his ability to support the administration’s attempts to bring security, stability and peace to the Middle East.”

Criticism of Israel threatens peace? Israeli settlements on the West Bank, in violation of international law, have nothing to do with the flagging peace process? Making peace is made easier by the U.S. refusal to talk to Hamas, the group that won elections in Gaza and runs the war-shattered territory?

One of the critics of the appointment, Gabriel Schoenfeld, noted, with a tone of disapproval, that Freeman’s MEPC had published “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” a controversial assessment of U.S.-Israeli relations by two prominent American academics, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard.

They argued that the United States, through its unquestioning support of Israel, was neglecting its own security interests to advance the interests of another state. The influence of hawkish pro-Israel lobbies, chief among them AIPAC, had established a stranglehold on Congress to ram through decisions favoring Israel.

In the 60 years since its establishment on May 14, 1948, Israel has been by far the largest recipient of U.S. assistance, military and economic, in the world, according to the Congressional Research Service. Aid has been running at around $3 billion a year since 1985, a sizable sum for a country with a population smaller than that of New York City.

Walt, who blogs at Foreign Policy magazine, weighed into the Freeman debate as it gathered steam even before the actual appointment. Apart from trying to get it revoked by Dennis Blair or get Freeman to withdraw, Walt said, the anti-Freeman campaign had a third aim.

“Attacking Freeman is intended to deter other people in the foreign policy community from speaking out on these matters. Freeman might be too smart, too senior and too well-qualified to stop, but there are plenty of younger people eager to rise in the foreign policy establishment and they need to be reminded that their careers could be jeopardized … if they said what they thought.”

But the Obama administration appears to have no problem with people who say what they think about U.S.-Israel ties. Take Samantha Power, the former Harvard professor whose outspoken views echo those of Walt and Mearsheimer. Obama gave her an important job on the National Security Council.

– You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com. —

128 comments

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Nice Piece

Looks like the obligatory kneel in front of almighty AIPAC is going out of fashion. The fact that Rosen and other neo-cons are bending over backwards to discredit Freeman is a sign of how desperate they are.

I think the reluctance by U.S. policymakers to seriously address Israel’s behavior in the occupied territories has been a major obstacle to peace. Knowing that AIPAC and other pro-Israeli groups were able to steer the debate and coerce anyone who did not adopt their version has encouraged successive Israeli governments to extinguish any hope of a viable Palestinian state. Having an open and balanced debate about this conflict is something the U.S. badly needs.

Acting as an honest broker for once will only improve the image of the US, especially in the Arab and Muslim world.

Posted by Nu'man | Report as abusive

My opinions is that AIPAC is far more cunning and not forthcoming in its response to criticism of Mr Freeman. I have always wondered that how could pro-Israel lobby be so effective. I think they staff the senator and congressmen offices, give contributions to pro-Israel republican and democratic candidates and actively try to defeat neutral and or those who question support of Israel without any qualm. This is a bigger question as they do have extremely left wing agenda and mind you not with their own money but tax-payer money. Most op-ed articles in major left wing newspapers have pro-Israel columnist and they are for propagation of their agenda irrespective of which party candidates belong.

Posted by vj | Report as abusive

The Israel-right-or-wrong crowd may be losing a bit of influence but Israel’s interests are still being looked after in high places. Look at Dennis Ross in his new post in charge of a region that includes Iran. Will he engage in even-handedness? You bet he won’t. So one could say its an even trade, Freeman on one hand, Ross on the other.

And Clinton’s visit to Ramallah did not indicate one millimetre of change on the tried-and-true course.

Posted by Ariel | Report as abusive

Just another Obama campaign lie to get elected.

Posted by Patrick Henry | Report as abusive

finally, a commentary exposing the truth. There is much more that can come out about the relationship between members of cognress and AIPAC. the fact that members of congress are so outraged over an appointment of some like Mr. freeman who has served this country well and always looked out for the best interest of AMERICA first. We have destroyed our reputation and put a target on our backs all over the middle east by this unjustified and blind support of israel. our support of the zionist regime is contradictory of what america stands for and the principals on how we were founded. we can reduce at least 80% of our security threat and animosity towards us in the middle east by treating the palestine-israel issue FAIRLY and pragmatically. its the only way to ensure a peace process actually works and that innocent people on both sides are able to live their lives peacefully.

Posted by sidney | Report as abusive

If this is indeed a sign of a reassessment of the policy toward Israel it is a very small one and long overdue. It is after all, we Americans, who subsidize this policy and we have a right and obligation to act, within the parameters of fairness, in our own national interest. Blindly following the desires of pro-Israel hawks leads us ever deeper into wars (now that Obama appears to extend the reach of war to Pakistan), international isolation and crisis at home. It is a time to carefully examine all aspects of the American policy in the Middle East and act according to the best interests of the USA. Pepole at home must be honestly informed about the issues and not given a constant strem of one-sided propaganda. It is the attitude that is supported by many Jews here, friends of Israel as well as many Israelis. It is time for America to wake up.

Posted by Rick | Report as abusive

It is interesting that you label Pro-Israel advocates as “hawks” … I call them “realists.” When you suggest peace for Israel, please make reference to (non-existent) Palestinian peaceful ACTIONS, not the politics of the US Government.

Their hawkish Koran won’t accept a Jewish entity in Israel, nor will it allow peace as the final answer. The Koran is built on Jihad and incremental apocalypse as the final answer. Even if the “land for peace” formula were to be resurrected, the Islamic world would be the one that would need to demonstrate THEIR peaceful intentions.

The Durban II Conference will clearly show that the Islamic world are the real “hawks.” They would remove Israelis from the land Israelis have occupied for millennia on the East and West Bank.

Removing the Israeli “occupation” would be the same as erasing history. It would be yet another expulsion of Jews. THAT is racism.

Posted by Ari Hirim | Report as abusive

Ariel:

“And Clinton’s visit to Ramallah did not indicate one millimetre of change on the tried-and-true course”

Good point. She called Israel’s plans to demolish nearly 90 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem as ‘unhelpful’. I doubt Olmert and Netanyahu are going to lose any sleep. As for Dennis Ross, I expect him to continue what he does best: groveling to Israeli leaders and lecturing Palestinians about the benefits of an ‘enlightened occupation’

Posted by Nu'man | Report as abusive

so israeli ideaological are labeled “realist” and “hawkish” and muslim and arabs are called “extremist” and “fundamentalist”. let’s not forget that the whole concept of israel is based of a jewish extremist religious idealogies, challenged by many “moderate” jews. the zionist misinturpret the torah and are carrying out an agenda that goes against their own religious beliefs much like the taliban/al-qaeda jihadis themselves. there is no difference between them, except one side calles themselves muslims and the other jewish but neither represents the true beliefs of their respected religions and teachings of their holy books. the “realist” zionist believe that after every non-jews is killed, removed, displaced or all of the above off of “their” land, then the messiah will come. is that any different then the osama bin laden’s perdiction of removing every “infidel” out of the sands of the middle east so he can establish 10th century caliphate?? not at all. israel has shown that peace is not one of its ideals and has no interest in it what so ever. the taliban were recently given permission to carry out their agenda in swat valley of pakistan and israel recently elected a genocidal extremist government in israel. its sad to see that religious extremist are endangering the lives of millions of jews and muslims as well all other faiths of this world.

Posted by roscoe | Report as abusive

I was surprised by the support of Senator Obama by the Jewish community as well as Wall Street during the primaries. I am just a High School graduate so I thought maybe I could be wrong. Our scholars know what is best. Now I believe you reap what you sow.

Posted by JC14 | Report as abusive

Basically, Zionism is an morally bankrupt idea involving expulsion of Palestinians from Palestine. This has been accompanied by ongoing terrorism of Palestinians, demonization of the few that fight back, and land grabs, apartheid, all backed by the West since the beginning of this fiasco. At this point the only solution of this mess is a one-state-solution whereby all people in the area have equal rights, and equal votes. All else appears doomed to failure, leading to endless strife and possibly even nuclear war. Israelis need to be compelled to give up the Zionist quest. Palestinians need to be repatriated and compensated. Let serious boycotts begin!

Posted by Bob H | Report as abusive

I get sick and tired of the Isreali crap! Isreal technically stole the land in 1949, buy invading Palestine before the allies could finalize a treaty between the palestinians and jews from ruined europe after WWII.

Next, the Isreali’s won the miracle war in 1967 and started making settlements in the ‘west bank’ areas. I’m sorry, but if history can teach us anything, it is that Isreali’s in charge of Isreal Do NOT want anything less than what is in a stupid religious text. Oh and there are other stupid religious texts that state that isreal was removed to babylon hundreds of years ago. Seeing as after someone looses a war the pay for the loss. Isreal isn’t eligible for anything that they lost thousands of years ago… i. e. that means that yes, they get to keep what they got in 1949. They should be sharing the lands won in the 1967 war and NO permanent settlements in Palestinean land!!!!!

I really am sick and tired of paying for what happened to a ethnicity 60 damn years ago.

Also, human beings DO not give back lands when someone looses them. So the isreali argument that the plaestinean lands were given to the isrealites by GOD thousands of years ago is pure GREED and RUBBISH.

People want to talk about human decency.. then just split the damn area in two. isreal gets what they had. All settlements from after a set time say… 15 years from teh winning of the 1967 war, isreal keeps the rest get turned over to the palestineans. Hell, if that was done that might ease the angst from the european jews stealing the original lands back in 1947.

It’s so damn funny that for hundreds of years muslims, jews and christians lived in relative harmony in jerusalem when it was governed by the muslims.

Oh the Koran is NOT just for jihad!!! just remember the ignorrant christians had and have ‘jihad’ also. they just called the crusades :)

Maybe if people just would think of other people as just people first and formost there would be a tremendous decrease in war-mongering in the stupid world. But, that would be sensible and we unfortunately do not live in anything resembiling a sensible world.

Oh and any reply about spelling errors i will most emfattically ignore.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

I agree 100% with the commentary made by roscoe.

I had just a small amount of hope that President Obama had more teeth and claws regarding this issue but it will remain as it is until something drastic occurs.

As for the future leaders in the region, I wonder if they think for themselves in arranging genuine, fair peace for all. It’s not going to be the politicians of today or the past that will live on the land forty years from now. They’re not even guaranteeing there will be land to live on but it’s the youth of today that will have to keep on living with murder, terrorism and injustice, all for the sake of these old men and women- who only fought for their own interests out of fear- not for the interests of their offspring. If there was true interest in the well-being of their children, these old people would have been more than eager to make peace with their neighbors, instead of going down the war path from the start. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict wouldn’t even exist. At least at the level it does today.
I don’t see why would the religion of one side or the other take such importance in running a country. Any country that truly wishes to live in peace will make their constitutional or parlamentary government independent of religious law, even if morally inspired by it because it’s been tried and proven true that religion-based governments cause great social and economic inequality.
At the moment I’m observing that current militarist interests are forcing the youth to inherit disaster and I can’t wait for the old generations to die off without leaving any more poisoned seed to grow.

Posted by Dan | Report as abusive

Israel has no better friend in the world that the US and they’ve taken advantage of it every chance they got. It’s time someone told them “enough; no more colonies in the West Bank, no colonies in the Golan Heights, you already have the bomb, time to stop acting like the biggest bully on the block. None of your neighbors like you and it’s not a surprise given the way you treat them. Would you like a neighbor who behaves as you do? I’m guessing no. So grow up and figure out some better ways to deal with your problems because the ways you’ve been doing it sure haven’t worked.”

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

Zionism is the #1 threat to the average American’s safety. After 60+ years of this failed experiment its time to cut Israel loose.

Posted by daniel | Report as abusive

Is there even a rational basis for what the pro-Israel lobby advocates? All they do is mouth off about “unconditional support for Israel” as if this were the end all and be all of our foreign policy in the region. I mean, if Israel were seriously being threatened, fine….but it’s been over three decades since there was any credible military threat to them. Hamas and Hezbollah are the absolute scum of the earth, but if Israel is going to engage in excesses for the sake of defense and then expect us to cover for them when peace doesn’t materialize, then there’s not much we can do for them.

Posted by Jacob | Report as abusive

lets set the record straight with facts and logic not hype and emotion. The land was given to Israel in a UN resoltion in 1947. That resolution -which established a Palestinian state in the west bank – was rejected by the arabs. The arabs subsequently launched a war and lost. NO one seemed to be bothered that Jordan ruled the west bank between 48 and 67. Additionally, the PLO was established in 1964 – 3 years before th 6 day war. what were they looking to liberate? Also where are all the refugees from WWII? usually settled by host countries.
The Palestinians have been kept in refugee camps as tools for the destruction of the state of Israel. Why should Israel not settle the land. According to international law Israel acquired ownerless territory in a war of defense – perfectly legitimate. Beware, 70 years ago greed, hatred and difference resulted in the deaths of 50 milion people not just 6 million Jews. The Palestinians -who refuse to live in peace- need to find another place to live. I suggest in 22 Arab states

So what is the solution to this mess?

Make Israel cease to exist? Please. Israel is a modern democracy. “Palestine” is yet to even formally exist. And the reason is a long line of dumb mistakes by the Arabic world. Egypt and the others have learned their lessons. Everyone has learned the lesson, except for Hamas.

A one state solution? What a joke. Such a result would result in Israel ceasing to exist, and the supporters of the idea know it very well. They just don’t have the common decency to admit it out loud.

Perhaps Israel should withdraw from Gaza? Oh, I forgot. They left years ago. And then Hamas rejected the calling of a democratic election, and took control of Gaza by force. Remember that?

If that is the “reward” for Israel trying to act reasonably, it is no wonder things are as they are.

So that leaves two alternatives. The first is that the “Palestinians” swallow their pride and start thinking of their children first. If they stop trying to commit terrorist attacks or sending suicide bombs over the boarder, Israel has no reason to blockade the “occupied territories”.

The other alternative? The “Palestinians” can stick to war. Israel has been defending itself for over fifty years. The civilised world, for all their apparent outrage, still see Hamas as the only reason that this problem still exists.

And then Hamas can go back to hiding among civilians, and feign surprise when innocent people end up dead in the crossfire they start. And the whole bloody mess will continue as long as Hamas wishes it.

Posted by John Smith | Report as abusive

World War I and II, like all wars allow the victors to redraw geographical and cultural borders. The political and economic crisis’ of our time are intertwined with the political settlements subsequent to both World Wars. A close study of the Treaty of Versaille and Nato(cold war),as well as Palestine, are quite revealing as to this subject.

It is said “To the victor goes the spoils of war”. The U.S. has certainly dominated world relations for the better part of the post war period. Our decline was inevitable. No nation has ever maintained a state of war capability for decades on end without going broke. Perhaps one day nations will eschew the intoxicating allure of victories and power for the values of peace.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

It is interesting to note that Admiral Freeman was asked to be vetted and yet you have so many officials with Jewish affiliation serving in this and previous governments, their loyalty is never questioned.As a foreigner, I can never understand why the US government is so beholden to Israel, even at the expense of your own national interests. Did Israel fight alongside with you in Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf war, and Afghanistan? Israel is the only country that benefited from your war in Iraq. After developing their own nuclear weapons, they now want you to stop Iran from having just a nuclear power reactor. It is not inconceivable that they may ask your Congress to impeach President Obama because he poses a threat to Israel’s security.

Posted by Stephen Wong | Report as abusive