There was a time not so long ago when there were three rigid dogmas in elite US government and media circles: 1. The interests of the US and Israel were identical. 2. Anything that the government of Israel did must be given unquestioned support. 3. One must never mention even the existence of the Israel lobby, let alone its role in enforcing the first two dogmas. To violate any of these dogmas was to be prima facie guilty of anti-Semitism.
Of course, the first point is manifestly untrue. Israel is a US ally but as with all allies, interests sometimes converge, sometimes diverge, and sometimes are in direct conflict. But whereas other allies could be harshly criticized when they disagreed with the US, as with France when they disagreed with the case being made for the Iraq war, whenever US and Israeli interests were seen as not congruent, as in the case of Israel’s policy of continuing to build settlements in the Occupied Territories and its appalling treatment of Palestinians and its repeated assaults on Gaza, the US government, Congress, and the establishment media stretched to find ways to excuse that behavior.
Because the first dogma was so powerful, the people who challenged it were often those who were genuine anti-Semites and had such a deep antipathy towards Jews that they were willing to be live with being ignored, dismissed, or criticized by the mainstream. This had the effect of further chilling legitimate criticism of Israel and its influence over US policy because any critic could be accused of being anti-Semitic using simple guilt by association, by arguing that these critics were in the same camp as the anti-Semites.
That situation has definitely changed. No longer are critics of Israel vulnerable to the charge of being anti-Semitic. This is partly due to the fact that many members of the academic and elite media, Jews and non-Jews alike, have come to realize that the policies pursued by successive Israeli governments are dangerously destabilizing for the Middle East and creating breeding grounds for actors that threaten people all over the world. They feel that they cannot keep silent in the face of this serious threat.
The second reason is that the Israel lobby has used the charge of anti-Semitism too profligately and thus greatly diluted its power. From a time when people felt obliged to defend themselves at great length from it, an exhausting and unwinnable process that discouraged people from taking the risk of inviting the charge by making any criticisms whatsoever of Israel, people now simply shrug off that charge unless it is backed up by real evidence that is hardly ever provided.
It is almost impossible to find a distinct turning point for such a sea change in attitude but a significant one has to be the publication of the article and the 2007 book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt that directly challenged all three of the above dogmas. The authors knew that they were inviting retaliation via the well-worn tactic of being smeared as anti-Semites but they felt that it had to be done. It helped that they were well-regarded tenured academics at two prestigious institutions, the University of Chicago and Harvard University, and by being able to fend off that attack, they were able to get these dogmas scrutinized in the elite media and in academia. As a result, we now see a much more robust discussion of Israel’s behavior, with the US Congress being seen as the last bastion of unquestioning allegiance to the three dogmas. (I have a detailed review of the book here, here, and here for those who do not have access to the book.)
But even that last remaining solid wall of support is showing signs of cracking and for that we have to thank Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu. The erosion of the dogmas has been furthered by a man whose ego and personal ambitions seem to be blinding him to the fact that he is undermining the Israel lobby by his actions. His open flaunting of his disregard of president Obama and his decision to publicly ally himself with Republicans in Congress and deliver a bombastic speech directly undermining the negotiations that the Obama administration is conducting with the Iranians has angered Democrats enough that over 50 of them loudly boycotted his speech, something that would have been unheard of a few years ago. This had the odd effect of making the fawning standing ovations he received from those attending the speech highlight even more the role of the Israel lobby and bring it under scrutiny because people rightly asked how it could be that a Congress where the majority gave their own president such a tepid, even hostile, reception when he gave his annual State of the Union speech in January was falling over itself to gush over the speech of a foreign leader who was openly calling on them to defy their own president.
As Philip Weiss says:
The Netanyahu speech to Congress continues to deliver rewards to the American people. It is hard to think of a greater moment for raising consciousness on the conflict and its roots. The speech has exposed important issues in ways that no one would have imagined just a year ago. Our media are talking openly about the takeover of our foreign policy by Israel, the loyalty of politicians to Israel, the paranoid thinking of the Israeli right and the neoconservatives, and the injustices of the occupation.
The criticisms of Netanyahu’s actions in the elite media were unprecedented, with people in the media like Chris Matthews, who are normally fervent supporters of Israel, being extremely harsh, saying “This is going to be remembered as a very dark day for American democracy when you bring a foreign leader in to try and displace the American leader. Obama sets our foreign policy, not Netanyahu.”
Fred Kaplan at Slate says that Netanyahu has been consistently wrong and what he is asking of the US government in its negotiations with Iran is impossible and only its most slavish supporters in the US Congress and the neoconservatives, and the Israel lobby is pushing for it.
It’s appalling that so many members of the U.S. Congress cheer Netanyahu’s every utterance as some holy oracle, seemingly unaware that many senior Israeli security officers dispute his assertions about the urgency of an Iranian nuclear threat—unaware even that he’s increasingly unpopular among his own citizens. It’s downright unseemly that these same members of Congress cheer his condemnation of the P5+1 deal as “a very bad deal”—they stand up, applaud madly, and howl toward the cameras and galleries—without giving their own president and his diplomats a chance to complete and defend the deal themselves.
Jonathan Graubart and David Deutsch praise Netanyahu’s speech but not in a good way.
We welcome Mr. Netanyahu’ address to cheering members of Congress because the spectacle laid bare the ugly reality of America’s bipartisan “special relationship” with Israel. While clashes in personality pop up periodically between US and Israeli leaders (with Netanyahu being particularly quarrelsome), the US maintains vast levels of military, economic, and diplomatic support, no matter which party is in power. Here, President Obama, Speaker Boehner, minority leader Pelosi and virtually all of the Democrats who skipped the speech are on the same page.
The consensus cannot be simply explained by the power of a narrow “pro-Israel” lobby. Rather, both Israel and the US are afflicted by a self-destructive political culture whereby global challenges are met by militarism, aggressive interventionism, and disregard of fundamental norms of international law, like self-determination, human rights, and nonaggression. In the case of Israel, this stance has not only caused suffering to generations of Palestinians but produced a perpetually insecure state of Israel, dependent on overwhelming military superiority and the support of a distant great power. At home, the pattern of unilateral invasions, support for brutal authoritarian regimes, and execution of unlawful counterinsurgency policies – including extrajudicial killings and CIA-led torture programs – have inspired new terrorist movements, poisoned the US image abroad, and made us more insecure.
But many in the media, while noting the strange spectacle of the US Congress praising a foreign leader undermining their own president, still refrained from pointing the finger for such behavior at the Israel lobby.
As Stephen Walt says, Netanyahu, aided by the Israel lobby, has pretty much single-handedly destroyed the ‘special relationship’.
But in point of fact, AIPAC and other key organizations in the lobby have only themselves to blame. The contretemps taking place now is at least partly the result of the policies they have supported and the tactics they have employed over many years. It’s not the end of U.S. support for Israel, but it may well mark an important and ultimately positive shift in what has become a dysfunctional — even bizarre — relationship.
The flap over Netanyahu’s speech is exposing what has long been obvious but is usually denied by politicians: U.S. and Israeli interests overlap on some issues but they are not identical. It might be in Israel’s interest for the United States to insist on zero Iranian enrichment and for the United States to go to war to secure that goal, but such an attack is definitely not in America’s interest. Instead, America’s strategic position would be enhanced if it could get a diplomatic deal that kept Iran from going nuclear and opened the door to a more constructive relationship.
Similarly, though Netanyahu and his government remain staunchly opposed to a genuine two-state solution with the Palestinians, that outcome would be very good for the United States. It is definitely not in America’s interest for its closest ally in the Middle East to deny millions of Palestinian Arabs either full equality in Israel proper or any semblance of political rights in the West Bank, and it hurts U.S. interests every time Israel launches another punishing attack on the captive population in Gaza, inevitably causing hundreds of civilian deaths. Such actions — conducted with U.S. weaponry and subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer — do enormous damage to America’s image in the Middle East and have long been a staple ingredient in the jihadi narrative.
In the end, Netanyahu’s clumsy political maneuvering may, in addition to undermining the three dogmas, have had the effect of strengthening president Obama’s strategy of negotiating a deal with Iran as people are becoming aware that what Israel and its most loyal supporters want to see happen will likely lead to a disastrous war with Iran.