How Israel's lobby chills Middle East debate

Any criticism of Israel by US politicians is viciously attacked by pro-Israeli groups to make sure they won't try again.

    The amount of support shown to Israeli PM Netanyahu by members of congress was surprising, especially considering his message contradicted the demands of the US president [GALLO/GETTY]

    This week, following that tumultuous reception for Prime Minister Netanyahu at the congressional joint meeting, I want to share a personal recollection of how the Middle East status quo is preserved on Capitol Hill.

    It was in 1988 and I was a foreign policy aide to Senator Carl Levin (D-MI). One February day, Levin called me into his office to say that he was disturbed at a quote he saw in that day's New York Times. An article quoted Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir saying that he rejected the idea of withdrawing from any of the land Israel captured in the 1967 war:

    Mr Shamir said in a radio interview, "It is clear that this expression of territory for peace is not accepted by me."

    Levin instantly understood what Shamir was saying. He was repudiating UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 (which Israel had helped draft) which provided for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent [1967] conflict" in exchange for peace and security. Those resolutions represented official US and international policy then, and they still do.

    But, in 1988, Shamir tried to declare them null and void.

    Levin asked me to draft a letter to secretary of state George Shultz stating that it was the view of the Senate, that the UN resolutions remained the policy of the US whether Shamir liked it or not. Of course, the letter wasn't written in that kind of language. It was more than polite. Additionally, Levin wanted it addressed to Shultz, not to Shamir, to avoid ruffling too many feathers in Israel.

    I wrote the draft. Levin edited and re-edited it. Then he called in the head of AIPAC, Thomas A Dine, to run the language past him. Tom said it was "great". Levin told Dine that he would not embarass him by revealing that he had approved the letter.

    Levin then asked me to deliver it to the secretary of state but said that first he would try to round up a few other senators to join him in signing it. In an hour he had 30. He probably could have gotten three times as many but it was Friday afternoon and most of the senators had decamped.

    I delivered the letter. Because Levin wanted to avoid a brouhaha, the Levin office did no press about it. It was essentially a secret initiative.

    But then one of the senators who had the letter gave it to the New York Times. And within minutes the phones started ringing off the hook. Reporters and AIPAC donors (who had no idea Dine had signed off on the letter) were going crazy.

    Levin was asked to appear on all three Sunday morning talk shows. He declined. In fact, he took off for Moscow, on a long-planned trip.

    On Sunday, news of the Levin "Letter of 30" was the lead story in the New York Times.

    "Thirty United States senators, including many of Israel's staunchest supporters, have written a letter criticising Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his Likud party, suggesting they may be obstructing efforts to reach a peace settlement in the Middle East.

    The extraordinary public criticism of Israel was contained in a letter addressed to secretary of state George P Shultz, who returned home today after several days in the Middle East. Mr Shultz has proposed the broad outlines of an interim settlement between Israel and the Palestinians ...

    The senators who signed the letter said they were dismayed at Mr Shamir's continued resistance to the concept of Israel's ceding some territories it occupies in exchange for peace, a cornerstone of Mr Shultz's efforts. Although the letter also criticises Arab states except for Egypt, congressional aides said it was intended principally to send a message to Mr Shamir and the Likud bloc."

    So significant was the fact that any US senator had criticised any Israeli policy in any way (albeit mildly), that the Sunday Times reprinted the whole text.

    On Monday all hell broke loose. Because Levin was in Russia, staffers had to field both the press calls and the threats from outraged donors, constituents, and "pro-Israel" organisations.

    Then some real weirdness happened.

    A top Israeli embassy official came to the office to deliver a protest from Prime Minister Shamir. When Levin's chief of staff, Gordon C Kerr, told him that it was inappropriate for a foreign official to protest a letter senators had addressed to their own government (ie: the secretary of state), the Israeli official insulted Levin and made ugly threats. Kerr then threw him out of the office.

    In the meantime, Levin heard from President Ronald Reagan, who thanked him for organising support for the administration's position. Meanhile, Shamir began calling senators to express "astonishment" that his policies had been criticised.

    Then came a moment that was, for me, the most shocking experience I ever had during my years working for the United States government.

    William Safire, the most influential New York Times columnist, phoned me in a rage. He told me that he knew for a fact that neither Levin nor I had drafted the letter. He said that he knew that the letter was written by an aide to the leader of the Labour Party opposition in Israel, Shimon Peres.

    He said that aide, one Yossi Beilin, had hand-delivered the text to me, and that I had convinced Levin to circulate it. He said that my goal was to unseat Shamir and replace him with Peres.

    I almost laughed.

    The very idea that a senate aide had such power was astounding. But then Safire asked if I thought it was appropriate for a senate aide to be the agent of a foreign political party, and what would Levin think when he read about that in Safire's column.

    That was scary. As a senate aide, I had sworn allegiance to the United States and the constitution. I also had a security clearance. This could be serious.

    I told Safire that I had written the draft and that Levin had (as is his wont) extensively edited it. I told him I had no idea who Beilin was (which was the truth). Safire then got really nasty and told me that he knew I was lying because he had the story on good authority (Israeli UN ambassador Binyamin Netanyahu and AIPAC's number two guy, Steve Rosen, who was subsequently indicted for espionage).

    I said I didn't care who he heard it from, it was a lie. Additionally, Levin had undertaken the initiative to help Israel because he thought that if Israel ruled out territorial withdrawal, the conflict would never end. 

    The call concluded with Safire backing down after warning me that if he ever found out I was lying, I would be "finished". He said he would not write the column because - get this - in the end he believed me more than his sources.

    And that was that. Nothing more happened with the Letter of 30, except that after the vicious attacks on Levin, few senators have challenged the Israeli government or AIPAC since.

    So what's the moral f the story?

    It is this: Criticising Israel is dangerous business. On what other issue would a New York Times columnist call a senate staffer and threaten to destroy his career? None. And why was a New York Times columnist acting as if he was working for the Israeli government? Safire wasn't a journalist that day; he essentially was a representative of the Israeli government.

    Accordingly, is it any wonder the whole congress abased itself the other day by jumping up and down and hurling love at Netanyahu? Who wants to mess with an 800-pound gorilla? Certainly not members of congress.

    There was one happy note that came from the whole affair: Levin backed me 100 per cent. The letter did get him in trouble with donors, but he stood by it and by me, and since then he has been re-elected four times. In fact, he told me not long ago that he was proud that he wrote it. Him. Not me.

    MJ Rosenberg is a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Media Matters Action Network. The above article first appeared in Foreign Policy Matters, a part of the Media Matters Action Network.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    A version of this article was previously published on Foreign Policy Matters.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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