If Tom Friedman can say it, you can too

Even Israel’s most ardent supporters now say its lobby skews the political landscape and damages both the US and Israel.

Obama with AIPAC
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby takes its orders from Israel  [EPA]

The most appalling aspect of the Obama administration’s inept handling of the upcoming UN vote on Palestinian statehood is the reason for the administration’s bumbling. Its moves are dictated by fear of offending Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, his lobby and, especially, the campaign donors who take direction from that lobby.

One can respond: So what else is new? But that is only if you get your information from some place other than the electronic or print mainstream media. There, due to a decades-long campaign of intimidation, the lobby’s actions are rarely reported.

That is because the organisations that compose the lobby – including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League – have demonstrated that even mentioning the lobby’s excessive power will lead to being smeared with the label of “anti-Israel” or “anti-Semitic”.

No matter that the lobby’s most powerful component, AIPAC, brags about its power over Washington policymakers in speeches, literature and at its annual conclave, which is attended by most of Congress and often the president and the secretary of state. No matter that AIPAC’s eight-story headquarters overlooking the Capitol testifies to its wealth. No matter that members of Congress themselves – occasionally publicly and often privately – discuss the bluntness of AIPAC’s threats.

[The] Powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the UN

– Thomas Friedman

No, those who dare cite its huge influence are accused of indulging in myth, much like the authors of the fantastical forgery, “The Protocols Of The Elders of Zion”.

That may be changing after a bolt of illuminating lightning struck this week.

Incoherent policy

Writing in the New York Times, influential foreign policy columnist Thomas Friedman came right out and said that the lobby is the cause of America’s seemingly incoherent policy toward Israel and Palestine and for the embarrassing and dangerous sucking up to Netanyahu.

The US government, he explains, is “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 UN, even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s”.

In other words, policymakers are torn between doing what is in our national interest (and consistent with our democratic values) and pleasing a powerful lobby that threatens to withhold funding from any politician that deviates from the line.

There is nothing particularly new in what Friedman says about the lobby, other than that it comes from a consistent friend of Israel – who says that his motivation in writing the column was that he has “never been more worried about Israel’s future”.

Although the lobby would like to smear Friedman, it can’t lay a glove on him. What are they going to do? Call him an anti-Semite? Try to get him fired? For what? Because he cares about Israel too much to let a right-wing politician sacrifice its future?

Nonetheless, it is unlikely that Friedman’s column will impress President Obama as much as it will infuriate Binyamin Netanyahu. This administration made its decision back when it repeatedly retreated on the matter of Israeli settlements. It will support Netanyahu no matter the cost to Israel, the Palestinians, or to the standing of the United States.

Netanyahu’s grand plan

And Netanyahu knows it. In fact, Friedman writes that, contrary to the common view that Bibi is just a bumbler, he actually has a strategy – not just for Palestine but for all the areas in which he has made such a colossal mess. And it is predicated on the power of the lobby:

“OK, Mr Netanyahu has a strategy: Do nothing vis-à-vis the Palestinians or Turkey that will require him to go against his base, compromise his ideology or antagonise his key coalition partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an extreme right-winger. Then, call on the US to stop Iran’s nuclear programme and help Israel out of every pickle, but make sure that President Obama can’t ask for anything in return – like halting Israeli settlements – by mobilising Republicans in Congress to box in Obama and by encouraging Jewish leaders to suggest that Obama is hostile to Israel and is losing the Jewish vote. And meanwhile, get the Israel lobby to hammer anyone in the administration or Congress who says aloud that maybe Bibi has made some mistakes, not just Barack. There, who says Mr Netanyahu doesn’t have a strategy?”

I don’t know what this all means in terms of this week’s vote at the UN except for this: The US position, whatever it turns out to be, will be dictated by people whose sole goal is to defend Netanyahu and the status quo. I expect the president to do exactly what Netanyahu wants him to do. And, given Netanyahu’s choices of late, the outcome will be disastrous.

I feel terrible about all this. And I’m not alone. Many people who care about Israel understand that it can only survive if it ends the occupation and supports the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. In fact, the people I know who are most happy about the course Netanyahu and Obama will likely adopt at the UN are either robotic supporters of the lobby (“if Netanyahu says it, it must be right”) and those who would like to see Israel replaced by one state, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, dominated by the Palestinian majority.

Two things are terribly wrong here. Most significantly, our foreign policy in the US is being dominated by a lobby that takes its orders from an inept leader of a country that is the largest recipient of US aid – but that never does anything to make life easier for the United States. The other is that the lobby in question calls itself “pro-Israel” – but repeatedly and consistently promotes policies that endanger the very survival of Israel. For the lobby, it’s all a DC power game. Too bad that so many lives are at stake. Not to mention a 1,900-year-old dream.


Background: Here is an article on how AIPAC helped orchestrate the defeat of the late chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Charles Percy, for deviating from the AIPAC line.

Here is a letter from ADL Chairman Abe Foxman accusing the great Bill Moyers of “anti-Semitism” because he criticised the Gaza war. Foxman also organised pressure on PBS for hosting the progressive journalist.

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 previously appeared on Foreign Policy Matters.