“The Israel lobby” fallacy


Stephen Walt and Andrew Sullivan have uncovered who exactly is responsible for the impasse (or maybe it’s not such an impasse) in Middle East peace-making:

The Israel lobby!

I’ve written and written and written how disorienting it is to actually cover the daily grind of pro-Israel activism and then to see these weird magical powers attributed to the "lobby."

AIPAC, mostly, lobbies Congress. Some of the people on its board give money to people running for Congress. The condition for getting this money, generally, is that you are an incumbent that votes for aid to Israel and signs letters praising Israel, and honestly, not a whole lot more. It takes a lot to get these donors to go to the mat against an incumbent — and they never rise up against anyone in a strong position. They simply would not win, and they know it, and Congress knows it.

AIPAC’s relationship with the executive branch — the branch that actually determines foreign policy — is even more ephemeral: It hires top analysts to write policy papers and gets friendly hail-fellow-well-met types to make sure the right eyes see them. The degree to which the position papers are influential depends — really — on how well they are written and argued. Even then, AIPAC cannot — no one can — turn around a determined executive branch. (See under: The last Bush administration and Iran.)

So does this add up to influence? Sure. What is its quality, its measure?

That depends on how influential Congress is on an administration’s foreign policy, how vulnerable a president and his staff are to notions that their foreign policy is unmoored and most of all, how successfully the lobby hews its appeals to perceived (perceived) American interests. And a little — really, not that much — with what happens in election cycles.

There’s also the weird yin/yang effect of how close a lobby is to an administration’s ideological outlook. I’d argue, for instance, that environmentalists are much happier when Democrats are in power, but the pro-Israel lobby — close as it was to the latter Bush administration’s philosophies of preemption — was denied influence precisely because of the closeness. (Kind of a "Don’t worry, we gotcher back" way of not listening that led Bush to focus more on Iraq than Iran.)

So what does that add up to? In the current case, the lobby has a degree of influence, yes — but it pales next to Wall Street and the Afghanistan war lobby, just to name two areas where Obama has seemed to have gone against type (but not, if you closely followed his campaign). In terms of incremental improvement over the last administration, I’d say the pro-Israel lobby is about where the gay marriage lobby is.


But  at the Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan knows better:

On Israel, Obama was simply crushed by the pro-Israel lobby, and is now reduced to acting as Netanyahu’s puppet.

He derives this certainty from Walt at Foreign Policy, who once again turns a quote on its head by plucking it out of context (and insisting, hey, this isn’t me saying it.):

Obama took office promising "two-states for two peoples" in his first term, and he appeared to be serious about it until the Cairo speech in June 2009. It’s been one retreat after another ever since, and as former U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk acknowledged in a recent Ha’aretz interview, it was mostly due to pressure from the Israel lobby. In his words (not mine):

"American Jews traditionally are pretty supportive of the Democratic Party. They voted overwhelmingly for Barak Obama, they tend to vote for Democratic candidates and they provide a good deal of funding for political campaigns. So the Jewish factor is always a critical factor for Democratic candidates. I don’t think it’s telling any secrets that there are a lot of people who have been upset with President Obama. And I think that the White House came to the understanding that they have a real problem there and they are going out of their way trying to show they are friendly to Israel and committed to peace."

This is a little like the Shirley Sherrod fiasco: You need to read the whole Ha’aretz interview to see how far off the mark Walt is, but there’s a hint even in the quoted passage: "They are going out of their way trying to show they are friendly to Israel and committed to peace." In other words, Obama is making his (entirely consistent) policy of pushing hard for direct talks palatable to American Jews by casting it as in Israel’s interest.

But read the whole interview to understand its emphasis. This is how Indyk starts:

I don’t envy Netanyahu. The settlement freeze will be difficult for him to extend and difficult not to extend as well, especially if by then direct negotiations have begun. Then Israel will be responsible for blowing up the negotiations. And of course, if he does extend the settlement moratorium, he’ll be assailed by the right wing, including members of his own party. It puts him between a rock and a hard place. I don’t envy him in terms of how he will deal with this. But again – once the Palestinians are in direct negotiations, what Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] will particularly care about most – is to move quickly toward an agreement. I might be wrong, but I don’t think that either Netanyahu or Abu Mazen – certainly not [U.S. President] Barak Obama, [U.S. Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton or [special envoy] George Mitchell – want to get waylaid again by an argument about settlements. I think they all want to focus on the main challenge which is to reach an agreement on what the borders of the Palestinian state will be. And then the settlement issue will be resolved as a result of that.

Indyk is slightly ambivalent about settlements — but read on, and you see that he feels Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must extend the freeze — but what exercises him most (and now that Walt has decided Indyk is an oracle, he should sit up and listen) is the lack of dialogue. I counted at least ten references to direct negotiations in the interview, while the reference to the "lobby" comes once, deep into the interview, and at the behest of Natasha Mozgovoya the interviewer.

So what is hindering peace talks, according to Indyk, at least by implication?

Why, the failure to talk! Specifically, Abbas’ refusal until now to talk.

Imagine that.

Now, we can parse all day why Abbas has until now resisted direct talks. He’s a coward, he secretly doesn’t want an agreement, he can’t do it without Arab backing and the Arabs won’t play (or will they), or, as American for Peace Now’s Lara Freidman argues here in Foreign Policy, he is terrified that he will be blamed if the talks blow up, even if it is Netanyahu who blows them up. (Lara argues that Abbas should go anyway, but urges the Obama administration to take measures that would assuage his fears.)

But honestly, this is plain as it comes: For talks to succeed, you need to talk.

The rest — those Senate races in Pennsylvania, in Kentucky, the tireless folks on the Hill, even the sleepless denizens of the National Security Council — it’s really just commentary.

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