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The Not Very Scary Israel Lobby

Andrew Sullivan recently posted an item titled "How The Pro-Israel Lobby Works," continuing with his explanation, "By fear, threats, and stigmatization." The item links to a Media Matters blog post by M.J. Rosenberg titled, "How The Lobby Chills Middle East Debate." The piece is worth exploring because it reveals a lot about the mentality of the most hyperbolic critics of the Israel lobby.

I certainly agree that the Israel lobby is powerful -- though I think the most important basis of American support for Israel is not the lobby but the public's overwhelming sympathy for Israel -- and that the Israel lobby sometimes influences policy in ways I oppose. This is true of many lobbies. But to a group of left-wing critics clustered around the argument put forward by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, the Israel lobby is something much greater. It is, in Walt and Mearsheimer's term "The Lobby." It exerts not influence but total control over American foreign policy, and can even be blamed for the Iraq war. Its influence is invariably described in the most lurid terms -- it smears, it intimidates, it threatens.

Rosenberg reports an anecdote that he and Sullivan believe demonstrates this nefarious power. I think it demonstrates the opposite.

You should read Rosenberg's entire item, but the gist is this. In 1988, then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said he opposed any land-for-peace agreement with the Palestinians. Senator Carl Levin, then Rosenberg's boss, drafted a letter stating that the United States believed otherwise. Levin ran the language by Aipac's president and got 30 Senators to sign it. The letter leaked to the New York Times, which caused some Aipac donors to complain and the Shamir government to protest to Levin.

And then what happened? Then... nothing. Rosenberg got a call from William Safire, investigating a tip (provided by Benjamin Netanyahu and and Aipac's number two official) that Levin's letter was drafted by Israel's Labor Party. Rosenberg denied it, which persuaded Safire, who decided not to publish the column. That is the entire sum of the fear, threats, stigmatization, and debate chilling of the story. Now, Rosenberg dresses up the anecdote with man adjectives to make it all sound as sinister as possible. But accepting his version of events at face value, this story seems to deeply undercut even his own conclusion.

First, though critics like Walt and Mearsheimer present the Israel lobby as a pure agent of the Israeli government, in Rosenberg's telling, the head of Aipac approved a letter that infuriated the Israeli government. Second, this letter received wide support in the Senate. It got 30 signers, and, as Rosenberg puts it, "probably could have gotten three times as many [i.e., 90] but it was Friday afternoon and most of the senators had decamped."

Third, Israel was furious at Levin, and its fury had no consequence whatsoever. Rosenberg's account:

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 (i.e., the Secretary of State), the Israeli official insulted Levin and made ugly threats. Kerr then threw him out of the office.

Wait -- Levin's chief of staff threw the Israeli ambassador out of his office, and Levin managed to survive anyway? Absolutely nothing happened to him except that his staffers had to have an argument?

Finally, while the Israeli government complained loudly, the U.S. President backed Levin:

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

And then the crowning jewel of this Dan Brown tale of intimidation and secret power is... a phone call from a columnist who is duly dissuaded from publishing an erroneous tip.

If you think I'm slanting this account, please do read Rosenberg's version. His description differs from mine only in its pulp novelization of those same facts. It seems to me that this story, if anything, proves that the Israel lobby wields less power than most people (including me) believe. You have Aipac, the Senate, and the President openly opposing the Israeli government and suffering no ill effect whatsoever.

Again, I must repeat some caveats because invariably I'm going to be accused of saying that the Israel lobby has no influence whatsoever. Of course it has influence. I suppose one could say it "chills debate," in the sense that AARP chills debate on Medicare or Lockheed Martin chills debate on weapons programs. One thing that lobbies do is raise the political cost to elected officials of opposing their policies. But I'd appreciate if somebody could explain to me how this story demonstrates that the Israel lobby wields power in any way out of character with the power of other lobbies.