MJ Rosenberg, a former foreign policy aide for Senator Carl Levin, has written an interesting recollection of the one time anyone in Congress ever had anything unkind to say about Israel and got completely — and unfairly and weirdly — hammered for it. I’m being a bit flippant about this, to be sure, but this is serious business. I think there are quite a lot of important problems to discuss about Rosenberg’s piece, especially insofar as it lends to support — with the voice of an insider expert — to the argument that one powerful interest group has succeeded in changing the tone of American political discourse by shutting down debate about one element of our foreign policy.
The piece is entitled, “How the Lobby Chills Middle East Debate” but my sense is that it ought to be titled, “Does the Lobby Chill Middle East Debate?” The “How” presumes that the “Israel Lobby” has a chilling effect on what elected officials choose to say about Israel, where my amended title asks whether or not this presumption is correct, something that we, as good social scientists, could actually measure.
But that would be problematic for Rosenberg, since there’s nothing to measure in the piece. It’s simply one person’s anecdotal recollection of an event from 1988. Careful Running Chicken readers will not be particularly surprised that I don’t find this single anecdote from 20+ years ago to be very persuasive. There’s no evidence to suggest that elected officials were persuaded by this event to change from one position on Israel to another, nor is there any evidence to suggest a chilling effect on the speech of elected officials.
What’s more, there’s nothing in Rosenberg’s piece to suggest the work of the nefarious “Israel Lobby.” What we see instead is that a bunch of people didn’t like the position taken by Levin with regard to some comments by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on the desirability of land-for-peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Those people said unkind words and made some threats — empty ones, it turns out — in an attempt to pressure Levin into retracting his letter; he did not do so. Was the “Israel Lobby” behind these unkind words and empty threats?
Rosenberg tell us the following:
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.
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.
Are we to understand, by this, that the “Israel Lobby” is actually connected to the Times? That the “Israel Lobby” is so powerful that they have a standing arrangement with some senators such that any document seen by these senators that might be interpreted as critical of Israel will be sent to the Times so that the “Israel Lobby” can then mobilize its army of lobbyists, donors, and voters?
And what are we to make of the fact that the head of the “Israel Lobby” at the time, AIPAC’s Thomas Dine had seen the letter and pronounced it “great”? Is this to say that the AIPAC organizers don’t consult with the head of their organization? That the “Israel Lobby” is so powerful as to have a chilling effect even on the position of its own leadership? That AIPAC is somehow at the center of the powerful “Israel Lobby” that manages to chill speech at the level of the U.S. Congress and also that it manages to speak with more than voice when it comes to developing a position on the same document?
Actually, what might be the case with regard to this anecdote is that some senator — we don’t know which one, sadly — perceived this letter as an opportunity to challenge Levin (or, really, any one of the thirty senators who signed the letter). If this opportunistic senator read the political tea leaves carefully — or, really, not so carefully (as I’ve argued) — (s)he would know that the majority of people in the U.S. were just generally more supportive of Israel than of the Palestinians and might be unhappy to read that Levin (or their own senator, perhaps) was critical of the Israeli PM’s position with regard to negotiations with the Palestinians.
I think that there’s really no debate about whether or not this was the position of the American electorate in 1988. Keep in mind that this was a time when the PLO was still considered a terrorist organization, and that it would still be a few more years before the historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat that signalled the possibility of a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.
Today, the whole world thinks a negotiated settlement that involves the creation of an independent Palestinian state on land taken by Israel from Egypt and Jordan in 1967 is (or at the very least ought to be) a fait accompli. This simply was not the case in 1988. To say that the “Israel Lobby” somehow recognized a need to mobilize in order to counter Levin’s letter and to keep the lid firmly down with regard to any criticism of Israel is, I think, to look at this historical moment through the lens of 2011.
HT: Jonathan Cunningham.