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Columns

Setback for pro-Israel hawks in U.S.: Bernd Debusmann

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - “The brutal oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli occupation shows no sign of ending ... Israel no longer even pretends to seek peace with the Palestinians, it strives to pacify them ... American identification with Israel has become total.”

These are excerpts from a 2007 speech by Charles (Chas) Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, whose appointment as chairman of the National Intelligence Council was announced on February 26 and is turning into a test case for the strength of Washington’s right-wing pro-Israel lobby.

Signs are that its influence might be waning under the administration of President Barack Obama. Does that mean the days of unquestioning American support for Israel are coming to en end? Probably not. But the furious reaction to Freeman’s appointment from some of the most fervent neo-conservative champions of Israel points to considerable concern over the possible loss of clout.

In his new job, Freeman will be responsible for compiling intelligence from the United States’ 16 intelligence agencies into National Intelligence Estimates, detailed and lengthy analyses that play a key role in shaping U.S. foreign policy.

The initial drumbeat of criticism came from conservative pro-Israel bloggers, including Steve Rosen, former policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Rosen has been indicted for giving “national defense information to persons not entitled to receive it,” legalese for spying.

“Freeman is a strident critic of Israel and a textbook case of the old-line Arabism that afflicted American diplomacy at the time Israel was born,” Rosen wrote.

While remarks critical of Israel are common coin among human rights groups and independent scholars, they are virtually taboo in official Washington, whose elected leaders - or those running for office - tend to stress unflagging support for the Jewish state.

Even small departures from the standard line can prompt the ire of the Israel-right-or-wrong camp. During his election campaign, Obama learned how tricky seemingly innocent remarks can be when he said “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” There was so much criticism, he later “clarified” the remark.

The initial blogger assault on Freeman, whose lengthy and impressive resume of public service includes Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan, then moved to the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the conservative Washington Times. The attacks widened to suggest that he is beholden to the Saudi government.

That allegation stems from the time he ran a Washington-based think tank, the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC), whose donors include Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a member of the Saudi royal family and billionaire entrepreneur, who gave the council $1 million.

CRITICISM THREATENS PEACE?

The appointment has been made but the quest to dislodge or discredit him is not over. Nine Republican members of Congress wrote to the inspector general in the office of the Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, demanding “a comprehensive review of Ambassador Freeman’s past and current commercial, financial and contractual ties to the Kingdom to ensure no conflict of interest exists in his new position.”

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor has urged Obama to reconsider the appointment, saying that Freeman’s comments about the U.S.-Israel relationship “raise serious concerns about his ability to support the administration’s attempts to bring security, stability and peace to the Middle East.”

Criticism of Israel threatens peace? Israeli settlements on the West Bank, in violation of international law, have nothing to do with the flagging peace process? Making peace is made easier by the U.S. refusal to talk to Hamas, the group that won elections in Gaza and runs the war-shattered territory?

One of the critics of the appointment, Gabriel Schoenfeld, noted, with a tone of disapproval, that Freeman’s MEPC had published “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” a controversial assessment of U.S.-Israeli relations by two prominent American academics, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard.

They argued that the United States, through its unquestioning support of Israel, was neglecting its own security interests to advance the interests of another state. The influence of hawkish pro-Israel lobbies, chief among them AIPAC, had established a stranglehold on Congress to ram through decisions favoring Israel.

In the 60 years since its establishment on May 14, 1948, Israel has been by far the largest recipient of U.S. assistance, military and economic, in the world, according to the Congressional Research Service. Aid has been running at around $3 billion a year since 1985, a sizable sum for a country with a population smaller than that of New York City.

Walt, who blogs at Foreign Policy magazine, weighed into the Freeman debate as it gathered steam even before the actual appointment. Apart from trying to get it revoked by Dennis Blair or get Freeman to withdraw, Walt said, the anti-Freeman campaign had a third aim.

“Attacking Freeman is intended to deter other people in the foreign policy community from speaking out on these matters. Freeman might be too smart, too senior and too well-qualified to stop, but there are plenty of younger people eager to rise in the foreign policy establishment and they need to be reminded that their careers could be jeopardized ... if they said what they thought.”

But the Obama administration appears to have no problem with people who say what they think about U.S.-Israel ties. Take Samantha Power, the former Harvard professor whose outspoken views echo those of Walt and Mearsheimer. Obama gave her an important job on the National Security Council.

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)

Editing by Kieran Murray

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