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The Left's Israeli Lobby Denial

by Stephen Sniegoski Thursday, Jun. 22, 2006 at 9:35 AM

Unlike the lies and omissions of the mainstream, the Left is good on telling the truth about the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. But its unwillingness to accept the Israel lobby's role in shaping American Middle East policy helps to maintain that very policy

Israel-lobby denial: The bankruptcy of the mainstream Left

as illustrated by Stephen Zunes,– or, – On the issue of the Israel lobby

the Left is no more courageous than anyone else


The antiwar Left would prefer that old-style American imperialism and the quest for oil had caused the Iraq War. They are the preferred enemies of the Left. They are the traditional villains. And they are safe villains. Mentioning Israel as a culprit would cause problems: it would lose support for the Left among activist Jews, and it would lead to hostility from the Israel lobby and mainstream Jewish groups.

By way of contrast, no one ever got in trouble berating oil magnates or Arab sheiks — witness Michael Moore's blockbuster 2004 documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11," which focuses on those alleged villains while ignoring the neocon/Israel connection to the war. [1] Also important is the fact that Jews, categorically, are considered to be victims; and it is hard for the Left to criticize an officially recognized victimized group. In terms of left-wing psychology the ideal is to strike a radical, nonconformist pose without really alienating the powerful, thus avoiding any negative consequences as well as the cognitive dissonance that results from chiding designated victims. The process can go so far as to turn a man into an unintentional apologist for Israel. Such is the case with Stephen Zunes, a prominent leftist historian of the Middle East, whom the leftist Israel-critic Jeffrey Blankfort describes as a Noam Chomsky acolyte. [2]

Zunes teaches at the University of San Francisco and, as his biography at the USF Website indicates, serves as a writer and Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project, and as an associate editor for Peace Review. [3] Zunes has given numerous lectures and conference papers in the United States and abroad, and has published numerous articles in journals, magazines, and newspapers on such topics as U.S. foreign policy, Middle Eastern political developments, African politics, social movements, and nonviolent action. His books include Nonviolent Social Movements (Blackwell, 1999) and, with Richard Falk, Tinderbox: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage, 2003). Zunes has served as a political analyst for National Public Radio, Pacifica Radio, the BBC, and MSNBC. He has also been a board member and consultant for a number of peace and human-rights organizations. As is apparent from this brief description, Zunes is a prominent intellectual activist of the antiwar Left. And his views reflect the characteristic attitude of that broad group.

Writing in Foreign Policy in Focus, Zunes recently offered an analysis [4] of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's "Israel Lobby" essay [5] that was similar in some ways to the negative views of leftist luminaries Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein [6] but reflected a more hostile tone not just toward Mearsheimer and Walt but toward anyone who would dare claim that the Israel lobby has had an impact on American foreign policy.

To encapsulate Zunes's position: Instead of influencing American policy, Israel is but the passive instrument of American policymakers. Washington has forced Israel to pursue a belligerent policy to enhance American hegemony in the Middle East for the benefit of corporate capitalists, especially arms merchants. Free of American control, Israel would pursue a peaceful policy toward the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states. Therefore, Israel is the victim of the United States.

Moreover, Zunes maintains, those who claim a significant role for Israel and the Israel lobby in determining U.S. foreign policy tend toward anti-Semitism. Thus does the left-wing critic of American policy morph into an apologist for Israel. Like Alan Dershowitz — in some respects worse than Dershowitz — Zunes makes use of misleading half-truths while simultaneously ignoring the unmistakable evidence substantiating the power of the Israel lobby in influencing U.S. policy.

Zunes begins his essay with a blanket attack on the integrity of Mearsheimer and Walt. While Chomsky at least praised the courage of the two scholars, Zunes sees a devious intent behind their work. "What progressive supporters of Mearsheimer and Walt's analysis seem to ignore," Zunes asserts, "is that both men have a vested interest in absolving from responsibility the foreign policy establishment that they have served so loyally all these years. Israel and its supporters are essentially being used as convenient scapegoats for America's disastrous policies in the Middle East." [7]

The presumption here is that anyone who does not identify with the Left somehow serves the foreign-policy establishment, in the manner of an employee or "lackey of American imperialism" as the Communist press used to put it. But the fact is that the two authors opposed the war on Iraq from the outset. They were among 33 academicians who took out an ad in the September 26, 2002, New York Times titled "War with Iraq Is Not in America's National Interest." That would be an odd way of serving the establishment, if said establishment actually directed the American war on Iraq, as Zunes categorically asserts. So let's just put this down as a gratuitous smear at best, not unlike what members of the Israel lobby hurled at Mearsheimer and Walt, along with anyone else who had the temerity to point out the lobby's power.

The idea that the Israel lobby was simply a scapegoat implies its innocence. But nowhere does Zunes try to show that its members, especially the neocons, were not pushing for war on Iraq or Iran. Instead, Zunes's defense is that the Israel lobby does not have the power to have its plans implemented or that it is merely a pawn of the United States.

He argues further that, because its members were divided on the issue, it cannot be said that the Israel lobby per se supported the war on Iraq. Zunes writes that

while Mearsheimer and Walt do not claim that the Israel lobby is monolithic or centrally directed, they fail to emphasize how not all pro-Israel groups support the policies of the Israeli government, particularly its right-wing administrations. Groups like Americans for Peace Now, the Tikkun Community, Brit Tzedek v' Shalom, and the Israel Policy Forum all identify themselves as pro-Israel but oppose the occupation, the settlements, the separation wall, and Washington's unconditional support for Israeli policies.

But that argument ignores relative power. There is no Zionist peace group that counteracts the power of AIPAC. Similarly, there is no Zionist peace group that counters the neocons in terms of think tanks and media power.

Even more remarkably, Zunes denies the neocon role in the war. He charges that

perhaps the most twisted argument in [Mearsheimer and Walt's] article is the authors' claim that the 2003 invasion of Iraq "was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure." This is ludicrous on several grounds. First of all, Israel is far less secure as a result of the rise of Islamist extremism, terrorist groups, and Iranian influence in post-invasion Iraq than it was during the final years of Saddam Hussein's rule, when Iraq was no longer a strategic threat to Israel or actively involved in anti-Israeli terrorism.

One may observe that this is perhaps the most twisted of Zunes's arguments (and there are many competitors). Even if his assumption were true that the war made Israel less secure (and that is highly questionable), it would have no bearing on the obvious fact that the Israeli government did actively urge the attack on Iraq; the Israelis did not merely go along with U.S. policy. Israel provided the bogus WMD intelligence to help garner the public and political support necessary to bring the war about. So in this case, as in many others, Zunes ignores not only facts but logic as well to infer that if Israel's security was not enhanced by the war, then Israel could not possibly have promoted such a policy in the first place. Such illogic would lead one to argue that Napoleon couldn't possibly have ordered the invasion of Russia, since it turned out to be a fiasco.

As suggested above, it is anything but apparent that the war has harmed the security of Israel. As a result of the war on terror, the United States is now militantly opposed to the enemies of Israel, including the Palestinians. Israel has now taken a free hand in dealing with the Palestinians. As a result of American pressure, Syria removed its military from Lebanon. Now the United States and Europe are pressuring Iran with respect to its nuclear policy — in essence we see a de facto international effort to guarantee Israel's nuclear monopoly in the Middle East, in view of the fact that there is no call for Israel to give up its potent nuclear arsenal.

Zunes also omits the fact that the neocons were the driving force for war and that their war agenda was closely linked to that of Israel. For some years before 2001, the neocons had been pushing for war on Iraq, a war that was intended as the first step in restructuring the entire Middle East — what they have referred to as World War IV. It was right in line with Israeli Likudnik thinking. Leading neocons — Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser — provided a similar plan to destabilize the Middle East to incoming Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in 1996. The fundamental purpose of the plan, titled "A Clean Break," was to enhance Israeli security. And the idea originated not in some irrelevant whim of the neocons but actually in Israel, with a comparable plan being put forth in an article in 1982 by Oded Yinon. (Israel Shahak's translation of Yinon's work appeared under the title The Zionist Plan for the Middle East.)

As a result of neocon efforts, significant aspects of this destabilization plan, developed to enhance Israeli security, became the policy of the United States in the Bush II administration. If I may underline my point: the United States adopted a policy that originated in Israel and that the pro-Israel neocons promoted; there is no evidence that "corporate America" forced Israel or its supporters to develop those policies.

While not ignoring the neocons' actual plans, Zunes downplays their connection to Israel. Zunes writes that "although the neoconservatives who championed the invasion of Iraq were supporters of Israel's rightist governments, they had for many years also been supporters of rightist governments in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere out of a belief that such alliances strengthened American hegemony." To say that the neocons are no more linked to Israel than they were to South Vietnam or Guatemala is simply absurd. Obviously, the neocons' ties and loyalties have been far stronger to Israel than to any other country. On this point I recommend to your attention my article "The second wave against Mearsheimer and Walt: A well-tempered smother-out as a new war looms" (The Last Ditch, May 25, 2006), especially my discussion of some leading neocons and their Israeli ties. As I write in that essay: "Neocons have been involved in institutions that promote the interests of Jews and Israel — especially Commentary magazine, which is funded by the American Jewish Committee, and the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs."


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