Fantasise with me for a moment: A day will come when, after the balm of reason had insinuated itself into America’s Middle East foreign policy, the Israeli lobby is declared dead and someone will write its epitaph, which may simply read: “It reigned, it declined, it disappeared”.
But as of now, it reigns. And its reign over politicians, presidents, institutions and the public debate remains supreme. In short, what the Israeli lobby — a loose coalition of influential individuals and organisations that has for years steered US foreign policy in the Middle East in response to Israel’s interests — wants from America, the Israeli lobby gets. We resurrect a cliche when we say that Israel, like no other entity in the world, receives nothing less than servile deference from America’s politicians and foreign policy establishment. Unyielding support for Israel, whether right or wrong, is a given.
Two cases the week before last illustrated the extensive reach of this lobby in the US. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which aims to apply economic and political pressure on Israel with the stated goal of ending its occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land, is supported by diverse institutions, from universities to business concerns, and from segments of the entertainment world to labour unions. The liberal Jewish social critic, Peter Beinart, in his well-received 2012 book, The Crisis of Zionism, wrote of the group: “[BDS] gives activists frustrated by America’s unwillingness to pressure Israel a mechanism to do so themselves. It harnesses new technologies that empower citizens to organise across national lines. And it capitalises on the revulsion that many people whose nations were once colonised — or were once colonisers — feel towards an Israeli occupation with clear colonial features.”
Well, Israeli advocates in the US do not like that one bit. So they have mounted a campaign of their own — nationwide, state by state. It began in South Carolina, where the state’s legislature enacted legislation to thwart BDS’s efforts. Illinois will be the second state to do so. Plans are underway for similar laws in 18 more US sates. Also the week before last, those advocates, among them wealthy donors to the Israeli cause, such as Sheldon Adelson, the multimillionaire casino owner, convened in Las Vegas in order to, as the New York Times reported, “devise new strategies for countering BDS, particularly on American college campuses, where it has gained some support since the Gaza war last summer”. And later this month, Congress in Washington plans to vote on trade legislation that will encourage the blacklisting of foreign companies that support BDS. Is the lobby running scared or running against the tide?
But more alarming than its reach into the state of affairs in Washington and the affairs of state legislatures is the lobby’s reach these days into the workings of the United Nations. That reach now extends with direct and active help from the US, into how the UN conducts its business, in this case, into what official reports it may or may not release deemed detrimental to Israel’s image. (Gone are the days when the UN General Assembly, with impressive ease, issued Resolution 3379 in 1975, equating Zionism with racism and came a hair short of expelling Israel, along with apartheid South Africa, as a member state of the international body.)
Last Monday, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, buckled under and chose not to include Israel on a list of “armies and guerrilla groups” that “kill and maim children” in conflicts worldwide. The list was part of an annual report on the violation of children’s rights. When the advance copy was released, that went into great detail about the atrocities committed by the Israeli military during the 50-day war in Gaza last year, the lobby went into full gear.
Congressmen in Washington were lobbied to act. Among them was Senator Ted Cruz (a Republican presidential aspirant from Texas) who, well, actually threatened the UN secretary-general with “reassessment” by the US of its relationship with the UN — with reassessment understood to mean the cutting off of US funding to the international body — if Israel’s name on the list was not withdrawn. “This designation would falsely and shamelessly equate Israel with some of the most barbaric terrorist organisations around the world”, wrote Cruz. “The decision to add Israel is solely your decision to make and, therefore, is entirely in your power to prevent from taking place”. And Ban complied. Prodded by the lobby, other lawmakers, like Senator Lindsey Graham, also put in their two cents’ worth.
In their landmark, not to mention courageous, work, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy (2007), John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, put it well: “Maintaining US support for Israel’s policies against the Palestinians is a core goal of many groups in the lobby, but their objectives are not limited to that goal. They also want America to help Israel remain the dominant regional power. The Israeli government and pro-Israel groups in the United States have worked together [to shape several administrations’ policies] towards Iraq, Syria and Iran, as well as its grand scheme for reordering the Middle East ...” And who could forget how the lobby influenced America’s decision to invade Iraq in March 2003, with disastrous consequences for both Americans and Iraqis?
What makes Americans kow-tow to this lobby and take it all on the chin when they are pushed around by a little colonist entity in the Middle East? Search me.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.