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Transforming America’s Israel Lobby

Barely a week after Benjamin Netanyahu had his first meeting as Prime Minister with Barack Obama, the two are squaring off publicly over the issue of “natural growth” in West Bank settlements. One of the more interesting circumstances about this confrontation has been the silence of the Jewish groups who are thought of as constituting the “Israel Lobby.”

In 2007, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt brought all the theorizing and debating over the role of the “Israel Lobby” in US policy to the forefront. For many, their theory seemed to have too many holes. Those who approached the work of the two esteemed international relations professors critically but rationally pointed us toward the need of a much better understanding of the Lobby and what its effects and limits were.

The confluence of that ongoing debate and the recent direction of US policy illustrates the need for a book like Dan Fleshler’s Transforming America’s Israel Lobby: The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change.

This is a book that should have been written many years ago. It is full of insight into the major Jewish organizations, as well as some non-Jewish ones, working on the issue of Israel. It’s also constructive, offering practical guidance as to how those of us whose passion for peace and desire for fair treatment of Palestinians is equal to our concern for Israel’s well-being might begin to blaze a new policy trail.

Fleshler dispassionately analyzes the depth and limits of the power held by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the major lobbying force protecting the status quo in US policy. Unlike Walt and Mearsheimer, who depict AIPAC as the spearhead of a virtually indomitable bastion of power, Fleshler, operating with a great deal of direct knowledge enhanced by discussions with those of us who work in the field, reveals the mix of real influence and mythology that gives AIPAC the influence it wields.

There’s a curious effect of anti-Semitism that paradoxically helps enhance the influence of the major Jewish organizations in Washington. Fleshler reminds us of Chaim Weizmann’s ability to convince British leaders that the Jewish community, thoroughly powerless at the time, could bring valuable support in exchange for British endorsement of Zionism. Weizmann capitalized on anti-Semitic myths about Jewish power and secret control. In some ways, AIPAC does the same, though I’m sure they don’t think of what Fleshler calls “power puffery” in those terms.

That is not to say that the organized Jewish community doesn’t wield considerable political power in the US. Fleshler does a masterful job of portraying the actual political influence that AIPAC and other groups wield, without either overblowing or underplaying it.

It is precisely this contextualizing of AIPAC that marks this book a success in all the ways that Walt and Mearsheimer fell short. The two professors, whose expertise does not lie in a Washington scene with which they have only a dilettante’s familiarity, can’t match Fleshler’s insight into the workings of Washington, much less the Jewish community.

Trying to analyze not only AIPAC, but also the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents, as well as the other side of the coin — Israel Policy Forum, J Street, and Americans for Peace Now — without any understanding of the community from which they spring is impossible. Walt, Mearsheimer, and most of the writers and bloggers who pontificate about The Lobby make this very mistake.

But it’s a community Fleshler has not only spent his whole life in, but has played a variety of key roles in. He is thus able to round out his analysis with an insider’s knowledge of the framework and a familiarity with the people he needed to interview for this book.

The particular strength of Transforming America’s Israel Lobby is that, despite his oft-stated and clear allegiance to the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” camp Fleshler largely speaks with familiarity and objectivity about the so-called “Israel Lobby groups” like AIPAC, the AJC, and the Conference of Presidents. As a result, the reader will get the insight into the mainstream Jewish community they need to understand how these institutions achieved their stature and why they pursue the policies they do.

Fleshler reserves his harsher words for extremists on both right and left. And yet, even here, his view is nuanced. When discussing one group, Jewish Voice for Peace, which straddles a line between the far left and Fleshler’s own chevra, he notes his frequent disagreements with them, but bemoans the fact that they and the groups he favors have not been able to find a way to work at some level with each other. Indeed, he’s correct—this is a serious weakness on the left, one the right experiences to a much lesser degree.

Fleshler also draws a clear line between the far right politically active groups like the Zionist Organization of America, more center-right groups like AIPAC and centrist groups like the AJC. Almost all discussions of “The Lobby” acknowledge that there is a variety of groups involved, but fail to actually distinguish between them. The differences are actually quite important.

Fleshler is driving at an alternative lobby to create significant political pressure for the course favored by most Americans, including both Jewish and Arab Americans. Polls have consistently shown that most American Jews support increased US engagement in diplomacy and pressure on both Israel and Palestinians if necessary. Yet the leadership of Jewish organizations do not reflect the views of their own constituents and members of Congress believe that Abe Foxman, David Harris, Howard Kohr and Malcolm Hoenlein represent the views of mainstream Jews. They don’t, according to virtually every poll published.

The reason for the misperception is that the segment of the Jewish community (and this is actually true of the larger American public as well) that they do represent is far more committed and active on the issue. Most who support an American policy closer to the one Obama has seemingly embarked on simply have other concerns that are higher priorities.

The “pro-Israel, pro-peace” camp needs to find a way to galvanize those people and to make Middle East peace a higher priority for them. Fleshler does a very good job of laying out both why this is so crucial and what most of the obstacles are.

And here is where I have my one nitpick with Fleshler’s book.  In his reading of the evolution of the politics of Israel in the US, he misses what I consider to be one of that history’s major turning points: Ehud Barak’s message that there is no “partner for peace” on the Palestinian side.

Fleshler does discuss the failure of the talks at Camp David in 2000. But he omits any exploration of the impact that Barak’s and Bill Clinton’s decision to lay all the blame on Yasir Arafat for that failure. It largely destroyed the peace camp in Israel and seriously impacted it here as well, despite the fact that Barak’s picture of Camp David is wildly inaccurate (see Martin Indyk’s comments here. Bill Clinton also later changed his story about Camp David, though with very little fanfare).  That needs to play a much greater role than it does in this book in mapping out a strategy for an effective peace lobby that puts the interests of both Israel’s future and Palestinian human rights together on the center stage.

That one flaw notwithstanding, from my perspective as someone who has worked in the field of Israel-Palestine peace for years, and writing from my office in Washington, it is clear that Transforming America’s Israel Lobby is the book we have been waiting for. Those of us “inside the Beltway” have long felt much of what Fleshler says.

And the way he says it is important too. AIPAC is not presented here as a monstrous behemoth, but as an organization with people who share many of the goals that the peace camp does, just with different ideas of how to get there. The alternative he calls for must be built, and what there is of it now must mobilize in support of Barack Obama.

For the first time in decades, a US President is leading a fight against the settlement enterprise. It’s long overdue, and those of us who care about Israel’s future, who care about Palestinians’ human rights, who care about peace need to do everything we can to support him. And, we need also to build for the future. Following Fleshler’s blueprint would be a great way to do it.

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