Fleshler, former media strategist for the Israel Policy Forum, offers a clear-eyed and dispassionate assessment of what he terms "the conventional Israel lobby" and its real and imagined influence on Congress and the president. Observing the irony that both the lobby and its opponents benefit from overstating its power, Fleshler debunks conventional wisdom about the lobby and its methods, using, for example, a study of Federal Election Commission records to demonstrate that pro-Israel political contributions are in fact minor compared to those connected with dozens of other causes. With less specificity, Fleshler outlines how liberal supporters of Israel can simultaneously promote the country's security and push American officials to make greater demands on its government, particularly concerning settlement expansion. The book accurately explains Jewish-American fears about criticism of Israel, acknowledging legitimate historical anxieties even as Fleshler calls on young and unaffiliated members of the community to lead new lobbying efforts on behalf of a less divisive approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. (May)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Transforming America's Israel Lobby: The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Changeby Dan Fleshler
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Does America's "pro-Israel lobby," including the legendary American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), have as much power as is commonly believed? Does it have an unbreakable stranglehold on America's Middle East policies? The answer is no, according to Dan Fleshler, an American Jewish activist who has worked within his community to try to counteract AIPAC and its allies.
Written from the singular perch of a liberal American Jew who wants to create an alternative lobby in order to encourage more evenhanded U.S. policies in the Middle East, Fleshler's new book, Transforming America's Israel Lobby, sheds new light on how Israel's American supporters exert their influence in Washington. With original research, it skewers myths propounded by the defenders of America's mainstream, pro-Israel community as well as its detractors, notably John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. It demonstrates that much of AIPAC's power is based on smoke and mirrors, on its ability to manage the perceptions of the political elite and promote exaggerated notions of its resources and clout.
Having put AIPAC and its allies in proper perspective, the book provides the first detailed examination of the opportunities for-and obstacles to-creating a domestic political bloc that is pro-American, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. It offers concrete, provocative suggestions to Americans-Jews and non-Jews alike-who want to embolden the U.S. government to disagree with Israel when necessary, and to press both Israelis and Palestinians to make the compromises required for peace.
Why have American Jews, one of the most liberal communities in the United States, allowed hawks and neoconservatives to speak for them in Washington on matters related to Israel? Where have all the Jewish doves been hiding all of these years? Why didn't more of them speak out against America's invasion of Iraq? What can be done to mobilize Americans who believe that stopping both Israeli settlement expansion and Palestinian terrorism are vital American interests, and who want to give U.S. officials more political leeway to lean on both sides of the conflict, rather than just one side?
Dan Fleshler, who has spent a quarter century as a consultant, board member and volunteer for a wide range of Jewish organizations, is in a unique position to answer these questions. He does so based on his own extensive experience in the American Jewish community, as well as interviews with Washington insiders, American Jewish leaders, Arab American and Christian church activists who focus on the Middle East, Israeli diplomats and politicians, and other experts.
This book is a clarion call to "passionate moderates" who want to see an end to the Israeli occupation and who envision a viable Palestinian state; both goals can be achieved, according to Fleshler, via a robust American diplomacy that does not sell out the interests of either Israelis or Palestinians.
"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. . . . Transforming America's Israel Lobby is the book we have been waiting for. . . . The alternative [Fleshler] calls for must be built."
"Fleshler, former media stategist for the Israel Policy Forum, offers a clear-eyed and dispassionate assessment of what he terms 'the conventional Israel lobby' and its real and imagined influence on Congress and the president."
"In a fairer world, Fleshler's book would occupy the space in our public discourse taken up by Walt/Mearsheimer. . . . Fleshler's book offers a veritable cornucopia of common sense about how AIPAC and other 'pro-Israel' organizations manage to remain so effective in controlling the debate and securing their aims from Congress."
"Read Dan Fleshler's book for a primer on how [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] is 'not the 800 pound gorilla in the room . . . just the 400 pound gorilla in the room.' Learn from the past mistakes and triumphs of the pro-peace camp and see how AIPAC's relations with government have begun to fray over the years. Kick 'em off their pedestal and consider anew the size of the left and why it's growing. Fleshler--a lifelong advocate of peace since the beginning--is providing a young person like me invaluable perspective on how far we have come."
"Incisive and thoughtful"
"Well-written and well-researched...Fleshler clearly knows his way around the Jewish organizational world."
"Fleshler should . . . be commended for slamming 'those who think that Israelis deserve to be singled out for human rights abuses above all other peoples on earth.' More broadly, he appears to genuinely want peace to break out in the Middle East. This is a good thing."
“Fleshler provides a modicum of hope that the United States can play a more constructive role in ending the conflict between Israel and the Arab and Islamic worlds. . . . By detailing the existence of progressive organizations that strive for Israel’s security, Middle East peace and Palestinian rights, Transforming America’s Israel Lobby advances our understanding of the nature of America’s Israel lobbies, a diverse group of organizations that are too often referred to in the singular.”
“An interesting response to John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.”
"An extraordinarily frank, courageous, and truly illuminating book. It dispels many myths while frankly exploring some perennial dilemmas faced by peace-seeking American Jews, and outlines a pro-peace, pro-Israel, and pro-American road forward for them to take. A genuine tour de force!"
“This is a brilliant study of two intriguing contradictions pertaining to the story of America's Israel lobby. One is the contradiction between the reality and limits of Jewish power, on the one hand, and the popular perception of that power, on the other. Another has to do with the yawning gap between the Israel lobby's hawkish policies and the liberal views of the majority of American Jews. Fleshler's work is a timely reminder of the need for Israel's friends in America to focus their advocacy efforts on promoting one of Israel's most vital, indeed existential, interests: advancing a two-state solution to its conflict with the Palestinians.”
“In the best tradition of the participant-observer, Dan Fleshler has written from the trenches where American Jews have been waging a struggle over the nature of and prospects for Arab-Israeli peace. Imbedded ideologues of the left and right are disarmed in his bold, original analysis and call to action. Readers who accompany Fleshler in his fascinating journey will discover the pragmatic idealism of an ethical, security-based dovishness that may yet help President Obama broker a secure peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors.”
“This informed analysis points out that the ‘conventional Israel lobby’ does not speak for the American Jewish majority on U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and does not promote the real interests of Israel or the United States. Dan Fleshler offers wise advice on how a dovish - but still too silent - majority of American Jews can strengthen the voice of progressive Jewish groups and encourage stronger U.S. leadership to help rescue Israel and America from a tragic conflict that gravely endangers our respective national interests.”
"An extraordinarily frank, courageous, and truly illuminating book. It dispels many myths while frankly exploring some perennial dilemmas faced by peace-seeking American Jews, and outlines a pro-peace, pro-Israel, and pro-American road forward for them to take. A genuine tour de force!"—Sam Lewis, U.S. Ambassador to Israel under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan
“This is a brilliant study of two intriguing contradictions pertaining to the story of America's Israel lobby. One is the contradiction between the reality and limits of Jewish power, on the one hand, and the popular perception of that power, on the other. Another has to do with the yawning gap between the Israel lobby's hawkish policies and the liberal views of the majority of American Jews. Fleshler's work is a timely reminder of the need for Israel's friends in America to focus their advocacy efforts on promoting one of Israel's most vital, indeed existential, interests: advancing a two-state solution to its conflict with the Palestinians.”—Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Israeli Foreign Minister, current Vice-President of the Toledo International Centre for Peace
“In the best tradition of the participant-observer, Dan Fleshler has written from the trenches where American Jews have been waging a struggle over the nature of and prospects for Arab-Israeli peace. Imbedded ideologues of the left and right are disarmed in his bold, original analysis and call to action. Readers who accompany Fleshler in his fascinating journey will discover the pragmatic idealism of an ethical, security-based dovishness that may yet help President Obama broker a secure peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors.”—Mark Rosenblum, Professor of History, Director of the Jewish Studies Program & Director of the Michael Harrington Center for Democratic Values and Social Change, Queens College, City University of NY
“This informed analysis points out that the ‘conventional Israel lobby’ does not speak for the American Jewish majority on U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and does not promote the real interests of Israel or the United States. Dan Fleshler offers wise advice on how a dovish - but still too silent - majority of American Jews can strengthen the voice of progressive Jewish groups and encourage stronger U.S. leadership to help rescue Israel and America from a tragic conflict that gravely endangers our respective national interests.”—Philip C. Wilcox, Jr., President, Foundation for Middle East Peace and former Chief of Mission and U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem
"Well-written and well-researched . . . Fleshler clearly knows his way around the Jewish organizational world."—Jewish Week
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Transforming America's Israel LobbyThe Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change
By Dan Fleshler
Potomac Books, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Dan Fleshler
All right reserved.
IntroductionOn March 6, 2006, Vice President Richard Cheney received raucous, foot-stomping applause when he addressed the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the legendary pro-Israel lobbying group. In the main ballroom of the Washington Convention Center, Cheney defended the Iraq invasion. He threatened Iran with dire consequences if it stayed on the path to nuclear weapons. He said the United States would give no quarter to Hamas, the Islamic movement that had recently won the election in the Palestinian territories. Nearly 4,500 attendees kept roaring and cheering. They interrupted him forty-eight times and gave him a half dozen standing ovations. This spectacle was broadcast on C-Span and transmitted to living rooms throughout the world, from Jakarta to Tehran to Paris. It buttressed the dark, widespread notion that American Jews are belligerent, militaristic, and working hand in hand with an administration at war with Islam.
In fact, the people applauding at that conference were expressing the views of a small minority of American Jews. The majority of Jews in the United States clearly shared the country's disdain for Cheney, whose popularity ratings that spring were lower than 30 percent, given the chaos in Iraq, the administration's incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, and other disasters. While they were initially divided about the wisdom of invading Iraq, by that spring most American Jews thought the war had been a mistake, polls showed.
Another anomaly: At that same conference, even louder cheers greeted Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing Likud leader who was in the midst of an election campaign, when he recommended the immediate unilateral annexation of large swaths of the West Bank-much more territory than most of his political rivals and most Israeli voters wanted to retain. He called for the construction of "an iron wall around Hamas," defended Israeli settlers and espoused other hard-line principles that appealed to a diminishing minority of Israelis and American Jews. The next month he and his party were soundly defeated at the polls. But Netanyahu clearly had a large and loyal fan club at AIPAC.
Not in the larger Jewish community, though. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, surveys have consistently shown that, compared to AIPAC and other powerful American Jewish groups that purport to represent that community in Washington and the media, American Jews are far more sympathetic to the Israeli left and more supportive of territorial compromise.
All of this raises some of the most befuddling questions in modern American political history: Why have American Jews-one of the most liberal communities in the United States-allowed their global image to be defined by hawks and neoconservatives? Precisely where have all the Jewish doves been hiding all of these years? What accounts for their collective tongue-biting? How did most of Washington become convinced that the only American Jews of any political consequence are those whose mission in life is to close the distance between official American and Israeli positions and to castigate Israel's critics?
These questions have plagued me, an American Jew who has tried to counteract AIPAC and its allies, on and off, since the mid-1980s. As a volunteer and paid media consultant, I have worked with dovish American Jewish organizations that have tried to build domestic support for an end to the Israeli occupation, for a two-state solution, and for a robust American diplomacy that would help to achieve those goals without selling either Israelis or Palestinians down the river. These relatively small groups included Americans for Peace Now (APN), Ameinu, Israel Policy Forum (IPF), Meretz USA, and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace). I also briefly represented the Israeli consulate in New York City when it was having a difficult time selling the Oslo peace process to many American Jews.
For years my camp has tried to convince more American Jews to speak out forcefully against a spreading occupation that we believed was a moral and strategic disaster for Israel as well as the United States. We took our cues from Israelis who believed that America's passive acceptance of Israel's settlement expansion and rule over another people was hurting Israel and rendering it more difficult to preserve Israeli democracy and fundamental Jewish ethics. By and large, of course, we failed. We blew it. In the battle for attention from Washington's political elite, the hawks in my community have usually won and the doves have usually lost. In the spring of 2005 I decided to embark on a quest to find out why.
Stepping back from the activist fray, mostly learning and absorbing rather than applying newfound knowledge, I tried to systematically investigate why AIPAC and other influential right-of-center pro-Israel groups are so good at what they do and what lessons could be learned from their success. I conferred with prominent American and Israeli Jewish leaders, less well-known but equally intriguing American activists who focus on the Middle East, former diplomats, congressional staffers and members of Congress, journalists who cover the American Jewish political scene, as well as other sources. The interviewees included former AIPAC staffers, but with the exception of one off-the-record conversation, several requests for interviews with the current staff were, sadly, ignored.
My ultimate goal was not merely to fully understand and then explain American Jewish power politics. It was to try to come up with concrete, practical prescriptions for altering the domestic political context of America's Middle East policies. What precisely would it take to create an effective lobby for the rest of us, an energized, political bloc of Americans who want the kind of fair, evenhanded Middle East policy that could help Israelis and Arabs to awaken from their shared nightmare? Was it possible to transform the existing pro-Israel community from within and empower those who want America to take a different course in that region? What were the prospects of forging a new coalition with Muslim and Christian Americans who shared many goals with the pro-Israel left? Finally, I wanted to determine whether these were idle fantasies, even less likely than peace in the Middle East, and whether everyone in the tiny, underfunded American Jewish peace camp should just close up shop and go home.
In April 2008 the importance of these questions was underscored with the launch of a promising, well-publicized initiative that is working in tandem with the aforementioned Jewish groups: the J Street project. Unlike those groups, which must limit lobbying activities because of their tax status, J Street is legally entitled to lobby without constraints. And it also has a political action committee (PAC) that can funnel money directly to political candidates and incumbents. In less than a year it attracted close to 100,000 online supporters and raised more than a half million dollars for congressional candidates, more than any other pro-Israel PAC in the country. As a result, it has begun to create at least a bit more political space for American policymakers and politicians who have long wanted to take independent positions on the Middle East and to say in public what heretofore they have muttered to staffers and friends behind closed doors.
Is it remotely possible that any of these efforts could make one whit of difference? In brief, I believe it is possible, but the task ahead is daunting. As this book goes to press, President Barack Obama has just taken office. He and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are confronted with the need to hit the ground running and deal immediately with the volatile Middle East, two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear program, Israel's tensions with Syria and Lebanon, and the core conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, which fans the flames of regional instability. When it comes to American foreign policy, there is no more important region. The Obama administration needs to know that it will have the political leeway to take a bold diplomatic approach to the entire Middle East. When dealing with the ongoing tragedy of Israel and Palestine, it needs the courage to lean, when necessary, on both sides rather than just one side. This book examines the many domestic obstacles in the president's path and weighs the chances of overcoming them.
The Gray Area
At the same time, this book culls facts from the considerable number of fantasies, half-truths, and misunderstandings about undue Jewish influence that are floating around out there. Until recently, the nuances and subtleties of American Jewish activism were of interest mainly to a narrow circle of scholars and activists who focused on ethnic politics and America's Middle East policy. Now, these issues are at the center of an international intellectual firestorm.
Furious, vitriolic debates about "Jewish power" are hardly new on the American scene. But lately they have become more widespread, more public, and more respectable, thanks in large part to a controversial essay that excoriated the "Israel lobby" by Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Published in the spring of 2006, their paper created the first of several recent controversies over critiques of Israel, including Jimmy Carter's Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid and some provocative essays and speeches by Tony Judt, a prominent advocate of a binational state.
The Mearsheimer-Walt essay and a subsequent book-length version, in particular, are bibles and guides for detractors of pro-Israel activism. And they are symbols of irresponsible Israel-bashing to the reflexive supporters of anything and everything Israel does.
As the two professors define it, the Israel lobby is a loose assortment of groups and people that, they contend, have effectively controlled America's Middle East policy for decades. This lobby is the main reason why America invaded Iraq. It is the main reason why successive administrations have given Israel free rein to occupy Palestinian land and do virtually anything it has wanted to do. Because of the awesome power of this lobby, criticism of Israel-which has no strategic value to the United States and no moral basis for American support-is routinely quashed in the public arena, and there is little serious political debate about America's intimate relationship with the Jewish state.
Mearsheimer and Walt were savaged for these ideas and accused of committing a host of scholarly errors by a veritable legion of angry critics, including American Jewish stalwarts like Abraham Foxman of the Anti- Defamation League (ADL) and Alan Dershowitz, former American officials like David Gergen, the left-of-center weekly Forward, the right-wing cottage industry that monitors attacks on Israel, and columnists and bloggers of every description.
And they were joyfully embraced as heroes in print as well as in the increasingly crowded, anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and sometimes unapologetically anti-Semitic neighborhoods of the blogosphere and the rest of the Internet. Some of what they claimed-especially about the role of Israel and its lobbyists in the Iraq War-had already been promulgated by an odd alliance of digerati who agree on little except that Israel is an irredeemably evil empire and American Jews who support it are wrecking this country. They include radical libertarians, far leftists, white supremacists concerned about the Zionist-occupied government, well-intentioned people concerned about Palestinian human rights, much of the Arab media, and academics the world over (including some in Israel itself).
After the publication of the professors' paper and subsequent book, people in those two camps squared off and spent much time and energy defending or deploring the particulars of Mearsheimer and Walt's work. The most disturbing aspect of the controversy was that most published analyses were either 100 percent pro or 100 percent con, with no nuances in between. They had the ring of partisan attack ads listing their opponents' mistakes or questioning their motives. They either exaggerated the clout of Israel's supporters in the United States or underestimated it. The gray area where the truth resides was rarely traversed. I try to go there, as much as possible, in this book.
The last thing anyone in the world needs is yet another point-by-point evaluation of the claims made by Mearsheimer and Walt. In the chapters that follow, their arguments and assertions are addressed in passing only when they are relevant to the task at hand. For the moment, suffice it to say that they got many things wrong but they also deserve credit for getting many things right.
It is manifestly true that mainstream Israel supporters can strike fear in the hearts of members of Congress. When Israel attacked the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and early 2009, had there not been a powerful domestic constituency supporting Israel's actions, surely more American politicians would have criticized what most of the world-myself included-believed was an appallingly disproportionate response to Hamas rocket fire.
Needless to say, were it not for Israel's supporters, it is inconceivable that the Jewish state would be the largest recipient of American financial and military aid.
At one point or another, every American administration since Jimmy Carter's has confronted well-organized domestic opposition when it criticized or tried to stop Israeli settlement expansion. As a result, pro-Israel activists in this country have helped to turn the United States into what former Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy calls an "enabler," the equivalent of someone who gives a drunk driver the keys to the car.
The list could go on. But it is not nearly as long or as ominous as the one presented by Mearsheimer, Walt, and their intellectual allies. From personal, sometimes painful experience, as well as from interviews and other research conducted for this book, I know full well what mainstream pro- Israel activists are capable of accomplishing. And I simply don't recognize the carefully organized, ideologically united, shape-shifting, omnipresent, and all-powerful lobbying juggernaut the two scholars and their admirers have depicted.
Israel's advocates in the United States don't have the kind of tight, permanent, and unyielding vice grip on the American government and media that is often attributed to them. They have lost a good many battles over the years, and no doubt they will lose some more. In the rooms in the White House and Foggy Bottom where actual decisions are made, the wishes of hawkish pro-Israel supporters are much less important than is generally believed in the casbahs of Damascus, the editorial offices of Le Monde and the Guardian, and a large part of the World Wide Web.
But those wishes still matter. Of course they do. The question is, how much? If people object to what many of America's pro-Israel activists stand for and want to change this nation's Middle East policies, they need a realistic appraisal of the role those activists play in the complex, sausage-making-or, if you prefer, kosher-hot-dog-making-process that eventually results in American foreign policy.
That is why, in the first part of this book, I will open up the hood of AIPAC and other conventional pro-Israel groups, poke around, and explain how they actually work, how their staff members and volunteers try to shape and influence Congress and the executive branch. I will gauge the nature and extent of their power. Then I will explore how to counteract the conventional Israel lobby, who is available to do it, why they haven't done it thus far, and what needs to happen in order to create an effective political alternative.
Mearsheimer and Walt have defined the terms of much of the debate over Israel's American supporters. It is likely that for years their work will remain the reference guide for anyone and everyone who wants to attack pro-Israel activists in the United States. So the difference between their definition of the Israel lobby and the one used here should be noted at this early juncture.
Excerpted from Transforming America's Israel Lobby by Dan Fleshler Copyright © 2009 by Dan Fleshler. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Dan Fleshler is a media and public affairs consultant based in New York City. He is a board member of Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu and the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation. He is also a member of Brit Tzedek v’ Shalom and is on the Advisory Council of J Street.
M. J. Rosenberg is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Office, a former aide to three Members of Congress, and former editor of AIPAC’s Near East Report.
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