Breakfast at the Waldorf With the Clintonite Israel Lobby

Israel/Palestine
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Yesterday I got a free, fancy breakfast and then a free fancy lunch from supporters of Israel. But the two approaches were very different and signal a fracture in American politics around the Middle East.

Breakfast was at the Waldorf with the Israel Lobby. To be specific, it was The Israel Project, which is dedicated to working on journalists to improve Israel’s image. "TIP has trained thousands of influential policy leaders, opinion elites, and spokespeople to help strengthen Israel’s image in international media."

I got to the Duke of Windsor room at 10 a.m. 50 or so people were clearing out. I had the impression that these were not journalists but donors. I was meeting Marcus Sheff, a 40-ish reservist in the Israeli army who works for the Israel Project. Sheff has a British accent and a charming, voluble manner, and as I sat down to my scrambled eggs beside him, he checked his blackberry to see whether John McCain’s visit to Sderot in southern Israel, which I gather he had helped to arrange, had come off yet. And then a straggling donor (pretty, middleaged) came over to talk in an earnest tone about NPR and the New York Times’ coverage of Israel.

Their exchange was off-the-record; suffice it to say that dealing with the media is the heart of of TIP’s mission, and they’re a lot more sophisticated than CAMERA.

To wit: Sheff talked to me all about what a great multicultural democracy Israel is and how much it has to teach America about equality in health care, education, and social welfare. A ceo is in one bed in the hospital, an Arab from Nazareth in next to him, getting the same care. Remember that Israel was founded by socialists. Sheff said that "truly no other country" has been able to pull socialized medicine off. Even the Scandinavians–"their systems are falling down."

Eventually I broke in on Sheff to say that I imagine that there were guys from the segregated south who could tell me all the great things Alabama was doing back in the ’60’s. The hole in his story is that the treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is a "red flag" of injustice across the Muslim world (as Mohamed ElBaradei has put it), and this was hurting my country, the U.S.

Sheff said my analogy was "in now way acceptable. Let’s not confuse Israel with the West Bank or Judea and Samaria, whatever terminology you want to use….The West Bank is a situation which needs to be solved. The vast majority of Israelis want a peace process that will put an end to this…." That’s been true since ’92 and Rabin. The majority of Israelis don’t want to rule over 3 million Palestinians. It will be very painful for Israelis to sacrifice land and settlements to gain peace but they will do it. Why, back in Israel, Sheff’s neighbor, a Likudnik, has said to him, "I’d give it all back for peace." The problem is–

You guessed it, the Arabs. "The bottom line is there is no one to negotiate with. That has to be the key." The Palestinians have to be able to deliver. They’ve never demonstrated this ability. In 2000, "Arafat wouldn’t sign on the bottom line." And now Gaza proves the point. "The only thing they have delivered was terror."

I told Sheff that I was tired of this narrative. As far as I was concerned, as an American, a Palestinian state was promised to the Palestinians in ’47 in U.N. Partition, and nothing has come of it for 60 years, and their territory has shrunk and shrunk, and over and over we’ve been told they can’t be trusted with self-governance. I pointed out that in Kosovo, the west isn’t playing footsie with a small country; it’s addressing an injustice by establishing a Muslim state. But all we’ve had in Israel/Palestine for 60 years is a cycle of violence that now engulfs the U.S. We’re occupying an Arab country too! As far as I’m concerned, my country should put its foot down on the injustice.

Sheff bridled. He denied that there was a cycle of violence. The Palestinians initiate all the violence. And as for the west imposing a solution, "Everything that’s ever happened in terms of the peace process has been with direct negotiations between the two sides."

In essence, Sheff was telling me as an American to bug out. Oh yes, we want your "elite" support for Israel. But don’t dare tell us what to do.

Lunch was on 70th Street with the Israel Policy Forum and former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. These folks are also Zionists; and as a post-Zionist or anti-Zionist Jew, I have some differences with them; but the atmosphere could not have been more different from breakfast. There were Arab ambassadors at the head table who were called on to speak after Ben-Ami. And Ben-Ami was basically pleading to Americans to get involved in Israel/Palestine and push for negotiations with Hamas, without which nothing would go forward. Ben-Ami wasn’t trying to rationalize the strikes against Gaza; he conceded that Israel had been un"generous" to the Palestinians since Annapolis. And the Egyptian ambassador spoke of the "radicals" in Israeli government who had given the Palestinians nothing since Annapolis, only more checkpoints and settlements.

Looking around the room, I saw Rob Malley, an associate of Obama’s[I’m informed I’m wrong about this], Dan Fleshler of realisticdove, Charney Bromberg of Meretz Israel. All these people aren’t just looking out for Israel, they are concerned with Arab human rights. I have my differences with them. For instance, Ben-Ami, Bromberg, and Fleshler have all taken sharp exception to Walt and Mearsheimer; and I believe that progressive Jews must embrace Walt and Mearsheimer as truthtellers in order to identify and declare war on the regressive force here. Yet these people are focused on the real issues of the inhumane treatment of Palestinians. And if the two-state deal doesn’t happen, I wonder whether some of these folks will become post-Zionists too…

When I got home I looked up The Israel Project. It was started by Clintonites. Notably Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi, a very savvy p.r. and public policy type. According to Guidestar.org, Laszlo-Mizrahi made $200,000 a year for 32 hours a week of work in 2005. I bet it’s more now. Sure pays to work for the lobby! And The Israel Project’s biggest expenditure that year was $814,000 in polling and focus groups to the center-left group Greenberg, Quinlan and Rosner. Another Clintonite outfit: Stan Greenberg, who’s worked for Labour in Israel. And Jeremy Rosner, also "committed to progressive goals, ideas and leaders…"

Now this is what I find fascinating here. As Sheff pointed out to me, the political landscape has flattened in Israel. Left and right don’t hold any more. The Kadima Party has been able to join old Likudniks with Labourites around the principle: We have a biblical right to the West Bank, but we’ll give (some of) it up for peace.

I wonder if this collapse is also happening in the U.S. Having cast off the anti-abortion/stem cell wing of his party, John McCain isn’t that different from Hillary Clinton. They’re identical on Israel. And of course, Joe Lieberman, an Independent and former Democrat, was at McCain’s side in Israel. They’re all committed to "the peace process," but rather vaguely. The Clintonites and the Republicans are like Labour and Likud; and they would both endorse the principle Ann Lewis set out the other day in D.C., on Hillary’s behalf:

"The role of the president of the United States is to support the
decisions that are made by the people of Israel. It is not up to us to
pick and choose from among the political parties."

Sheff gave me the same line at breakfast. The U.S. should let Israel and the Palestinians work this out on their own; and by the way, Israel is always right. Don’t dare tell us what to do (or our friends in the U.S. will defund your campaign). At lunch it was a different story. A room with a lot of Obama supporters was pushing for the U.S. to take an aggressive role, and push Israel, because Israel is incapable on its own of making progress here. This is what Obama v. Hillary is about. And this crack in our politics isn’t going away soon.

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