The lobby blinks! Democratic insiders throw Josh Block under the bus

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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josh block
Josh Block

In the last 24 hours, a giant battle has taken place at the gates of Washington, and the Israel lobby has lost.

Former AIPAC operative Josh Block’s attempt to crush critics of Israel inside the Democratic Party has failed miserably. Block has issued an apology for calling those writers “anti-Semites,” and Block’s own business partner, former Clinton lawyer Lanny Davis, has categorically rejected Block’s views. 

Today the prospect of open debate inside the Democratic Party is stronger than ever. As Lanny Davis says, “Israelis debate the subject. We debate the subject.” My dear, even that much would be a breakthrough.

The story so far:

On Wednesday, Ben Smith published a piece on Politico headlined, “Israel rift roils Democratic ranks.” It pointed out that two thinktanks with connections to the Democratic Party now had writers working for them who are critical of Israel– Matt Duss, Eli Clifton and Ali Gharib at John Podesta’s Center for American Progress (CAP), and M.J. Rosenberg at Media Matters.

The article was at once a worthy journalistic effort to chronicle a trend and an effort to damage those critics (Smith is an avowed conservative who has shlepped water for neocons).

The piece drew blood; Smith got Ken Gude, the frightened national security director at CAP, to throw Gharib and Duss under the bus:

“There’s a distinction here that we have between the policy work that we do and the blogging work that we do,” [Ken Gude] said.

And Gude specifically rejected the bloggers’ assertion that the absurd Iranian assassination conspiracy the Justice Department has discovered is not serious.

Smith also quoted Josh Block attacking the critics:

“There’s two explanations here – either the inmates are running the asylum or the Center for American Progress has made a decision to be anti-Israel,” said Josh Block, a former spokesman for AIPAC who is now a fellow at the center-left Progressive Policy Institute. “Either they can allow people to say borderline anti-Semitic stuff” – a reference to what he described as conspiracy theorizing in the [Eric] Alterman column – “and to say things that are antithetical to the fundamental values of the Democratic party, or they can fire them and stop it.” [A reference to liberal Zionist Eric Alterman, who scoffed at the charge]

And Smith ended the piece quoting Ali Abunimah celebrating the change in mood. Abunimah is a friend of our website, we promote his views all the time; but his advocacy for one democratic state in Israel and Palestine has made him persona non grata for establishment organizations.

Leaders at the Center for American Progress reacted swiftly to Smith’s story, by genuflecting to Zionist sensibilities– we are not anti-Israel, they declared that same day in an official statement.

But Smith’s story was quickly upstaged. A day later Justin Elliott at leftleaning Salon broke a bigger story: Josh Block, the very same Josh Block who works at a “progressive” thinktank, had sent out Smith’s story to a neoconservative listserv (a private internet community) with many journalists on it, urging them to “AMPLIFY” Smith’s piece and call Democratic leaders, including Steny Hoyer, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, about the critics– whom he smeared as anti-Semites.

“This kind of anti-Israel sentiment is so fringe it’s support by CAP is outrageous, but at least it is out in the open now — as is their goal – clearly applauded by revolting allies like the pro-HAMAS and anti-Zionist/One State Solution advocate Ali Abunumiah [sic] and those who accuse pro-Israel Americans of having ‘dual loyalties’ or being ‘Israel-Firsters’ – to shape the minds of future generations of Democrats,” Block writes. “These are the words of anti-Semites, not Democratic political players.”

Elliott’s piece contained a 3000-word “opposition file” on the bloggers/critics compiled by Josh Block– basically a dirt file– and it set off a firestorm bigger than the Smith story. (I covered it here.)

Josh Block’s big error was smearing Establishmentarians as anti-Semites. That is a libel, and it hurt Block more than the Center for American Progress. There must have been a lot of frantic telephone calls around Washington yesterday, we can only imagine how high the rage went. But when I say “the lobby blinked,” it’s because Josh Block went crawling back to Ben Smith yesterday afternoon with this truculent apology:

I’ve been accused of leveling the charge of anti-Semitism against the Center for American Progress. That is not true, and suggesting so is an attempt to distract from what I am actually saying.

As a progressive Democrat, I am convinced that on issues as important as the US-Israel alliance and the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, there is no room for uncivil discourse or name calling… [jabs follow]

Sort of like Newt Gingrich calling for tighter divorce laws.

Then at 7 o’clock, Block’s own business partner, Lanny Davis, himself a relentless defender of Israel’s right to colonize the West Bank (and formerly a consultant to an African dictator), talked to Eli Clifton, and threw Josh Block under the bus:

He’s done this all independently without any input from me. I respect Josh Block but I 100 percent disagree with much of his language. People can disagree about Israel’s policies without being anti-Semites. In fact I think it’s a terrible mistake to blur the two. We should be able to debate Israel’s policies. I am very pro-Israel. I believe the onus for negotiations is on the Palestinians but both Israelis and Palestinians share responsibility. However, that’s all fair debate. Israelis debate the subject. We debate the subject. Impugning motives of people at the Center [for American Progress] and impugning [that] those motives are driven by anti-Semitism is, in my opinion, wrong. I respect John Podesta and the Center greatly.

That’s where the story is right now. Josh Block, once an eminent member of the self-claimed progressive pro-Israel establishment, has been revealed as a sleaze-merchant working with neocons and has had to hobble off the field. I wonder how long his association with the Progressive Policy Institute and Lanny Davis will last….

Most importantly, the Israel critics inside Democratic Party thinktanks are more entrenched than ever. They have won this battle. Even Lanny Davis has said, We must debate this subject.

In a word, Ben Smith set out for scalps, but Justin Elliott got the scalp.

That raises the issue of Ben Smith’s role. Smith is a wonderful journalist who gave me help when I started this site, but the question arises of whether he allowed himself to be used by Josh Block, and why.

Smith has admitted under battering on twitter that he received the oppo file from Josh Block before he wrote the story. Did Smith know how virulent Josh Block’s view of the Center for American Progress was– that he viewed it as a nest of anti-Semites? And given the weakness of the Block quotes Smith actually used (“borderline anti-Semitic,” with respect to one article, when Block was about to unleash an email accusing many people of being anti-Semites), was Smith protecting a political operative from himself? Was the Abunimah quote a setup? Justin Elliott has suggested that Block was shopping the oppo file for a client. And the natural question is, Was that Block’s former shop, AIPAC?

The answer to these questions is simple: Ben Smith knew about Josh Block’s political activities, but Block was Ben Smith’s source, and good journalists protect their sources. But that’s the problem, too: Why was Ben Smith relying on a smear artist former AIPAC lobbyist who veers from progressive to neoconservative in a New York second?

Because he thought it wasn’t the story. Well last week it wasn’t the story, and this week it is. And we’ve won this battle: The Democratic Party is committed at some level to debate these issues fairly. And so progressive is beginning to mean progressive on Israel/Palestine, too.

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