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More on the late Safire, gunnin for Israel

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Last week I did a post in which John Mearsheimer said that the late William Safire of the New York Times pushed for an independent Kurdistan because he had an agenda, to break up Israel’s enemies. Well here is MJ Rosenberg at Media Matters describing how Safire became an attack dog for Benjamin Netanyahu in 1988 when Rosenberg’s boss, Senator Carl Levin, was calling for the United States to enforce the UN Resolution that barred Israel from colonizing the occupied territories.

The tale of Levin’s congressional letter is a vivid example of the Israel lobby at work, though I gather that Jonathan Chait at the New Republic has dissed the story with the usual analysis that the lobby is just like big pharma or something. Here’s the problem with that analysis. Senator Levin was taking on colonization. Ronald Reagan was opposed to that colonization. So was every other president. And still the colonization went on unabated for 44 years in defiance of a country that has given Israel billions every year, and why? Because of the lobby. And now when the existence of Israel is in the balance, you’d think that more supporters might be questioning the tactics of its American host. I’m stepping on Rosenberg’s story. Here it is:

In the meantime, Levin heard from President Ronald Reagan, who thanked him for organizing support for the administration’s position. Meanhile, [Israeli P.M. Yitzhak] Shamir began calling senators to express “astonishment“ that his policies had been criticized.

Then came a moment that was, for me, the most shocking experience I ever had during my years working for the United States government.

William Safire, the most influential New York Times columnist, phoned me in a rage. He told me that he knew for a fact that neither Levin nor I had drafted the letter. He said that he knew that the letter was written by an aide to the leader of the Labor Party opposition in Israel, Shimon Peres. He said that aide, one Yossi Beilin, had hand-delivered the text to me, and that I had convinced Levin to circulate it. He said that my goal was to unseat Shamir and replace him with Peres.

I almost laughed. The very idea that a Senate aide had such power was astounding. But then Safire asked if I thought it was appropriate for a Senate aide to be the agent of a foreign political party, and what would Levin think when he read about that in Safire’s column.

That was scary. As a Senate aide, I had sworn allegiance to the United States and the Constitution. I also had a security clearance. This could be serious.

I told Safire that I had written the draft and that Levin had (as is his wont) extensively edited it. I told him I had no idea who Beilin was (which was the truth). Safire then got really nasty and told me that he knew I was lying because he had the story on good authority (Israeli U.N. ambassador Binyamin Netanyahu and AIPAC’s number two guy, Steve Rosen, who was subsequently indicted for espionage). I said I didn’t care who he heard it from, it was a lie. Additionally, Levin had undertaken the initiative to help Israel because he thought that if Israel ruled out territorial withdrawal, the conflict would never end.  

The call concluded with Safire backing down after warning me that if he ever found out I was lying, I would be “finished.” He said he would not write the column because — get this — in the end he believed me more than his sources.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

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