Obama ushers in the crisis of the Israel lobby

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Update: In a huge win for the president, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has come out for the deal. Some of her statement echoes the president’s warning: she says killing the deal could result in “an invasion with yet another massive and costly land war in the Middle East.”

Original post:

In his new book on the US and Israel, former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren says that all the young Ivy Leaguers who went to work for President Obama had read The Israel Lobby, by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, and that it was their playbook for understanding the Middle East. (Along with Edward Said’s Orientalism).

Yesterday’s speech shows that President Obama has also read The Israel Lobby and that its central points have become his chief concerns: The Israel lobby is a loose but powerful coalition of Israel supporters who will distort policy at every turn out of the sincere misguided belief that the US and Israel have the same interests; that coalition of conservative Jews in league with Republican hawks played a critical role in starting the Iraq war that has been an unmitigated disaster for our foreign policy. I have argued here for a long time that we won’t defeat the war party till we identify its true cause, and Obama all but did so explicitly yesterday. “Every nation in the world that has commented publicly” supports this deal, except Israel, he said. And Israel has many friends in this country, including the president himself, he said.

Then he called out the “mindset” in the U.S. that opposes the deal as a mindset of warmongers. The same “mindset” that gave us the Iraq war will leave us no alternative but military strikes on Iran, and none of the advocates of that mindset have to go off and fight these wars themselves.

Never before have I heard Obama go step by step over why he was right to oppose the Iraq war, 13 years after the fact. But he is trying to defeat that “mindset,” which as Paul Pillar says, he can’t identify too explicitly because of political orthodoxies in D.C. Though he said that mindset’s paranoia and reliance on force are inconsistent with American values and he’d be “abrogating” his constitutional duty if he sided with Netanyahu on the Iran Deal.

The mainstream media have not focused on Obama’s defiance of the Israel lobby in his speech, partly because some of them are part of the Israel lobby (a top exec at Time Warner is a Netanyahu speechwriter; the top execs at Comcast are Israel lovers). But this is a case of Obama going over the heads of the media to the people. When he said that Congress needs to set aside “political concerns,” people know who he means. If you look at the New York Times comments on his speech, everyone is saying that AIPAC with all its millions should not be dictating U.S. policy in the Middle East.

So we’re finally getting to the political discussion that we need to be having about this deal: who is buying the Congress? Chris Matthews said last night that all those swing Democrats in the Congress are under great pressure from “contributors” right now. He didn’t say voters, he said contributors. That’s pro-Israel money. American Jews largely support this deal. Even Simon Schama says so.

The president is breaking an important discussion. The Washington Post has run a big piece on that AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel, for 58 House members, 22 Democrats and 36 Republicans. Catherine Ho and Karoun Demirjian report:

The last time the foundation sponsored travel to Israel, in August 2013, it paid for 24 House Republicans and 36 Democrats, which cost about $1 million — roughly $18,000 per member, according to LegiStorm, which tracks congressional travel.

From Aug. 4 to 10, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) will lead Democratic contingent to the country and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will shepherd the Republican delegation. Hoyer and McCarthy’s offices declined to share the names of the lawmakers traveling on the trip, as did AIPAC. 

But PowerPost confirmed the trip includes a number of House Democrats that many lobbyists consider critical votes on the deal, including Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Mark Takai (D-Hawaii), Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), Gwen Graham (D-Fla.), and Hoyer himself. 

Here are about 20 Democrats meeting the Israeli president yesterday. Why are they in Israel right now when they could be talking about income inequality or global warming or #BlackLivesMatter with their constituents back home? Because that’s where the money is.

Democratic congresspoeple meeting Israeli president August 5, 2015
Democratic congresspoeple meeting Israeli president August 5, 2015

Here are some of the readers’ picks from comments in the Times on Obama’s speech:

rlk, New York: The last time I looked, Netanyahu is not American and he certainly isn’t our Secretary of State. We need to do what is right and correct for America. If in this circumstance our needs diverge from Israel’s needs, so be it.

Jason Shapiro, Santa Fe: The President is correct in his characterizations. The only groups who want us to keep fighting wars in the Middle East are Israel, right wing chicken hawks who haven’t worn a uniform since they were Boy Scouts, fundamentalist evangelicals who believe in some nonsense called The Rapture, and defense contractors. All those people put us into Iraq and now they want to put us into Iran – a much larger, more powerful, and more prepared nation. AIPAC does not in any manner speak for me, nor does it speak for millions of other Americans.

David Ballantyne: ‘The speech came as pro-Israel groups, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, are sending hundreds of activists to lobby lawmakers to reject the deal and are planning to run more than $25 million in television advertising to rally opposition.’ Can we send lobbyists to Israel and run ads on their TVs to make them stop abusing the Palestinians?

Jeff Cohen, New York: It is ridiculous and degrading that an American president felt he had to make this speech. As the president said, the only country in the world opposing the Iran deal is Israel and, as he didn’t say, the only organized opposition to it in Washington comes from Israel’s lobby.
Then there are the Jewish Members of Congress who say openly that there primary concern in considering whether to support the deal is Israel’s security. Not US security but Israel’s. Not even Israel’s security either (top security officials there support the agreement) but Netanyahu’s idea of “security.”
As a Jew, I am appalled by this behavior. Simply put, those Democrats who oppose the deal (not the Republicans who are invariably hawkish & will oppose any Obama initiative) are choosing Netanyahu over President Obama and Israel over the United States.
It’s a disgrace.

The Israel lobby entailed the idea of Jewish consensus in a hostile world; and the lobby is fragmenting because American Jews who feel secure are rebelling against the leaders/donors. One Barbara Dobkin explains:

The Iran proposal has exacerbated the already lethal divide in the Jewish community. Criticizing Israel or supporting Obama labels one anti-Semitic. Mega donors threaten to withhold money from important institutions (Hillel for example) because of the organization’s desire to be inclusive of everyone. Civility is sorely lacking. And the upcoming elections will worsen the situation. I wonder if we will be able to mend the divide.

No: we won’t be able to mend the divide and that’s a good thing. J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace are going to be the big winners of the Iran Deal inside the Jewish community; and those two groups don’t agree on Israel, and when the dust settles, we will begin to have that argument.

The pro-Israel groups are worried about that. The other day the Jewish Council for Public Affairs warned that divisions over the Iran Deal are reminiscent of the “baseless hatred” that brought about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. It was warning that Jews shouldn’t fight with Jews (I interpreted that wrong in my original post). A friend explains:

The gratuitous hate meme refers to intramural Jewish hate during the time of the second temple.  In contrast to the destruction of the 1st temple which was linked to idolatry. The expression in Hebrew is Sinat Chinam. And is illustrated with the tale of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza.
The idea that Jews should speak with one voice is a traditional idea out of step with modernity and our era of Jewish power and accountability. That idea of consensus helped give us the Iraq war. The fragmentation of that consensus will preserve the Iran Deal and, in turn, open the gates on a vital American conversation about the damage of Zionism.
Thanks to James North.


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This struck me: Washington Post … Catherine Ho and Karoun Demirjian report: … Maybe my memory is going, and not that I read everything, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a news story (not OpEd) about Israel in a major news publication written without a Jewish byline.… Read more »

Meanwhile Dershowitz just published an article in Algemeiner denigrating Obama’s speech by mischaracterizing parts of the actual Obama text for the speech, and asking vague lame questions implying Iran had no right to sovereignty;many were answered specifically by Obama. He flashed his credibility badge by saying he opposed the bombing… Read more »

Mr Weiss,

Are the adjectives in the following based on evidence or just your own imagination?

…out of the sincere misguided belief that the US and Israel have the same interests

‘The Israeli government should not be telling U.S Jews what they should do vis a vis their government,’ says Conference of Presidents chief.


Never before have I heard Obama go step by step over why he was right to oppose the Iraq war, 13 years after the fact. But he is trying to defeat that “mindset,” which as Paul Pillar says, he can’t identify too explicitly because of political orthodoxies in D.C. THOUGH… Read more »