One of the frustrations in writing about foreign policy over the last 15 years is that the words “neoconservative” and “Israel lobby” are both considered somewhat outside the line, as anti-Semitic. The neocons like it that way, not being in the spotlight. Many years ago Paul Wolfowitz turned the word neoconservative back on a questioner at the American Enterprise Institute, Oh you mean Jewish. That identification has been reissued lately, as a weaponized charge: You seem to think there’s a problem with Jews playing a role in foreign policy. The same charge is leveled against those who speak openly of the Israel lobby: You are talking about Jewish influence.
So the U.S. discourse has been unable to process a simple and critical idea: Rightwing Israel supporters who seek to topple foreign governments that threaten Israel have too much power in US policy-making. And once again we are shaking and juddering our way toward a possible war in the Middle East with Netanyahu cheering us along from Israel, and those who oppose war can’t speak of the Israeli interest or the neocons without being accused of fostering anti-Semitism.
But a conflict with Iran is not in the American people’s interest, however you define that interest: in realist material/competitive terms, in leftwing universal human-rights terms, in populist terms. That needs to be stated emphatically.
Today Trump all but threatened war with Iran. “I’m hearing little stories about Iran,” he said in the White House. “If they do anything they will suffer greatly… They’re not going to be happy… they know what I’m talking about.”
There is not an American interest in another war in the Middle East. It may be in Israel’s interest– that’s not for me to determine. But it’s not in my country’s or people’s interest to be “baiting” Iran, as Chuck Hagel said on NPR, or indeed doing much else than acting as an off-shore balancer of what is a regional power struggle between Israel/Saudi Arabia and Iran that we can’t sort out and shouldn’t try to.
But of course we do try to sort it out. And we are totally on Israel’s side. Last week at the U.N. the foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority said the same thing re the Americans’ much-anticipated peace plan. “I felt I was listening to an Israeli speaker. I didn’t see or hear an independent American position. The role of the US administration is … to be a servant to Israeli interests and defend Israeli crimes committed against the Palestinians.”
It is impossible to look on the works of the Trump administration in the Middle East without considering the claim that it is a servant to Israeli interests. He moved the embassy, he tore up that historic multinational agreement the Iran deal, he threatens more sanctions and action against Iran, he defunded UNRWA, he recognizes the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. And remember that one of the instances of alleged Russian collaboration by the Trump team in 2016 was when it scrambled all hands to get foreign nations to block the Obama White House’s decision to abstain on a Security Council resolution against settlements. Trump lately accused John Kerry of violating the Logan Act by just talking to Iranian officials. What kind of violation was it that “multiple members” of the Trump transition team reached out to foreign governments to try to undermine a U.S. policy?
And all this goes unremarked upon, except by independent voices. The press is still not allowed to raise the question too directly.
Lobelog has led the way on reporting the influence of rightwing Zionist billionaires– notably Sheldon Adelson, who is far and away Trump’s biggest donor and also one of Netanyahu’s biggest backers, including in his Israeli newspaper. But even Lobelog doesn’t put the word Zionist in its headline about the billionaires. And Jim Lobe notes other influences beside Netanyahu’s on our Iran policy. The Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia. The Iranians say the same thing constantly: we are working for what the Foreign Minister calls the “B team” of Bolton, Bibi, bin Zayed of the UAE, and bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.
Christian Zionists surely also play a part in making this policy, but the care and feeding of neocons is a Jewish problem Jews need to argue over. The original impetus for this website was my own great disturbance by my brother’s telling me in 2002 that while we’d demonstrated against the Vietnam War, his Jewish newspaper was saying that this war would be good for Israel. Neither of us had been to Israel, and I found the distortion of the idea of a homeland confusing and not just metaphysically. The Israel lobby has always caused confusion about community allegiance for thoughtful Jews (from Joe Klein to Melissa Weintraub to Douglas Rushkoff…). But you’re not allowed to talk about that. When Ilhan Omar made her famous comment about wondering about people’s allegiance, at Busboys and Poets, she was compelled to apologize.
More important than any motivation is the effect of neocon policies; but our opinion journals/programs don’t like to go near the argument that Zionism, or at least right wing Zionism, is not in the American interest. I mistakenly thought that had become a legitimate argument after the publication of “The Israel Lobby” in 2006. But then Dennis Ross and David Makovsky wrote a book aimed at showing that American fortune is tied to the struggles in the Middle East, and they are insiders, and theirs is the conventional wisdom. So Israel defenders were offended when Ilhan Omar dared to suggest that AIPAC leverages politicians by raising money– as if AIPAC is only urging pols to do what is right for America, which they wouldn’t be able to figure out on their own…
One good thing J Street has done — in addition to its valiant organizing against an Iran war — is to split the Israel lobby into a liberal-Zionist wing in the Democratic Party and a rightwing AIPAC lobby that operates in both parties. That ought to make it easier to take on the neocons on Iran: they’re AIPAC and everyone to the right.
There are still a bloc of Democratic neocons. Congresspeople Josh Gottheimer and Elaine Luria, for instance, were both against the Iran deal. Luria took a trip to Israel on AIPAC’s tab after she was elected. Gottheimer is now a centrist force in the party; and as Ryan Grim reported in the Intercept, Gottheimer and Luria recently met with Rep. Rashida Tlaib to rein in her criticisms of Israel:
Luria began by saying that she had met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu six weeks earlier, and Tlaib tried to break the ice with a joke: “How’s the two-state solution going?”… [Gottheimer says he] and Luria “sat down with Congresswoman Tlaib to have an open, honest discussion about anti-Semitic comments on dual loyalty and other anti-Semitic tropes that the Congressman and many other members of Congress found deeply disturbing. As requested by leadership, the Congressman brought copies of statements that he found disturbingly anti-Semitic.
Obviously, Gottheimer regards the Israel lobby and its donors as key to Democratic victories. Lately he sought to make the historic resolution to end support for the Saudi war on Yemen “a referendum on support for Israel” and against BDS, Grim reports.
I don’t think you can win against Gottheimer and Luria without talking about the rightwing Israel lobby. Whether you call it the Greater Israel Lobby or the Likud lobby (as Andrew Sullivan and Peter Beinart have done), or blame the “Jewish establishment” for its half century of supporting occupation, as IfNotNow does, the neocons need to be held to account, because they are powerful.
And yes, Jews have a special role to play here. Neoconservatism began inside the Jewish intellectual community as an appeal to Jews to support a militant U.S. foreign policy as being in the Jewish interest because Israel needed the U.S. to be strong, as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz put it back in the ’70s in the wake of the ’67 war. Neoconservatism attracted many non-Jews (from Bolton to Doran), but Israel as a Jewish homeland remains a central concern. This is not ideological sport for neocons: At the heart of neoconservative ideology is a belief about history, and the dangers of powerlessness revealed in the Holocaust. Important rightwing actors like Doug Feith and Hart Hasten base their politics in the genocide/ethnic cleansing that targeted their families in Europe. They speak to a sacralized Jewish trauma that has had vast political consequences, and that Jews must heal if U.S. policy is going to bend toward human rights.
Neoconservatism has been in our politics for more than 40 years, going back to the rise of Scoop Jackson. It has been well-funded and it has jumped from one party to another depending on the hospitality (Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush gave it the brush) and it has had disastrous results. Whoever decided to invade Iraq– neocons had a lot to do with the decision. And now neocons have taken up residence in the Trump administration and they are pushing for a war with Iran without a thought for what they have achieved in the Levant.
You can’t effectively fight such a force without saying what they are. They should be called out as militant Zionists who have never had a critical word to say about Israel or its rightwing leaders; and their plans should be denounced as ones that don’t serve the American people.