- James M. Wall
- The iron grip that the pro-Israel lobby has over US public consciousness started to weaken in 2006. The lobby’s control over media, money, and politicians is still strong, but two recent publications suggest that the lobby’s power is built on a shaky foundation, an alternative version of reality that is now under serious scrutiny. And that scrutiny evokes the old axiom: You cannot fool all the people all the time.
In March, 2006, Steven M. Walt, of Harvard University, and John J. Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago, published The Israel Lobby in the London Review of Books. A book that will expand that report will be published in 2007. Seven months later, just as attention to the Walt-Mearsheimer had begun to fade, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter confronted the Israel Lobby with his book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.
Both of these publishing events stirred the Lobby into furious responses, at times with almost frantic, vicious attacks. What evokes such a response from the Lobby is its fear of losing its absolute control over the Israel-Arab dialogue. A more open dialogue has the potential to move the Middle East peace process out of the mire of narrow pro-Israel diplomatic manoeuvring.
Since the formation of the modern state of Israel fifty years ago, only one narrative has dominated American consciousness, the narrative of the Jewish state, created as a homeland for a people who suffered the agony of the Holocaust. A second narrative, no less significant, but virtually unknown to the American consciousness, covers the same time period from the perspective of the Palestinian people, a modern narrative which began in 1948 with the Nakba (the catastrophe).
- As a result of the 1947-48 conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbouring states, more than 60% of the total Palestinian population was expelled from their homes, driven into refugee camps outside the nascent Israel state. More than 530 Palestinian villages were depopulated and completely destroyed by the Israeli army.
- The facts of the two narratives which begin with the Holocaust and the Nakba are not in dispute: The state of Israel was created and millions of Palestinians became refugees. How these facts are understood is dependent on which perspective shapes the reading of the Israel-Arab conflict.
- Unfortunately for the Palestinian people, the Israel Lobby has successfully blocked the Palestinian narrative from reaching the nation’s political leaders, the US media, and subsequently, the American public. Only the Israeli narrative has been heard by the American public. How did this happen?
- Blocking alternative worldviews
Consider the success of the tobacco industry in protecting their narrative of the ‘pleasure’ of smoking. Tobacco companies knew for many years that their products were dangerous to human health. Did they stop promoting cigarettes? Of course not; they simply withheld damaging scientific studies that would have alerted the public that tobacco and cancer were linked. Only recently has this narrative been exposed as a danger to the nation’s health, an exposure that has led to stringent controls over the promotion and sale of tobacco.
Blocking alternative worldviews is essential to maintaining total control over public consciousness. President Harry Truman signalled his need for Israel as an ally when he made sure the UN created Israel as a state in 1948. It was an easy choice for Truman, a politician who was dependent on American Jewish votes and financial support, and building a support team for the Cold War. The horrors of the recent Holocaust were effectively used to make the Israeli narrative dominant in American thought.
The Palestinian narrative was blocked from reaching public opinion in the US. The Palestinian people had no political power of their own, and no voice in American politics. What they had, in 1948, was the support of American missionaries that had contributed so much to the region, plus the backing of State Department veterans who predicted that the new state of Israel would be a disturbance in an Arab region. Missionaries and State Department pragmatists had no influence on the American political system.
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of World War I, the Palestinian people were relegated to the status of an indigenous people with a strong family and tribal cultural history rooted in a specific place called Palestine. But they had no state. Great Britain and the US, empires of the West, had created new states in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran, setting up governments subservient to the Western powers.
In this plan shaped by the western powers, the Palestinian narrative was not just irrelevant; it was also a threat to the dominant outside powers. Only the Israeli narrative was allowed to prevail in public consciousness. The US has a history of controlling narratives to fit its imperial ambitions. In the ‘white narrative’, the expansion of the original American colonies was described as westward expansion of hardy pioneers.
The native populations that were conquered and exploited in that expansion were decimated in relative silence as far as the rest of the world was concerned. This silence should not have succeeded in blocking from public awareness the injustices foisted onto the Palestinian people, because in 1948, there were communication capabilities that could have been used to tell the Palestinian story. But Palestinians lacked the technology and the modern communication skills to reach the outside world. As a result, they suffered in relative obscurity.
Knowing that the light of a different reading of reality would always be a threat, the Israel Lobby worked assiduously to keep the Israeli narrative dominant. Its strategy was simple: Block the Palestinian story from public view. When that story slips through the barrier surrounding public opinion, the Lobby is organized to attack, not the story, but those who dare to tell it.
- The two publications that emerged in 2006 from Walt and Mearsheimer and Jimmy Carter came from highly respected sources, setting off alarm bells within the Lobby. Future historians may see in the arrival of The Israel Lobby and Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, a resemblance to the initial impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
- This 19th century novel, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, prodded American consciences and ripped apart the fiction that slavery was necessary to the American economy. President Abraham Lincoln acknowledged as much when he met Stowe in 1862 and said, ‘So, you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!’
Walt and Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby, was initially written as an article for Atlantic magazine. When the editors saw the manuscript they had requested, they decided its subject matter was too incendiary for its readers. Walt and Mearsheimer then placed the manuscript with the London Review of Books.
Attacks against the two scholars were immediate and fierce. The nature of those attacks provide a template for what can be expected by anyone who dares confront the highly skilled and effective Israel Lobby. After an interview he conducted with Steven M. Walt, Beirut columnist Rami G. Khouri wrote in the Daily Star (December 13, 2006):
‘The[y] knew their article would be controversial, Walt told me, because it addressed a set of important issues that few mainstream scholars or journalists had examined. [Walt and Mearsheimer] expected professional criticism and personal attacks, because they challenged some powerful individuals and organizations, and cast doubt on central American-Israeli historical claims and policy positions.’
- Walt and Mearsheimer had not only confronted an important narrative of the suffering of the Jewish people and their perceived need for a state where Jews ‘could be safe’, they had also reminded their readers that a just cause which enjoys unchallenged power can overreach. In short, they exposed the Lobby as a marketing machine which promoted a legitimate narrative but did so with the full purpose of stifling the appearance of any competing narrative.
- After the initial attacks against the Walt-Mearsheimer article, Khouri writes that the authors wrote ‘a detailed 80-page point-by-point response to all the accusations and criticisms made against them.’ In this response, the authors found that much of the criticism ‘was mistaken and invalid’. They summarized the attacks against them into three broad groups:
‘Unsupported ad hominem accusations of being anti-Semites, liars, or bigots “who relied on neo-Nazi Web sites; clear misrepresentations of their views, by accusing them of arguments they did not make or ignoring important points that they did make; and, accusations that the original essay was riddled with factual errors and was sloppy scholarship.’
Such ‘unsupported ad hominem’ accusations were easily refuted, but unfortunately, the US media, which thrives on controversy in its commercial context, eagerly reported the accusations and aided the Lobby’s attack strategy which was intended ‘to discredit the authors, divert the discussion to tangential issues, or bury the original paper’s core arguments about the questionable impact of the pro-Israel lobby. ‘
Controlling the narrative
Scholars have a certain caché in the American culture, but that did not prevent the attackers from coming after Walt and Mearsheimer with their personal and distorted attacks. Nor was a former president like Jimmy Carter immune from personal attacks. Carter served in the White House from 1976-80, and in the 27 years since he left office he has become an admired public figure; his status made the personal attacks especially repugnant to the American public which had come to admire Carter for his worldwide humane activities.
The Carter Center, which Carter created in Atlanta, Georgia, after he left political office, works to advance human rights and alleviate unnecessary human suffering, with the Center’s stated goal of ‘creating a world in which every man, woman, and child has the opportunity to enjoy good health and live in peace.
Jimmy Carter is trusted by the American public. The care and research he put into Palestine Peace Not Apartheid has impressed readers, many of whom are hearing the Palestinian narrative for the first time. His post publication appearances on radio and television have brought an issue to the American public which has been largely ignored for 50 years.
As a veteran politician and world leader, Carter knows from experience that dominant political powers survive by controlling the narrative that works for them. The intent of his book is to celebrate the Israeli narrative at its Holocaust-centered best, but also it exposes the dark side of the narrative, specifically, its expansionism and oppression of the Palestinian.
Carter is well aware that the dominant, and therefore controlling narrative, always has the potential to inflict suffering on those it controls. He is, after all, a native of the American south, where the white segregationist narrative was once the only version of ‘truth’ accepted in public discourse.
When he became president in 1977, Carter faced a Congress, a media and an American public controlled by the Israeli narrative. To bring peace to the region he would have to act on his own. He found a way to get around the dominant narrative. An American chief executive could take unilateral foreign-policy actions for peace as well as for war.
Two years into his term as president, Carter persuaded the new Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, to join him and Anwar Sadat (who had become a close friend) for peace discussions at Camp David. After three arduous weeks of intense negotiations, Sadat and Begin signed a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, the only peace agreement between Israel and an Arab state since 1948.
Since leaving office, Carter has had to endure the failure of successive administrations to move forward toward other peace agreements. Both political parties abandoned the focus on human rights that had characterized the Carter administration. It was time for him to write a book.
A few days before Carter’s book was published, several weeks before the 2006 Congressional elections, speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi and Democratic party chair Howard Dean, armed with selected quotes, rushed forward to announce that Carter does not speak for their party. The Israeli lobby, most likely the helpful supplier of those ‘selected quotes’ from a book Pelosi and Dean had not read, swung into action, no doubt disturbed that as a former president, Carter would receive considerable TV and radio exposure (though as Carter noted, very little print attention).
Carter was interviewed on PBS, NPR, and several friendly talk show programs, including those hosted by Charlie Rose and Larry King. Carter used those programs to make the case that he used the term ‘apartheid’ in his title because it accurately describes the situation in the Palestinian territories. And, yes, he knew it would be provocative. He wanted the attention of the media and the American public and he got it.
Many news channels treated the Carter book as a ‘controversial’ news story, without getting into any serious discussion of its content. CNN newsman Wolf Blitzer, for example, did a segment on his program, ‘The Situation Room’.
Blitzer introduced one of his guests, Dennis Ross, as ‘the former chief U.S. Middle East negotiator [and] the author of The Missing Peace, The inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, an important book on the subject.’ What he does not add is that Ross is currently the ‘Counsellor and Ziegler Distinguished Fellow’ at the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The other scholar featured on the segment was Kenneth Stein, who had just dramatically ‘resigned’ from his position with the Carter Center, where he had served since Carter opened the Center after leaving the White House. (As Carter noted in commenting on the Stein resignation, while Stein had not been active in Center programs for the previous 12 years, he had been kept on in a titular position as a fellow.) Both Ross and Stein took swings at Carter that followed the strategy used by the Lobby, take attention away from substance by focusing on minor complaints.
The CNN transcript is revealing:
- ‘BLITZER: So who is right, the former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, or Ken Stein who worked with him for a long time, a man you know quite well?
- ROSS: Well, look, I’m not going to get into a debate over who is right, other than to say that in terms of what I have seen from the book -- and I have to be clear, I haven’t read the book, but I looked at the maps.
BLITZER: You haven’t read Palestine Peace not Apartheid?
ROSS: I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I looked at the maps and the maps he uses are maps that are drawn basically from my book. There’s no other way they could -- even if he says they come from another place they came originally from my book because...
BLITZER: . . . what’s the big deal if he lifted maps from your book and put them in his book?
ROSS: You know, the attribution issue is one thing, the fact that he’s labelled them as an Israeli interpretation of the Clinton idea is just simply wrong. The maps were maps that I created because at Camp David and then with the Clinton ideas, we never presented maps, but we presented percentages of withdrawal and we presented as well criteria for how to draw the lines.’
Blitzer allowed Ross _ who admitted he was discussing a book he had not read _ to avoid Carter’s criticism of Israel by discussing the ‘source’ of two maps. Ironically, Ross, who claimed he had created his own map, was admitting the truth of one of the Palestinians major complaints about the Clinton-led Camp David meeting; there was never a map the Palestinians could see to understand the so-called Israeli ‘generous offer’.
Blitzer also included an interview with Kenneth Stein on this same segment in which Stein tried to explain his ‘resignation’ from the Carter Center. Asked why the term ‘apartheid’ bothered him, Stein replied:
- ‘There’s too much emotion in the Arab/Israel conflict already and I think this adds heat rather than light. When you use the word apartheid what you’re doing is you’re saying that what Israel is doing to the Palestinians in the territories is equivalent to what happened to the blacks in South Africa.’
- Blitzer’s CNN listeners would have benefited from some words to refute Ken Stein, who views reality entirely from the Israeli narrative. He would have found an effective refutation from John Dugard, who wrote in the Atlanta Journal:
- ‘As a South African and former anti-apartheid advocate who visits the Palestinian territories regularly to assess the human rights situation for the U.N. Human Rights
Council, [Carter’s] comparison [of Palestine] to South African apartheid is of special interest to me...
Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories has many features of colonization. At the same time it has many of the worst characteristics of apartheid. The West Bank has been fragmented into three areas — north (Jenin and Nablus), center (Ramallah) and south (Hebron) — which increasingly resemble the Bantustans of South Africa..
Many aspects of Israel’s occupation surpass those of the apartheid regime. Israel’s large-scale destruction of Palestinian homes, levelling of agricultural lands, military incursions and targeted assassinations of Palestinians far exceed any similar practices in apartheid South Africa. No wall was ever built to separate blacks and whites.’
Jimmy Carter’s book correctly identifies the apartheid structures inherent in the Israeli occupation. What keeps American politicians from accepting this reality? Speaking from personal experience, James Abourez, the first Arab-American to serve in the US Senate (South Dakota, 1973-1979), provides an answer in an article he wrote for the Electronic Intifada web site:
‘I can tell you from personal experience that the support Israel has in the Congress is based completely on political fear _ fear of defeat by anyone who does not do what Israel wants done... In private one hears the dislike of Israel and the tactics of the Lobby, but not one [member of Congress] is willing to risk the Lobby’s animosity by making their feelings public.’
- John Dugard. ‘“Apartheid” label doesn’t fit Mideast’, in Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 5, 2006.
- James Abourez. ‘Support for Israel in Congress is based on Fear’, in The Electronic Intifada, December 12, 2006. See http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article6213.shtml
- James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine: http://www.christiancentury.org/