Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Anti-Israeli? Please, Act Constructively (AIPAC)

By Zachary Kineke
Photo by Jasmin Bauomy

Could you pick a more controversial topic to write a book about than the Israel lobby in the US? It's an organization that plays by the rules while using every trick in the book to make sure it gets its voice heard; an organization fighting for a foreign country while arguably doing more harm than good when it succeeds.

The talk given on the book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by Dr. John Mearsheimer and Dr. Stephen Walt discussed those points well while also addressing the harmful lack of two-sided debate on the subject in the US (a two-sided debate that is carried on quite thoroughly among columnists and politicians in Israel) and the American system and beliefs that provide a fertile ground upon which lobbies like AIPAC can sow their agenda.

Politically, the pair made clear that since Jimmy Carter, it has been the policy of American presidents to oppose settlement building because of its hindrance to a two-state solution. While saying that the two presidents that have done the most for peace there were Carter and George H. W. Bush, they also pointed out that American presidents have refused or been unable to exercise the considerable leverage the US could wield against Israel to stop this settlement building because of, among other things, pressure put on them by AIPAC. When the President can go in front of the Knesset and set off on a religiously-based half-hour funfest like this speech, and a man Arabs call "Uncle Obama" could say this in front of AIPAC, how would Israel ever believe that the US would try to stop them from doing whatever they want to do in the occupied territories?

Obama's mention brings up a very interesting point made by the authors during the speech in respose to a question from the audience. When asked what the future would hold in this situation with a new American president on the horizon, they first responded that it couldn't possibly get any worse than the one we have now (which was followed by the first of many, many applause breaks). They then answered that it would be John McCain, not Obama, who would be better for holding the Israel lobby back and working for a stoppage of settlement. Yes, that McCain.

It was a bit shocking to hear this personally- I was in Israel only weeks ago and engaged in numerous political debates with the Israelis who stayed in and ran the hotel in which I was put up. Besides hearing, "George Bush is the best president Israel has ever had!" (they can have him) and "I hope you got to work for Fox News- they are the only fair and balanced news channel in America," (the motto makes it true) I also was lectured on why Obama was the worst thing that could happen to Israel. "We wouldn't vote for him," one said, "because America shouldn't have a Muslim president." Never mind that Obama's biggest problem this campaign has been an angry pastor. But hearing that Obama would be Israel's best friend, because of AIPAC's attention to and pressure on him, was strange- but very plausible.

As with any book, and a talk regarding it, there were small exaggerations and omissions. There was a lot of talk about the power of the Israel lobby without much talk about the American opinions that already coincide with what they want to do. As well, statistics they gave about Americans, especially ones that said a majority find Israel and Hezbollah equally responsible for the 2006 war, seemed rather implausible. The pessimism of the talk was realistic, but a bit of a downer nonetheless. Still, the talk made important points for the most part backed up with strong evidence.

When you get together a group of people on such a controversial topic, it's pretty likely you're going to have a bit of a heated Q&A. The debate here was no exception. Moderator Mehran Kamrava set down three rules: questions not comments, keep it brief, and one question at a time. These three were broken with the very first question, from the Israeli ambassador no less, and set the stage for a session the audience used to make their own points in front of the TV cameras. Kamrava might have let a few people, notably Hassan al-Jaafari, everyone's favorite "man of peace," ramble on too long, but he did a good job of spreading questions throughout the audience while hitting the important ambassadors as well. And Mearshimer and Walt were composed and intelligent in their answers, whether I agreed with them or not.

Looking for any optimism in the speeches was tough, but an answer near the end gave some hope. The authors talked about the change in American media rhetoric between Israel's 50th anniversary and now- specifically, the use of the word nakba (catastrophe) and the acknowledgement that the celebration for Israel parallels a tragedy for Palestine. And, of course, there was a reference to this clip on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

They asked, and I agree: would that have been on the air even five years ago?

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