The last three Democratic presidents took a “cautionary tale” from Jimmy Carter and decided not to push the issue of Palestinian justice because it might cost them a second term, says Eric Alterman, the author and columnist.
“There are very strong reasons to be pro-Israel, hardly any to be pro-Palestinian– I would say none to be pro-Palestinian, with a few exceptions in a few parts of certain districts,” Alterman said. “So for a president to really care about what he considers to be justice for this issue, he has to risk an awful lot, and there’s no guarantee that he will succeed because it’s not clear that the Israelis even care what the United States thinks– unless the United States is willing to do things that no president has been willing to consider, and you have the cautionary tale of Jimmy Carter. So Bill Clinton was willing to go so far and no further. Barack Obama was willing to go so far and no further. They wanted to make peace, they really would have loved to have made peace, but when they saw what they were up against, they said to themselves, ‘Is this really how I am going to define my presidency, whether or not I am willing to risk everything else I am about, which is what it would take?’ And they said ‘No that’s not what I was elected to do, that’s not why I’m here’, and they would then let events take its natural course. I think Biden has probably learned from that and tried to keep the issue quiet as best he can.”
Alterman has a new book out, We Are Not One, about the political/cultural chasm between American Jews and Israelis, and he spoke about the power of the Israel lobby to Peter Beinart on March 3.
Here are some of the highlights of that discussion.
On the ability of Israel lobby groups to contravene public opinion:
“I think AIPAC etc [the other pro-Israel lobby groups] has a lot in common with the National Rifle Association. Americans like guns more than any other quote unquote civilized country likes guns, and yet 92 percent of American people support tougher restrictions on guns, but we don’t get them. The reason we don’t get them is the power of the gun lobby.”
In this case, the people don’t like Israel as much as politicians like Israel; and the lobby is scripting Israeli impunity in American policy and law.
“The fine print of American law with regard to Israel is astonishing, and it would be astonishing to most Americans who do not pay very much attention. And that’s because the lobbyists and the people who are at the mercy of the lobbyists, or who are sympathetic to the lobbyists, or who think they might want to get a job some day that the lobbyists could either help them get or not get, pay an awful lot of attention to the detail of American law….
“The quote-in-quote pro-Israel lobbies are there to stay, they are there every day, they are writing the actual laws. Whereas the people who feel bad about what’s happening that day are only there for that day and the next. I like the people who are fighting this fight, but they’re no match politically speaking for the side that makes sure that Israel basically gets what it wants and making lots of trouble for the people who don’t.”
Palestinians have never had access to the prestige U.S. media:
The New York Times has always had a columnist who will defend Israel whatever it does, Alterman says. With William Safire and A.M. Rosenthal, it had two such columnists. But the Times has never had an Edward Said or Noam Chomsky to speak up for Palestinian rights. Alterman says the Times is serving its audience (which by the way traditionally includes many Jews):
They know their audience and their audience doesn’t want to be browbeat that way… Is it possible some day they will?
“Nightline” was the most influential news program in the 80s and 90s, and Benjamin Netanyahu, then deputy ambassador for Israel, “colonized Nightline,” Beinart said. Alterman said Nightline’s executive producer would not have the PLO on, “without the permission of the Israelis.”
The only person who had “permission to narrate” for Palestinians, including on “Nightline,” was Edward Said. Because he was highly cultured, and lavished with praise by New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, “it made him kosher as someone who they [journalists] felt they could talk to about Palestinians,” Alterman said.
On presidential politics:
Jimmy Carter was misled by advisers Hamilton Jordan and Zbigniew Brzezinski in 1978 to believe that newly-elected Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a former terrorist from the right wing, would not be liked by liberal American Jews, because “he’s so crazy.” They were wrong. “That misunderstanding is a big reason that Jimmy Carter was a one term president.” (This is a belief about Carter’s loss in 1980 that Carter and others apparently share.)
Though Carter’s Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel sold the Palestinians out, Alterman observed. Global power politics have worked very strongly in Israel’s favor since the 50s, he said; and because the internal politics of the U.S. favor Israel, a president has no reason to be pro-Palestinian. Beinart said Obama identified with Palestinians more than he was willing to admit. He knew about western imperialism, he understood the Palestinian perspective on Israel quite well and even identified with it but was “constrained” by the politics. Alterman agreed that anti-Palestinian forces are “structural.”
“Israel is really powerful in every measurable fashion, politically, militarily, narratively, economically and the Palestinians are not.”
The crisis of the Israel lobby:
Beinart said that the Israel lobbyists are not daunting in person– just average Jews, some with money, who think there needs to be an Israel. “They managed to create this golem-like beast that has people in Washington quaking in their boots. Virtually every politician and the White House too [are responsive to] this machine that our community has created… Goodness knows there are better things we could have done with all our money and energy!”
Alterman said the best days of the lobby are over. Israel used to be the “center of Jewish identity,” but that link is weakening, as Israel gets worse and worse and young Jews learn about the Nakba in college. When the former heads of the American Jewish Committee and the Conference of Presidents say that Being Jewish means Israel and antisemitism, that formula won’t preserve the Jewish community, Alterman opined; because it appears that Israel is the wrong answer to Jewish history of persecution in Europe.
“America and Israel are the two separate answers to the Jewish question, even though they’re contradictory.”
The key to the longevity of the lobby is funding. “There’s nothing democratic about these legacy Jewish organizations.” Their boards are made up of conservative funders, and they keep the organizations on a very tight leash, pro-Israel. “That won’t change in the near term.”
American Jewry now has two default positions. Either Israel right or wrong– “If Israel wants to do this, who am I to criticize, I don’t live there.” Or turned off: “If this is Israel, I want nothing to do with it.” Jews in the second category go off to work on other issues; but when they see American Jewry in lockstep with Israel, that only alienates them from the group. “If American Jewry is like this, not sure I want to be a part of that either.”