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Thursday, March 12, 2009

After Freeman, LA Times wants an open debate on Israel, Washington Post wants to shut it down

Chas Freeman has finally hit the the front pages and editorial sections of the leading US newspapers. Freeman landed on the front pages of both the New York Times and Washington Post, but the real fireworks have been in the op-eds. The LA Times offers a straightforward take in their editorial "An open debate on Israel":

When John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt wrote about "The Israel Lobby" in 2006, many supporters of Israel were outraged. How, they wanted to know, could anyone say that the United States offered "unwavering support" to Israel? Worse yet, how did these two misguided professors dare suggest that there was a cabal of die-hard Zionists in the media, in Congress, in the Pentagon and in neocon think tanks working to ensure that U.S. policy did not deviate from the pro-Israel party line?

The debate was ferocious; the world (or at least the part that cares about these things) divided along angry partisan lines. Mearsheimer and Walt were shouted down in many quarters as anti-Semites. Needless to say, no resolution was reached, and eventually the furor died down.

Several weeks ago, however, it re-erupted after President Obama appointed Charles W. Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, as chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Vehement objections came from several of Israel's most loyal supporters in Congress, from some journalists and lobbyists known for their strong support of the Jewish state, and from other members of what some would no doubt call, well, the Israel lobby. . .

Our opinion is this: Israel is America's friend and ally. It deserves to exist safely within secure borders. We hope it will continue to prosper as a refuge for Jews and a vibrant democracy in the region (alongside an equally democratic Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza). But we do not believe that Israel should be immune from criticism or that there is room for only one point of view in our government.

U.S. policy has been extremely supportive of Israel over the years, as have many of our policymakers. That's fine. But theirs should not be the only voices allowed in the room.

Sounds about right doesn't it? I mean, who could argue against a diversity of opinion and an open discussion about US foreign policy? Looks like the Washington Post wants to give it a shot. A Post editorial entitled "Blame the 'Lobby' - The Obama administration's latest failed nominee peddles a conspiracy theory" takes us back to the heyday of the Walt/Mearshimer firestorm. After summarizing a list of Freeman's sins amazingly similar in tone and language to those circulated by the American Jewish Committee, the Post goes on to say:

It wasn't until Mr. Freeman withdrew from consideration for the job, however, that it became clear just how bad a selection Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair had made. Mr. Freeman issued a two-page screed on Tuesday in which he described himself as the victim of a shadowy and sinister "Lobby" whose "tactics plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency" and which is "intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government." Yes, Mr. Freeman was referring to Americans who support Israel -- and his statement was a grotesque libel.

For the record, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee says that it took no formal position on Mr. Freeman's appointment and undertook no lobbying against him. If there was a campaign, its leaders didn't bother to contact the Post editorial board. According to a report by Newsweek, Mr. Freeman's most formidable critic -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- was incensed by his position on dissent in China.

But let's consider the ambassador's broader charge: He describes "an inability of the American public to discuss, or the government to consider, any option for U.S. policies in the Middle East opposed by the ruling faction in Israeli politics." That will certainly be news to Israel's "ruling faction," which in the past few years alone has seen the U.S. government promote a Palestinian election that it opposed; refuse it weapons it might have used for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities; and adopt a policy of direct negotiations with a regime that denies the Holocaust and that promises to wipe Israel off the map. Two Israeli governments have been forced from office since the early 1990s after open clashes with Washington over matters such as settlement construction in the occupied territories.

This Post editorial almost defies comment. After basically calling Freeman anti-Semite, the Post ignores its own coverage as it offers an incredibly skewed view of US foreign policy and the way the lobby wields influence. While the editorial posits that the fact that AIPAC did not officially lobby on the issue shows they weren't involved, Walter Pincus's article explains:

For example, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), often described as the most influential pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, "took no position on this matter and did not lobby the Hill on it," spokesman Josh Block said.

But Block responded to reporters' questions and provided critical material about Freeman, albeit always on background, meaning his comments could not be attributed to him, according to three journalists who spoke to him. Asked about this yesterday, Block replied: "As is the case with many, many issues every day, when there is general media interest in a subject, I often provide publicly available information to journalists on background."

It's almost too obvious a point worth mentioning, yet the Post editorial would seem to believe that it doesn't exist.

Finally, the Post's half hearted defense of US policy challenging Israel is truly pathetic. If the Post really wants to say, let alone believe, that the US offers a counterbalance to Israeli interests in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict then at least we know where they stand. But regardless, they should be responsible for providing a forum for debating issues so central to US foreign policy. By including veiled accusations of anti-Semitism, dismissing concerns as "conspiracies", and offering analysis completely divorced from reality, this editorial shows that the Post is more interested in shutting down the discussion rather than furthering it.

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