Transforming America’s Israel Lobby: The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change by Dan Flesher (Potomac Books, Inc., 2009) Reviewed by Eli Clifton

Written by admin on December 15th, 2009

Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in their 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, triggered a firestorm of controversy when they argued that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East was contrary to U.S. national interests and the trouble was due to the activities of a coalition of pro-Israel lobbies.  The authors’ portrayed the “Israel Lobby” to be largely aligned with the American and Israeli right-wing and Israel’s Likud Party and an overwhelming force for any dissenting voices to go up against.

Dan Flesher thinks the power of the Israel lobby is largely based on “smoke and mirrors.” The real question, he argues in Transforming America’s Israel Lobby: The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change, is “Why have American Jews let the lobby speak for them?” He points out that opinion polls of American Jews suggest that they are politically to the left of the stances taken by the lobby’s biggest voices. 

Arising from this gap has been a number of new, pro-Israel organizations willing to challenge the hard lined policies of the major Jewish organizations. Assessing these differing viewpoints forms the basis for Fleshler’s insightful book. He is well positioned to analyze this break-away movement, having worked with a number of left-of-center American Jewish groups including Americans for Peace Now, the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation, and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, organizations  dedicated to advancing Jewish-Arab relations in Israel and a negotiated two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Transforming America’s Israel Lobby examines the terrain of American Jewish organizations’ stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict including: the “Far Left or Religious Anti-Zionist’’—which includes Jewish Voices for Peace; the “Pro-Israel Left’’—which includes J Street; the “Center Left’’—which includes the Union of Reform Judaism; the “Center’’—which includes the Anti-Defamation League; the ‘”Center Right’’—which includes AIPAC; and the ‘”Far Right’’—which includes American friends of Likud and the Zionist Organization of America.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), often seen as the figurehead of the “Israel Lobby,’’ stands to the right of most of these groups.  Fleshler explains that AIPAC’s strength lies in its ability to give American Jews a link to Israel when increasing numbers of American Jews are finding themselves detached from the narrative of Israel’s founding and the holocaust.  AIPAC and the most mainstream American Jewish organizations give their membership an opportunity to rally around Israel.  But they create for them “diaspora lag,’’ where controversial topics, such as discussions of a Palestinian state and negotiating with Hamas, often remain verboten even when they have been publicly discussed in the Israeli media.

Fleshler suggests that AIPAC’s political muscle on Capitol Hill is on account of few opposing lobbies within the Jewish community.  The mere fact that it exists and is able to muster public support when needed is motivation enough for a large number of US politicians to fall in line with AIPAC’s positions.

Fleshler also posits that AIPAC and the “Israel Lobby” have magnified their perceived influence through “smoke and mirrors” by leveraging long-held anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jewish control of the media and economy.  He discusses how bundled campaign contributions coming from out-of-state Jewish donors to a congressional candidate with few Jews in his or her district helps confirm the myth of Jewish money even when the total sum of money may be relatively small.

Fleshler makes a strong case that progressive American Jewish organizations can tap into a constituency willing to stand up to the mainstream “Israel Lobby.” Groups such as J Street, a recently formed progressive counter-point to AIPAC (Fleshler sits on its advisory council), should speak up and give politicians “cover” for taking stances which pressure Israel to give up its settlements and promote the formation of a viable Palestinian state, the book argues.

Fleshler’s core argument, borrowed from the former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy,  is that it is in the interests of American Jews who care about Israel to recognize that American strategic interests in the Middle East require a more active U.S.  role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That the book offers few concrete suggestions on how a center-left coalition within the American Jewish community might gain greater influence is disappointing. But that Fleshler places the ADL – whose national director, Abraham Foxman, thought talking to Muslims was “a pipe dream” because there was “no one to talk to” and opposed U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell’s Mideast tour because he was “even handed” – in the center of the Jewish political spectrum suggests that he may have a higher hill to climb than he thinks. He also fails to address a belief long held among some Washington policymakers that Israel’s role in the Arab world serves U.S. interests. Despite Fleshler’s cogent argument that the “Israel Lobby” rests on “puffery” and “smoke and mirrors,” any center-left Jewish coalition trying to bring a “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” voice to the ongoing saga of U.S.-Israel relations faces a difficult and complex challenge.

Eli Clifton writes on U.S. foreign policy issues for the Inter Press Service News Agency.

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