Sunday, February 3, 2008

Al Jazeera on the Israel Lobby: How we get to see the Arab world seeing us

Thinking back several decades to grad school (my god, when did I get that old) I can remember one day stumbling across the TASS coverage of the 1984 Reagan-Mondale presidential election right after the Democratic Convention. Mondale has just made his famous (ultimately losing) admission that both candidates would have to raise taxes, but that only he was honest enough to say so.

Many people reading this may not be old enough to recall the stereotypes of Soviet-era news media: state-run television that only presented the official Communist Party line....

The problem was that the TASS analysis was the best, most penetrating analyses of American electoral politics I've ever read. No proletariat or imperialist lackey running dogs, just careful, knowledgeable analysis that ended by concluding Mondale would lose in a landslide because Americans would always vote against a man who said publicly he'd raise taxes....

Which brings me to the Al Jazeera story today on the impact of the Israel Lobby on the American presidential election.

As US presidential candidates battle it out to become the leader of the world's only superpower there is one subject on which they all, in public at least, agree - the US relationship with Israel.

To leading politicians on both sides of the partisan divide the special relationship is sacrosanct, largely due, critics say, to the power of pro-Israel lobby groups.

Those critics also say that pro-Israeli groups are set to play a major role in the forthcoming election battle, both in terms of funding candidates and by publicly criticising any candidate critical of Israel or the US's relationship with it.

John Mearsheimer, who alongside Stephen Walt is the author of a controversial series of articles and a recent book on the Israel lobby, told Al Jazeera: "Almost all of the major candidates are falling over themselves to demonstrate how deeply committed they are to America's special relationship with Israel.

"Hardly a word of criticism is directed at anything Israel does and that is due to the activities of the lobby."

Mearsheimer and Walt were excoriated when they wrote their original Israel Lobby article in the London Times and followed it up with a book. Even to use the term Israel Lobby is to invite immediate attack, as WPHT (Philadelphia) talk show host Michael Smerconish discovered last year when he dared to discuss the work and interview one of the authors.

Which probably accounts for not reading much of anything about our Israel policy in coverage of the presidential primaries, which (as Al Jazeera notes below) because any mention is more harmful to a candidate than touching Social Security:

Aipac's [a pro-Israel PAC] defenders say that this is where the organisation plays an important role, as an information source for politicians - including US presidential candidates.

But critics say that pro-Israel lobby groups go much further - as John Mearsheimer says: "The lobby monitors what the candidates say very closely."

In March, Democratic candidate Barack Obama gave a speech in the key primary state of Iowa where he said: "Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people."

A local Aipac member immediately contacted the media to denounce the comment, describing it as "deeply troubling".

This, at least in the eyes of the Arab world, is not an isolated event:

In July Jim Moran, a Democratic congressman who has criticised Aipac in the past, accused the organisation of pushing for war on Iraq.

Seventeen members of congress immediately wrote a letter to Moran condemning him and saying that his remarks "unfortunately fit the anti-Semitic stereotypes some have used historically used against Jews".

Eric Cantor, the house of representatives Republican deputy chief whip, reportedly went further and was quoted as as saying: "Unfortunately, Jim Moran has made it a habit now to lash out to the American-Jewish community.

"I think his remarks are reprehensible, I think his remarks are anachronistic, and hearken back to the day of Adolf Hitler."

In such a political climate it is easy to see why those seeking a job in the Oval Office are wary of speaking out for any change in the US relationship with Israel or against Aipac.

It is one thing to discuss, as candidates from all sides of the spectrum tend to do, the idea that President Bush's foreign policy has invited the enmity of much of the world. This is normal political discourse in American, part of the usual rough and tumble as candidates jockey for position. In truth, the rest of the world pretty much ignores this internal posturing.

What the world does pay attention to--rightly or wrongly--is the charge that the Israel lobby virtually controls American policy in the Middle East, and that nobody is allowed to talk about it.

I'd like to believe they're wrong. I'd like to believe that Al Jazeera and the Arab World are only seeing what they want to see.

But am I sure?


Delaware Watch said...

I believe that AJ often provides good objective coverage of events, which might be the reason that the US often accidentally bombs its facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, planned to bomb its headquarters until T. Blair vetoed the idea, kills & incarcerates its reporters.

Steven H. Newton said...

I don't think Al Jazeera is any more objective than any other news service, but if you allow for their cultural and political bias, they are useful