So much for changing one-sided Mideast policy

March 13, 2009|By RON SMITH

Many were the supporters of Barack Obama who thought the candidate's message of "hope and change" included reshaping America's foreign policy to one featuring a more even-handed approach to the long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians - a turn away from uncritical support of whatever the Israeli government does. There were signs that this might take place, but everybody knows - though for the most part they dare not say - that the Israel lobby in the United States controls Congress on matters relating to its client.

Over the years, American politicians have learned there is a steep price to be paid for voicing opinions contrary to those of the lobby. The object lessons included election defeats of several legislators who angered pro-Israel groups, thereby ensuring negative press coverage and well-funded opponents. Sens. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas and Charles H. Percy of Illinois saw their political careers ended this way, as did Rep. Paul Findley of Illinois, who served 22 years in the House and later wrote a book, The y Dare to Speak Out, in which he sought to expose the degree to which pro-Israel groups are able to suppress free debate and shape American foreign policy.

No congressional debate is ever allowed about the immense amount of aid we send to Israel. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported this week that a "senior U.S. administration official" told Israel Radio that President Obama wouldn't cut any of the billions of dollars in military aid promised by the Bush administration in August 2007.

Which brings us to the news that Charles W. Freeman Jr., President Obama's choice to head the National Intelligence Council, withdrew his name Tuesday and blamed pro-Israel lobbying groups, saying they had distorted his record and campaigned against him.

In a statement printed at ForeignPolicy.com explaining why he turned down the invitation to lead the council, Mr. Freeman said he "concluded that the barrage of libelous distortions of my record would not cease upon my entry into office. I do not believe the National Intelligence Council could function effectively while its chair was under constant attack by unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country."

Mr. Freeman has been criticized in Congress for making statements critical of Israel, for appearing to side with China against freedom advocates years ago, and for having business associations with China and a think tank partially funded by Saudi Arabia.

From The New York Times: "Joshua Block, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a lobbying group, said that his organization had not taken a formal position on Freeman's selection and had not lobbied Congress members to oppose it." Maybe so, but as Glenn Greenwald reports at Salon.com, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York has been publicly boasting of the role he played in denying Mr. Freeman that influential intelligence post, saying that Mr. Freeman had "made statements against Israel" that were "way over the top."

The importance of this fight is that in the end, pro-Israel lawmakers and lobbyists got their way, which means there is little likelihood of any significant shift in our one-sided approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For those who think unstinting support of all Israeli government decisions is the proper course for us to follow, this is all to the good. For those who believe not all actions taken by Israel are necessarily in the best interests of the United States, the Freeman withdrawal - essentially a veto by the Israel lobby - represents a continuation of the status quo and the end of any "hope" for "change" in it.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column now appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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