It's been clear to me for about ten years that the primary problem the United States faces in crafting Middle East policy is not so much the Arabs or the Israelis. It is the Israel lobby (led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or AIPAC but consisting also of other major organizations that include Israel in their portfolio).
Writing about the lobby's influence (from the perspective of someone who had spent 20 years dealing with AIPAC as an aide to a senator and several House members), I initially felt like a voice in the wilderness. Yes, there were always people pointing to the power of the lobby but many of those had no use for Israel to start out with. For them, attacking the lobby is a subset of attacking Israel in general.
Don't get me wrong. Although I support a secure Jewish State of Israel, I despise the policies of the Netanyahu government that are designed to either preserve the occupation or (and this is most relevant now) prevent a diplomatic resolution of the stalemate over Iranian nuclear development. Even if the lobby didn't exist, I'd be vehemently condemning those policies.
Of course, if the lobby didn't exist, the United States government would not have to spend much effort getting a country that is the largest recipient of U.S. aid in line, just as the bank which holds the mortgage has considerably more say than a property's nominal owner. Not only do all other foreign recipients of U.S. aid have to comply with conditions set by Washington, so do all states and municipalities here in the United States. Only Israel gets what it wants, no strings attached.
All this is obvious. The problem is that virtually few media figures or politicians have the nerve to say it. Politicians depend on the lobby for campaign cash while media figures are rightly afraid that talking about the lobby will lead to advertiser and front office complaints and ultimately to the loss of their jobs.
That is why, this week, the one media figure to speak out against the lobby's efforts to sink a negotiated agreement with Iran is Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Not coincidentally he is, by far, the most influential journalist on matters relating to the Middle East. Also, not coincidentally, he is Jewish, pro-Israel, has a raft of Pulitzer Prizes and makes a lot of money for the New York Times. He is, as the phrase goes, "too big to fail" or to be fired because he offends the powers that be.
And offend them he does, regularly, and most recently this week.
Here is what he wrote the other day about the effort of Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress to "stymie" President Barack Obama's Iran initiative.
...never have I seen more lawmakers -- Democrats and Republicans -- more willing to take Israel's side against their own president's. I'm certain this comes less from any careful consideration of the facts and more from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.
There it is. Friedman is saying what everyone knows but no one (of his stature) has had the nerve to say. The opposition to an Iran deal in Congress represents "tak[ing] Israel's side against" the American president's, but it's also about campaign contributions.
He uses the phrase "never have I seen" twice in his column to stress that the lobby's campaign to defeat an American president on an American security issue is unprecedented. These negotiations are not about the West Bank or Gaza, they are about the U.S. effort to prevent development of Iranian nuclear weapons without resorting to a war that would jeopardize American lives.
And yet the lobby believes, perhaps correctly, that campaign cash will cause both Democrats and Republicans to put the lobby's interests above this country's. Knowing this Congress and our major politicians, they may prevail, if not now then later in the process.
The only thing that can stop them is to have more Tom Friedmans step forward. If a significant number of figures in Congress or the media came forward and said that the lobby is using the influence of its cash to prevent a U.S.-Iranian deal, the lobby would back down.
And it's not like there would be anyone to take their place on this issue. The only interest opposing an Iran deal is the lobby and its euphemistic cutout, the neocons. The Christian right opposes it too but, unlike Team AIPAC, it does not give campaign contributions based on this issue and it has zero influence among Democrats. On matters related to Israel, only the lobby matters.
This is not a case of being pro-Israel or anti-Israel. A nuclear agreement with Iran, one backed by safeguards and intrusive inspections, will protect Israel even more than it does the United States. (Nuclear armed Israel's concern with Iran is almost purely about its potential economic and geopolitical clout, not about its theoretical nuclear bombs).
The bottom line then is whether the American government can pursue a strategic goal in the Middle East that is clearly in the interests of the American people. Or can it be thwarted by a lobby that is using its almost unlimited funds to advance other interests? Like the NRA, AIPAC pursues it agenda at the expense of the American people. How long can this go on?
We'll have at least a partial answer before this week ends.