Stephen M. Walt

Goldberg goes bananas (again)

Goldberg goes bananas (again)

I never cease to be amazed at how virtually any criticism of Israel can cause Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic to go bananas and make all sorts of wild charges. This tendency is especially evident when someone writes about the Israel lobby. It is usually best to ignore him, because he seems incapable of getting the simplest facts right. But occasionally I feel the need to set the record straight.

Goldberg’s forte is character assassination, and his main weapons are name-calling and misrepresenting his opponents’ arguments. Instead of calling me a "Jew-baiter" (a despicable accusation for which he has no grounds), as he has in the past, his latest sally calls me a "neo-Lindberghian," again implying that I am an anti-Semite. This is a serious charge — the political equivalent of calling someone a racist or child molester — and you’d think a respectable journalist would go to some effort to document the label before using it. You’d think he’d supply a lengthy array of quotations from my writings and speeches to prove his point. Goldberg cannot do this, however, because no such evidence exists.

Goldberg doesn’t know me; doesn’t know my history, relatives, friends, students, and close associates, and has no idea what I really think about any of these questions. Judging by what he writes about my work, he doesn’t even know what I’ve written. For example, he claims that the book that John Mearsheimer and I wrote on the Israel lobby describes a "nefarious, all-powerful Jewish lobby." and that we "love to capitalize the word ‘Lobby.’" Both statements are demonstrably false, as he would know if he had bothered to examine the issue.

We portray the lobby as a legitimate interest group like many others and emphasize that its activities are a normal part of democratic politics in America (pp. 13-14, 112, 150). We explicitly reject the term "Jewish lobby" (p. 115) and we don’t capitalize the word lobby anywhere in the 484-page book. Indeed, the only place we ever capitalized that word was in our original London Review article; but we openly acknowledged in our subsequent response to critics that this usage was misleading and have not done so in any of our subsequent writings.

Journalists are supposed to be concerned with truth and accuracy. But Goldberg is clearly incapable of being objective or open-minded when the subject is Israel, which is why he quickly descends to innuendo and fabrication when dealing with anyone who criticizes that country’s policies, questions America’s special relationship with the Jewish state, or raises doubts the activities of the Israel lobby. He invents false charges for a simple reason: It would be impossible to smear us if he had to rely on what we actually said. So he has to make things up.

Goldberg is also wrong when he says the latest WikiLeaks revelations discredit our arguments about the lobby’s role in encouraging a war with Iran. We argued that if the United States were foolish enough to start a war against Iran, it would be largely due to the influence of Israel and especially the lobby. Both Israel and its hardline supporters here in the United States have been relentless in their efforts to push the United States to confront Iran, and to keep the military option at the ready. There is nothing in WikiLeaks that changes that assessment. Yes, there has also been pressure from some Arab leaders, such as the king of Saudi Arabia, to use force against Iran. There are also prominent voices in the Arab world warning that this step would be disastrous. But the key point is that these Arab leaders have much less influence on the United States than Israel does.

First, Arab leaders cannot make the case for war in public, because their publics oppose this course of action. Israel, on the other hand, is constantly making the case for war directly and overtly. Second, Israel has a powerful lobby in the United States that has been working overtime to push the United States to strike Iran. Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states have no meaningful lobby in Washington, which is why their repeated requests that the United States do something to end Israel’s illegal occupation and harsh treatment of the Palestinians have fallen on deaf ears for decades.

It is Israel and the lobby, not the Arabs, that are shaping the discourse on Iran, and it is disingenuous for Goldberg to suggest otherwise. Does he not know about the origins of "dual containment," as recounted in recent books by Kenneth Pollack and Trita Parsi? Is he unaware of AIPAC’s successful effort to kill the CONOCO oil deal with Iran in 1995, or the lobby’s role in pushing the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act in 1996, not to mention the 2010 version of unilateral U.S. sanctions? Has he forgotten his own recent writings, which warned that top Israeli leaders were contemplating war with Iran in early 2011?

Bear in mind that we still do not know if Iran is actively seeking an overt nuclear weapons capability or not. The December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which has not been superseded by a new estimate, said that Tehran was not trying to build nuclear weapons. And the evidence we have in the public record about Iran’s nuclear program does not show in any conclusive way that Iran is developing a nuclear arsenal. One can hardly rule out the possibility, of course, but neither should we simply assume that Tehran is hell-bent on building an actual weapon. It is even possible that these Arab leaders are so concerned that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons in part because they have been influenced by the efforts of Israel and the lobby to hype the Iran threat, just as they hyped the WMD threat from Iraq in the earlier part of this decade.

Perhaps I take Goldberg too seriously, and I should just ignore his regrettable tendency to distort the views of those with whom he disagrees. If Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly get to spout dangerous nonsense, why can’t Goldberg? Yet it is important to point out what he is doing, because he is a textbook case of the lengths to which many defenders of Israel will go in order to convince Americans that they must support it no matter what. Like the Cuban-American lobby, the gun lobby, and other narrow interest groups, the Likudnik wing of the Israel lobby isn’t really interested in truth or even a fair-minded discussion of the issues. They just smear their targets with made-up accusations, knowing that if you throw enough mud, some of it is bound to stick.

I suspect that what really ticks Goldberg off is this: My co-author and I (and a few others) have had the temerity to write critically about the political role of "pro-Israel" forces (both Jewish and non-Jewish) in America today. This is a topic that the goyim aren’t supposed to talk about openly. It’s fine for Goldberg to write at length about this topic, or for former Forward editor J. J. Goldberg, to devote an entire book (which is well worth reading) to it. But when a non-Jew writes about this issue, and suggests that these groups are advocating foolish and self-defeating policies, then that person must of course be an anti-Semite. If Jews express similar doubts, they must be labeled as "self-hating" and marginalized as well.

Please. I really do understand this sort of tribalism and up to a point, I’m sympathetic to it. Given Jewish history — and especially the dark legacy of genuine anti-Semitism — it is unsurprising that some people are quick to assume that any gentile who criticizes the present "special relationship" must have sinister motives, even when there’s no actual basis for the suspicion. But that sensitivity doesn’t make the elephant in the room disappear, and given that America’s Middle East policy affects all of us, the various factors that shape that policy ought to open to fair-minded discussion devoid of name-calling and character assassination.

So yes, Jeffrey, there is a powerful "Israel lobby" (though it’s not "all-powerful"). Yes, many individuals in the lobby think the United States should do whatever it takes–including the use of military force — to eliminate Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. They aren’t the only people who think this, but they have been among the loudest and most persistent voices advocating this course of action. And yes, like most (all?) lobbies, some of the policies that it promotes are not in the best interests of the country as a whole. These facts are so obvious and so easy to document that it’s no wonder that a zealot like Goldberg prefers to throw mud whenever somebody points them out.