Stephen M. Walt

Another invite lost in the mail

I was going to blog this morning about the Times’s story that Dr. Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian double agent who killed 8 U.S. operatives in a suicide bomb attack last week, was reportedly motivated by his anger at Israel’s pummeling of Gaza last year (you know, the war that President Bush didn’t ...


I was going to blog this morning about the Times’s story that Dr. Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian double agent who killed 8 U.S. operatives in a suicide bomb attack last week, was reportedly motivated by his anger at Israel’s pummeling of Gaza last year (you know, the war that President Bush didn’t try to prevent, that President-elect Obama didn’t talk about, and that the U.S. Congress apparently thinks was just fine.) Talk about blowback. But Phil Weiss and Glenn Greenwald are on the case, and you can just read them instead of me.

Instead, I want to share an invitation I was forwarded by a friend (for some inexplicable reason, I didn’t get one myself). The email invited him to attend "Spotlight Iran," a special workshop sponsored by The Israel Project. Here’s what it said:

From: The Israel Project []
Sent: Tuesday, January 05, 2010 5:11 PM
Subject: You Are Invited to an Iran Conference in Washington, DC

Please join us for a community-wide grass-roots advocacy training program:
Israel Advocacy Training Institute: Spotlight Iran

Don’t miss this hands-on training institute for Israel activists with special briefings by high level American and Israeli officials on the vital issues of Iran and grass roots advocacy. Gain new tools and learn how to effectively and efficiently make use of your time and resources to advocate for Israel in the halls of government, pages of newspaper print, radio airwaves, and internet sites of the new media.

Sunday, January 17, 12 noon- 4:30 p.m.
Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy
13300 Arctic Avenue, Rockville, MD

Plenary featuring:
-Dan Arbell, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Israel
-Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi, President of The Israel Project

Workshop Sessions featuring:
*Congressional and Legislative Advocacy with AIPAC Mid-Atlantic Political Director Arie Lipnik and Congressional Legislative Assistants
*Online Advocacy: Blogging, Twitter and Social Media with "Press Guru" and Jewish Communications Expert Aaron Keyak
*How to Get Published and Write a Letter to the Editor with journalist and Reuters Editor Alan Elsner
*Israel Advocacy in the Synagogue with Rabbi Jonah Layman of Shaare Tefilah Congregation and President of Congregation B’nai Tzedek Helane Goldstein
*Advocacy and Radio strategy with Former White House Radio Director Richard Strauss
*Understanding Christian Perspectives on Israel: The Keys to Effective Advocacy with Ethan Felson and Josh Protas, Vice President and Washington Director of the JCPA
*Special Teen Track Workshops

Book signing featuring authors: Ilan Berman, Alan Elsner,
Michael Ledeen and Jonathan Schanzer

$18 standard track ? $10 teen track (includes lunch)

[followed by the usual contact info for those seeking additional information]

A few quick comments:

First, if anyone still doubts that groups in the Israel lobby work hard to shape public discourse about Middle East affairs…well, time to cast those doubts aside. Apart from hyping the threat from Iran, the clear purpose of this workshop is to train people on how to write op-eds, twitter posts, blogs, etc., that can push TIP’s supposedly "pro-Israel" agenda.(Needless to say, its agenda on Iran is about pushing the United States to do whatever it takes to keep Iran from mastering the full fuel cycle, including the use of force.)

Second, there’s nothing wrong with a group of Americans getting together to push their policy views; that’s how our system of government works. This is in principle no different than Cuban-Americans organizing to preserve the misguided embargo on Castro’s regime, NRA members meeting to figure out new ways to thwart gun control, farmers organizing to push for more crop subsidies, tea partyers getting together to sound off on their pet peeves, or birthers meeting to spread more goofy notions about Obama’s heritage. Just good old-fashioned American interest group politics in all its glory. 

But notice that this event advertises an AIPAC representative, an Israeli diplomat and apparently several unnamed congressional legislative assistants. The latter are supposed to be public servants; we understand that they will be the objects of a lobbying groups efforts but here they seem to be actively helping one. Given the prominent role given to an official representative of a foreign government and the participation of several congressional aides, this event does seem to blur the line between being a purely domestic lobbying group and being something else. Isn’t it a bit over-the-line to have an officially accredited diplomat give the plenary address to a workshop whose declared purpose is to teach Americans how to advocate on behalf of that same diplomat’s country?

Third, my main point is to be clear about who is pushing for war with Iran and who isn’t.  The Israel Project and other like-minded groups want the U.S. to confront Iran, and the main reason they want this is to protect Israel from what they believe (mistakenly, in my view) is a dire threat.  (I think Iran’s activities are a legitimate concern, but not the apocalyptic danger that many Israelis seem to think.) They are entirely within their rights to hold those views, however, and to work within the American political system to try to advance their hard line agenda. If they want to organize seminars to build support for that position, and train people on how to advocate for it, fine by me.  And if other folks with similar views and agendas want to chime in, that’s ok too. 

And let’s be clear about one other thing. War with Iran is not a project that is backed by all Jewish-Americans, or only by Jewish-Americans. The same was true about the war in Iraq, which was dreamed up by the neocons and backed by key groups in the Israel lobby, but not by many American Jews. Indeed, by the time the United States went to war in 2003, surveys showed that American Jews were less supportive of war with Iraq than the U.S. population as a whole. 

But as in the run-up to Iraq, many of the most persistent advocates of a "kinetic response" to Iran are individuals or organization in the Israel lobby (including those bizarrely bellicose Christian Zionists), and as this invitation suggests, they aren’t being especially bashful about making their policy preferences known. So if the United States does end up at war with Iran in the not-too-distant future, and if it turns out to leave us worse off than before, I hope these same people won’t spend the aftermath denying that they had anything to do with it, or accusing people who discuss their role of being somehow bigoted.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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