Argument

America’s Israel Obsession

Why are Americans so preoccupied with my country?

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

In mid-December of last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "with all due respect," declined a request to write an op-ed for the New York Times. In his rejection letter, Netanyahu’s senior advisor, Ron Dermer, claimed to have counted up Times (and International Herald Tribune) articles and concluded that of the 20 articles related to Israel published between September and November 2011, 19 portrayed Israel in a negative light. It would seem, he wrote, "as if the surest way to get an op-ed published in the New York Times these days, no matter how obscure the writer or the viewpoint, is to attack Israel."

If one puts aside for a moment the question of pro- or anti-Israel bias, it does seem that the surest way to get an op-ed published anywhere in the United States is to write something about Israel. Since I received a request to write this article for Foreign Policy, I’ve visited the FP site daily and counted the articles on different topics and countries. You can try it yourself using the search engine: Israel was written about more than Britain, Germany, Greece, India, or Russia. And next week it will be written about even more, as Netanyahu comes to Washington to make yet another speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and meet with U.S. President Barack Obama to discuss Iran strategy and other matters.

Counting mentions of Israel in various American forums is an old habit of mine. Four years ago, in the run-up to the 2008 U.S. presidential election, I begged the candidates to "resist the temptation" to constantly talk about Israel or express their profound love for the Jewish state. I wrote then:

Last week in the vice-presidential debate, Israel’s name was mentioned 17 times. China was mentioned twice, Europe just once. Russia didn’t come up at all. Nor Britain, France, or Germany.

Needless to say, my advice has not been heeded. In December 2011, I listened to the Republican presidential candidates compete to prove their friendship with Israel at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition. (Mitt Romney promised to visit Israel before visiting any other country; Newt Gingrich said that he would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on the first day of his presidency.) In early January, like many other journalists from many other foreign countries, I traveled to Iowa to cover the Republican caucuses and had to wonder again about writers from other countries:

Do they not feel neglected amid all this talk about my country? In the more than one dozen campaign events I attended, I didn’t hear one word about Japan or Russia or Germany or France or Italy. Europe was mentioned occasionally, as in, "President Obama wants the United States to become like Europe, and we have to stop him." China was mentioned sporadically; Brazil, maybe once. Israel? Every time.

There’s more than one reason that Israel became a topic of such constant conversation among American writers, opinion-makers, politicians, and policy wonks. Undeniably, Israel is interesting. It is conveniently located in an area that is continuously a producer of dramatic news, a place to which journalists can easily travel and from which they can easily write — the one country in the Middle East that doesn’t violently prevent the media from doing its job. Then there’s the "special relationship" factor: Israel is a U.S. ally, and a strong and vocal lobby of both Jews and Christians is working to preserve the two countries’ ties. It is a place for which many Americans have special affinity for religious reasons, meaning that any story on Israel is likely to generate both pageviews and impassioned comments. There’s also the politics: Israel is a tool with which candidates for office hammer one another. That’s to say nothing of the fact that American Jews, while a tiny minority of the U.S. population, are well represented among journalists.

This makes Israel not just a topic of constant conversation, but can also make the conversation itself quite bizarre to the untrained eye. News sites, blogs, and busy writers can dedicate their time to arguing about the content of some tweets of the new New York Times Jerusalem correspondent; weeks of enraged debate can be wasted on foolish comments made by left-leaning think-tank bloggers. Don’t get me wrong: In both cases I’m with those thinking the tweets and the comments were outrageous. But I also must admit that this level of scrutiny and never-ending discussion is rarely given to other countries and that most readers without a high level of interest in Israel-related matters would probably quickly get bored and lost in the petty details of these debates and others.

Israel is to American writers what football is to the general public: Everybody seems to be an expert, or at least believe he or she is one. It’s not just the number of mentions and articles written about my country that is perplexing; it’s also the number of uninformed comments and unworthy observations. One notable case — the one that seemed to have irked the prime minister — was a New York Times op-ed claiming that Israel is only interested in promoting gay rights as a way of "pinkwashing" away its sins against the Palestinians. Another example, by columnist Eric Alterman writing in the Forward, made the ludicrous claim that Israel is becoming a "theocracy."

There’s of course the old journalistic saw that "if it bleeds it leads," and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has spilled more than enough blood. But far bloodier conflicts around the world get only a fraction of the coverage that the smallest developments in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process garner. More consequential issues can’t possibly compete with the hype and the controversy following every trivial "progress" or "setback" in this ongoing, never-ending story. Take a quick look at the list of the bloodiest world conflicts, and compare the coverage they are getting with the coverage that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict receives in almost every American publication. How much have you read in the New York Times about violence in Honduras recently? How much did you hear about Syria’s autocratic regime before the latest eruption of murderous infighting? Have you gotten the proper coverage and analysis of the recent growing tensions in the South Caucasus?

This raises the question of whether all the attention showered on Israel and the Palestinians has brought them one inch closer to resolution of the conflict. Or did it make a complicated situation even worse, by giving the sides more reasons to invest much of their energy on spin and public manipulation, instead of solving the real problems?

Naturally, Israeli leaders would prefer less attention be paid to the conflict with the Palestinians and more to feel-good "start-up nation" kinds of stories. Then there are other issues on which attention is both a blessing and a curse at the same time — notably Iran.

Israel’s policy on Iran is built around pushing the world toward action (be it sanctions or attack), and it depends upon the attention the story is getting from the media. Click-bait headlines like "Will Israel Attack Iran?" ensure that the issue stays front and center in the minds of U.S. policymakers.

On the other hand, the more attention the "Israeli" angle of this story gets, the more it appears that Iran’s nuclear program is really just a local concern and not the global threat that the Israeli leadership wants to portray it as. The more Iran’s nuclear program is perceived as an "Israeli" issue, the greater the risk that Israel will be blamed for the negative consequences of the tension, such as higher oil prices. There’s also the very real danger that, should it come to war, Americans will view the destruction of Iran’s nuclear capability as something Israel should handle on its own, rather than supporting an international coalition that would have a much better chance of neutralizing the threat.

The overrepresentation of Israel in the American public square is at times a headache and at times a cause for celebration. Some might argue that the high level of U.S. support for Israel couldn’t survive without it. In any event, keeping a low profile — often a necessity for effective diplomacy — is impossible for Israel. And it will be all the more so next week when both Obama and Netanyahu speak before 10,000 cheering AIPAC delegates — a crowd that never tires of discussing Israel and its troubles.

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