A Significant Defeat for the Zionist Lobby?

I would like the headline to be a statement but it has to be a question.

As I write it looks as though the Zionist lobby realises that it overplayed its hand in smearing Chuck Hagel in the hope of causing President Obama to back off nominating him for the post defense secretary. The implication is not that the lobby’s stooges in the Senate will refrain from giving Hagel a hard time at his confirmation hearing, but that they will not risk, at least for a while, further public exposure as Israel Firsters by causing the nomination to be rejected.

How much Obama himself is to be credited with outflanking the Zionist lobby on this occasion is a good question. There is certainly a case for saying that by authorising the leaking of Hagel’s name well in advance of the presidential nomination, Obama was deliberately provoking the Zionist lobby (and its neo-con associates) confident in the knowledge that there would be enough eminent and respected Americans, including some Jewish Americans, who would come forward to defend Hagel and rubbish the Zionist lobby’s smear campaign.

There were, and Justin Raimondo put it this way. “When the ultra neo-cons of the Emergency Committee for Israel launched their propaganda offensive to cleanse the body politic of Hegelian revisionism, they took their campaign to ‘Criticize Hagel, Criticize Obama’ to such ridiculously vicious lengths that they inspired a vigorous pushback from the sort of people who had put up with their nonsense for too long: grizzled veterans of the diplomatic, political, and military corps who had sat in silence during the Bush years as the neo-cons played havoc with the country’s foreign policy.”

If as seems most likely Hagel is confirmed, it will be a defeat for the Zionist lobby, but how significant will that actually be? Will it be an indication that the lobby is beginning to lose its grip and, if it is, that we can look forward to a second-term Obama making best use of his greater freedom by doing whatever is necessary to get a real Middle East peace process going?

It all depends, I think, on why, really, Obama wanted the Republican Hagel as his top man in the Pentagon.
There are some who believe that Obama sees in Hagel a man who will assist him to put America’s own best interests first by ending the Zionist lobby’s control of policy for Israel-Palestine. In this way of interpreting Obama’s motivation, great attention is paid to one particular statement Hagel made when he was a senator and which, some like to believe, inspired the president to conclude that he, Hagel, was the best man for the job. This was Hagel’s statement:

The political reality is that … the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here … I’ve always argued against some of the dumb things they do, because I don’t think it’s in the interest of Israel … I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator. I support Israel, but my first interest is, I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States, not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel.

But the prospect of having a much respected Republican ally for second-term effort to break free from the Zionist lobby’s controlling grip may not have been the main reason, or even a reason, for Obama’s decision to nominate Hagel. It could be that David Brooks hit the nail on the head in an op-ed analysis for the New York Times.

Under the headline “Why Hagel Was Picked,” Brooks opened up with this observation:

Americans don’t particularly like government, but they do want government to subsidize their health care. They believe that health care spending improves their lives more than any other public good. In a Quinnipiac poll, typical of many others, Americans opposed any cuts to Medicare by a margin of 70 percent to 25 percent.

Brooks then noted that the line tracing federal health care spending “looks like the slope of a jet taking off from LaGuardia,” and that Medicare spending “is set to nearly double over the next decade.” This, he added, is the crucial element driving all federal spending over the next few decades and pushing federal debt to about 250 percent of G.D.P. in 30 years. “There are no conceivable tax increases that can keep up with this spending rise.”

In my view what Brooks went on to say contains the key to real understanding of not only why Obama wanted Hagel, but also what we can and cannot expect from a second-term Obama presidency on policy for Israel-Palestine.

So far, Brooks noted, defense budgets have not been squeezed by the ever rising demand for expenditure on Medicare. (The military budget has more than doubled since 9/11). “But that is about to change.”

To set up his main argument Brooks drew off one advanced by Oswald Spengler, the German historian and philosopher (1880-1936) who wrote The Decline of the West. Spengler, Brooks said, “was certainly correct when he told European leaders that they could either be global military powers or pay for their welfare states, but they couldn’t do both.”

Brooks continued:

Europeans, who are ahead of us in confronting that decision, have chosen welfare over global power. European nations can no longer perform many elemental tasks of moving troops and fighting. As late as the 1990s, Europeans were still spending 2.5 percent of G.D.P. on defense. Now that spending is closer to 1.5 percent, and, amid European malaise, it is bound to sink further.

The United States will undergo a similar process. The current budget calls for a steep but possibly appropriate decline in defense spending, from 4.3 percent of G.D.P. to 3 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

As the federal government becomes a health care state, there will have to be a generation of defense cuts that overwhelm anything in recent history. Keep in mind how brutal the budget pressure is going to be. According to the Government Accountability Office, if we act on entitlements today, we will still have to cut federal spending by 32 percent and raise taxes by 46 percent over the next 75 years to meet current obligations. If we postpone action for another decade, then we have to cut all non-interest federal spending by 37 percent and raise all taxes by 54 percent.

As this sort of crunch gradually tightens, Medicare will be the last to go. Spending on things like Head Start, scientific research and defense will go quicker. These spending cuts will transform America’s stature in the world, making us look a lot more like Europe today.

Chuck Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defense, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot.

For absolute clarity, “to boot” in the sentence above means “as well” or “also”. It does not mean that Hagel was selected for the prime purpose of assisting Obama to put the boot into the Zionist lobby!

The conclusion I think the Brooks analysis invites is this. Throughout of all his second term, Obama’s main focus will be on his legacy: “How will I be seen in history?” His priority will therefore be oversight management of America’s economy, to prevent it collapsing on his watch and possibly provoking at some point a revolution of rising discontent which could see America burning; and that is not going to allow Obama the time and the mind space to do what is necessary to cause (or try to cause) the Zionist state to be serious about peace on terms most Palestinians could just about accept. I also think this is most likely to be the case even if in his head and his heart Obama would like to read the riot act to Israel.

My guess is that Obama will content himself with the thought that Israel is becoming more and more of a pariah state because of its own actions and that Zionism is on the road to self-destruction.

The alternative speculation, as outlined by Raimondo, is that it’s because of the Legacy Factor that Obama will make resolving the conflict in and over Palestine that became Israel a top priority. Raimondo put it this way:

The domestic economic situation is not going to improve much over the next four years, and I think the President knows that this will be an uphill battle. So where does that leave his legacy?

Most Presidents move on the foreign policy front in their second terms, and this one will be no exception. And where this President is likely to make his move is where two of his Democratic predecessors tried, and failed, to make their respective marks, and that is in finally forging a lasting peace accord in the Middle East.

It is, of course, true that if Obama became the peacemaker he would go down in history as not only a great president but, most probably, the greatest president in American history. But could that really be his legacy?

For the sake of discussion let’s assume that Obama can break the Zionist lobby’s iron grip on policy (an awesome assumption), and does become free to use the leverage any American president has to press Israel to be serious about peace on terms most Palestinians could just about accept, what then? Does it automatically follow that Zionism’s in-Israel leaders would say, “Okay, Mr. President, we’ll do what you want.”?

No! No! No!

In my view there is a very strong possibility, even a probability, that if a second-term President Obama did turn some real heat on Israel to back a demand that it end its defiance of international law and its occupation of the West Bank and its siege of the Gaza Strip, its leaders would say to him, “Go to hell!” There would also be a possibility that they would demonstrate their fury and teach him a lesson by creating some havoc in the region. What do I mean?

When President Carter worked with the Soviet Union to produce a joint superpower declaration of principles on the way to peace, all Arab governments and Arafat’s PLO agreed to co-operate, only Israel rejected this superpower initiative. Prime Minister Begin sent his foreign minister, General Moshe Dayan, to Washington for a conversation with Carter. Very shortly after it, the joint US-Soviet Declaration was torn up and replaced with a new memorandum of US-Israel understanding. What happened? Dayan said to Carter: “Mr. President, you must understand that my prime minister is mad. If you push him too far he could bomb the Arab oil wells.” (If Obama did put real pressure on Israel, it’s not impossible that Netanyahu would send his foreign minister to Washington to say to the president: “You must understand that my prime minister is crazy. If you push him too far he could bomb Iran.”)

Obama is not stupid. He knows that if he did seek to put real pressure on Israel, it could all go horribly wrong and leave him with a legacy that was not worth having.

For that reason I believe (I would love to be proved wrong by events) that there is almost no chance of a really serious and sustainable push for peace during Obama’s second term.

Back to my headline question. Hagel’s confirmation by the Senate will be a defeat for the Zionist lobby (and its non-Jewish neo-con associates), but whether or not it will be seen in the future as the beginning of a process that ended the lobby’s iron grip on policy for Israel-Palestine is a very big, open question.

There is, however, a sign, a very small one but still a sign, that such a process might (repeat might) be getting underway.

An important red line was crossed by those veterans of the diplomatic, political, and military establishments who dared to go public with their criticism and condemnation of the campaign by the Zionist lobby (and its neo-con associates) to demonize Hagel.

That crossing put the issue of America’s “special relationship” with Israel on the agenda for open debate. As Raimondo noted: “That has never happened before. The issue of Israel was always considered to be beyond debate, the most recent example of this uniformity of opinion being the last presidential debate between Obama and Romney in which the candidates spent a great deal of time competing with each other to see who could be more effusive in their undying support for the Jewish state.” (I do wish Raimondo and others would stop using the term “Jewish state”. How could it be that when one nearly one quarter of its citizens are Arab and mainly Muslim? Israel is a Zionist state).

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Roger Cohen was refreshingly honest about the need for debate. He wrote:

President Obama’s decision to nominate Chuck Hagel, a maverick Republican with enough experience of war to loathe it, as his next secretary of defense is the right choice for many reasons, chief among them that it will provoke a serious debate on what constitutes real friendship toward Israel. That debate, which will unfold during Senate confirmation hearings, is much needed because Jewish leadership in the United States is often unrepresentative of the many American Jews who have moved on from the view that the only legitimate support of Israel is unquestioning support of Israel, and the only mark of friendship is uncritical embrace of a friend. [emphasis added]

If Jewish Americans in growing numbers end their silence on Israel’s behaviour (as a non-Jew I can say criminal behaviour) and participate in open debate, there will then be a real prospect of transforming the Zionist lobby’s temporary defeat into a permanent one.

Alan Hart has been engaged with events in the Middle East and globally as a researcher, author, and a correspondent for ITN and the BBC. Read other articles by Alan, or visit Alan's website.