And now that he is president, Obama has learned that the Israeli lobby in the United States can successfully block a distinguished appointee. Retired Ambassador Charles W. Freeman Jr., who had been selected to fill an important position in the intelligence community, was forced to withdraw from consideration after a storm of criticism organized by the Israel lobby. Freeman was a regular lecturer at the National War College between 1986 and 2004, when I served on the faculty there.
He was asked to return time and time again because of his independent, somewhat contrarian, unbiased, and trenchant views on policy and intelligence issues. Freeman had the skills and experience required of the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which is responsible for providing independent, unbiased and timely National Intelligence Estimates to the president of the United States and key decision-makers.
Like others before him, Freeman has criticized Israel’s use of force against Lebanon in 1982 and 2006 as well as in Gaza in 2008; these actions have not strengthened Israel’s national security, and they deserved criticism. The leaders of several Israeli lobbying organizations, particularly the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), have disingenuously claimed that they did not take a formal position on Freeman’s selection and did not lobby Congress to oppose it.
But it is well known that the congressional switchboards lit up with calls from these lobbies; it is also clear that Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) were prepared to make life miserable for the director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, who chose Freeman for the position. Freeman is not the first U.S. official targeted by the Israeli lobby. In the 1980s, AIPAC targeted two Republicans from Illinois, Sen. Charles Percy and Rep. Paul Findley, who favored a more even-handed approach toward the Israeli-Arab peace process and were sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians.
More recently, two African-American Democrats, Rep. Cynthia McKinney from Georgia and Rep. Earl Hilliard from Alabama, were defeated in part due to the negative campaigning of the Israeli lobby. Governor William Scranton, who had presidential aspirations, saw his political career ended, simply because the Israel lobby resented his call for a more even-handed U.S. policy in the Middle East. In his drive for the presidency in 1972, Senator George McGovern was denounced by the Israeli lobby for supporting even-handed policies.
For the past four decades, the United States has gone overboard in providing assistance and support to Israel, often ignoring the legitimate concerns of key Arab countries. Democratic and Republican administrations alike have relied on Jewish-Americans (Dennis Ross, Aaron Miller, Dan Kurtzer, and Martin Indyck) to manage the Arab-Israeli peace process; each of these individuals took positions sympathetic to the Israel agenda and often downplayed Arab concerns. Economic aid to Israel finally ended in 2008, but Israel continues to receive more military assistance from the United States than any other nation—more than $3 billion last year.
This aid is in addition to the supplemental assistance that Israel has received over the years for counter-terrorism activities, resettlement of immigrants, and security needs. Although Israel has overwhelming military superiority over its neighbors and has often violated assistance agreements with the United States by using weapons against non-military targets in the Arab world, there has never been a serious debate in the United States on ending or even reducing this aid. The Israelis have violated other agreements with the United States, for example, sharing highly sophisticated U.S. military equipment with China.
The United States over the past twenty years has gone too far in creating security ties with Israel. The turning point took place in 1988, when President Ronald Reagan agreed to a Joint Memorandum on Strategic Cooperation with Israel and designated the state a “major non-NATO ally.” This gave the Israelis preferential treatment in bidding for U.S. defense contracts and access to sophisticated weapons systems at reduced prices.
Unlike all other U.S assistance agreements, Israel gets its aid money up-front in the calendar year and can earn interest on the money until it is drawn down. Reagan’s “strategic relationship” with the United States also permitted the pre-positioning of U.S. military equipment in Israel as well as the conduct of joint military exercises. During the Reagan administration, Israel became a key player in U.S. covert activities to sell arms to the Iranian government, to support the Christian parties in Lebanon, and to fund the contra rebels in Nicaragua. Iran-Contra, a conspiracy that involved virtually every major national security player in the Reagan administration, revolved around the illegal sale of arms to Iran, with the administration trying to circumvent a U.S. arms embargo by providing U.S. weapons from Israeli inventories.
President Obama deserves a great deal of credit for trying to position himself to broker an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. His inauguration address specifically told that Arab community that “we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and respect,” and, in introducing George Mitchell as the point man in the peace process, he emphasized that a “future without hope for the Palestinians is intolerable.” Unfortunately, the lobby’s actions against Freeman demonstrate how difficult Obama’s task will be. By caving in to the Israel lobby, moreover, the Obama administration demonstrates that it is not prepared to fight for its policy positions.
Since we do not mindlessly support U.S. national security policies that are counterproductive, it makes no sense to mindlessly support Israeli national security policies that work against their interests. Some of this censorship of the debate on Israel in the United States is due to self-censorship and the fear of being branded as an anti-Semite for criticizing Israel. The mainstream media bears a certain responsibility for the lack of debate because of the one-sided support given to Israeli interests.
It is particularly unfortunate to see these trends once again, because it is difficult to imagine that Israel will soon have a better negotiating partner than the current president of the Palestinian Authority, Mamoud Abbas. Ultimately, it will be up to the Obama administration to hold the feet of a new Israeli prime minister to the fire on negotiations with the Palestinians or another opportunity will have been lost.
The author, Melvin A. Goodman, is senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. He spent more than 42 years in the U.S. Army, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of Defense. His most recent book is “Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.”