Loads Of Power Players Don’t Want You To Tune Into A Conference On The Israel Lobby And American Policy, But Ignorance Ain’t Bliss
In what amounts to bewildering media malpractice, mainstream media always gives massive coverage to the annual AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) policy conference at the end of this month, while basically ignoring a humble but critical counterweight, taking place this year on Friday the 24th. That counterweight may seem a knight-errant’s tilt at a windmill, but it’s the fourth annual conference examining the Israel lobby’s outsized influence on US Foreign policy, and it’s intellectual depth has always proved impressive. No coverage the first two years, despite famed intellectuals, former Congressmen, former diplomats, intelligence agency analysts, military careerists, international journalists, and other knowledgeables who spoke on a wide range of relevant panel topics or delivered keynotes. This is an event held couple blocks from the White House in a packed ballroom at the National Press Club. Last year the Washington Post finally allowed a short article as coverage of the meaty all-day conference, again nothing from the NY Times. A quick shout-out to Salon for practicing journalism with its coverage last year, an exception to the rule of media indifference. But you can view the conference streaming online at its site, and afterwards you can take it in smaller bites reading transcripts and watching videos that will go online. Thus, you can diminish the power of the power-players who’d rather you didn’t take notice.
Meanwhile, Vice President Pence and a bipartisan team from Congress, one of them now the Representative to the UN, will be preparing their AIPAC conference group genuflection to Nut’nyahoo, who will appear from the heavens via satellite. Among them are Republicans Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Joni Ernst, and Nikki Haley, now US Permanent Ambassador to the UN. Democrats include Chuck Schumer, Steny Hoyer, Ted Deutch, Kamala Harris, Robert Melendez, Tom Perez and Nancy Pelosi. Nut’nyahoo-- I’ll try not to wear out my term of endearment-- appeared before Congress to diss President Obama and undermine his foreign policy efforts with Iran, but that’s no problem for these Democrats. The conference says two thirds of Congress will attend. Look over the speakers to see how the skeleton of the Israel propaganda machinery is put together. You’ll recognize many of the usual suspects whose talking points saturate media and Sabbath Gasbag shows, not to mention political fundraisers. Now consider that the day before the first Presidential debate both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met with Netanyahu. That still astounds me.
In 1999 I had my enlightenment on the machinery of influence while doing an adventure travel feature on Israel for Canadian newspapers. I’ve been reluctant to write on it because I didn’t want to embarrass my hosts and-- my own malpractice-- because I didn’t want to deal with the inevitable blowback. But the mayhem that has ensued since-- from the invasion of Iraq cheer-leaded by Netanyahu and his Bush administration neocon compadres to the horrors of Gaza-- belittle such concerns. Consider the alarm expressed in this letter by five former US Ambassadors to Israel regarding Trump’s pick for U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, confirmed by the Senate yesterday.
I relished the rich adventure travel experiences. Not so much the full-throttle propaganda I encountered, of which many travel writers complain in private. During my trip came a ray of hope for reform. Election results came in while I was with a group riding camels at night under a spectacular sky, heading to a Bedouin desert camp. The Bedouin guides were ecstatic at Netanyahu’s defeat by Ehud Barak, chattering on their cell phones, hopeful for reforms that would give them a fair shake.
Later I was at a luncheon when the outgoing Minister of Tourism under Netanyahu, Moshe Katsav, sat next to me. Let me stress that tourism minister is a cabinet position, and not a backwater one. It’s a key instrument of propaganda and, particularly then, of national income. For awhile, Barak even served as both Prime Minister and Minister of Tourism simultaneously.
I asked Katsav why, instead of arguing with Jordan which side of the Jordan River Christ was baptized on, why the countries didn’t join together in joint tourism projects to enlarge the tourism pie. Even better, why not include the Palestinians, giving them more skin in the game and a stake in stability? Katsav’s sneering answer had me nearly drop my fork.
“The Palestinians, they are our N-words.”
He didn’t say N-words. He said the word. He didn’t say it ironically He wasn’t expressing disgust at the treatment and plight of Palestinians. He was doing his level best to express his disgust with Palestinians, and the absurdity of my question. He assumed I would grasp it if put in terms a white American would understand. He had no concern of insulting me or African-Americans any more than he had about insulting Palestinians.
It was then I realized not just the inherent racism underlying the plight of Palestinians, but the longstanding lie behind government rhetoric, particularly but not solely from the Likud, about a two-state solution.
Katsav went on to become President of Israel. He later resigned in a plea bargain. After reneging, he was convicted of rape and obstruction of justice and went to prison, from which he was recently paroled after five years of a seven year sentence. Consider this was the man Netanyahu chose for a vital position, and what that says of Netanyahu’s real views of the peace process.
Katsav fared better than a subsequent tourism minister, Rehavamd Ze’evi, who Ehud Olmert accused of protecting organized crime figures. Ze’evi wanted to make Palestinians so miserable they’d leave, calling those not Israeli citizens a “cancer” that should be gotten rid of "the same way you get rid of lice." He was eventually assassinated. Big fan of Netanyahu. Not all tourism ministers were ethical cretins, Amnon Lipkibn-Shahak, for example, backed the creation of J Street, an American Jewish pro-peace lobby group. But you won’t find much progressive thinking in proximity to Netanyahu.
What I’m getting at is the dehumanization systematically done to justify the treatment in what many observers view as an aparteid regime in the West Bank and Gaza, and to drive Palestinians to despair. The Intercept recently took note of a UN report on apartheid conditions and on the Trump administrations effort to quash it. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis knows the peril to the US reputation and it will be intriguing to see how he navigates the path Trump is laying down for him between a rock and a hard place. I’ll be surprised if he ignores his instincts for long.
At the 2015 conference on the Israel Lobby, one of Israel’s leading journalists, Gideon Levy of the daily Haaretz, gave a stunner of a speech on how this dehumanization of Palestinians was destroying universal values in Israel, and how unconditional US support for Israel endangers Israeli voices. You couldn’t spend a better, more enlightening twenty minutes. Here’s the audio, the transcript, and the video. Throughout, I wished we had more US politicians, and for that matter journalists, with Levy’s salt.
Levy recounts waiting at a checkpoint at the city of Jenin, behind a Palestinian ambulance with its emergency red lights. After forty minutes, during which the soldiers played backgammon in their tent “...I went out from the car. I went first to the Palestinian ambulance driver. I asked him, what’s going on? He told me that’s the routine, they let me wait one hour until they come and check the ambulance. And I couldn’t take it anymore. I went to the soldiers. It became a confrontation, but the question that I asked them which really brought them to direct their weapons toward me was one: what would happen if your father was lying in this ambulance? This freaked them out. They lost control. How can I dare to compare between their father and the Palestinian in the ambulance? This set of beliefs, that they are not human beings like us, enable us Israelis to live in so much peace with those crimes, ongoing crimes for so many years, without losing any kind of humanity...”
Return to Gideon Levy for his keynote at the 2016 conference (above). It’s built around the striking contrast American congressional delegations touring Israel are treated to and the tour that Levy would give them should he get the chance.
A conference sponsor, The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, has an interesting offering of short video samplings of last year’s speakers. You can get the full videos here, and transcripts here. You might not agree entirely with every speaker’s perspective, but you’ll find every perspective challenging and thought-provoking.
Among those who stick in my mind are Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Secretary of state Colin Powell's former chief of staff, speaking on Israeli influence on US foreign policy.
Another, from 2015, is journalist Gareth Porter, speaking on the manufacturing of the Iran crisis and the push for war, transcript here. You can view all the videos from that conference here and read about the conference here.
If you’re on a historical roll, video, transcripts and audio from the 2014 conference is here.
Not from the conference, but one of the better appraisals of how we got where we are can be had in a 2014 two-part interview at Democracy Now! with Rabbi Henry Siegman, the former executive director of the American Jewish Congress.
More recently, in the March 30th, 2017 issue of the London Review of Books, in “The Ultimate Deal,” Siegman takes a wrench to the Trump and Netanyahu's joint press conference in February, explaining both Trumps naïveté and Netanyahu's duplicity regarding a viable two-state solution.
Another round of insight can be gained from this two-part interview with Noam Chomsky from Democracy Now! It imparts a historical perspective on the horrors of Gaza.
Keynote speakers and presenters at the 2017 conference on the Israel Lobby and American Policy can be seen here.
I’m not going to waste words pointing out the difference between being critical of Israeli extremists-- claim jumpers brandishing real estate deeds from God-- and being anti-Semitic. Those that inevitably try to equate the two aren’t worth the bother. Like everyone else whose great-great grandchildren will still be paying all manner of dues for the invasion of Iraq and for other Middle East blunders, we have all the qualifications we need to be critics.