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The American View: Biased in Favor of Israel ... Who, Us? Bush's options in the Middle East are limited by the US's powerful Jewish lobby

14 April 2002

As US Secretary of State Colin Powell was trying to get an Israeli military pullback in the Middle East last week, a telling scenario was taking place back in Washington: former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was holding court with a group of senators on Capitol Hill.

Bibi,as Netanyahu is nicknamed, railed that Yasser Arafats terrorist regime must be toppled, not courted.

Why, he asked, was Israel being pressed to back down just when it is on the verge of uprooting Palestinian terror? He was apoplectic that Powell should consult the Europeans who did not back preparations for ousting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Netanyahus visit was designed to appeal to congress, putting pressure on the White House as it grows impatient with Israel.

Netanyahu, whose earlier hardline rule in Israel set some foundations for the present violence, was acting as a private citizen but it was clear he was the de facto envoy of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who he also hopes to succeed. Beyond his audience of more than 40 senators and dozens of members of the House of Representatives, his angry address, as he requested, was covered live on TV.

It was a smart tactic, a reminder to President George Bush of the power of Americas Jewish lobby. Bush has, in recent days, spoken harsh words to the Israelis, calling on them to halt their military attacks, sending Powell on a peace mission and backing the creation,soon, of a Palestinian state. But Netanyahu was underscoring the political pressure Israel can exert within congress and America.

It had echoes of when former Israeli leader Moshe Dayan would travel to the US and chastise American Jews in the process extracting large guilt donations for choosing to live the soft life in the US rather than building the Promised Land.

Several senators and congressmen then backed Israel. Were telling Israel, which is simply trying to defend herself, to pull back,complained Senator Charles Schumer, condemning Powells intention of negotiating with Arafat.

The US is historically tied to Israel as its protector and guarantor. It gives Israel between $4 and $5 billion a year (three quarters in military aid). The Jewish state also has a tight grip on the American psyche, constantly reinforced by wealthy pro-Israeli groups, prominent Jewish-American figures and generous, well-placed political contributions.

One example of Jewish-American influence is AIPAC (American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee), a congressional lobbying group. It is now leading efforts to influence congress to support the Israeli military offensive. AIPAC is helping gather support for legislation by Senators Feinstein and Mitch McConnell, for example, that would class the Palestine Liberation Organization as a terrorist group, close down its Washington office and deny visas to its top officials. Several other pro-Israeli resolutions are being considered.

Democratic congressman Tom Lantos and Senator Joseph Lieberman have both, for example, said they may introduce a resolution of support for Israel.

Most of the senators and congressmen speaking out are Jewish. Other prominent American Jews lead and work widely in the media, the film industry, banking and politics. Media figures include members of the Sulzberger family, who owns the New York Times, US News and World Report publisher Morton Zuckerman, CNN president Walter Isaacson, and the editor of Weekly Standard William Kristol.

American Jews dispute allegations of a pro-Israeli media bias. Such conspiracy theories are ridiculous, said one. America is a democracy where all voices have the right to debate and be heard.

Still, the American media is noticeably more pro-Israeli than the press in much of the rest of the world. New York Times columnist William Safire this week even joked that Sharon was his spokesman.

The TV and print media, while reporting atrocities of the Israeli military offensive, do not cover them with the vigor of British counterparts. Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski cut a lonely figure accusing Sharon of deliberate overreaction designed not to repress terrorism but to destabilize the Palestinian authority [and] to uproot the Oslo Agreement.

Senior figures around Bush have been torn in recent weeks over what to do as Israel's behavior has provoked international condemnation. Hardliners like Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, are sympathetic to Israel. They agree privately with many of the comparisons Israeli spokesmen hammer home at every opportunity: that the suicide bombers are the equivalent of the September 11 terrorists; that Arafat is an insincere leader more suited to the role of freedom fighter than nation builder; that if the suicide bombings mount they could pose an eventual threat to the US, Israel's chief ally.

Americas overriding concern, however, is the impact of the growing violence on its own war on terrorism. When Cheney went on his tour of the Middle East last month, his intention had been to rally support for an American-British attack on Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein. Instead, he was forced to confront hostile Arab leaders who insisted America first become the Israeli-Palestinian peacebroker.

The Israeli-Palestinian violence has other consequences. Arafat fits Bush's early definition of a terrorist. Yet the Americans have had to declare Arafat an exception because, they say, he is essential to a peace deal. That has introduced shades of gray into what had been Bush's neat, black-and-white, good-versus-evil template.

That, in time, could make it more difficult for Bush to sell his war on terrorism to Americans. Right now, his popularity remains high. But it has slipped slightly to the mid-seventies from around 80%. One new poll last week gave his handling of the Middle East situation just 63% approval sharply down from his post-September11 leadership rating. The numbers are a warning of potential trouble if Bush wades too deeply into the regions political quicksand.

The White House is particularly worried that he could be seen as a weak leader if he is unable to bring about any progress. Already, Sharon has scorned Bush's personal and public demands to end the military offensive. One indication Bush's prestige and American influence have already been eroded came in the form of a spoof last week circulating on the Internet. Incredibly, it was taken seriously by some American academics and journalists.

The spoof was a supposed news bulletin in which Sharon demanded that the US withdraw from Afghanistan. It had, Sharon supposedly said, been seven months since any terrorist attacks had taken place in America. Afghanistan was experiencing too many civilian casualties at the hands of the American military.

Another sign of Bush's dilemma: two polls taken before and after he demanded that Sharon end Israel's military offensive. The first poll showed Americans almost evenly divided on whether Sharon had gone too far. The numbers in the second poll were identical.

Bush's demands and statements had had zero impact on public opinion.

Quite clearly, if Israel were any other country, an easier road map could be found, involving such well-used arsenals as sanctions, military action,even a Kosovo-style peacekeeping operation. An effective and widespread Jewish lobby in the US, with influence in Congress and throughout other institutions will make sure Israel remains a special case. Afghanistan, by contrast, must seem, for the White House, a piece of cake.

Louise Branson
Published in The Sunday Herald (Scotland) © 2002 smg sunday newspapers ltd.

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