Israel’s summer war with Lebanon’s Hizbollah ended after 34 days, but a fierce debate within the American Jewish community over the nature of Israel’s relationship with the US rages on, spurring efforts to create a powerful voice to lobby for peace with the Palestinians.
George Soros, the financier and philanthropist, is said by friends to be considering giving his support to a new initiative for an influential alternative that would lobby for US engagement and a negotiated two-state settlement.
Organisers deny they intend to rival the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), one of Washington’s most effective lobby groups, and say some of their number include Aipac supporters. But with sufficient funding, its outlook could be seen as a counterweight to Aipac, which strongly backed the unilateralist course set by former prime minister Ariel Sharon.
“The Lebanon conflict provided a sense of urgency to discussions,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, an organiser of the proposed new “Israel project”. The discussions represented “a new effort to promote the perspective in the Jewish community that Israel’s security depends on ending this [Palestinian] conflict peacefully”.
Mr Ben-Ami, vice-president of Fenton Communications, a PR firm and former adviser to Bill Clinton, told the FT: “We deeply care for Israel. The Lebanon conflict shows the dangers facing Israel and its need for peace as quickly as possible.”
Other prominent figures involved in the talks include David Elcott, director of Israel Policy Forum, Mort Halperin, director of US advocacy at the Open Society Institute headed by Mr Soros, Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Mr Soros, who poured money into the Democratic 2004 presidential campaign, was vocal in his criticism of Israel’s tactics against Hizbollah and has called for an “end to the vicious circle of escalating violence” by reaching a political settlement with the Palestinians.
The debate over the US’s relationship with Israel was revived last March by two political scientists – John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Harvard’s Stephen Walt. Their “Israel Lobby” paper was intended to “break the taboo” by questioning the financial, political and moral cost to the US of the alliance.
Since then the two academics have been accused of anti-Semitism, Human Rights Watch has been attacked for comments criticising Israel’s tactics in Lebanon, and a dispute has erupted over the cancellation of a speech at the Polish consulate in New York by Professor Tony Judt, a critic of Israel’s policies.
An open letter signed by more than 150 people – including prominent academics, former diplomats and officials – decries what they allege is a campaign of political vigilantism waged by American Jewish groups to set the public agenda.
“Indeed, students [in a practice reminiscent of the most sordid aspects of the McCarthy years] have been enlisted to act as informers on their teachers. Institutions deemed to be insufficiently supportive of Israel have been subjected to pressure by state legislatures or private donors,” says the letter, signed by many prominent Jews.
“They’ve constructed a Warsaw Ghetto of the mind,” Norman Birnbaum, professor emeritus at Georgetown University and one of the organisers of the letter, told the Financial Times.
The letter accuses Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, of inducing the Polish consulate to deny its premises to Prof Judt, an allegation the league rejected as “baseless”. Mr Foxman said the ADL was proud of its 93-year record of defending free speech in its fight against anti-Semitism, hatred, prejudice and bigotry.
Few serving Democrats are willing to wade into this debate, but Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, was outspoken during the Lebanon conflict, calling Israel’s response “dogged, heavy-handed, politically counter-productive and morally unjustifiable”.
“When we supply Israel with cluster bombs, that’s an act of international friendship and peace. When Iran supplies Palestinians with weapons, that means terror,” he told a dinner hosted by the New America Foundation. “Bush should say, ‘Either I make policy on the Middle East or Aipac does’.”