The Debate on the power of the Lobby, Petras vs. Chomsky

Noam Chomsky and the Pro-Israel Lobby: Fourteen Erroneous Theses

By James Petras

«…Reflexes that ordinarily spring automatically to the defense of open debate and free enquiry shut down – at least among much of America’s political elite – once the subject turns to Israel, and above all the pro-Israel lobby’s role in shaping US foreign policy…Moral blackmail – the fear that  any criticism of Israeli policy and […]

«…Reflexes that ordinarily spring automatically to the defense of open debate and free enquiry shut down – at least among much of America’s political elite – once the subject turns to Israel, and above all the pro-Israel lobby’s role in shaping US foreign policy…Moral blackmail – the fear that  any criticism of Israeli policy and US support for it will lead to charges of anti-Semitism – is a powerful disincentive to publish dissenting views.  It is also leading to the silencing of policy debate on American university campuses, partly as the result of targeted campaigns against the dissenters…Nothing, moreover, is more damaging to US interests than the inability to have a proper debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…Bullying Americans into consensus on Israeli policy is bad for Israel and makes it impossible for America to articulate its own national interests….» Financial Times, Editorial, Saturday, April 01, 2006.


Noam Chomsky has been called the US leading intellectual by pundits and even some sectors of the mass media.  He has a large audience throughout the world especially in academic circles, in large part because of his vocal criticism of US foreign policy and many of the injustices resulting from those policies.  Chomsky has nonetheless been reviled by all of the major Jewish and pro-Israel organizations and media for his criticism of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians even as he has defended the existence of the Zionist state of Israel.  Despite his respected reputation for documenting, dissecting and exposing the hypocrisy of the US and European regimes and acutely analyzing the intellectual deceptions of imperial apologists, these analytical virtues are totally absent when it comes to discussing the formulation of US foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly the role of his own ethnic group, the Jewish Pro-Israel lobby and their Zionist supporters in the government.  This political blindness is not unknown or uncommon.  History is replete of intellectual critics of all imperialisms except their own, the abuses of power by others, but not of one’s own kin and kind.  Chomsky’s long history denying the power and role of the pro-Israel lobby in decisively shaping US Middle East policy culminated in his recent conjoining with the US Zionist propaganda machine attacking a study critical of the Israeli lobby.  I am referring to the essay published by the London Review of Books entitled «The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy» by Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Professor Stephan Walt, the purged Academic Dean of the Kenney School of Government at Harvard University. (A complete version of the study was published by the Kennedy School of Government  in March 2006.)
Chomsky’s speeches and writing on the Lobby emphasizes several dubious propositions.
The pro-Israel Lobby is just like any other lobby; it has no special influence or place in US politics.
The power of the groups backing the Israel lobby are no more powerful than other influential pressure groups
The Lobby’s agenda succeeds because it coincides with the interests of the dominant powers and interests of the US State
The Lobby’s weakness is demonstrated by the fact that Israel is ‘merely a tool’ of US empire building to be used when needed and otherwise marginalized.
The major forces shaping US Middle East policy are «big oil» and the «military-industrial complex», neither of which is connected to the pro-Israel lobby.
The interests of the US generally coincide with the interests of Israel
The Iraq War, the threats to Syria and Iran are primarily a product of «oil interests» and the «military-industrial complex» and not the role of the pro-Israel lobby or its collaborators in the Pentagon and other government agencies.
While in general Chomsky has deliberately refrained from specifically discussing the pro-Israel lobby in his speeches, interviews and publications analyzing US policy toward the Middle East, but when he does, he follows the above-mentioned repertory.
The problem of war and peace in the Middle East and the role of the Israel lobby is too serious to be marginalized as an after-thought.  Even more important the increasing censoring of free speech and erosion of our civil liberties, academic freedom by an aggressive lobby, with powerful legislative and White House backers is a threat to our already limited democracy.
It is incumbent therefore to examine the fourteen erroneous theses of the highly respected Professor Chomsky in order to move ahead and confront the Lobby’s threats to peace abroad and civil liberties at home.
Fourteen Theses
Chomsky claims that the Lobby is just another lobby in Washington.  Yet he fails to observe that the lobby has secured the biggest Congressional majorities in favor of allocating three times the annual foreign aid designated to all of Africa, Asia and Latin America to Israel (over 100 billion dollars over the past 40 years).  The Lobby has 150 full time functionaries working for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), accompanied by an army of lobbyists from all the major Jewish organizations (Anti-Defamation League, B’nai Brith, American Jewish Committee, etc) and the nation-wide, regional and local Jewish Federations which hew closely to the line of the «majors» and are active in policy and local opinion on Israel and promote and finance legislative candidates on the basis of their adherence to the Lobby’s party line.  No other lobby combines the wealth, grass roots networks, media access, legislative muscle and single-minded purpose of the pro-Israel lobby.

Chomsky fails to analyze the near unanimous congressional majorities which yearly support all the pro-Israel military, economic, immigration privileges and aid promoted by the Lobby.  He fails to examine the list of over 100 successful legislative initiatives publicized yearly by AIPAC even in years of budgetary crisis, disintegrating domestic health services and war induced military losses.

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Chomsky’s cliché-ridden attribution of war aims to «Big Oil» is totally unsubstantiated.  In fact the US-Middle East wars prejudice the oil interests in several strategic senses.  The wars generate generalized hostility to oil companies with long-term relations with Arab countries.  The wars result in undermining new contracts opening in Arab countries for US oil investments. US oil companies have been much friendlier to peacefully resolving conflicts than Israel and especially its Lobbyists as any reading of the specialized oil industry journals and spokespeople emphasize.  Chomsky chooses to totally ignore the pro-war activities and propaganda of the leading Jewish pro-Israel organizations and the absence of pro-war proposals in Big Oil’s media, and their beleaguered attempt to continue linkages with Arab regimes opposed to Israel’s belligerent hegemonic ambitions.  Contrary to Chomsky, by going to war in the Middle East the US sacrifices the vital interests of the oil companies in favor of Israel’s quest for Middle East hegemony at the call and behest of the pro-Israel lobby.  In the lobbying contest there is absolutely no contest between the pro-Israel power bloc and the oil companies when it comes to favoring Israeli interests over oil interests, whether the issue is war or oil contracts.  Chomsky never examines the comparative strength of the two lobbies regarding US policy toward the Middle East.  In general this usually busy researcher devoted to uncovering obscure documentation is particularly lax when it come to uncovering readily available documents, which shred his assertions about Big Oil and the Israel Lobby.

Chomsky refuses to analyze the diplomatic disadvantages that accrue to the US in vetoing Security Council resolutions condemning Israel’s systematic violations of human rights.  Neither the military-industrial complex nor Big Oil has a stranglehold on US voting behavior in the UN.  The pro-Israel lobbies are the only major lobby pressuring for the vetoes, against the US’ closest allies, world public opinion and at the cost of whatever role the US could play as a ‘mediator’ between the Arabic-Islamic world and Israel.

Chomsky fails to discuss the role of the Lobby in electing Congress-people, their funding of pro-Israel candidates and the over fifty-million dollars they spend on the Parties, candidates and propaganda campaigns.  The result is a 90% congressional vote on high priority items pushed by the Lobby and affiliated local and regional pro-Israel federations.

Nor does he undertake to analyze the cases of candidates defeated by the Lobby, the abject apologies extracted from Congress-people who have dared to question the policies and tactics of the Lobby, and the intimidation effect of its ‘exemplary punishments’ on the rest of Congress.  The «snowball» effect of punishment and payoffs is one reason for the unprecedented majorities in favor of all of AIPAC’s initiatives.  Chomsky’s feeble attempts to equate the AIPAC’s pro-Israel initiatives with broader US policy interests is patently absurd to anyone who studies the alignment of policy groups associated with designing, pressuring, backing and co-sponsoring the AIPAC’s measures:  The reach of the Jewish lobby far exceeds its electoral constituency – as the one million dollar slush fund to defeat incumbent Georgia Congresswoman, Cynthia McKinny demonstrates.  That she was subsequently re-elected on the basis of low keying her criticism of Israel reveals the Lobby’s impact even on consequential democrats.

Chomsky ignores the unmatchable power of elite convocation which the Lobby has.  The AIPAC annual meeting draws all the major leaders in Congress, key members of the Cabinet, over half of all members of Congress who pledge unconditional support for Israel and even identify Israel’s interests as US interests.  No other lobby can secure this degree of attendance of the political elite, this degree of abject servility, for so many years, among both major parties.  What is particularly important is the «Jewish electorate» is less than 5% of the total electorate, while practicing Jews number less than 2% of the population of which not all are ‘Israel Firsters’.  None of the major lobbies like the NRA, AARP, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Chamber of Commerce can convoke such a vast array of political leaders, let alone secure their unconditional support for favorable pro-Israel legislation and Executive orders.  No less an authority as the Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, boasted of the power of the pro-Israel lobby over US Middle East policy.  Chomsky merely asserts that the Pro-Israel lobby is just like any other lobby, without any serious effort to compare their relative influence, power of convocation and bi-partisan support, or effectiveness in securing high priority legislation.

In his analysis of the run-up to the US-Iraq War, Chomsky’s otherwise meticulous review of foreign policy documents, analysis of political linkages between policymakers and power centers is totally abandoned in favor of impressionistic commentaries completely devoid of any empirical basis.  The principal governmental architects of the war, the intellectual promoters of the war, their publicly enunciated published strategies for the war were all deeply attached to the Israel lobby and worked for the Israeli state.  Wolfowitz, number 2 in the Pentagon, Douglas Feith, number 3 in the Pentagon, Richard Perle, head of the Defense Board, Elliot Abrams in charge of Middle East affairs for the National Security Council, and dozens of other key operatives in the government and ideologues in the mass media were life-long fanatical activists in favor of Israel, some of whom had lost security clearances in previous administrations for handing over documents to the Israeli government.  Chomsky ignores the key strategy documents written by Perle, Wurmser, Feith and other ZionCons in the late 1990s demanding bellicose action against Iraq, Iran and Syria, which they subsequently implemented when they took power with Bush’s election.  Chomsky totally ignores the disinformation office set up in the Pentagon by ultra Zionist Douglas Feith – the so-called ‘Office of Special Plans’ – run by fellow ZionCon Abram Shumsky to channel bogus «data» to the White House – bypassing and discrediting CIA and military intelligence which contradicted their disinformation.  Non-Zionist specialist in the Pentagon’s Middle East office Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski described in great detail the easy and constant flow of Mossad and Israeli military officers in and out of Feith’s office, while critical US experts were virtually barred.  None of these key policymakers promoting the war had any connection to the military-industrial complex or Big Oil, but all were deeply and actively tied to the State of Israel and backed by the Lobby.  Astonishingly Chomsky, famous for his criticism of intellectuals enamored with imperial power and uncritical academics, pursues a similar path when it concerns pro-Israel intellectuals in power and their Zionist academic colleagues.  The problem is not only the «lobby» pressuring from outside, but their counterparts within the State.

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Chomsky frequently criticized the half-hearted criticism by liberals of US foreign policy, yet he nowhere raises a single peep about the absolute silence of Jewish progressives about the major role of the Lobby in promoting the invasion of Iraq.  At no point does he engage in debate or criticism of the scores of Israel First academic supporters of war with Iraq, Iran or Syria.  Instead his criticism of the war revolves around the role of Party leaders, the Bush Administration etc… without any attempt to understand the organized basis and ideological mentors of the militarists.

Chomsky fails to analyze the impact of the concerted and uninterrupted campaign organized by all major US pro-Israel lobbies and personalities to silence criticism of Israel and the Lobby’s support for the war.  Chomsky’s refusal to criticize the Lobby’s abuse of anti-Semitism to destroy our civil liberties, hound academics out of the universities and other positions for criticizing Israel and the Lobby is most evident in the recent smear campaign of Professors Walt and Mearsheimer.  While the Lobby successfully pressured Harvard to disclaim Professor Walt and eventually force his resignation from the Deanship at the Kennedy School at Harvard, Chomsky joined the Lobby in condemning their extensive critical scholarship and meticulous analysis.  At no point does Chomsky deal with the central facts of their analysis about the Lobby’s contemporary power over US Middle East policy.  The irony is Chomsky himself an occasional victim of academic Zionist hatchet jobs, this time is on the givers’ end.

Chomsky fails to assess the power of the Lobby in comparison with other institutional forces.  For example top US Generals have frequently complained that Israeli armed forces receive new high tech military hardware before it has become operational in the US.  Thanks to the Lobby, their complaints are rarely heeded.  US defense industries (some of whom have joint production contracts with Israeli military industries) have bitterly complained of Israel’s unfair competition, violation of trade agreements and the illegal sale of high tech weaponry to China.  Under threat of losing all their lucrative ties with the Pentagon, Israel cancelled sales to China, while the Lobby looked on… During the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, many active and retired military officials and CIA analysts opposed the War, questioned the assumptions and projections of the pro-Israel ideologues in the Pentagon like Wolfwitz, Feith, Perle and in the National Security Council, the State Department and the Vice President’s office (Irving ‘ZionCon’ Libby).  They were over-ruled, their advice dismissed by the ZionCons and belittled by their ideological backers writing in the major print media.  The position of the ZionCons in the government successfully overcame their institutional critics in large part because their opinion and policies toward the war were uncritically accepted by the mass media and particularly by the New York Times whose primary war propagandist, Judith Miller, has close links with the Lobby.  These are will known historical linkages and debates which a close reader of the mass media like Chomsky was aware of , but deliberately chose to omit and deny, substituting more ‘selective’ criticism of the Iraq war based on the exclusion of vital facts.

In what passes for Chomsky’s «refutation» of the power of the Lobby is a superficial historical review of US-Israel relations citing the occasional conflict of interests, in which, even more occasionally, the pro-Israel lobby failed to get its way.  Chomsky’s historical arguments resemble a lawyer’s brief more than a comprehensive review of the power of the Lobby.  For example, while in 1956 the US objected to the joint French-British-Israeli attack on Egypt, over the next 50 years the US financed and supplied the Israeli war machine to the tune of $70 billion dollars, thanks largely to the pressure of the Lobby.  In 1968 Israeli air force bombed the US intelligence gathering ship the USS Liberty in international waters and strafed to US Naval personnel killing or wounding over 150 sailors and officers.  The Johnson Administration in a historically unprecedented move refused to retaliate and silenced the survivors of the unprovoked attack with threats of ‘court-martial’.   No subsequent administration has ever raised the issue, let alone conducted an official Congressional investigation, even as they escalated aid to Israel and prepared to use nuclear weapons to defend Israel when it seem to be losing the Yom Kippur War in 1972.  The US defense of Israel led to the very costly Arab oil boycott, which brought on a massive increase in the price of oil, the animosity of former Arab allies threatening global monetary stability.  In other words, in this as in many other cases, the pro-Israel lobby was more influential than the US armed forces in shaping US response to an Israeli act of aggression against American service men operating in international waters.  In recent years, the power of the Lobby has seriously inhibited the FBI’s prosecution of the scores of Israeli spies who entered the US in 2001.  The most that was done was their quiet deportation.  The recent arrest of two AIPAC officials for handing confidential government documents over to Israeli embassy officials has led the pro-Israel lobby to mobilize a massive media campaign in their defense, converting an act of espionage against the US into an ‘exercise of free speech’.  Editorials and op-ed articles in favor of dismissal of the charges have appeared in most of the leading newspapers in what must be the most unprecedented campaign in favor of agents of a foreign government in US history.  The power of the propaganda reach of the Lobby far exceeds any countervailing power, even though the case against the AIPAC officials is very strong, including the testimony of the key Pentagon official convicted of handing them the documents.

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Chomsky, a highly reputable critic of the bias of the mass media, attributes corporate ties to their anti-workers news reports.  However when it comes to the overwhelming pro-Israel bias he has never analyzed the influence of the Israel lobby, the link between the pro-Israel media elite and the pro-Israel bias.  Merely a blind spot or a case of ideologically driven intellectual amnesia…?

Chomsky cites Israel’s importance for US imperial strategy in weakening Arab nationalism, its role in providing military aid and military advisers to totalitarian terrorist regimes (Guatemala, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Bolivia and so on) when the US Congress imposes restrictions to direct US involvement.  There is little doubt that Israel serves US imperial purposes, especially in situations where bloody politics are involved.  But Israel did so because it benefited from doing so – it increased military revenues, gained backers favoring Israel’s colonial policies, provided markets for Israeli arms dealers etc.  However a more comprehensive analysis of US interests demonstrates that the costs of supporting Israel far exceed the occasional benefit, whether we consider advantages to US imperial goals or even more so from the vantage point of a democratic foreign policy.  With regard to the costly and destructive wars against Iraq, following Israel’s lead and its lobbies, the pro-Israel policy has severely undermined US military capacity to defend the empire, has led to a loss of prestige and discredited US claims to be a champion of freedom and democracy.  From the viewpoint of democratic foreign policy it has strengthened the militarist wing of the government and undermined democratic freedoms at home.  Israel benefits of course because the war destroyed a major secular adversary and allowed it to tighten its stranglehold on the Occupied territories.
The unconditional commitment to the Israeli colonial state has eroded US relations with the richest and most populous states in the Arab and Islamic world.  In market terms the difference is between hundreds of billions of dollars in sales versus defending a receiver of massive US aid handouts.  The economic losses far outweigh any small-scale questionable military benefits.  The Arab states are net buyers of US military hardware.  The Israeli arms industry is a stiff competitor.

US oil and gas companies are net losers in terms of investments, profits and markets because of the US ties to Israel which, because of its small market, has little to offer in each of the above categories.

Finally Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the Lobby’s effective campaign to secure US vetoes against international resolutions puts the US on the side of widespread, legalized torture, legalized extrajudicial executions and illegal massive population displacement.  The end result is the weakening of international law and increased volatility in an area of great strategic importance.  Chomsky takes no account of the geo-strategic and energy costs, the losses in our domestic freedoms resulting directly from the Middle East wars for Israel and even less of the rise of a virulent form of Zionist Neo-McCarthyism spreading throughout our academic, artistic and other public and private institutions.  If anything demonstrates the Zionists’ growing power and authoritarian reach, the brutal and successful campaign against Professors Mearsheimer and Walt confirm it, in spades.

In normal times one would give little attention to academic polemics unless they have important political consequences.  In this case, however, Noam Chomsky is an icon for what stands for the US anti-war movements and intellectual dissent.  That he has chosen to absolve the pro-Israel lobby and its affiliated groups and media auxiliaries is an important political event, especially when questions of war and peace hang in the balance, when the majority of Americans oppose the war.  Giving a ‘free ride’ to the principle authors, architects and lobbyists in favor of the war, is a positive obstacle to achieving clarity about who we are fighting and why.  To ignore the pro-Israel lobby is to allow it a free hand in pushing for the invasion of Iran and Syria.  Worse, to distract from their responsibility by pointing to bogus enemies is to weaken our understanding not only of the war, but also of the enemies of freedom in this country.  Most of all it allows a foreign government a privileged position in dictating our Middle East policy, while proposing police state methods and legislation to inhibit debate and dissent.  Let me conclude by saying that the peace and justice movements, at home and abroad, are bigger than any individual or intellectual – no matter what their past credentials.
Yesterday the major Zionist organizations told us who we may or may not criticize in the Middle East, today they tell us who we may criticize in the United States, tomorrow they will tell us to bend our heads and submit to their lies and deceptions in order to engage in new wars of conquest at the service of a morally repugnant colonial regime.

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