So, Is Real Debate over Israel Possible on the Hill?


After several events were called off where Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer were due to discuss their upcoming book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, their backers said this week the cancellations were proof of their contention that American policy toward Israel can't be discussed openly.

They claim that the views expressed in the book - an expansion of the professors' 2006 paper accusing Jewish groups, neoconservatives and Evangelicals of hijacking American policy for the good of Israel and to the detriment of the US - are being stifled, as criticism of Israel routinely is in America.

It is an allegation that rings hollow to many in the Jewish community, who point to newspaper opinion pages and American campuses filled with viewpoints hostile to Israel.

But when it comes to Capitol Hill, the focus of many of the Jewish and pro-Israel groups named by Walt and Mearsheimer, even some of those organizations say that it's very rare to hear criticism of Israel or of US policy toward it.

While a few of these groups object to a climate they describe as shutting down debate that would actually be good for Israel, others argue that the limited criticism merely highlights the many reasons for the strong US-Israel relationship and itself rebuts the professors' scurrilous charges.

"There is no debate," said M.J. Rosenberg, director of the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum, a left-wing organization that pushes for peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Then he corrected himself, saying, "The debate is like this: 'I like Israel.' 'Well, I like Israel more.' The next one gets up and says, 'I don't like the Palestinians.' And the next one, 'I don't like the Palestinians more.'"

Rosenberg said there was no other topic on Capitol Hill, a place where contentious issues such as Iraq and gun control are regularly thrashed out, for which words are chosen so carefully.

"Members of Congress are so careful about what they say so as not to anger various pro-Israel organizations," said Rosenberg, who added that he had not read the Walt-Mearsheimer book, due out September 4.

A long-time congressional staffer, Rosenberg said Congressmen who didn't express support for Israel, mostly in the form of votes against nonbinding resolutions, would be faced with a deluge of lobbyists.

"It is easier to debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Knesset than in the Congress," said another longtime observer of Capitol Hill, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

 


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