Chas Freeman and the pro-Israel lobby: watch your definitions

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

James Besser in Washington

Was it really the  “pro-Israel lobby” that scuttled the nomination of Chas Freeman as head of the National Intelligence Council, as Freeman himself charged in an outburst after his withdrawal on Wednesday and prominent columnists like the Washington Post’s David Broder agree?

Well, it depends on you definition of “the lobby.”

There’s little question the spark that lit the Freeman conflagration came from Jews who support Israel, starting with former AIPAC staffer Steve Rosen, and that the loudest and most persistent opposition came from Jewish neo-conservatives.

There was a very active email campaign against Freeman, much of it containing exaggerated charges and some of it vile, and as Freeman said in his statement, some of it came from Jews who support Israel. I saw some of these emails (and was pretty disgusted by them). I didn’t see any names I recognized and I didn’t see any organizations.

Two Jewish groups spoke out publicly against the nomination – the Zionist Organization of America (which put out a press release claiming much of the credit for taking Freeman down) and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).

Does all of that  constitute the “lobby?”  Well, not exactly.

There’s only one group registered to lobby on behalf of the U.S.-Israel relationship – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.  Publicly, AIPAC was silent on the nomination.

Some bloggers (see Dan Fleshler’s “Realistic Dove” post) say an AIPAC official, spokesman Josh Block, was calling around, trying to stir up opposition to Freeman. I never received such a call. Maybe that means AIPAC wasn’t doing much on Freeman, maybe the claim was the product of the conspiracy theories that always swirl around AIPAC, maybe it means I dropped off Block’s call list, maybe it means AIPAC figured things were going great and didn’t need to get directly involved.

The fact AIPAC doesn’t make a statement on an issue doesn’t mean they’re not involved. Still, no evidence has come my way that they played a significant role in this case, although, as I wrote yesterday, they’re not weeping salt tears over his departure.

Other major Jewish groups  that support Israel – the ADL, the AJCs, JCPA, the rest of the Jewish alphabet soup – stayed silent, upsetting some of Freeman’s harsh critics. During the course of the controversy I asked leaders of several groups about Freeman; their answer, roughly paraphrased, was “leave us out of it.”

Pro-peace process groups – APN, IPF, J Street– were similarly quiet, although some of their officials were sympathetic to Freeman or at least hostile to his critics.

Several Jewish lawmakers got involved, including Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), but the list was shorter than it usually is on issues relating to Israel, suggesting nobody was putting the squeeze on Jewish lawmakers.

I’ve heard the assumption that since Rosen was a top AIPAC staffer before his indictment on Espionage Act charges and that he is widely seen as a primary architect of its “night flower” approach, his involvement must signal AIPAC’s, as well.

But Rosen and AIPAC are estranged, as became even clearer this week when he filed a defamation suit against his former employers. It seems unlikely they coordinated their efforts.

So was it the “pro-Israel lobby” that axed Freeman? I say again: it depends on your definition of the lobby.

If you just mean “Jews who work in support of Israel,” well, yes, then you’re partially right, although they got a lot of help from non-Jewish conservatives interested in bashing the Obama administration, Chinese human rights activists upset about Freeman’s statements about that country and his approach to international human rights and activists who dislike the strangely  close U.S.-Saudi relationship.

But “Jews who work in support of Israel” is a mighty broad category.  It includes arch neo-conservatives like Rosen, but it also includes IPF’s MJ Rosenberg, who became one of Freeman’s most outspoken defenders.  Both would tell you they work in the pro-Israel cause; both have resumes to back that up.

If you mean  the formal pro-Israel lobby, probably not. Sorry, David Broder.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.