Israel rift roils Democratic ranks
(Politico) -- by Ben Smith --
Two of the Democratic Party’s core institutions are challenging a bipartisan consensus on Israel and Palestine that has dominated American foreign policy for more than a decade.
The Center for American Progress, the party’s key hub of ideas and strategy, and Media Matters, a central messaging organization, have emerged as vocal critics of their party’s staunchly pro-Israel congressional leadership and have been at odds, at times, with Barack Obama’s White House, which has acted as a reluctant ally to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government.
The differences are ones of tone – but also of bright lines of principle – and while they have haven’t yet made any visible impact on Democratic policy, they’ve shaken up the Washington foreign policy conversation and broadened the space for discussing a heretical and often critical stance on Israel heretofore confined to the political margins.
The daily battle is waged in Media Matters’ emails, on CAP’s blogs, Middle East Progress and ThinkProgress and most of all on Twitter, where a Media Mattters official, MJ Rosenberg, regularly heaps vitriol on those who disagree as “Iraq war neocon liar” (the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg) or having “dual loyalties” to the U.S. and Israel (the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin). And while the Center for American Progress tends to walk a more careful line, warm words for Israel can be hard to find on its blogs.
Events of recent years such as GOP attacks on Obama as insufficiently loyal to Israel, Israel’s controversial raid on a Turkish ship bound for Gaza and debates over the Iranian nuclear program have deepened the divide between some on the Democratic left and the party’s mainstream foreign policy apparatus.
“Like segregation in the American South, the siege of Gaza (and the entire Israeli occupation, for that matter) is a moral abomination that should be intolerable to anyone claiming progressive values,” wrote Matt Duss, a CAP policy analyst and the director of Middle East Progress, last year, after an Israeli raid on a flotilla challenging the blockade of Gaza turned violent.
The two groups’ push is part of a larger revival of the liberal American Israel lobby, though one that has yet to make a policy impact. Stalwarts of the anti-settlement movement like Peace Now have new, more politically engaged counterparts like J Street and see their views reflected increasingly in the party’s central institutions. They represent – they hope – the Democratic Party’s future, if not its present, and have taken heart from recent criticism of Israel by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The shift is vividly reflected in the current debate over how the U.S. should handle the fledgling Iranian nuclear program. With both Obama and congressional Democrats working to increase pressure on what they view as alarming Iranian nuclear efforts, the Center for American Progress and Media Matters have made the case that both Iran’s belligerence and its level nuclear sophistication have been overstated – in some cases attacking hawkish hyperbole or Republican rhetoric, in others going after claims by the administration.
In one recent item, for instance, ThinkProgress National Security reporter Eli Clifton took issue with a Quinnipiac University poll that made reference to Iran’s “nuclear program.” The belief that such a program exists undergirds the Obama administration’s drive for sanctions, and was recently bolstered by a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which wrote of “increasing” concerns, though not definitive evidence.
“Such assertions, and the resulting polling statistics, serve to tilt public opinion toward preemptive military action when intelligence reports paint a far more complex picture of Iran’s nuclear program and the extremely risky outcomes of an Israeli and/or U.S. airstrike,” Clifton wrote.
Another recent column on the CAP website, one of several to prompt behind-the-scenes outrage from the powerful pro-Israel group AIPAC, featured Eric Alterman accusing AIPAC of campaigning for war in Iran, which Alterman described as its “big prize.”
Over at Media Matters, Rosenberg, a former AIPAC staffer turned apostate, labels American Israel hawks “Israel-firsters” and recently blasted Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, for pushing a sanctions on Iranian civilian aviation that would be “the most ugly expression yet of this country’s almost bizarre obsession with punishing Iran, its people along with its government.” (Sherman spokesman Ben Fishel, a former Media Matters staffer, said the organization “would agree with” Sherman if it understood how civilian planes were being used to ferry arms to the Syrian government.)
ThinkProgress also scrambled to call into question an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi diplomats in the United States, though the charges were leveled by Attorney General Eric Holder, a longtime Democratic Party stalwart. “With analysts and the media still scratching their heads over what to make of a convoluted plot alleged to have been hatched by an Iranian American in collusion with Mexican drug cartels,” Clifton wrote, “[conservative think tanks] – along with their friends in Congress — are quickly declaring the end of diplomatic strategies to curb Iran’s nuclear program and regional ambitions.”
The villain: AIPAC. “It would appear that AIPAC is now using the same escalating measures against Iran that were used before the invasion of Iraq,” Clifton wrote in August.
Clifton’s post and others like it, two sources said, drew a furious reaction from the pro-Israel group, whose executives called CAP chairman John Podesta and other senior officials at the organization to complain.
“There’s two explanations here – either the inmates are running the asylum or the Center for American Progress has made a decision to be anti-Israel,” said Josh Block, a former spokesman for AIPAC who is now a fellow at the center-left Progressive Policy Institute. “Either they can allow people to say borderline anti-Semitic stuff” – a reference to what he described as conspiracy theorizing in the Alterman column – “and to say things that are antithetical to the fundamental values of the Democratic party, or they can fire them and stop it.”...MORE...LINK
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