The Tom Friedman Controversy

Sorry I'm a bit late to this, but I've been running in circles the past couple of days (it's the season, I think). Anyway, Tom Friedman stirred things up a bit by asserting that Congress is "bought and paid for by the Israel lobby." He wrote this in the context of bemoaning Israel's current direction, and bemoaning its American "friends," including the distinctly destructive Newt Gingrich.

I agree with the thrust of his column, that Israel's more right-wing friends in America are doing it no favors by encouraging its worst tendencies. But I do disagree with his analysis of Israel's role in American politics. Tom takes a kind of modified Walt/Mearsheimer approach to the issue -- he's not blaming Jews for creating anti-Semitism, or excoriating Israel as some terrible evil, as Walt and Mearsheimer do -- but he's suggesting that AIPAC and other, mainly-Jewish PACs, dictate the parameters of the Israel-U.S. relationship:

I sure hope that Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.

This just doesn't seem accurate to me. Netanyahu received a standing ovation in Congress because he's popular in Congress. Why is he popular in Congress? Because the country he leads is popular with Americans. Members of Congress receive PAC support from all sorts of causes, but it's hard to imagine them giving a standing ovation to a representative of the insurance industry. Polls have consistently, over many decades, shown that Israel is well-thought-of by the majority of Americans (the Palestinians poll miserably, by contrast). What explains Israel's popularity? The Bible, for one thing, along with a shared belief in democracy, shared victimization by Arab terrorism, and so on. (I'm not necessarily endorsing as morally sound these observations, just making them.)

Does AIPAC play a role in encouraging a positive American attitude toward Israel? Of course. But it doesn't explain the standing ovation for Bibi. Tom also wrote:

"...Newt Gingrich took the Republican competition to grovel for Jewish votes -- by outloving Israel -- to a new low by suggesting that the Palestinians are an "invented" people and not a real nation entitled to a state.

As I've said, Gingrich's position is unhelpful (as they say in the State Department), but he is certainly not groveling for Jewish votes. He knows he's not going to get many Jewish votes in Florida and New York, and he certainly knows he's not going to get a great many Jewish votes in those world centers of Jewish life, Iowa and New Hampshire. He said this a) because he believes it; and b) because it plays on Islamophobic feelings among more conservative voters and c) because it is simply good politics, in a Republican primary, to take Israel's side in a dispute. Tom is absolutely right that Gingrich hit a new low, but he didn't hit it in order to please Jews.