Olmert’s Claims Revive Israel Lobby Controversy

The U.S. State Department fiercely denied claims made by Ehud Olmert about his influence over President George W. Bush, in an incident that has stirred up old debates about the role of the Israeli government and the so-called "Israel lobby" in formulating Middle East policy in Washington.

On Monday, Olmert claimed that he demanded and received an immediate conversation with President Bush, during which he convinced the president to overrule the wishes of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and abstain from a United Nations resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.

In response, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on Tuesday called Olmert’s claims "wholly inaccurate as to describing the situation, just 100-percent, totally, completely not true." The State Department did not respond to an IPS request for further elaboration.

Olmert’s comments were made in Ashkelon, a southern Israeli city that has been the target of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

According to Olmert, he called the White House upon hearing of the upcoming UN Security Council resolution. "I said, ‘Get me President Bush on the phone.’ They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn’t care: ‘I need to talk to him now.’ He got off the podium and spoke to me," Olmert said, according to multiple media reports.

As a result of his conversation with President Bush, Olmert claimed, the president called Rice and forced her to abstain from voting on the measure, which she herself had helped author.

"He gave an order to the secretary of state and she did not vote in favor of it – a resolution she cooked up, phrased, organized, and maneuvered for. She was left pretty shamed and abstained on a resolution she arranged," Olmert said.

The Security Council resolution passed by a vote of 14 to 0, with the U.S. the only abstention.

The U.S. government was quick to counter Olmert’s remarks. In addition to the State Department’s rebuttal, a White House spokesman also denounced "inaccuracies" in the story.

Regardless of the truth of Olmert’s claims, the story comes as an embarrassment to the Bush administration, which has faced criticism for its alleged unquestioning support for Israeli positions.

While most U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere have called for an immediate cease-fire since the Israeli bombardment of Gaza began on Dec. 27, the Bush administration has been unwavering in its refusal to condemn the campaign or suggest a timeline for its conclusion.

The U.S Congress has also expressed its strong support for Israel’s actions in Gaza. Last week, both the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed nonbinding resolutions in support of the military campaign.

But polls indicate that both members of Congress and the public at large may be more skeptical of the Israeli offensive than the official positions of the U.S. government would indicate.

An anonymous poll of 68 congressmen conducted by National Journal found that 39 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of Republicans felt that Israel had used "too much" force in Gaza. Nevertheless, over 90 percent of representatives voted in favor of the House resolution, which placed all blame for civilian casualties in Gaza upon Hamas.

And in late December, a Rasmussen poll found that the U.S. populace as a whole supported the Israeli offensive by a narrow 44 to 41 percent margin. Among Democrats, 55 percent felt that Israel should have tried to find a diplomatic solution first.

The diplomatic spat over Olmert’s comments, along with this alleged disparity between U.S. public opinion and policies on Israel-Palestine, have given new intensity to an old set of debates.

Charges of pro-Israel bias have not been unique to the Bush administration. Critics also accused the Bill Clinton administration, and particularly its top negotiator Dennis Ross, of giving priority to Israeli concerns during the peace negotiations of the late 1990s.

Ross, who is rumored to be in line to become President-elect Barack Obama’s top Middle East envoy, was accused by U.S. and Arab negotiators of not being "an honest broker" in the peace process, according to a book by Ross’ former colleague Dan Kurtzer.

And in 2005, former U.S. peace negotiator Aaron David Miller complained that "many American officials involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, myself included, have acted as Israel’s attorney, catering and coordinating with the Israelis at the expense of successful peace negotiations."

On the U.S. domestic scene, Congress’s overwhelming backing of the Gaza offensive despite apparently lukewarm public support has been taken as further evidence for the existence of an "Israel lobby" skewing policy in a hawkish direction.

This claim was put forth by political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in a 2006 article in the London Review of Books entitled "The Israel Lobby," later turned into a 2007 book. They alleged that hawkish pro-Israel lobbying groups – most notably the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – have for decades skewed foreign policy in a direction detrimental to U.S. interests.

The Mearsheimer/Walt thesis has been extremely controversial since its publication. To critics, the thesis was simply the latest manifestation of a long line of conspiracy theories alleging covert Jewish domination of politics.

Defenders countered that the idea of an Israel lobby was not meant to stand in for Jews as a whole – both because the policies of groups like AIPAC were unrepresentative of the more dovish views of most U.S. Jews, and because the lobby was also made up of large numbers of evangelical Christians.

Regardless, the years since the publication of Mearsheimer and Walt’s article have seen more open debate about the way that Israel policy is formulated in Washington. Relatively centrist commentators such as Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Joe Klein of Time, while taking pains to distinguish their views from those of Mearsheimer and Walt, have suggested that hawkish Jewish groups in the U.S. political establishment are skewing Israel policy in an unhealthy direction.

As world debate over the Gaza war remains fierce, it seems unlikely that these controversies will die down in the near future.

Walt, for one, has taken recent developments as a further vindication of his views.

"[A]lthough most Americans support Israel’s existence and have more sympathy for them than they have for the Palestinians," he wrote Jan. 5 in response to the Rasmussen poll, "they are not demanding that U.S. leaders back Israel no matter what it does. But that’s what American politicians reflexively do."

Author: Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban writes for Inter Press Service.