Mondoweiss / February 24, 2021
White House officials have to go to the Israel lobby AIPAC conference, but if they meet with Arab-Americans ‘you can get into trouble,’ former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes says.
Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser under President Obama, says that he had to meet with Israel lobbyists as much as all other interest groups combined; that these lobbyists were a tiny segment of the American Jewish community, the same 10 to 20 individuals; they invariably took the position of the Israeli government; and were apparently scripted by the Israelis in some cases.
He also said that White House national security aides were expected to appear at AIPAC’s annual conference, but if they paid attention to Arab-American or peace groups, they could “get in trouble.”
The Israel lobby’s access was reinforced by compliant media and Congress, with members of Congress at times warning Rhodes about the “acute” financial threat of taking on the lobby.
Rhodes explained the financial “threat” from the Israel lobby in a podcast with Peter Beinart on February 10:
On Iran, the members would call me at the beginning of the August recess in 2015, when we’re having the Iran fight, and be like, AIPAC put out a press release saying they’re going to spend $40 million on ads on this. The money issue became acute. And people started to say, AIPAC told me they’d cancel my fundraisers if I vote this way. We’re never supposed to name the issue of money. But like when it became very acute and AIPAC is spending money and threatening people that they’re going to cancel fundraisers, suddenly you’re having that conversation in a way where you’re not even allowed to allude to it in normal circumstances.
Recall that in 2019 when Rep. Ilhan Omar dared to say that AIPAC used “benjamins” to command support for Israel in Congress, she was denounced far and wide and compelled to apologize for “antisemitic tropes,” though she was only saying what Rhodes says here.
Rhodes’s discussion of money echoes his 2018 memoir of the Obama years in which he said that after Netanyahu lectured Obama in the White House in 2011, about why Israel could not accept the ’67 lines as a border, Rhodes had to get on the phone to “a list of leading Jewish donors . . . to reassure them of Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides.” The concern then was the 2012 election.
Here are extended excerpts of Rhodes’s comments on the Israel lobby to Beinart. (I did a separate post on Israel’s disrespect for Obama per Rhodes yesterday).
On the omnipresence of the Israel lobby:
“You meet more with outside, organized constituency groups on Israel than any other foreign policy issue. I’d actually go as far to say that . . . as a senior White House official working on national security . . . the number of people you meet from the organized pro-Israel community equals all the other meetings that you might do with kind of diaspora or constituency groups on all the other issues. It’s that degree of dwarfing. I’m pretty confident that’s consistent across [presidential] administrations . . .
“You just have this incredibly organized pro-Israel community that is very accustomed to having access in the White House, in Congress, at the State Department. It’s taken for granted, as given, that that’s the way things are going to be done.
Rhodes said that any time there’s “daylight” between the U.S. government and the Israeli government, the White House hears from Democratic members of Congress.
The degree of congressional interest again dwarfs any other issue I worked on in the Obama years. Anything with a nexus to Israel, be it Iran or the Palestinian issue, the two dominant ones in our time, you’re going to hear from members of Congress, you’re going to be expected to be briefing members of Congress. If there’s any daylight between the US and the Israeli government, even Democratic members are going to be upset, concerned about that.
Netanyahu also applied pressure by calling on “vast” right-wing media resources in the U.S.
The media interest is dramatically intensified [on this issue]. And that’s both a very aggressive kind of pro-Likud media in the United States. It’s also just the mainstream media delights in any Israel controversies. Netanyahu knew that he could gin up the right-wing pro-Likud media in the United States, which is pretty vast, but he also knew that if he needled Obama he would create a week-long political story, because political reporters view Israel as a domestic political story, not a foreign policy issue.
So in all those ways, the outside pressure, the Congressional interest, the media interest, there’s just a much greater spotlight on anything with a nexus to Israel than on anything else. And inevitably that weighs on the minds of politicians and policymakers. You can’t act like it doesn’t.
Beinart asked how often Rhodes had meetings with representatives of the pro-Palestinian side, and Rhodes laughed and said he was the only one to have such meetings because such meetings can get you “into trouble,” and they weren’t with Palestinians as such.
I would be the one to take those meetings. I actually did it like pretty regularly. Here’s the thing. Usually with me those types of meetings were either peace groups, sometimes Christian religious groups, Quakers and others advocating for peace. Sometimes Arab-Americans. Less Palestinian, but more broadly Arab-American. So there wasn’t a significant just-Palestinian or Palestinian-American organized constituency that you would meet with. You would meet with pro-peace or Arab-American organizations. I ended up taking those meetings because look, not everyone wants to take those meetings. Because you can get into trouble if you’re seen as solicitous. I would get creamed in the right-wing press. I spoke at NIAC [National Iranian American Council] . . . Not on the Palestinian issue, but the Iran nuclear deal. You’d think I had dinner with the supreme leader of Iran. There’s a kind of chilling effect.
But everyone goes to AIPAC !
You are expected — every senior US government official in national security — is almost expected to turn up at AIPAC. You are not expected to turn up at NIAC.
Rhodes, who is half-Jewish, discussed the fact that Jews are heavily involved in policymaking and Arab-Americans are not.
I remember being in a meeting once early in the Obama years on Israel . . . I’m just acknowledging something and not suggesting that there’s anything inherently wrong with it. It just is what it is. I remember looking around the situation room on a meeting on the Israel/Palestine issue and every single one of us in the meeting was Jewish or of Jewish origin like me . . . Which again, I don’t want to sound conspiratorial. I’m not trying to advance a trope. I’m really not. I think it’s great that a lot of Jewish-Americans go into foreign policy and national security. I just remember thinking what if everybody in this room was Arab-American, you’d have a different [discussion]
We understand the Israeli fears and grievances and concerns intuitively as Jewish-Americans, maybe not as much as Israelis . . . We have some understanding with it in our unconscious literally . . . in a way that — intellectually I can try to understand the Palestinian experience, but I don’t.
Rhodes said that the Israel lobby is a tiny subset of American Jews.
Over the eight years I met so many times with like the usual suspects from the organized American Jewish community. And part of what you start to realize is this is a pretty small number of people. The American Jewish community is a large, sprawling, raucous wonderful community, and it’s kind of like 10 to 20 people that you find yourself meeting with all the time, some of whom are by the way wonderful people. Some of whom, less so.
And they’re mouthpieces for the Israeli government.
And look, again — not a conspiracy, it is what it is. People are advocating a position. But it’s a common position. Whatever the tension point between us and the Israeli government was at a given time, they were usually coming in to represent what I knew to be the Israeli government’s view in that circumstance. There was a big push at the beginning of the Obama administration after Netanyahu’s election for the US to recognize Israel formally as a Jewish state, which actually had not been U.S. policy before 2009 . . . There was a big push on us to pressure the Palestinians into talks though it wasn’t clear those talks would lead anywhere.
Whenever there was an international incident like the Goldstone Report or the Turkish Flotilla, you have to make sure that you’re doing everything that you can at the U.N. to kind of block this from going forward.
The advice he got was at times intrusive and high-handed.
But I would also get advice on how to talk about these issues. I remember to give you an example, they would complain that we dealt more with Palestinian grievances than Israeli grievances, which I did not think was the case frankly. One of these people said to me, You’re right Ben, cause I had showed him all the things we’d said about Israel’s legitimate security concerns and its history. He said, “But you put the Palestinians second.” So [having them first was] suggesting that you think they’re more important. You flip the order. It would get very specific. Language that Obama needed to use, reassurances that he needs to give.
During the Iran deal, the lobby piped the Israeli government line.
The nuclear deal was insane, the number of armchair centrifuge expert . . . we have nuclear scientists in the government, and I have someone from an organization yelling at me about advanced nuclear centrifuge issues. I think Ernie Moniz [former energy secretary] understands this.
It’s not a conspiracy because other organizations do the same thing on their issues, but not as effectively frankly. But you could tell that somebody else had briefed them. In most instances, and whether that was the Israeli government or their own staff, I’m not suggesting . . . And in this case it was always whatever Netanyahu’s party’s difference was with Obama at the moment.
The Israel lobby’s talking points were laughably transparent.
I had members of Congress . . . talking to me about what the inspection regime needs to be about traces of isotope at Parchin [military site in Iran]. The talking points were so specific on Iran, that you knew . . . This was such an echo chamber; every member you’re meeting just conspicuously happens to be obsessed with the inspections regime at Parchin . . . You understood that everyone’s working off the same set of points.
Beinart, who is an observant Jew, and Rhodes agreed that Jews in government are granted a special place in discussion of these issues. Rhodes:
I will give you the obvious example. Congress. I would brief throughout the Iran process the Jewish Democrats in Congress. That was a group. And Sandy Levin, wonderful man, phenomenal human being, would pull it together and it wasn’t subtle. I was going up every few weeks to brief every Jewish Democrat, which is a pretty sizable group, about the particularities of the Iran negotiations. And by the way there was a Jewishness to it, like we had bagels. And so I think there is a kind of default to an assumption that you need to be informed by something of a Jewish perspective.
But then even in that, I sensed, I’m not a practicing Jew, and I sensed at times a bit of a vibe, Well who are you — and like I was called a fake Jew. There were these narratives of Jewishness that kind of informed this stuff.
It’s not like anyone plans to “de-center” Jews. I’d point out that it is not a coincidence that the top three officials in the Biden State Department — Tony Blinken and Wendy Sherman and Victoria Nuland — are all Jewish. These appointments are meant to reassure the Israel lobby of Biden’s support. The same reason Obama hired Hillary Clinton as secretary of state in 2008 by reaching out to an Israel lobbyist to be the intermediary. The same reason that for many years all of the Treasury undersecretaries for counter-terrorism, enforcing Iran sanctions, were Jewish.
Rhodes dealt with the Jewish part of the Israel lobby, but he says the Jewish lobby was able to use the “firewall” of the evangelical Christian Israel lobby in the Republican Party to shrink the debate and to “bludgeon” the Democratic Party.
The people who came to me knew that they had a Republican party that would be in total lockstep, total hawks — total wherever Netanyahu was. Debates about Israel . . . were entirely inside the Democratic party because the development of the last 20 years is that Republicans/evangelicals have completely embraced the rightwing Israeli side.
Weirdly, the evangelical firewall if you will of support for Israel really empowered the more conservative in the political sense right-wing Jewish perspective inside the American Jewish community because they knew they had the cavalry behind them of the entire Republican Party. Even though these were often debates with Jews in the room, the presence which wasn’t in the room, the evangelical conservative community, was very powerful. It gave them a . . . Trump card. If the Democrats didn’t fall into line they knew . . . the Republicans could bludgeon us with it. That’s the story of the whole Iran fight.
Rhodes said the Israel lobby is “not unique,” that it’s akin to the fossil fuel and gun lobby. “It’s not a Jewish specific thing. It’s just the combination of money and passion and organization coupled with this evangelical piece that has emerged in the last several decades that is not about Jews.”
The Congress-people are often craven. Rhodes related the occasion in 2015 when Netanyahu made a racist appeal at the end of his campaign, warning that “Arabs are voting in droves.” Asked about the remarks, Obama spokesperson Josh Earnest was critical, saying that the White House had serious concerns about “divisive rhetoric” and would communicate as much to Israeli government. Rhodes:
And a member of Congress was complaining to me about this. I’m like, “What do you want us to do about this? The guy’s being a racist, he’s come out against the two-state solution, he’s talking about the Arabs coming out in droves, and we’re asked what we think about it. How can we not give an answer that’s somewhat honest?”
He said, “Why can’t you just blame the Palestinians?”
I said, “For what?”
He started talking about incitement. The pivot was not subtle.
Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006