New York – When it comes to the normally stultified American debate on Middle East issues, Charles Freeman, the former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is one of the most outspoken US officials.
By Jared Malsin
His pronouncements, by his own admission, break established taboos against criticism of Israel, against skepticism about the two-state solution, against supporting engagement with Hamas. And the central taboo, he argues, which underpins the others, prohibits discussion of the role of right wing organizations lobbying for Israel, such as AIPAC.
Freeman’s own career took a bizarre detour as a result of the the Israel lobby, when in 2009 his appointment to chair the National Intelligence Council was cancelled after a series of right-wing officials furiously attacked him for allegedly not supporting Israel strongly enough.
Freeman is a strict realist. He argues that by kowtowing to the most hardline backers of Israel, the US is undermining its own strategic interests, and in the long run is undermining Israel’s own security.
The need to open up the debate about Israel and its role in steering US policy, Freeman says, is imperative in order to achieve security and avert further bloodshed.
“There’s a deadening inhibition on discussion of many issues connected with the Israel-Palestine conundrum,” Freeman told Palestine Note in a recent interview. “The history shows that the effort to discuss issues, which the right-wing partisans of Israel do want to be discussed is often punished in elections by money being given to opponents or withheld from those who had the temerity to raise politically incorrect questions.”
“I think there’s an element of fear and intimidation that is quite palpable, which results in a badly skewed and ultimately tragically ineffectual policy,” he added.”
“I say ‘tragically ineffectual’ because people die. Palestinians and Israelis die because of the inability of the United States political establishment to bring itself to any open or honest examination of where American interests lie, still less to actually pursue those interests, which I think lie in a peace that secures a Jewish state and a Palestinian state.”
Jared Malsin: Starting with the controversy around your appointment as head of the National Intelligence Council: You said at the time that you were forced out by the Israel lobby. Do you see that happening with other appointments in Washington?
Charles Freeman: Oh yes. It probably shouldn’t be called the Israel lobby because that includes J Street. And that is why I later suggested it should probably be called the ‘Likud lobby’ or the ‘Lieberman lobby,’ sort of the right-wing settler mentality at work in American politics. I think that’s actually an important point because the American Jewish community is very diverse in its views, the bulk of it is quite liberal in its orientation, not in favor of adventures in the Middle East like Iraq and so on, and I think the polling data shows that those who agree with the right wing views of AIPAC [the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee] and those to right of it, like the Zionist Organization of America and other such organizations, is only something around a fifth or a little more of American Jews.
So, I think it’s important to make a distinction between the right wing [that] arrogates to itself the right to speak for all American Jews and the actual American Jewish population, which I don’t think is behind them.
But having said that, the highly visible right-wing lobby in Washington is highly effective at opposing the appointment of officials they think might not tow the line, or who object to various elements of the Israeli agenda of the day. We have a very strange government in power in Israel now that this lobby supports and advocates for, and it is a government composed of religious fanatics, settlers, and people of that sort, plus Russian Mafiosi, really. So it represents the usual sort of Israeli coalition, but this one is composed of people who really profess values and interests quite at odds with the general American public.
Nevertheless I think the lobby here for them [the current Israeli government] has been quite effective in blocking the appointment of anyone who might go up against the settlement enterprise or whom might advocate dialogue with Palestinian groups like Hamas who don’t buy into the largely dead framework of the two-state solution, or who object to the push to have a war with Iran over Iran’s supposed nuclear weapons program.
I think they’re very effective, yes. I think the reason they went after me was not personal. I didn’t take it personally, although it was very personal in its method of attack, I think it was directed at intimidating others from taking jobs unless they towed the line.
JM: And do you think they’ve succeeded in that?
CF: Oh I think they’ve had a major impact in blocking people and you can see this. They’re not always successful. They’re not omnipotent by any means and the fact that they came out of the closet, as it were, and into the light in my case I think hurt them considerably, because basically they don’t like to leave fingerprints when they do things because it leads to accusations of people skeptical about them that they’re too powerful, that they’ve abused their positions. There’s always at least one or two campaigns going on, and there are a couple going on at the moment.
JM: What are those campaigns?
CF: Well, one is against the nomination of Frank Ricciardone as ambassador to Turkey. He’s served previously as ambassador to the Philippines, Egypt, and most recently as deputy ambassador in Afghanistan, so he’s certainly put in his time in tough places, speaks Turkish, is I think is much better qualified than anyone else put forward as a candidate, and yet is alleged [during his time in] Egypt to have been insufficiently supportive of this particular agenda.
JM: One thing that has been said the last few months is that since the Gaza flotilla incident the discourse in Washington is shifting, and that cracks are starting to appear in what you’ve said in the past is a taboo against criticism of Israel and Israel’s role in US policy. Do you think that’s true?
CF: I do. I think oddly things are moving in two directions at once. On the one hand you have the nauseating capitulation of President Obama to Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and the other yahoos, and on the other you have as you say a widening aperture for discussion. There are many factors that have gone into this. I think my own case was a minor element in it. I think my own case was a minor element in it. The [Steven] Walt and [John] Mearsheimer book [The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy] was another. Some of the more egregious and offensive actions by people like Mr. [Abe] Foxman have also contributed, like the attack on Tony Judt at the Polish Consulate General some years ago, or on Juan Cole in his appointment to Yale, or on Dr. [Norman] Finkelstein, who apparently is quite a difficult individual but certainly didn’t deserve the shabby treatment he got at the hands of Alan Dershowitz.
The growth of the blogosphere and the internet as a medium of information has made it harder for the sort of self-censorship that prevails in the mainstream media to block the dissemination of information. YouTube shows abbreviated but still credible material that wouldn’t have been seen on the television screen. There is news that editors wouldn’t have selected for publications.
And generally the behavior of Israel in relation not just the Palestinians but before that the Lebanese has been so egregiously at odds with international norms of decency and the rule of law that it has widened the discussion.
What I’m referring to is the maiming of Lebanon and the savaging of Gaza.
I don’t think oddly that there has been much outrage about the joint Israeli-American effort to set aside the results of the 2006 Palestinian elections, even though I think that, in terms of anyone interested in promoting democracy or respecting it when it comes into action, that was fairly outrageous too.
JM: Talk more about the shift we saw coming from the White House and Obama’s embrace of Netanyahu. Why the apparently sudden shift?
CF: I think the same dynamic we’ve seen in the past in crucial moments in the US-Israel relationship came into play. Recall that President [Harry] Truman overruled his military and foreign policy advisors to extend recognition to Israel. That’s how the relationship began. And he did for reasons, in part, of personal friendship with a Jewish business partner, but mostly I think out of political expediency. The arms embargo against Israel was dropped in 1964 by Lyndon Johnson out of the same calculus. And I think once again political expediency was an adequate explanation. I don’t think you have to look farther than that.
JM: You mean political expediency in terms of domestic politics?
CF: Entirely domestic politics. I don’t think there was any international component to it. In international terms it was a humiliating climbdown from the very promising effort the president began his term of office with in which he tried to reach out to the Arab and Muslim worlds in general and raised hopes for a serious effort for crafting a mutually-acceptable solution between Israelis and Palestinians. All that’s gone by the boards. There is no peace process, and the prospects for reviving one look much worse than they did six months ago.
JM: What would you propose as an alternative to the Obama administration’s current course?
CF: I would strongly prefer that the US not default on the exercise of independent judgment on what is in the American interest in the Middle East, as opposed to the interests of Israel, which is an American protectorate, as defined by Israel. Because I believe the course Israel is on is likely ultimately to prove fatal. It has already resulted in the significant narrowing of Israel’s democracy, and the erosion of civil rights of Israelis. It obviously rests on the exclusion from the franchise of a very substantial portion of the population under Israeli rule. It has produced a second-class citizenship for Israeli Arabs, and it has drawn indignation, and indeed, opprobrium not just from Israel’s neighbors but increasingly from Europeans and others whose opinions should matter to Israelis.
It is not sustainable in the long run. Israel cannot exist forever at daggers drawn with its surrounding Arab populations. If you care at all about the state of Israel and what it was meant to represent, or how it was, then you have to be disturbed by the implications of current Israeli policies and want to alter their direction.
Israel has to find a way of coexisting peacefully with Palestinians, and as the 2002 Beirut Arab League declaration promises, that is the key to coexistence with the entire Arab World, all of which has committed to normalized relations with Israel if only Israel treats the Palestinians with respect and reach some mutually agreeable settlement with them. That is what the United States ought to be aiming for. It’s good for us. It’s good for Israelis. It’s good for the US-Arab relationship, and it stabilizes the region in a way it can never be stabilized as long as the Israel-Palestine dispute continues.
So, I come at it from the perspective of American interests. Those interests I believe are firmly in line with securing the wellbeing and the tranquility and the welfare of both Palestinians and Israelis. But that cannot be achieved by Israeli policies that continually displace people from their homes and purport to annex land illegally and expand the frontiers of the Israeli state while denying basic human rights or civil rights to a very large subject population of Arabs.
JM: You alluded a moment ago to the 2006 Palestinian elections and the exclusion of Hamas from the peace process and from engagement with the US.
CF: The question is ‘do you want peace?’ If you want peace you have to talk with the people who can make peace. If you want peace you have to talk with the people who can make peace. Hamas at one point enjoyed and may still enjoy a majority among Palestinians, and is in effective control of Gaza. It therefore has the legitimacy to sign an agreement. It has the discipline to enforce an agreement as it has repeatedly demonstrated with truces with Israel over the years.
It may be disagreeable from many points of view, but there’s another factor that has to be taken into account. No agreement that does not have Hamas’ imprimatur can survive. Hamas has the capacity to wreck any agreement that excludes it. And therefore it must be in the agreement. If you’re interested in peace you must talk to Hamas.
There’s hardly anything unusual about that. If there is a problem, whether on the private level or between nations or between peoples the only way to solve it and reach an accommodation is by talking to people who disagree with you. So the entire premise that Hamas should come up with its hands up and sign on to various Israeli demands for recognition of right of existence, whatever that is, and so forth, is a ploy intended to prevent any serious negotiations.
The effort to split the Palestinians and destroy the possibility of any unified Palestinian national government or national movement has a similar purpose. It’s part of a long-term effort to avoid a serious negotiation, so that instead of trading land for peace, land can be obtained without dealing with the difficult issues that have to be dealt with to produce peace. So Hamas must be spoken to just as the PLO had to be spoken to produce Oslo and whatever progress that represented.
JM: When you talk to knowledgeable people about this issue, it seems obvious that Hamas has to be included somehow, and yet there’s a reticence among policymakers in Washington to accept this. Why? And is that ever going to change? What’s your awareness of what’s happening in relation to this issue in Washington?
CF: I think there’s a deadening inhibition on discussion of many issues connected with the Israel-Palestine conundrum, and the history shows that the effort to discuss issues which the right-wing partisans of Israel do not want to be discussed is often punished in elections by money being given to opponents or withheld from those who had the temerity to raise politically incorrect questions.
So, I think there’s an element of fear and intimidation that is quite palpable which results in a badly skewed and ultimately tragically ineffectual policy. I say ‘tragically ineffectual’ because people die. Palestinians and Israelis die because of the inability of the United States political establishment to bring itself to any open or honest examination of where American interests lie, still less to actually pursue those interests, which I think lie in a peace that secures a Jewish state and a Palestinian state.
I say that despite the fact that reasons we have been discussing, I suspect the two-state solution may have passed beyond anyone’s reach, and we may be talking about an idea with many merits that has been overtaken by events.
JM: In your remarks at the Nixon Center in Washington you were talking about the right-wing elements of the pro-Israeli lobby pushing for war with Iran. Tell us what’s happening there.
CF: Well I think there are efforts operating at several levels on that. AIPAC is strongly supporting sanctions, knowing I think that sanctions will be ineffectual but that they are a step on the path of coercion that leads eventually to the use of force.
Israel as a government has advocated, off and on, a war, on this issue, either by itself or by us or both. Many people suspect that the Israeli strategy, if that’s the right word, is to either attack Iran in the hope of Iran striking back at Israel or do something in the hope that Iran will attack the United States directly in the expectation that if Iran does either the United States will protect Israel by going to war with Iran. That I think is the concern that exists in this case.
What distinguishes Iran from Iraq, where many of the same people were in the lead of arguing that there was some reason to attack, and generating disinformation, false intelligence and generally mischaracterizing the situation so as to promote the possibility of an attack, is that unlike Iraq where this was basically done by American partisans of Israel, when the Israelis themselves I believe had their own doubts about that target, this time the cooperation between the American flacks for Israel and Israel itself is open and entirely above-board. That’s the main distinction.
A couple of other points: I think the effort has several levels. It’s not just that it evolves one step at a time, sanctions first, then more sanctions, then when sanctions have been shown not to work a step toward military action. Not just that but you have multiple layers of disinformation, distorted information, specifically, the simulation of ill-founded apprehensions and fears, the effort to produce a kind of hysterical attitude in Israel in particular about the possibility of an Iranian attack. And you also have the usual people arguing that it’ll be a cakewalk, that there won’t be any serious consequences. You have mischaracterizations of both the legal situation and of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the factual situation, for example, allegations that the Gulf Arabs are secretly advocating an attack on Iran, which is not true.
So it goes on at multiple levels. It’s quite similar in many ways to the campaign to attack Iraq, but it is different in the sense that this time the Israeli government is openly coordinating it.
JM: Do you think they’ll succeed?
CF: Well I certainly hope not. But then I couldn’t frankly believe that we would do something as idiotic as attack Iraq and we did. So I suppose the principal lesson is that one should never underestimate the stupidity of the American government.