Does the pro-Israel establishment in America have too much sway over foreign policy? That’s like asking is there too much milk in your coffee. It depends on how you like your coffee.

But, unlike coffee, any discussion of Israel’s influence is fraught with emotion that can, sadly, limit a free exchange of views in the United States.

The issue came up again recently when Charles Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, withdrew from a top intelligence post to which he had been named by the Obama administration. In a March 10 personal statement after his decision not to serve as National Intelligence Council Chairman, Freeman said he was the victim of a campaign by the “Israel lobby.” The headline in the New York Times was: “Israel Stance Was Undoing Of Nominee.”

No doubt Freeman had been critical for many years of Israel’s policies, which he thought were self-defeating. After he withdrew from the council, Freeman said it was “irresponsible not to question Israeli policy and to decide what is best for the American people.” He could have gotten away with that if he had substituted Turkish, or British policy, but not Israeli.

Freeman’s defenders said his views on Israel were extreme, the Times wrote, only “when seen through the lens of American political life, and they asked whether it was possible to question American support for Israel without being either muzzled or marginalized.”

In the other camp, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said Freeman showed “an irrational hatred of Israel.” The Zionist Organization of America asked for a congressional investigation of Freeman to see what he had done on behalf of Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration did not stand by its nominee, and Freeman pulled out. It was not the administration’s finest hour.

The campaign against Freeman seems to have begun on a blog posted by Steven Rosen, a former official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group. Ironically, Rosen is under indictment for having passed secret material on to Israel in violation of the federal Espionage Act.

To some, discussing the power of AIPAC, or even the existence of a pro-Israel lobby, is to indulge in anti–Semitic conspiracy theories, as if caught reading “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Others argue that AIPAC is the most effective lobbying group in Washington — the National Rifle Association of foreign affairs. Washington politicians know how hot the issue is and shy away from it if they can.

Many pro-Israel organizations are caught in a bind. On the one hand they want to tell their supporters how important and effective they are in furthering and protecting Israel’s interests in the United States. On the other hand they don’t want to call too much attention lest there be a backlash.

When John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt first came out with their criticism of the Israel lobby in 2006, there was a huge effort to discredit their scholarship rather than get into conversation about their central thesis that the lobby has too much influence. The same was true of former President Jimmy Carter’s criticism of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories, which he compared to apartheid in his book published in November 2006.

Despite the fact that prominent Israelis have made the same comparison — “we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories,” wrote former Israeli attorney general, Michael Ben Yair — Carter was castigated in the United States. “His critics catch him out on errors that might otherwise have been overlooked,” wrote Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of the New York Times who won a Pulitzer Prize describing apartheid in South Africa.

Of course Jewish-American opinion is not monolithic, and new, more dovish lobbying groups are challenging the more hawkish views of AIPAC. In general, however, the United States is so important to Israel, its great benefactor and protector, that it is understandable that any criticism of Israeli policy could be seen as somehow weakening the bond, even if the criticism is constructive. It gets lost that criticizing a particular Israeli government or its policies is not the same as criticizing Israel or the Jewish people.

I would argue that AIPAC and the Israel lobby are following an old tradition in America: diaspora politics.

Greek–Americans have been known to make their wishes clear, and former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger told me that pressure from the Greek lobby had forced change upon Henry Kissinger’s Cyprus policies.

Armenian-Americans have made known their quarrel with Turkey over responsibility for the massacres of 1915. Recently, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he was making progress patching it up with his Armenian neighbors but feared the Armenian diaspora would obstruct it.

It took a while before Irish-Americans came on board for the peace in Northern Ireland, and traditionally some used to go to great lengths tweaking the British lion, including opposing America’s entry into World War II.

Likewise, some supporters of Israel in America haven’t kept up with changing attitudes in Israel itself. Some oppose territorial compromises with which most Israelis could now go along. But supporters of every stripe have every right to try and influence American policy as much as they wish, and shouldn’t be criticized if they are more successful than most. But then neither should those who argue otherwise be muzzled or marginalized. Not every cup of coffee has to be a latte.

More GlobalPost Worldview dispatches:

Was the G20 summit a success?

Obama's European challenges

How to get paid like an American 

Related Stories

Tagged: