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Intelligence Pick Blames “Israel Lobby” for Withdrawal, Stirring Debate About Its Role

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March - April 2009

“The withdrawal of a senior intelligence adviser after an online campaign to prevent him from taking office has ignited a debate over whether powerful pro-Israel lobbying interests are exercising outsize influence over who serves in the Obama administration,” reported The Washington Post (March 12, 2009).  
When Charles W. Freeman, Jr. stepped away from an appointment to chair the National Intelligence Council — which oversees production of reports that represent the view of the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies — he declared that “the barrage of libelous distortions of my record would not cease upon my entry into office … The libels on me and their easily traceable e-mail trails show conclusively that there is a powerful lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired, still less to factor in American understanding of trends and events in the Middle East.”  
Referring to what he called “the Israel lobby” he added: “The aim of this lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views.” One result of this, he said, is “the inability of the American public to discuss or the government to consider, any options for U.S. policies in the Middle East opposed to the ruling faction in Israeli politics.”  
Mr. Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, warned in 2006 that “left to its own devices, the Israeli establishment will make decisions that harm Israelis and threaten all associated with them and enrage those who are not.” More recently, he declared that, “Israel is driving itself toward a cliff and it is irresponsible not to question Israeli policy and to decide what is best for the American people.”  
According to The Washington Post, “The earliest cry of alarm about Freeman’s appointment — a week before it was announced — came from a former AIPAC lobbyist. Steve Rosen wrote Feb. 19 on his blog that Freeman was ‘a strident critic of Israel’ and described the appointment as ‘a textbook case of old-line Arabism’ where ‘views of the region are what you would expect in the Saudi foreign ministry.’ … Rosen has a unique position in Washington. A former chief foreign policy lobbyist for AIPAC, he and a colleague were indicted by the Bush administration in 2005 on suspicion of violating the Espionage Act, the first nongovernment employees ever so charged. … Rosen’s initial posting was the first of 17 he would write about Freeman over a 19-day period.”  
Other groups attempting to derail the Freeman nomination included the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and the Zionist Organization of America, according to The Post. Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard, who in 2006 described the influence of the Israel lobby as dangerous, wrote in ForeignPolicy.com: “For all of you out there who may have questioned whether there was a powerful ‘Israel lobby,’ or who admitted that it existed but didn’t think it had much influence … think again.”  
Joe Klein of Time Magazine said that Freeman “was the victim of a mob, not a lobby. The mob was composed primarily of Jewish neoconservatives — abetted by less than courageous public servants … who have made Washington even less hospitable for those who aren’t afraid to speak their minds, for those who are reflexively contentious, who would defy the conventional wisdom.”  
Washington Post (March 12, 2009) columnist David Broder wrote that, “The Obama administration has just suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the lobbyists the president vowed to keep in their place, and their friends on Capitol Hill. The country has lost an able public servant … ‘I think their goal is not to stop me but to keep others from speaking out, and to assure that AIPAC is part of the vetting process for future nominees,’ he told me. But after another visit to members of Congress, Freeman was gone. It was an ignominious end to one of the most distinguished careers in American government. As a young man fluent in Mandarin, he was the translator for Richard Nixon on his first trip to China. Later, Freeman had diplomatic posts in Africa and Asia, served as assistant secretary of defense handling NATO expansion, and after adding Arabic to his repertoire of languages, was sent to Saudi Arabia as ambassador just before the Persian Gulf War.”  
Writing in The New York Times (March 14, 2009), M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum declares: “How strange. This is a country where an appointee to a high government position can be on record harshly criticizing any or all policies of our own government, but not Israeli policies. When it comes to American policies, criticism — even harsh criticism — is both standard and unremarkable. That is also how it is in Israel, which is even more open than we are about the rough-and-tumble aspects of democracy. But criticism of Israeli policies by Americans can sink an aspirant for an appointed position or high office. Not only that, the people who organize these campaigns do it in the dark without opening the debate to the American people. This is bad for America, bad for Israel and bad for the Jewish community.”  
Critics of Freeman’s appointment argued that it was not the pressure of the pro-Israel lobby which led him to withdraw, but a variety of factors. Editorially, The Washington Post (March 12, 2009) declared that, “Former ambassador Charles W. Freeman, Jr. looked like a poor choice to chair the Obama administration’s National Intelligence Council. A former envoy to Saudi Arabia and China, he suffered from an extreme case of clientitis on both accounts. … Mr. Freeman headed a Saudi-funded Middle East advocacy group in Washington and served on the advisory board of a state-owned Chinese oil company. It was only reasonable to ask … whether such an actor was the right person to oversee the preparation of National Intelligence Estimates.”  
According to Washington Jewish Week (March 12, 2009), the Israel Policy Forum’s M.J. Rosenberg “argued until the last minute that Freeman’s detractors cared solely about his views on Israel and that the debate over his financial ties were purely a cover meant to harm his reputation. ‘The people behind the anti-Freeman effort are motivated only by his Israel positions,’ he said. ‘The rest is camouflage.’”  
Writing in The American Conservative (March 23, 2009), Philip Weiss notes that, “The moral was clear: even a president who owes his job to a progressive movement in American politics could not support a longtime public servant who had made the mistake of criticizing Israel … Unlike countless other incidents in which American policy on the Middle East has been compromised behind closed doors, this time the Israel lobby was seen fleeing the scene of the crime.”  
Weiss writes: “Freeman was gratified by the wide support he had gotten from Jewish writers. ‘I think the most courageous people on this issue are those of Jewish origin or faith. They have the most at stake in this. These things are being done in their name.’ He said he hoped that his withdrawal would allow Americans to talk about what Israel is doing in a historical and diplomatic light: ‘I am interested in seeing the survival of a humane and not a thuggish state in the Middle East. I am interested in finding ways of coming to grips with the fact that the perpetrators of the Holocaust and those who halted it accept Israel’s right to exist, but in the region in which it does exist, no one accepts its right to exist. That’s the problem we must overcome.’”

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