"A liberal," wrote the great American poet Robert Frost, "is someone who can't take his own side in an argument."
Dan Fleshler, a self-described Jewish liberal, can't take his side or the other side in his new book, Transforming America's Israel Lobby. The book is a rambling, largely incoherent and often competing collection of thoughts about the Jewish and pro-Israel groups that seek to influence US foreign policy in the Middle East.
Fleshler's short book comes on the heels of several best-sellers on the topic, including the fetid book The Israel Lobby, by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. It is quite possible that Fleshler (or his publisher, Potomac Books) hoped to cash in on the buzz with this compendium of conflicting notions.
Fleshler contradicts himself throughout the book. For example, he claims that the "widespread perception" of power associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is "not reflected in reality," yet complains throughout the book that this organization most commonly associated with the Israel lobby has for too long set the agenda.
Fleshler insists that Israel has a right to defend itself, but castigates it for its "appallingly disproportionate response to Hamas rocket fire" during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 and January 2009.
He admits that the "combination of Hamas, Hizbullah in Lebanon and, of course, Iran's reckless president and nuclear program" has provided ample reason to believe 1938-type dangers loom for Israel. Yet he sneers at the "hawkish tilt" of Jewish groups that seek to impose a blockade on Iran until it halts its illicit activities.
Even as he engages in seemingly endless ramblings, Fleshler is utterly convinced that he has something important to say. He claims, "I spend much of my spare time and some of my professional life trying to convince American Jews to support Israel's peace camp." To this end, he is the author of the blog RealisticDove.org, which professes to provide "candid, constructive commentary on Israel, the Arab-Israeli conflict, America's Middle East policies and their domestic political context."
But as his book plainly reveals, Fleshler is endlessly frustrated by the fact that his ideas, along with those of "the people of my camp," as he calls them, have largely failed to gain traction.
In a nutshell, Fleshler wants Israel to cough up territory and make other concessions to the Palestinians, even if there is no reciprocity, simply because he thinks it's the right thing to do. And he thinks that America needs to force Israel to make these concessions.
Fleshler clearly resents the fact that his views are still unpopular. And he takes it out on those who actually influence policy. He takes ad-hominem swipes at Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, whom he likens to a "cranky mother hen." He describes the Zionist Organization of America, under the leadership of Morton A. Klein, as inhabiting political space he calls "right-wing muck." He even asserts that employees of AIPAC "don't much care about Israel."
But no matter how much he attacks these groups, he will not be able to change the fact that they appeal more to Jewish Americans (and the general American public) than the fringe leftist groups he works with (Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom and Israel Policy Forum). And that's not because the majority of Americans don't want peace in the Middle East. They undoubtedly do.
However, the average American also understands that the Israel-Palestinian conflict persists because the Palestinians consistently reject peace. Indeed, the Palestinians have made this perfectly clear through their rhetoric, their media, their mosque sermons and, lamentably, their endless acts of violence, ranging from suicide bombings to indiscriminate rocket attacks. Until this changes, the American people can be expected to stand behind policies that bolster Israel's security. This is not "right wing." It's common sense.
Fleshler ignores this inconvenient truth for more than 200 mind-numbing pages, complaining instead that Israel and its American Jewish supporters have been the primary impediment to peace. This inflicts irreparable damage to his credibility.
The author also does himself a disservice by quoting Robert Malley, who coauthored articles after the collapse of the Oslo process with Hussein Agha, a former adviser to Yasser Arafat, blaming Israel and exonerating Arafat. Similarly, Fleshler draws quotes from Hussein Ibish, a glib Arab commentator who lied on MSNBC, for instance, about an Israeli "massacre" of Palestinians in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002.
There are brief moments where Fleshler partially redeems himself. He readily rebuts claims that AIPAC lobbied for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Protecting Israel, he writes, "was not one of the main motivations of the Bush administration's decision makers." Fleshler should also be commended for slamming "those who think that Israelis deserve to be singled out for human rights abuses above all other peoples on earth." More broadly, he appears to genuinely want peace to break out in the Middle East. This is a good thing.
In the end, however, Transforming America's Israel Lobby is simply vapid. In writing it, Fleshler has added to a seemingly endless cacophony of opinions expressed in hastily written books about the Middle East that contribute virtually nothing new to the field.