What If There Was No Israel Lobby

I was watching John Brennan's Senate hearing and suddenly the words to the John Lennon song
Imagine came into my head, with a slight twist.

Imagine there's no lobby
It's easy if you try
No memorized talking points
No need to lie.

I'm in good company when I contemplate a world without the lobby. Upon his election as prime minister in 1992, Yitzhak Rabin told the main component of the lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), that Israel would be better off without it and that it did more harm than good. He wanted AIPAC out of the way because he was planning a peace initiative with the Palestinians and knew that AIPAC would try (as it did) to thwart his efforts.

The reason I was contemplating an alternate universe without the Israel lobby was that I was struck by the contrast between a Congressional hearing (Brennan's) in which Israel was not an issue, hence no lobby involvement, and one in which there seemed to be no other issue, Chuck Hagel's.

In fact, neither hearing should have been about Israel. Although both the heads of the Department of Defense and the CIA have some involvement with Israel (the CIA director actually more) Israel is not a major concern of either one. Nonetheless, the Hagel hearing was almost entirely about Israel while Brennan's was about actual CIA policies, largely drone strikes and interrogation practices.

I admit that I am overstating my case when I say that absent the Israel lobby there is no need for a public official to lie. I believe that most public officials lie when they consider it necessary to defend themselves, the bad policies they have implemented or their superiors. For some, lying is an autonomic response to pretty much any question.

One small example: did you ever see an executive or legislative branch official refuse to answer a question by saying that he hasn't read a particular report? That is almost always a lie. If a reporter knows about it, the official in question almost surely does, too. And just because the lobby was not looking over Brennan's shoulder when he testified about drones and torture, there is no way he was always telling the complete truth.

But most of the time Brennan and the senators were free to engage in a serious discussion of the issues based on what both the nominee and the legislators believe is best for the United States. Although, depending on one's view, either Brennan or the senators (or both) were terribly wrong, it would be hard to argue that their positions were dictated by a lobby and that lobby's ability to deliver campaign funding.

The Hagel hearing, on the other hand, wasn't really a hearing at all. For the senators it was just an opportunity to audition in front of current or potential donors.

It was like getting a speaking role at the AIPAC annual conference, an opportunity to demonstrate that a legislator was 100 percent for whatever the lobby is for.

The worst thing was that a hearing about leading the Pentagon barely touched on any of the issues that affect America's military. So eager were the senators to suck up to the lobby by proclaiming undying devotion to Israel that they barely mentioned the 1.4 million Americans on active duty and all the problems they face.

Nor was there much interest expressed in the current war in Afghanistan or our continuing role in Iraq. Or about when the use of military force is warranted and when it isn't.

No, it was all about Israel, actually not so much Israel as the Israel lobby. What, other than the desire to please the lobby, could have made Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) ask for Hagel's commitment that Israel's aid package would be exempt from potential budget cuts, unlike all the programs that actually affect her constituents?

But her pandering to AIPAC was typical, replicated by such other lobby devotees as Lindsey Graham (R-SC) who histrionically repeated a lobby talking point attesting to the lobby's non-existence -- and demanded that Hagel apologize for ever suggesting that the lobby influenced Members of Congress to take actions they might not take otherwise.

Graham, no special fan of Israel, is concerned about a challenge from a Tea Party candidate in 2014 and is, no doubt, eager to raise money from AIPAC-associated donors to help him withstand the challenge

Of course, Gillibrand is from New York but that barely matters any more. She, like her Republican colleagues -- Graham, Ted Cruz of Texas, Roy Blunt of Missouri, David Vitter of Louisiana and Mike Lee of Utah -- was playing for money, not votes, national money. Although the Republicans know that lobby donors are unlikely to support right-wing Republicans, they also know (as Jesse Helms discovered) that enthusiastic pandering to AIPAC will make it harder for their Democratic opponents to raise money. Not when, to use AIPAC's term, the Republican incumbent is a "staunch supporter" of Netanyahu.

In short, the Hagel hearing was a nauseating spectacle.

By comparison, but only by comparison, the Brennan hearing was a textbook example of American democracy at its best. Sure, there were lobbyists in the room but they didn't write the script. Yes, some of the positions Brennan and some of the senators took are truly appalling. And some senators made no sense at all.

Nonetheless, the Brennan hearing was not a fundraiser. It was about issues, even principles and morality. The difference, of course, was the absence of the lobby.