Tony Kevin writes:

Writer-journalist Antony Lowenstein has come under sustained attack in Crikey correspondence over the past few days. But his new book “My Israel Question” (MUP), and his related recent debate with Ted Lapkin of AIJAC, the Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council, on ABC Lateline, will do all Australians a service if they re-focus our attention on where our national interest lies in the current Israeli escalation of fighting into Lebanon.

The now famous Mearsheimer and Walt article, “The Israel Lobby”, asked a similar question about the power of rightwing Israel lobbyists in the United States, in maintaining over many decades a majority consensus view among US political elites that Israeli and US interests in the Middle East (as defined by the present rightwing administrations in both countries) are pretty much identical. Much the same is true of Australia since at least the time of the 1968 Arab-Israeli War.

AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and its much smaller Australian counterpart AIJAC, are among the most professionally skilled and successful political lobbying organisations in the world. They are not representative elected bodies of the Jewish communities in these countries. We don’t know where most of their funding comes from, or to whom they are accountable for policy direction.

The AIJAC website is quite modestly circumspect about its agenda and achievements. Not so the AIPAC website in the USA, which proudly boasts that AIPAC, “America’s pro-Israel lobby”, and “the most important organization affecting America’s relationship with Israel”, today has “100,000 members across all 50 states who are at the forefront of the most vexing issues facing Israel today.”. It goes on:

AIPAC lobbyists meet every member of Congress and cover every hearing on Capitol Hill that touches on the U.S.-Israel relationship. AIPAC policy experts each day review hundreds of periodicals, journals, speeches and reports and meet regularly with the most innovative foreign policy thinkers in order to track and analyze events and trends. In addition, AIPAC activists and staff work with key journalists throughout the country, offering information and insight that helps ensure accuracy and context for the myriad news stories that focus on issues affecting the U.S.-Israel relationship.

No wonder that US and Israeli government policies are almost always, as again now over Israel-Lebanon, in lockstep. AIPAC is a massive, skilfully directed, permanent lobbying operation. Australia is a much softer target; and the AIJAC needs far less manpower and resources to achieve similarly successful results with the Howard government and Beazley Labor opposition. Nevertheless, AIJAC is a class lobbying act too, judging by its results here.

We need to ask ourselves, though, a few hard questions about this, especially now when the Middle East is going up in flames, and Australia is being more and more sucked into the tragic mess there, as one of the only two countries in the world that fully support the present Israeli actions in Lebanon (the other being the USA).

Our strategic and our trading interests, and Israel’s own present disproportionate and internationally illegal invasion of Lebanon, might suggest the wisdom of Australia putting itself at a certain distance from the present policies of Israel. We ought to be grateful therefore to Antony Lowenstein for having the courage to write his book My Israel Question, opening up such controversial issues for public discussion. Far from being a “self-hating Jew” as one Crikey correspondent unkindly portrayed Lowenstein, maybe he is simply an honest Jewish Australian, with a decent sense of right and wrong, and proportionality of response in war.

We should be more concerned about the agendas, and capacity to influence public debates, of powerful lobbying organisations like AIPAC and AIJAC. In whose interests is AIJAC working? Australia’s? Israel’s? Has AIJAC successfully persuaded Australian political elites that these two sets of interests (as it defines them) are, by definition, always identical? And is that a good thing for Australia ?

When I worked in the Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s Departments, one of the things we were taught was that Australian foreign policy should not be captured by vigorous and vocal special interest groups, but should be determined on Australian national interest grounds alone – interests at that time usually defined as, importantly, including a rules-based international security system.. I continue to believe in the good sense of that principle for a country like Australia.