The Israel Lobby Stifles Another Israel-Questioner

One big price exacted by the Israel lobby is that it tries to shut down free debate when Israel’s motives are questioned. This is the lesson of the furore over comments on CNN by Tom Ricks, the Washington Post’s Pentagon correspondent.

Three weeks back on Howard Kurtz’s show Reliable Sources, Ricks, who has just published a bestselling book about the Iraq fiasco called Fiasco, made a startling statement:

One of the things that is going on, according to some U.S. military analysts, is that Israel purposely has left pockets of Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon, because as long as they’re being rocketed, they can continue to have a sort of moral equivalency in their operations in Lebanon.

KURTZ: Hold on, you’re suggesting that Israel has deliberately allowed Hezbollah to retain some of it’s fire power, essentially for PR purposes, because having Israeli civilians killed helps them in the public relations war here?

RICKS: Yes, that’s what military analysts have told me.

KURTZ: That’s an extraordinary testament to the notion that having people on your own side killed actually works to your benefit in.. terms of the battle of perceptions here.

RICKS: Exactly. It helps you with the moral high ground problem, because you know your operations in Lebanon are going to be killing civilians as well.

KURTZ: All right.

The comments drew a sharp reaction from the pro-Israel community. For instance, former Mayor Ed Koch said that they were antisemitic, for they repeated the classic “blood libel,” suggesting that Jews would sacrifice children to derive benefit to their people. Or something like that.

Koch then badgered Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. about the remarks, and then brandished Downie’s response on the National Review website.

I have made clear to Tom Ricks that he should not have made those statements. Len Downie

That’s too bad. Yes, Ricks’s statement seems off the wall. But he stuck to it throughout the flap, telling The New York Sun “The comments were accurate: that I said I had been told this by people. I wish I hadn’t said them, and I intend from now on to keep my mouth shut about it.”

The danger here is that zealous devotion to Israel on the part of the American lobby causes good reporters not to even speculate about international affairs, but to portray Israel always in favorable terms. Kevin Drum made the same point last month, when he said he avoided even voicing pro-Palestinian views because folks are so touchy about the issue, and the Middle East is so complex. I.e., leave it to the experts who know everything. That’s un-American: we should encourage debate, not stifle it. (Interestingly, Kurtz himself didn’t find Ricks’s statement preposterous. And as all the recent Israeli histories of the Six-Day War have shown, the truth about the military events takes a long time to unfold.)

It’s hard to imagine any of these guys getting so bent out of shape if, say, American military tactics were impeached. A point Ricks made to me when I asked him to talk about the flap. “No thanks, I have vowed to going back to covering only Iraq, where tempers seem to run calmer.”