Last week, Laura Rozen at the Politico gave space to an anonymous Obama administration official to smear Dennis Ross, the White House’s Middle East strategist. Ross’s grave offense, apparently, was to evince some understanding of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position, which also happens to be the mainstream Israeli position, that Israel has a legitimate right to construct new housing in Jerusalem. That earned Ross the smear that he “seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu’s coalition politics than to U.S. interests,” a crude implication of dual loyalties and a classic anti-Semitic slander. Now Harvard professor Stephen Walt has emerged to defend the charge under the guise of rejecting it.
Walt, it will be recalled, is co-author of The Israel Lobby, and thus an unlikely voice to come to the defense of someone who shows any empathy for Israel’s position. Indeed, although Walt curiously does not mention it, that book counted Ross as a prominent member of “the Israel lobby” — a term with ominously dark connotations — because he has the temerity to believe, as the authors put it, that the United States should support Israel even when the two countries disagree. (Presumably the “realist” position, which Walt is said to represent, would be that the United States should break all support for countries with which it fails on occasion to see eye to eye.) And sure enough, after some pro-forma hand-wringing about anti-Semitism by which he seems untroubled in other contexts and a few banalities about the nature of political attachments, Walt comes to the conclusion that the real problem with the dual loyalty smear, at least in Ross’s case, is the phrasing. He suggests that it should be called a more sanitary-sounding “conflict of interest.”
Walt no doubt imagines this to be the pragmatic position. He is as usual mistaken. For one thing, what is the conflict of interest in Ross’s case? That he shows some appreciation of Israeli public opinion and understands Israeli domestic politics? Note that Ross has not come out and said that the United States should accept Israel’s position on Jerusalem, which would be eminently reasonable counsel. He has only advised the administration to show more understanding of Israel’s position on that issue. The only way this could be interpreted as a “conflict of interest” is if one believes, as Walt apparently does, that any willingness to listen seriously to Israeli concerns represents the elevation of Israeli interests over American ones. This in fact happens to be an extreme position.