Last weekend I was invited to speak at a big Palestine conference in Istanbul, Turkey. Palestine Addressing the World brought speakers from over 60 countries across the world – one of the keynote speakers was going to be Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered by the Saudi government in Istanbul – and nearly 1000 participants. It was an interesting two days on covering Israel/Palestine in the global media.
I gave a talk on a panel titled, “Strategies to confront the discriminatory discourse of Israel”. A key focus was the rise of Jewish dissent opposed to Israel’s permanent occupation of Palestine.
My following essay appears in the Israel/Palestine news outlet +972 magazine:
There’s a moment near the end of the four-part, Al Jazeera documentary on the U.S. Israel lobby — censored by its own network due to pressure from the U.S. government and incensed U.S.-based, pro-Israel lobbyists — where the show’s undercover reporter, “Tony,” films a key Israel advocate in Washington. Eric Gallagher was a senior manager at The Israel Project and admits that the dominant pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, faces an existential crisis.
“People at AIPAC know that something has changed,” Gallagher says. “They know something is wrong. They are not as effective as they used to be.” He worries that the day is coming soon when AIPAC wouldn’t be able to deeply influence the Israel lobby crafted in the U.S. Congress, as it does today, and that the pro-Israel lobby will have to operate without AIPAC’s power. “There’s this big bowling ball that’s being hurled towards them [AIPAC] and the response is to run faster,” Gallagher continues. “They need to get on the bowling ball and start dancing.”
Gallagher doesn’t explain why so many Americans are turning against Israel in public opinion polls. The latest figures from The Economist and YouGov, an online data analytics firm, find that U.S. liberals, millennials, and women have turned against the Jewish state in large numbers. The 50-plus year occupation of Palestinians and their lands, constant killings of civilians in Gaza, and the Trump administration’s obsessive embrace of Israel’s hard-right are all factors.
Republicans and conservatives still back Israel in large numbers, as do many in the evangelical Christian community (though younger members are more skeptical). For the foreseeable future, however, Israel will likely receive unprecedented financial, military, and diplomatic support from the United States.
Tony films Gallagher in a Washington D.C. café explaining that “the foundation that AIPAC sat on is rotting. There used to be widespread public support for Israel in the United States…I don’t think that AIPAC is the tip of the spear anymore, which is worrisome, because who is?”
It’s a telling admission in a documentary that’s full of them. Following Al Jazeera’s 2017 examination of Britain’s Israel lobby — a film that uncovered extensive Israeli government interference in the British political system, along with Labour Party operatives who aimed to silence critics of Israel with false charges of anti-Semitism — expectations were high for the U.S. version. They planted a convincing young, British, Jewish man, James Anthony Kleinfeld, within the American Zionist establishment, who filmed undercover for months to reveal pro-Israel lobbyists and Israeli government affiliates talking tactics and spewing racism against Muslims and Palestinians. Al Jazeera even admitted to planting an undercover reporter inside U.S. pro-Israel lobby groups in 2017, but the channel never broadcast the final product.
Director and founder of Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, Clayton Swisher, has detailed the political reasons for this decision: a combination of Qatari government capitulation, pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington threatening to convince Congress to register the network as “foreign agents,” and false accusations of anti-Semitism against the producers of the documentary. A source told me that U.S. President Donald Trump’s first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, had even lobbied the Qataris not to screen the film. Whatever exactly Israeli, American, and pro-Zionist lobbyists did, it worked, though clips of the film started leaking in the last months. The full film can’t be far behind [it leaked a few days after this piece was published].
The leaks prove that the Israeli embassy, often working with pro-Israel groups, spies on pro-Palestinian students and attempts to disrupt the growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement across the U.S. Other Zionist lobbyists want students who support Palestinian rights to be criminally prosecuted. Fake Facebook accounts are created by Israel lobby groups that only occasionally mention Israel, because the Israel brand has become so toxic. The notorious Canary Mission website, used by the Israel government to target pro-Palestinian supporters on arrival in its country, is exposed as being funded by major pro-Israel donors in the U.S.
These are all important revelations, and an international audience deserves to see them. There’s nothing remotely anti-Semitic in the film. It’s a sober and detailed exposé of a lobby that functions despite the demographic gravity pushing against it. It’s not just young Americans losing support for Israel, but American Jews who increasingly can’t abide by a foreign country that advocateschauvinism, occupation, and racism. The horrific Pittsburgh synagogue massacre has only deepened this divide between Israel and its vast Jewish Diaspora.
Banning the film shows the weakness of the Zionist lobby, not its strength, because it acknowledges that any criticism that shatters the illusion of how the lobby operates secretly cannot survive sunlight or public scrutiny. Nonetheless, it’s worrying that Al Jazeera continues to stonewall about the real reasons it has not scheduled the film.
Swisher’s documentary is a positive development, however, from the myopic discussions around the U.S. Israel lobby that greeted the 2007 book on the subject by academics Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer (who appears in the film). The authors were accused of anti-Semitism and scapegoating Jews. U.S. journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, now editor of The Atlantic, who is notorious for policingsupposedly acceptable boundaries of debate around Israel/Palestine, called Walt, without evidence, a “grubby Jew-baiter.”
Yes, Swisher and his team have been accused of anti-Semitism, more than a decade after the Mearsheimer-Walt book. But the label no longer sticks effectively, apart from the rigid ideologues who won’t tolerate any criticism of Israeli actions. When real anti-Semitism is surging globally, it’s a damning indictment on those who abuse the term for shabby political ends. The Israel lobby does this around the world.
A key theme throughout the film is the perceived need by Israel and its advocates to secretly and publicly smear supporters of Palestinian rights. That’s what being strongly pro-Israel means for the litany of Zionist lobby groups featured in the documentary, from The Israel Project to the Brandeis Center. It looks and feels grubby and desperate. BDS is framed as an existential threat to the continuation of the Jewish state, a severe exaggeration in the current moment, but it has undeniably achieved great psychological damage to the Israeli narrative and justification for indefinitely occupying millions of Palestinians.
One of the early reviews of the film, written by Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz, argues that the U.S. Israel lobby and Israeli government are “begging a bunch of amateurs for intel [on BDS supporters].” Although he later admits that the film shows a “self-harming campaign” that costs the Israeli government millions of dollars every year, he ignores the wider implications for the many targeted liberal Jews, pro-Palestinian activists and Muslims whose lives and records are smeared by the lobby for daring to defend Palestinian rights. Free speech around Israel/Palestine is now under attack in the U.S. and across the globe. The FBI is using Canary Mission as a reference point to harass pro-Palestinian activists.
This Al Jazeera documentary deserves a wide audience because it exposes the motivations and methods of individuals and groups that will spend the next 50 or 100 years defending Israeli control of Palestinian lives.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based, independent journalist, film-maker, author of My Israel Question and Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe and is currently writing a book on the global “war on drugs”, out in 2019. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine since 2003.
Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters recently toured around Australia. One night in Melbourne he took the time to speak at a public event, in conversation with Palestinian writer Randa Abdel-Fattah and me, about politics, the media, Palestine and the Middle East. He appeared before a packed house at the Athanaeum Theatre and the video has just been released of the event, organised by the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network.
Gideon Levy is one of Israel’s most outspoken journalists. He’s been writing for decades in Israeli newspaper Haaretz about the devastating effects of the never-ending Israeli occupation of Palestine.
I first met Gideon in Tel Aviv in 2005 when I was researching my first book, My Israel Question.
Since then, he’s become an inspiration for daring to reveal the dark side of Israeli society and what it’s supporting in the West Bank and Gaza.
He recently toured Australia, and received extensive media coverage (on the public broadcaster ABC), and I was privileged to speak alongside him at Sydney University. It was one of the biggest Sydney Ideas events of the year, with nearly 500 people present.
My comments begin at 50:07 and then a Q&A with Gideon.
Here’s the audio:
And the video:
My major investigation in the Melbourne Age/Sydney Morning Herald on Australia’s surging defence industry:
This year’s Avalon Air Show in Geelong was the first chance for the public to see the long-delayed Joint Strike Fighter in action. At a cost of at least $100 million per aircraft, Canberra is slated to spend $17 billion on 72 F-35s in the coming years.
Manufacturer Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest defence contractor, has faced countless problems with the plane including cost blowouts (spending more than $US1 trillion and counting), a Pentagon report in January finding 276 deficiencies (with 20 new issues discovered per month) and consistent troubles with overheating and cybersecurity. An Australian contractor on the aircraft was recently hacked, with sensitive material stolen.
None of this dampened the mood at Avalon. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, along with Defence Minister Marise Payne, Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne and Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson, praised the plane and Australia’s growing defence sector.
“It is an example of how our defence industry plan is not simply securing our Air Force and our Army and our Navy with the capabilities they need to keep us safe in the 21st century,” Turnbull said. “It is driving the advanced manufacturing, the jobs, the advanced technology that Australians need to make sure our children and grandchildren have the opportunities in the years ahead.”
Billed as Australia’s premiere showcase of defence, civilian and aerospace equipment, sponsored by the world’s major defence companies such as BAE Systems, Raytheon, Thales, L3, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, along with Australia’s Department of Defence and the Victorian Labor government, this year was the largest in Avalon’s history, with over 210,000 people in attendance.
But away from Avalon’s glitzy surface, and its promotion of a family-friendly event to watch the world’s most sophisticated aircraft, is a darker reality. Australia’s defence sector has hugely expanded in recent years with barely any public discussion, let alone debate in federal parliament.
It’s a nearly impossible task to discover exactly what Australia is selling and to whom because the federal government refuses to say, but nuggets of information make it clear that Canberra is aggressively selling weapons and defence equipment to countries involved in conflicts where human rights abuses are being perpetrated.
Australian Defence Magazine released figures in December 2016 that revealed the scope of the industry. The top 40 defence contractors, including top players BAE Systems Australia and Raytheon Australia, had an annual turnover of $10.384 billion, 11 per cent higher than 2015 and the biggest in the magazine’s 21-year history.
According to Amnesty International, in 2016 the world spent $US1.69 trillion on the military, with the US Pentagon issuing $US304 billion in contracts to corporations including Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
But how transparent is Australia’s defence spending internationally? In December 2016, Christopher Pyne visited Saudi Arabia and met with senior members of the regime, including the head of the National Guard. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request, filed in April by the Australian group, The Medical Association for Prevention of War, found that Canberra was looking to expand the reach of its domestic defence sector and had no issue selling equipment with dual use (for either military or civilian purposes). The government refused to give a full list of companies accompanying Pyne.
Saudi Arabia launched military action against Yemen’s Houthi rebels in 2015 and the humanitarian situation in what was already the poorest country in the Middle East has rapidly deteriorated. At least 10,000 civilians have been killed, cholera ravages millions of citizens and Saudi Arabia has been accused of committing war crimes by human rights groups. In October the UN included the kingdom on a blacklist for killing and injuring children (though the UN has previously backed down on similar steps under Saudi pressure).
Britain has refused to support a United Nations investigation into atrocities because it could affect trade and weapons sales and in July Britain’s High Court backed London’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia as legal. Charity War Child UK has claimed that British arms companies have earned more than £6 billion ($10.3 billion) from trade with Saudi Arabia since the Yemen conflict began (Holland banned such sales in 2016).
Australia has refused to condemn Saudi actions in Yemen. The heavily redacted FOI revealed that there was discussion during Pyne’s December trip of the Royal Saudi Naval Force eastern fleet expansion with a budget of $26 billion (Australian shipbuilder Austal accompanied Pyne on his visit), talk of the Tasmanian, Incat-designed and built aluminium catamaran damaged by a Houthi attack off the coast of Yemen in October 2016 and consultation about a future submarine program (though whose was not clear).
I asked the Australian Department of Defence for further information on any dealings with Saudi Arabia and was told that “Defence does not release the details of export approvals due to commercial-in-confidence restrictions. Exports of military equipment and technology to Saudi Arabia were assessed in line with Australian export control provisions.”
Then Greens senator Scott Ludlam was one of the only parliamentarians who questioned Australia’s dealings with Saudi Arabia. He told Fairfax Media that he could find nobody in the Labor Party to support his enquiries into Pyne’s trip.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale told me that he condemned Australia’s “military-industrial complex”: “Why promote Australia as a global arms dealer when we could be revitalising our manufacturing industry around new energy technology?”
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) is one of the world’s leading researchers on conflict and armaments. Its latest figures, for the period 2010-2016, showed ships as the biggest Australian export, along with aircraft, missiles and armoured vehicles. The list of customers included Papua New Guinea, Oman, the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Singapore and the United States.
I asked the Department of Defence to whom they were selling defence equipment. They said that no export licences were granted between January 2015 and the present day to Myanmar (currently engaged in ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, according to the UN), but during the same period dual-use equipment and technology was sold to the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
The UAE stands accused of committing abuses in Libya and Yemen while Israel has been condemned by the UN and human rights groups for war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank. An Australian intelligence company, iOmniscient, is selling surveillance equipment to the brutal Bahrain dictatorship. Canberra is already one of the world’s biggestimporters and exporters of small arms.
The federal government’s 2016 Defence White Paper outlined a $200 billion investment over the next 10 years. Canberra promotes its wares at events such as this year’s Defence and Security Equipment International conference in London, though protesters greeted the tens of thousands of participants.
Pyne said in July that his ambition was for Australia to “enormously increase that capacity and send a lot more weapons overseas to appropriate countries and appropriate places of course. We simply wouldn’t do so willy-nilly. We have a particular process for that.”
He says that current contracts are worth $200 billion in the coming years. That’s a massive expansion of defence exports from 2003/2004, when they amounted to just under $600 million.
The move was slammed by World Vision Australia chief Tim Costello, who questioned whether Australia should be “exporting death and profiting from bloodshed … Do we really want that to be what people think of when they see the brand ‘made in Australia’?”
The federal government states that export applications are granted against the following criteria: international obligations, human rights, regional security, national security and foreign policy. The government’s Global Supply Chain program gives exclusive access to Australian companies to enter into close commercial relationships with, and provide vital parts to, Lockheed Martin, Rheinmetall, Northrop Grumman, Thales, Boeing, BAE and Raytheon.
Some of these corporations have unprecedented access to decision making in the Trump administration, with the US President filling key roles in Homeland Security and the Pentagon with defence contractors. However, Barack Obama sold more weapons globally than any US commander-in-chief before him.
Australia’s ambition to expand its defence sector is intimately tied to the growth of the world’s biggest weapons companies on Australian soil, despite them being connected to some of the world’s major conflicts and controversies.
Thales is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the European Union’s increasingly militarised border policies and Lockheed Martin is supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia. Lockheed Martin refused to answer my questions about its role in Australia despite its presence growing by the year (including the establishment of a research facility at the University of Melbourne, praised by Pyne).
But Australia’s goal of becoming a global weapons dealer may be futile. SIPRI’s senior researcher Siemon Wezeman has closely studied Australia’s defence policies and questions their stated aims.
“To be honest, I don’t see Australia becoming a major arms exporter in any near future,” he told me. “The list of exports in the last decade gives not the greatest reasons to be optimistic about exports of major weapons from Australia, the more so since the new-produced weapons listed are not very advanced and are not niche weapons. Australia has no comparative advantage and many other countries produce or can produce them cheaper.”
Wezeman stresses that Australia has made decisions to largely “cater for its own needs, largely now as subsidiaries of foreign companies, which works nicely if the government wants to spend its money in Australia (even if that may be not 100 per cent cost-effective).” He sees China, South Korea, Turkey, Japan and Singapore elbowing out Australia on the world stage because of their industrial, political and military connections.
In his seminal 2011 book on the global arms trade The Shadow World, journalist Andrew Feinstein exposes the fallacies of a nation’s expanding defence sector. “The arms industry’s economic contribution is undermined by the frequency with which its main players around the world, Lockheed Martin, BAE, Boeing, Northrop Grumman … are implicated in grand corruption, inefficiency and wastage of public resources,” he wrote.
Feinstein concludes that the arms trade “often makes us poorer, not richer, less not more safe, and governed not in our own interests but for the benefit of a small, self-serving elite, seemingly above the law, protected by the secrecy of national security and accountable to no one”.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, filmmaker, author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastropheand is currently working on a book about the global war on drugs.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten travelled to Israel this week to “celebrate” the 100-year anniversary of Beersheba and the Balfour Declaration. Palestine was barely on the agenda. After living in East Jerusalem for the last 1.5 years, I was interviewed for Lateline by ABC TV reporter Michael Vincent on the grim reality in Palestine:
In September, I spoke at Sydney University alongside US academic Mark LeVine and Palestinian academic Lana Tatour on the realities in today’s Palestine/Israel. Many interesting comments and my thoughts (after living in East Jerusalem for the last 1.5 years) start at 1:00:26:
The show has gone viral. One clip, of fellow journalist John Lyons and I talking about the Zionist lobby’s pressuring of critical voices, has been watched nearly 100,000 times (and growing fast). It’s received international attention.
Back in 2014, I argued in The Guardian that Australia should suffer a sports boycott due to its illegal asylum seeker policies. I made the same point on this TV show and many people, with a few notable exceptions, welcomed the idea. Australian legal academic Dr Amy McGuire wrote a story in The Conversation around the issue.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been caught speaking privately against the European Union and its often critical stance towards Israel. In reality, the EU occasionally condemns the Israeli occupation of Palestine but continues to maintain very close ties with the Jewish state.
Today I was interviewed by Australian current affairs show, The Wire, about the issue.