That’s what friends are for: A broad-based pro-Israel coalition is the best antidote to the Mearsheimers and Sullivans

Like the radicals aboard the Mavi Marmara, critics of the “Israel Lobby” are leading American-Jewish organizations into a trap.

And unlike the Israeli commandos who boarded the ship, Jewish leaders still have a chance to change their strategy.

Among those critics, Chicago’s John Mearsheimer has emerged as the Grand Inquisitor. That’s not because he disagrees with Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, or with U.S. policy toward Israel. He does, and he’s entitled to.

What makes Mearsheimer Mearsheimer is his insistence that America’s Mideast policy, and by extension its entire foreign policy, is controlled by a small coterie of Israel supporters. As he put it in a typically hyperbolic recent speech, “That lobby, of course, makes it impossible for any president to play hardball with Israel, especially on the issue of settlements.”

It’s a doozy of a speech — it’s the one in which he calls leaders of the Anti- Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee the “New Afrikaners,” who “will support Israel even if it is an apartheid state…, because they have blind loyalty to the Jewish state. ”

He contrasts the “NewAfrikaners”with “Righteous Jews,” mostly a rogues’ gallery of Jewish anti-Zionists and one-staters.

Mearsheimer’s unifying theory of pro- Israel control, once on the fringes, is making more and more inroads into the mainstream. At The Atlantic.com, popular blogger Andrew Sullivan finds Mearsheimer “depressingly convincing.” Writing about Israel earlier this month, Sullivan declared, “It’s a real problem when foreign policy is not determined by rational judgment of the national interest but by the sub-rational passions of a small group.”

Word-by-word, it’s an astoundingly inflammatory statement by someone who writes so sensitively in support of gay rights and religious tolerance and against torture. It essentially repeats the charge that has dogged Jews for centuries: that they effectively control governments against the “national interest.”

I can’t deny — nor lament — that Israel supporters are incredibly effective in influencing elected officials and policy makers. But “influence” is hardly the same as “determine.”

And Sullivan may be right in this regard: To the extent that America’s self-interest lies in courting the oil-rich Arab states, appeasing Muslim extremists, and abandoning the dusty patch known as Israel, yes,  American support for Israel is irrational.

But what Mearsheimer and Sullivan can’t and won’t acknowledge is that the “passion” for Israel is not just the province of a small group, but is shared by a majority of Americans. Poll after poll suggests most Americans and policy makers back Israel.

You don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain why. Most Americans feel a responsibility toward a country that mirrors their own values much more closely than do any of its neighbors. They share a religious affinity with its people and history. Convinced by the horrific events of the 20th century and inspired by the stories of Israel’s founding, they support the Jews’ struggle for security and autonomy in their own land.

And most Americans, let’s be honest, have a problem with Islam. Some of that is pure bigotry, but some of that comes out of a fairly rational assessment of global threats to American security.

You don’t have to agree with any of these arguments. But each is a plausible justification for the “passion” that leads the great majority of lawmakers and voters to favor Israeli interests over those of its neighbors and the Palestinians.

That passion is not unconditional, however, which is why Israel’s supporters shouldn’t take it for granted.

Since Israel’s founding, most Americans have been convinced that there is little daylight between America’s interests and Israel’s. That “special relationship” has weathered energy crises and diplomatic fallings-out.

The trap is this: If American-Jewish organizations and pro-Israel groups define support for Israel as unquestioning acceptance of its government’s policies, they’ll play right into the hands of the Mearsheimers and Sullivans, who get great mileage out of the claim that it is “impossible” to have a real debate on the Middle East.

If every disagreement between the White House and Israel’s prime minister leads Israel’s supporters to declare “you’re either for us or against us,” they risk driving many of Israel’s friends to the “other” side.

If lobbyists insist that America’s interests are always completely in synch with those of the often unruly coalitions elected in Israel, they may find themselves vulnerable to charges of dual loyalty.

And if they encourage Israeli leaders in the belief that their problems with a president will be solved come Election Day, they may wake up one day to find the “special relationship” is not as special as they once thought.

All this is red meat to Israel’s critics. They love to portray the pro-Israel leadership as a monolith, taking its orders from Jerusalem and demanding “blind loyalty” from its members. A broad-based pro-Israel coalition, in which friends can disagree, defuses this charge.

Isolated diplomatically and facing a dire threat from Iran, Israel and its supporters need to remind the administration, Congress, and the broader public that Israel is a strategic asset and a good friend.

It’s not a hard case to make, no matter what Mearsheimer and Sullivan may say. But it will get harder if we turn disagreement into conflict, and friends into adversaries.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor in Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News (http://www.njjewishnews.com/).