WEISS: Gil Maguire has lately published a thriller titled “The Exodus Betrayal: A President Confronts Israel” as an answer to Leon Uris’s 1958 novel “Exodus” that along with the movie version by Otto Preminger starring Paul Newman was so important in shaping American attitudes towards Israel in the 1960’s. If “Exodus” dramatized the liberation of Jews from European persecution, “The Exodus Betrayal” imagines an American president freeing this country from its slavish support for Israel. President Hailey Hannagan refuses to cater to Israel and its domestic lobby when it attacks Iran, to the point that Israel and the U.S. exchange hostilities and the president’s life is threatened. The alternative narrative goes on to envision real negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, brought about by ultimatums to Israel. But we won’t give too much away.
Maguire has contributed articles and comments to our site; I asked him a number of questions about his story and he responded by email.
Q. Like me you think the only way out of Israel support is a reverse Exodus story, to get the people out the same way they got in, through a fantasy of rebirth and power, but this time about American rebirth and power. Why do stories matter so much when it comes to issues of international law and politics?
Maguire: For me, the reverse Exodus story is less about American rebirth and more about using our power to force Israel to change, to be reborn; it’s more about we (the US) realizing we’ve been conned into supporting and enabling a brutish little country that should be pretty insignificant to us in the greater scheme of things. And doing something about it which is the hard part. It’s about exposing the falsity of the narrative and the harm the relationship is causing the US, and about Israel’s denial of the right of Palestinians to self determination and basic freedoms, contrary to American values.
Stories (fiction) can have a major impact on political issues as did Exodus, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and a few others. They do so by appealing to the emotions of readers rather than the appeal to logic and reason of dry nonfiction. If a reader becomes emotionally committed to fictional characters and their story, he or she can also become committed or at least sympathetic to the story’s narrative, whether true or untrue.
My goal and hope is that enough readers will become engaged, attached to, and empathetic with my characters and their story to see Israel and its narrative in a different light.
Why did Exodus work in the first place? Did you see the movie/read the book when you were young?
It worked because it told a story through the eyes and experiences of engaging fictional characters that readers could identify and empathize with. Through these characters, readers were taught and bought into a largely fictional Zionist narrative. Art, in this case fiction, persuades through emotional engagement which can be far more effective and lasting than dry, rational/logical attempts to persuade.
Exodus came out during the era of the epic novel, the late 50s. It caught on and put Israel and the Zionist narrative myth on the map. I read it in high school. I think back then most people didn’t know much or care about Israel. Exodus changed that. Suddenly we saw Israel as a noble David fighting off the hordes of savage Arabs. Instead of just another squabbling Middle East country, it now had a unique identity that we cared about because we became emotionally engaged by its characters and the story or myth they told us. And it stuck. We feared and cheered for Israel in 67 and then again in 73. We supported our massive airlift of supplies and then blamed the Arabs instead of the Israelis for the immense harm caused by the oil embargo.
The movie Exodus and the Ferrente and Teicher musical theme added more emotional cement to that narrative. It was an artistic triple whammy: an engaging work of fiction, a dramatic movie, and a stirring musical theme. I think the myth stuck at least until the 82 Lebanon war when Israel’s excesses began to create some doubts.
When did you get interested in the question? When did it “take over your life,” as it has many of us?
My father’s role in flying thousands of Jews to Israel in 1949-50 was part of our family history, so that was always there. I remember the 67 war as a big deal. I was in college and Jewish friends were going to enlist in the IDF which made me jealous. Then, a few days later, it was over. What a miracle, except turned out it wasn’t.
I think my father’s disillusionment with Israel before his death, and the Iraq War were turning points for me when I began to discover how much the Neocons were beholden to the lobby and Israel. Coming to Mondoweiss provided me a forum to write about the issue but I can’t remember what brought me there. I started by doing a lot of comment postings then started writing articles which you were kind enough to publish.
A few years back, my best friend from high school (a Jew) told me I should try writing fiction because I’d had such a weird, convoluted, interesting life. I was skeptical but gave it a try and loved it. I loved how fiction brought out the emotional side of me, how it created and developed my characters and drove my plot in unexpected directions. That emotional side of fiction captures both the writer and the reader.
I then got into a UCLA fiction writing program, wrote a lot of short stories and then my first novel, all unrelated to Israel. Then one day it occurred to me that I could write a reverse Exodus and that it might have a lot more impact than my non-fiction Mondoweiss efforts were having. This was in early 2008 when we expected Hillary to be elected which is why I decided on a female president protagonist. I think both my non-fiction Mondoweiss writing and my reverse Exodus novel took over a good part of my life about then.
What are the myths you are trying to undo/create of your own in order to undo the special relationship?
I wanted to write a good story with engaging characters struggling to deal with a tiny little country with powerful domestic lobby that was doing great harm to our national interests by getting us into wars of choice that really weren’t ours to fight. While the story is centered on Israel/Palestine in the 1940s, my novel is centered in a modern White House. The main myth I was trying to undo was the Israel as a poor little David besieged by powerful savage Arab Goliath states myth. This was never true, even in 1947-48. I was also trying to show how dysfunctional and harmful our relationship with Israel had become and how the so-called special relationship itself was based on a myth of Israel’s importance.
When did your focus on the lobby begin, and why didn’t you call AIPAC AIPAC?
It was inevitable I focus on the lobby. The lobby exists as Israel’s handmaiden or army of handmaidens.
I can’t pinpoint when I became aware of a formal Israel lobby but I can remember stories I heard around my parents’ bridge table about how Jews were asked to donate to Zionist causes and threatened if they refused. This was mid-50s Los Angeles when I was in my early teens. Jews were a huge presence in our city and in our lives back then. I knew they were influential but also knew they earned their influence. The lobby is certainly a form or outgrowth of Jewish influence but it’s not universal. I think I first became aware of the lobby’s power when it prevented George Bush Senior’s efforts to force a two-state solution after the first Gulf War.
Why USIPAC instead of AIPAC? I suppose because my story is a work of fiction and, as I say in my preface, while my novel is historical its characters are fictional even though they may resemble actual historical figures. Same with USIPAC.
There are a lot of implausibilities in any good story, and no one really cares if the story moves. That being said, President Hannagan sits in Nationals Park without much security and no one recognizes her! But let’s move on to some of the big plot points. Her speeches repeatedly taking on Israel and the lobby. Do you think it’s merely a question of personal will? Is that what drives your story?
There was security in the bleachers. In fact a bunch of fans lost their seats because of it. And it was a random, spur-of-the-moment event which tends to be pretty safe. Actually, she is recognized as the commotion builds around her and she leaves the stadium with bloodied knees [having caught a ball] and to great applause (I just love that sappy scene).
I think events allow President Hannagan to take on Israel but she’s also a strong character with a solid moral core (and a great arm). She comes into the office by an act of fate, knowing nothing about being a head of government, leading a nation. She is expected to rely on advisers but quickly realizes she and the country’s foreign policy are being manipulated by interventionist Neocons. So she fires her secretary of state and brings aboard an elderly Realist, Blakeslee Whitamore, who guides her in bringing the country back to sane foreign policy choices. She surrounds herself with solid, experienced figures who detest our serial interventionism: Janet Murphy, Mike McCord, Tom Murray, her chief of staff, and several others. These folks have witnessed the carnage caused by the Neocons and work to help her change the nation’s direction.
Events generated by Israel and its lobby both force and allow President Hannagan to take on Israel and the lobby in her speeches. She knows the risks to her presidency but she decides the nation’s interests are more important than saving her own political skin. So yeah, it’s a matter of will and ultimately a matter of character.
Her speech excusing Iran for its hostile behavior as an understandable error…. Could she get away with this?
It would be difficult today but this all happens in a post-attack environment so in that context it might work. Still, she’s bucking a narrative that is so pervasive that it has captured all the focal points of power: Congress, media, think tanks, talking heads, etc. Nobody is willing to explore the Iranian (or Russian) point of view out of fear, incompetence, lobby pressure; who knows? The safest route is to stick to the bullet points you are handed, stick to the accepted narrative. But here, she and her national security team know it was a rogue actor that gave the orders to sink our ship. It wasn’t an “understandable error”, it was an attack order by a rogue commander that the Iranian government warned her about in advance. Rather than risk a wider war by attacking Iran, she tells the American people what happened while also preparing for a massive attack on Iran should it become necessary. She gets away with it because she is honest and forthright with the American people. What a concept.
You seem to invoke a lot of old stories, subtly. Like the USS Liberty attack in 1967, of which there are several sequels here. What are the big real life models for you?
The Liberty affair is old news but it was important and intentional yet immediately covered up by a false narrative. The various espionage cases, Pollard, Franklin, etc. show a real disdain for their most important ally. The theft of nuclear materials and secrets is also well-documented. The undermining of the Iran nuclear agreement is another example of Israel and its lobby acting against the national interests of our country and its allies. I create my own examples of similar Israeli behavior in the novel. As bizarre and outlandish as some of these are, they’re not without historic precedent.
Ed Koch said he would be on America’s side when there was a war between the US and Israel. I.e, he’d never have to choose. You say that choice will come.. Right?
It does in the novel but under pretty extreme circumstances. I don’t know if it will ever come to that but in some ways, American Jews are already facing that choice: ‘How can I continue to support Israel when it acts contrary to American values by refusing to grant external freedom or internal equality to the Palestinians?’ That’s become a big issue separating American Jews. Israel’s actions under Netanyahu are forcing US Jews to make a choice.
What about the argument that Americans love Israel because it’s us, reenacting a God-centered story of chosenness exceptionalism, domination….
There’s an element of that but I think it’s limited to conservative Christians, Evangelicals, and those who are attracted by simple, black and white narratives. Plus, how much of this is due to clever narrative creation, Exodus, hasbara, and the pressure put on politicians to support that narrative? That’s what Exodus was all about, making Americans believe Israel’s narrative mimics our own. The opposite argument, that Israel’s influence is bought with Jewish donor money and lobby arm twisting, is also bogus. All of these elements are present to some degree. I think, deep down, most Americans want Israel to be one of the good guys, to reflect our values but they are also subjected to a lot of propaganda and political manipulation to reinforce that hope.
Many of the policymakers understand the lobby completely in the book and know that Israel treats us with contempt and love bucking that.. The ultimata to Israel, and of course, spoiler alert, the war with Israel. Do you think this betrayal of Israel will come to pass? How much hatred of Israel is there in the political class and the people? Hannagan’s speeches are very popular. You think there’s a reservoir of rage?
What betrayal of Israel? Isn’t it more Israel betraying us, our national interests, our values? The only betrayal I see in the novel is betrayal of a right wing Israeli government that ignores our advice and demands. And that’s not really betrayal; it’s tough love. Israel ends up much weaker as a result of President Hannagan’s actions, but it also gets a new start that allows it be the liberal democratic state some of its founders and supporters envisioned while remaining under the protective umbrella of American power.
Nor is hatred of Israel a factor. Annoyance, anger at Israeli policies and actions is a lot different than hatred. I think the public support Hannagan receives is a reaction to the outrageousness of Israel’s actions, and justifiable rage against those actions. It’s certainly not about hatred of Jews or ingrained, repressed antisemitism, for God’s sake, it’s about the actions of a right wing Israeli government run amok.
Re Iran and Israel and Trump, do you feel prescient? When did you write this book?
I started thinking about it in 2008 but I see nothing prescient about a fictional tale in which Israel attacks Iran. Netanyahu has been pushing for it for decades. What’s happening today seems to be Trumpish posturing exacerbated by Neocon efforts to fan the flames and get the war they’ve always wanted. Hopefully Trump will keep back from the brink and restrain his Neocon advisers much as he did in Syria. I’m just hoping he doesn’t cut it too close in the hope that he’ll be able to maintain the deep pocket support of the Adelsons while avoiding an actual war. I think he’d love to have a sit-down with the Ayatollahs a la North Korea and if they’re smart, they’ll humor him and maybe even make some progress.
If the IRGC is behind the ship attacks, as a kind of rogue action, that does closely mirror the rogue IRGC Strait of Hormuz commander in my novel. If so, that would make me prescient. But I’d cheerfully trade accolades for prescience for a false flag Israeli attack on the tankers that suddenly is revealed for all the world to see. That could lead to some genuine outrage against Israel. Or, better yet (fictional plot-wise) if the false flag operation is revealed only after the Middle East explodes in a war between the US and Iran, that would again mirror some of what takes place in my novel.
Will the lobby be defeated in real life? Will a president ever give a speech as baldly blaming as Hailey Hannagan’s?
Nope. Only in extraordinary circumstances where an action by Israel is so outrageous sympathy for Israel evaporates. That’s what I was trying to create in the book. An action or actions like that would also make it easier for a president and other politicos to speak out against Israel and its lobby. Hard to imagine this happening outside the unlimited scenarios afforded by fiction. Even annexation of the West Bank might not engender enough outrage to defeat the lobby. The hasbara is too good, too well-funded.
One of the ironies of my novel is that I found myself forced to look at and use extreme solutions to the I/P conflict because none of the reasonable ones seemed credible.
Walt and Mearsheimer called the lobby a loose coalition of groups and individuals. I always liked that because it was a bit amorphous but also not conspiratorial, and truly descriptive. Your lobby seems a bit more shadowy and we don’t see that many individuals, right? How do you define the lobby? And what are the roles of Jake Levin and Sam Perlman in the story?
I agree with the coalition part but I think it’s more organized and held together by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. That keeps everyone (all 51 Jewish organizations) on the same page. Disputes over goals and means can be ironed out internally while they present a unified front and message to the general public. I don’t see the lobby as particularly loose or amorphous. I’d say organized, dedicated, well-funded, single-minded. Conspiratorial? No, but it is the only major US lobby that’s dedicated to promoting and supporting the interests of a foreign country even when those interests conflict with our own. That poses a dangerous situation in my mind and the outcomes in my novel reflect that.
Jake Levin is a Marine medic or corpsman who treats Shana Levy, a CIA officer wounded in an op in Baghdad. He enlisted after 9/11 and ended up with PTSD after too many scary special ops. He and Shana both have doubts about Israel and its US lobby and know first hand how Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians creates a great deal of antagonism toward the US in the Middle East. Shana ends up working undercover for the CIA and FBI at the USIPAC headquarters. Both are disaffected American Jews as is Sam Perlman, Hannagan’s long time campaign manager. Sam explains to Hannagan why Jewish tribalism prevents many Jews from openly discussing or even dealing with controversial issues involving Israel and its lobby. A couple of lobby big wigs make minor appearances in the novel.
I would have liked to flesh out the lobby more as well as some of the Palestinian characters, and certainly Sam Perlman, but the book is already too long for a modern novel. The ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel.
Do more Israeli soldiers kill themselves than are killed by Palestinians, as you say in the book?
Pam Olson gave me that tidbit and the source for it. Actually,the numbers of Israeli soldiers killed by the Palestinians is pretty small to begin with so it’s probably not that surprising if suicides exceed that number. It’s not a meaningful statistic to me.
Do you think presidents and politicians fear Israel to the extent that Hailey comes to fear it in this book — though she has character, of course…
GM: I don’t recall her expressing fear of Israel. More frustration at not being able to moderate its actions. I suppose the fear is of Israel’s lobby and the power it wields. It’s certainly quashed the political careers of lots of ambitious and promising politicos who dared tread on its sensitive toes: Carter, Bush the Elder, Chuck Percy, Pete McCloskey, William Fulbright, and the list goes on. That power does strike fear in the hearts of our political class. They’ve learned the lesson of Percy, Fulbright, and Carter.
That whole mess certainly has a prominent place in my novel. Wouldn’t it be nice if one of them would show the courage of Hailey Hannagan and publicly oppose and expose the Lobby (as did Eisenhower, sort of). It’s always amazed me that no member of Congress or the Executive Branch has been willing to stand up to the Lobby bully from the pulpit. The key to defeating the Lobby is by going public, by using the power of the bully pulpit. Ultimately, that’s what Hailey Hannagan does and why she triumphs in the end. Leave it to a strong American woman to save our nation’s bacon while our craven male politicos diddle around searching for their missing pair.