Suppose the movers and shakers in the Israel lobby here–Abe Foxman, Alan Dershowitz and the rest of the crew–had simply decided to leave Jimmy Carter’s Palestine Peace Not Apartheid alone. How long before the book would have been gathering dust on the remainder shelves? Suppose even that Dershowitz had rounded up his unacknowledged co-authors in all their tens of thousands and sallied forth to buy up every copy of Carter’s book and toss each one into the Charles River. Would that have not been a more successful suppressor than the blitzkrieg strategy they did adopt?

Of course it would. For weeks now the lobby has hurled its legions into battle against Carter. He has been stigmatized as an anti-Semite, a Holocaust denier, a patron of former concentration camp killers, a Christian madman, a pawn of the Arabs who “flatly condones mass murder” of Israeli Jews. This last was from Murdoch’s New York Post editorial, relayed to its mailing list by the Zionist Organization of America.

Any day now I expect some janitors at the Carter Center to resign, declaring that they can no longer in all conscience mop bathrooms that might have been used by the former President, their letter of protest duly front-paged by the New York Times, just like the famous fourteen members of the Carter Center’s Board of Councilors. Actually there were 224 people on this board, where membership is mostly a thank-you for a financial donation to the center. So the headlines could be saying, More Than 90 Percent of Carter Center Board Members Back Former President.

But the assault on Carter is all to no avail. With each gust of abuse, Carter’s book soars higher and higher on the bestseller lists, reaching number four on Amazon itself. This doesn’t prove the lobby has no power. It proves the lobby can be dumb. Adroit lobbying consists in preventing unpleasing material from reaching the light of day. Lobbying thrives in furtive darkness: slipping language into a bill at the last moment, threatening to back a campaign opponent, making quiet phone calls to the Polish Embassy. Pressure is now being exerted on Farrar, Straus & Giroux to abandon its impending publication of Mearsheimer and Walt’s attack on the lobby.

The Israel lobby retains its grip inside the Beltway, but it’s starting to lose its hold on the broader public debate. Why? You can’t brutalize the Palestinian people in the full light of day, decade after decade, without claims that Israel is a beacon among the nations getting more than a few serious dents. In the old days, Mearsheimer and Walt’s tract would have been deep-sixed by the University of Chicago and the Kennedy School long before it reached its final draft, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux wouldn’t have considered offering a six-figure advance for it. Simon & Schuster would have told President Carter that his manuscript had run into insurmountable objections from a distinguished board of internal reviewers. But once a book by a former President with weighty humanitarian credentials makes it into bookstores, it’s hard to shoot it down with volleys of wild abuse.

The trouble with the lobby and the Christian zealots who act as its echo chamber is that they believe their own propaganda about Israel’s equitable social arrangements and immaculate political and legal record in its relations with the Palestinians. Use the word apartheid and they howl with indignation. The shock is about thirty years out of date. Israeli writers have used apartheid to describe arrangements in the occupied territories for years. Hundreds of prominent South African Jews issued a statement six years ago making the same link.

As in so many things, conventional elite opinion lives in a bubble, believing that mere assertion and ranting about anti-Semitism will carry the day. The New York Times featured a spectacularly disingenuous hatchet job by its deputy foreign editor, Ethan Bronner, and another assault by former Clinton-era Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross. The latter rolled out the ritual accusations about Arafat’s rejection of Clinton’s proposals in December 2000, which is nonsense, as Ross surely knows. Clinton himself acknowledged in 2001 what later historians have substantiated: that both sides accepted his proposals in principle, while filing reservations. (Israel’s amounted to twenty single-spaced pages.)

The Times attacks were matched in the Washington Post by Jeffrey Goldberg, formerly of the IDF and a notorious trafficker in fictions, such as the supposed terror ties between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Amazon ran his vulgar ravings under the “Editorial Reviews” heading–a space usually reserved for short blurbs from Publishers Weekly and the like.

But if the lobby is fighting rear-guard and increasingly futile actions to suppress all discussion here of what Israel is doing to Palestinians, it continues to exercise very serious clout in such enclaves of timidity as the US Congress. Bush was not foolish in singling out Iran for threats in his January 10 address. The Democratic reaction to Bush’s escalation against Iraq and Iran has mostly been confined to nervous talk of “symbolic votes.” This temperate posture is surely not unconnected to the fact that the lobby’s prime foreign policy task, joined by Israeli hawks like Bibi Netanyahu, has been to rally support for an assault on Iran.

What an irony! Desperate for an end to the war, the voters hand Congress to the Democrats. Barely more than two months later Bush is kidnapping Iranian diplomats from their consulate in Erbil, Iraq–a calculated provocation arousing scant tumult here. Bush is also deploying a larger naval force to the Persian Gulf, as Israel plants stories about its possible recourse to nuclear weapons. Some provocation, maybe a seizure by the United States of an Iranian tanker, is easy to imagine in early February. In Congress, there’s barely a whimper out of the Democrats amid these terrifying prospects. It may have made a mess of its war against Carter’s book, but as a ferryman across the Styx toward Armageddon the lobby is doing a competent job.