Influence ... Israel lobbyists are drawing criticism in the US. Photo: AP
If just a single bully works the neighbourhood, there's a good chance that his protection racket can hold up.
But when another gangster fronts up on the same sidewalks, there's a risk that the locals will jack up.
Maybe American politics is on the cusp of such a revolt.
In the wake of the Newtown school massacre, the usually influential gun lobby is being mocked for its absurd defence of the indefensible – witness CNN broadcaster Piers Morgan's ''you're an unbelievably stupid man'' treatment, on air, of Larry Pratt, boss of the Gun Owners of America.
Not exactly the time, you'd have thought, for others from the school of hardline lobbying to put their heads above the parapet. But such is the Israel lobby's campaign against the possible appointment of the former Republican senator Chuck Hagel as Defence Secretary by the President, Barack Obama, that its tactics are being likened to those of the National Rifle Association and Pratt's GOA.
Hagel has repeatedly offended the lobby. Here is a Republican who might work with a Democrat president, who would talk to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, and a procession of former senior officials and ambassadors have risen to endorse his credentials – his wisdom, patriotism and his support for Israel.
As the campaign against him unfolds, his cardinal sin appears to be a particular remark he made in 2006.
The offending quote is in a book by the high-profile analyst Aaron David Miller. Here it is: ''I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator. I support Israel but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the constitution of the United States, not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I'll do that.''
Hagel might have been congratulated for democratic good sense. But in alluding to the more active lobbyists, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he also told Miller: ''The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people [in Congress].''
Accusing American Jewish leaders of ''increasingly trembling'' in the face of ''a small minority of zealots'', The Jewish Weekly's former Washington correspondent James Besser argues they have allowed themselves to be driven into silence and submission by a radical fringe that in no way represents the American Jewish mainstream.
In The Atlantic, Robert Wright states the obvious – ''it's ironic for Hagel to be pilloried for saying that politicians are intimidated by a pro-Israel lobby when those doing the pillorying bear a striking resemblance to a pro-Israel lobby trying to intimidate a politician''. Referring to a report in the conservative Weekly Standard, in which an unnamed Senate aide threatened ''send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite'', Wright adds: ''I don't suppose that's an attempt to intimidate anyone?''
Harping back to the former senator's reference to ''the Jewish lobby'', which Hagel admits should more appropriately have been ''the Israel lobby'', the unnamed aide argued to the Weekly: ''Hagel has made clear he believes in the existence of a nefarious Jewish lobby that secretly controls US foreign policy – this is the worst kind of anti-Semitism there is.''
Over at The National Interest, the editor, Robert Merry, warns the lobby might be in the process of shooting itself in the foot: ''If [Hagel] can be blackballed by pro-Israel forces bent on thwarting debate in America about the country's complex relationship with Israel, then perhaps the power of the pro-Israel lobby and its efforts at intimidation have become as problematic as critics suggest.''
Stephen Walt, the co-author of the controversial The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, questions the White House's tactics. ''What in God's name were they trying to accomplish in floating Hagel's name as the leading candidate without either a formal nomination or a vigorous defence,'' he writes at Foreign Policy.
Arguing that recent US performance in the Middle East warranted a more open debate, he goes on: ''The question is whether supine and reflexive support for all things Israeli remains a prerequisite for important policy positions here in the Land of the Free.''
In this context Hagel's restatement of his ''I support Israel'' stance is hurled back at him. The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens writes: ''This is the sort of thing that one often hears from people who treat Israel as the Mideast equivalent of a neighbourhood drunk who, for his own good, needs to be put in the clink to sober him up.'' Some might argue that this indeed is the case, because of Israel's reluctance to acknowledge that the so-called special US-Israel relationship, the region and the world are changing.
Latching on to the Stephens complaint in the Journal on Hagel's use of the word ''intimidates'' implies ''vast, invisible and malevolent'' power by the lobby, Merry at the National Interest lays out Obama's step-by-step humiliation by Benjamin Netanyahu in 2011, when the former had merely reiterated long-standing US policy on the borders that might exist between Israel and a Palestinian state.
''Now that's intimidation,'' Merry writes. ''It certainly wasn't invisible, and it was malevolent only if you despise the rough-and-tumble of American democracy. But, for many Americans, it was disgusting and there's no reason their disgust shouldn't be considered a legitimate political sentiment in our democratic system.
''Likewise, there's no political legitimacy in seeking to drum Chuck Hagel out of the American mainstream and to portray him as some kind of nefarious figure bent on letting Israel go down the tubes.'' The authors of the campaign against Hagel are cited more as supporters of a narrow Netanyahu view of the world than of the wider notion of Israel and the breadth of the country's internal discourse.
And as observed by The Atlantic's Wright, ''[there's a] subset of neocons who try not just to counter arguments they disagree with, but to stigmatise the people who make them the neocon smear machine has long prevented an open and honest American discussion of Israel and as a result America, the country with the most influence over Israel, has indulged Israel's worst, most self-destructive tendencies.''
For years, the charge has been ''anti-Semitism''. But recently, a new arrow has been added to the quiver to head off unwelcome debate on Washington's Israel policy – an allegation of ''borderline anti-Semitism'', as levelled against Hagel. It's a nice smear, isn't it – not alleging an explicit offence but, what the heck, here's a guilty verdict that sounds like anti-Semitism.
The Israel lobby might argue that the murder of 20 school kids in Newtown is unfair grounds for an impromptu performance review. But in politics and lobbying, timing is everything.
But at The Daily Beast, Bernard Avishai, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, lumps the lobby in with the NRA, arguing that, like the gun lobby, the Israel lobby cannot be absolved as a natural feature of the political landscape.
''[That would be] as if there was no point figuring out where, given a tail and a dog, the wagging starts.''