Ira Glunts: The Israeli Lobby

By Ira Glunts
Special to PalestineChronicle.com

Review of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, 484 pgs.

When the article entitled “The Israel Lobby” by Professors John J. Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Stephen M. Walt (Harvard) appeared in the London Review of Books and in expanded form as a working paper on the web site of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in March 2006, the authors were immediately battered by a tsunami of unjust criticism.  It included vilification, insults and demonization of a kind that even the telling of a very inconvenient truth rarely elicits.  The two scholars were called “anti-Semitic,” “unpatriotic,” “ignorant,” and “dangerous.”  Their work was labeled “poor scholarship” and it was claimed that their article used racist web sites such as that of white supremacist David Duke as a source of information and inspiration.  These scurrilous and ludicrous charges, all of which were made by a number of their colleagues at Harvard as well as prominent politicians, political analysts and other shapers of public opinion, were trumpeted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, as both opinion and “straight” news coverage.  This is an unusual reaction to an academic article written by two distinguished political scientists from first rate universities.  Ironically, it served to demonstrate one of the authors’ contention that the media has convinced the American public that US and Israeli interests are identical and any opinion to the contrary is unacceptable, outrageous and intolerable.

Now Mearsheimer and Walt have expanded their article into a book called The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.  The main assertion of the authors is that the current US policy of unequivocal support for Israel is contrary to US self-interest.  They then argue that US policy is determined by a small special interest group they call the Israel lobby; this group successfully suppresses debate on US/Israeli relations.   Finally, they claim that the existence of the Israel lobby was a necessary condition for the US invasion of Iraq and is now a powerful force in promoting the use of military power against Iran, Lebanon and Syria.   The authors conclude that while the US should insure Israel’s existence, it should treat Israel no differently than it treats other allies.  In other words, the US should forgo its so-called “special relationship” with the Jewish state.

The Israel Lobby does not present a great deal of primary research, but has instead built a case for ending the US/Israeli “special relationship” from various existing published sources, popular and academic, both American and Israeli.  Despite the use of secondary sources, The Israel Lobby has already had a surprising impact because of a number of felicitously converging factors.  First, Mearsheimer and Walt are well-regarded academics from high-powered institutions whose previous writings are in the mainstream politically.   Their stature and politics led many in the pro-Israel camp to fear they might draw greater attention to the same views than had previous writers.  So the lobby viciously attacked them.  Ironically but predictably, the storm of unfair and overwrought criticism of the original article brought more attention to the authors and their work than they ever could have anticipated.  Secondly, the publication and success, despite a smear campaign, of Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine:  Peace Not Apartheid, did much to legitimize criticism of Israel and the current US/Israeli relationship.  Finally, and this cannot be emphasized enough, the clarity of the arguments, the calm and reasoned manner in which the evidence is presented and the authors’ decision to include materials covering a very wide range of perspectives and sources makes a very compelling case.  Particularly powerful are the inclusion of historical and moral arguments from the works of Israeli historians and journalists.

Mearsheimer and Walt begin their exposition by exploring this “special relationship.”  The authors estimate the annual economic aid given to Israel as between three to four billion dollars.  It is more than 25% of the total American foreign aid budget.  In addition to the monetary assistance, the authors describe the political support the US provides for Israeli policies, many of which are condemned worldwide as illegal and immoral.  The authors refute the argument that Israel is a strategic asset and then make the case that it is actually a liability.  They aver that unconditional support of Israel is detrimental to US relations with other nations and moreover, encourages hatred and terrorism directed toward America .  Their conclusion, buttressed by a great deal of evidence, is that the reason for the US devotion to Israel is the influence of its lobby.

Whether the existence of the lobby was a necessary condition for America ’s invasion of Iraq probably will remain a topic of debate.  I tend to agree with those who maintain that factors such as the oil and defense industry lobbies, revenge, and the past history of US interventionism, are not given enough consideration by Mearsheimer and Walt.  Although it has elicited far less comment, the authors’ make an insightful case for the deleterious influence of the lobby in American support of the Israeli occupation and expanding settlements.  They also make a forceful and less arguable case for the lobby’s role in advocating using military force against Iran , a contention which may well have greater future relevance than their case concerning Iraq .

One of the most common justifications given for the US support of the State of Israel is its moral behavior and ethical values.   This is juxtaposed with the image of Palestinians and Arab neighbors, who are alleged to be obsessed by feelings of violence and vengeance, and who have purportedly rejected numerous peace offers.  This perception,  which most Americans believe, has no basis in reality.   It is an Israeli national myth which has been sold to both Israelis and the American public.  Mearsheimer and Walt opine that “[i]n fact a good case could be made that current U.S. policy conflicts with basic American values and if the United States were to choose sides on the basis of moral considerations alone, it would back the Palestinians, not Israel.” 

One moral consideration would be that during the 1948 War which resulted in Israeli independence, 700,000 Palestinians either were expelled or fled the attacking Israeli armed forces.  The Israeli government then barred the refugees from returning to their homes, refusing to abide by UN Resolution 194 and existing international law, which gives those that flee during wartime the right to return to their homes.   Contrary to Israeli propaganda, Israel was the aggressor in its 1956, 1967, 1982, and 2006 wars.  Contrary to the myth which has been sold assiduously by the Jewish lobby and the Israeli public relations machine, with the invaluable assistance of former President Bill Clinton, it was Israel , not the Palestinians, who was responsible for the failure of the Oslo process and the Camp David summit.  As former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami is quoted as saying, “if [he] were a Palestinian he would have rejected Camp David , as well.” 

Then there is the matter of the second-class status of Palestinians, and who remained in Israel after 1948, and who comprise 20% of the population.  They are discriminated against in law and in practice.  They are treated by the government with neglect, oppression and suspicion.  This permanent second-class status contradicts the idea of a multi-ethnic society which Americans associate which freedom and democracy . This particular inconvenient truth, which is rarely mentioned even by critics of Israel (compare Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid) is laid out in a quite straightforward manner by Mearsheimer and Walt.  Of course we should not forget Israel ’s 40-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza , with the continual expansion of Jewish settlements and the oppression of the Palestinian population there.  This occupation has featured mass expulsion (over 100,000 after the 1967 War), land confiscation, mass imprisonment without due process, as well as periodic military assaults which are purportedly directed at militants, but invariably take a heavy toll on the civilian population and infrastructure.

Mearsheimer and Walt state that they are not claiming that Israel is any worse than other nations, only that they should not be considered any better.  But by the time a reader finishes the chapter “A Dwindling Moral Case” s/he may find the “not any worse than” qualifier hard to accept, especially if you factor in Israel ’s size and youth.  The arguments the book make which undermine the case of Israeli’s moral superiority are compelling, even overwhelming and only briefly explored here.   For the reader fed the false notion that Israel is the heroic Hollywood fantasy of the movie Exodus, all this may come as a shock.  It is the elephant in the closets of all pro-Israel advocates.  In my mind, the authors’ articulation of the dwindling, perhaps expired, moral case for Israel is at the heart of Mearsheimer and Walt’s success.  Without it there would have been no controversy and no book. 

The second part of The Israel Lobby is more a work of journalism than political science and suffers because the authors are not journalists nor Middle East specialists.  The strongest chapter in this part demonstrate how members of the lobby were instrumental in taking America into Iraq.  But overall, the writing and analysis are weaker than in the first part and it does contain some important errors. 

Some of these errors are due to the false premise that the Bush administration occasionally has worked to achieve a balanced Middle East peace.  For example, the authors portray Condoleezza Rice’s February 2007 trip to Israel/Palestine incorrectly as an attempt to restart the peace process.  She actually went to pressure Mahmoud Abbas to withdraw from the national unity agreement and to thus isolate the democratically elected Hamas government.  The chapter on the lobby and the Palestinians portrays the duo of Dick Cheney and George Bush as initially interested in helping formulate a peace treaty between the Israelis and Palestinians and makes much of their being the first to endorse the idea of a future Palestinian State.  But as former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill reports in his memoir The Price of Loyalty, President Bush made it clear at his first full cabinet meeting that US policy would change radically in favor of Israel during his administration.  Thus a fair US-brokered peace between Israel and the Palestinians, would not be on the agenda. 

Beyond not working for peace, the administration showed a vast lack of knowledge of previous US Middle East policy.  In their book Boomerang, the respected Israeli journalists Raviv Drucker and Ofer Shelah report that Bush and Cheney knew so little about the politics of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that when they agreed to the request of their friend and Saudi Ambassador Bandar Bin Sultan for a letter confirming US support for the idea of a Palestinian state, neither the President nor Vice President were aware that this would set an important precedent which would make headlines.

Almost two weeks after its publication, the criticism of The Israel Lobby has been markedly muted.  The Jerusalem Post reported that both AIPAC and the Israeli government had recommended that pro-Israel advocates “ignore the book” and not call attention to what may be harmful to their cause.  Not everyone has followed this advice, but the overall restrained reaction as compared to when the original article appeared is quite extraordinary.  Despite some errors of analysis including possibly overemphasizing the role of the lobby in the US decision to attack Iraq, this book is indispensably important and extremely persuasive.  John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have not only brought the debate over Israel and its supporters into the open, but they have apparently forced the lobby and their media allies into a tactical retreat.  For this they have my sincere admiration.

-Ira Glunts first visited the Middle East in 1972, where he taught English and physical education in a small rural community in Israel. He was a volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces in 1992.   He lives in Madison, New York where he writes, and operates a used and rare book business with his wife. 

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