Is the “Israel lobby” distorting America’s Mideast policies?

Two leading academics have tried to break the taboo against criticizing Israel's powerful U.S. lobby. It's a worthy aim, but their clumsy argument may backfire.

Topics: Middle East,

Is the "Israel lobby" distorting America's Mideast policies?

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, may be the most powerful lobby in the country. As its Web site says, “Through more than 2,000 meetings with members of Congress — at home and in Washington — AIPAC activists help pass more than 100 pro-Israel legislative initiatives a year. From procuring nearly $3 billion in aid critical to Israel’s security, to funding joint U.S.-Israeli efforts to build a defense against unconventional weapons, AIPAC members are involved in the most crucial issues facing Israel.” At its conferences, a parade of politicians from both parties pay homage — this year, speakers included Vice President Dick Cheney, House Majority Leader John Boehner and former Sen. John Edwards.

All successful lobbies flaunt their power. But unlike, say, the Cuban lobby or the AARP, there’s a taboo against outsiders discussing the influence of AIPAC or the Israel lobby more generally, or criticizing the way it shapes American policy. To do so raises the specter of poisonous old narratives about mysterious cabals and dual loyalties, of hateful tracts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and “The International Jew.” So a strange, dim silence surrounds the Israel lobby, and the hushed atmosphere nurtures conspiracy theories about a power so great and so secret that you can’t even talk about it in public. Those conspiracy theories make the issue even more fraught, because respectable people don’t want to provide fodder for the likes of former Klan leader David Duke, who writes on his Web site, “Just as Jewish Israel-Firsters dominate the mass media, so Congress and the President are afflicted by the Israeli Lobby. ”

Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, political science professors at Harvard and the University of Chicago, respectively, apparently hoped to break through the taboos with their baldly titled paper “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” It was published last month in the London Review of Books and, in an expanded version, on the Web site of the Kennedy School of Government, where Walt is academic dean. The article argues that the United States’ close relationship with Israel is not in America’s national interest — that it is, indeed, counterproductive — and that it is sustained largely through the work of the Israel lobby (Walt and Mearsheimer refer to it, simply and ominously, as “the Lobby.”) Walt and Mearsheimer also argue that the lobby was a major force pushing for war in Iraq, a war they vocally opposed.



“In our piece, we argued that when people are critical of Israeli policy or the U.S.-Israeli relationship, the arguments are not taken on their merits,” Mearsheimer says when reached by phone. “What happens instead is that the great silencer — the charge of anti-Semitism — is leveled at the critics.”

In this case, that’s just what has happened. Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel called the paper “the same old anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist drivel,” adding, “Given what happened in the Holocaust, it’s shameful that people would write reports like this.” In a response to Walt and Mearsheimer published on the Kennedy School Web site last week, law professor Alan Dershowitz asked, “What would motivate two recognized academics to issue a compilation of previously made assertions that they must know will be used by overt anti-Semites to argue that Jews have too much influence, that will give an academic imprimatur to crass bigotry, and that will place all Jews in government and the media under suspicion of disloyalty to America?” Neoconservative Johns Hopkins professor Eliot A. Cohen penned a column about the paper in the Washington Post titled, “Yes, It’s Anti-Semitic.”

On the surface, the whole imbroglio seemed like the latest version of a story that has replayed itself countless times in the last few years. A public figure strays outside the boundaries of acceptable opinion about Israel, or calls attention to the disproportionate influence wielded by supporters of Israel’s right-wing political factions, and is immediately attacked as a bigot or a paranoid. It happened to Howard Dean during the Democratic primary, when he said that the United States should be “evenhanded” in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, admonished him; an Israeli newspaper suggested that his Jewish backing would dry up; and Nancy Pelosi wrote him an angry open letter. All this despite the fact that Dean’s campaign was being co-chaired by a former president of AIPAC, and there was little daylight between his position on Israel and that of President Bush.

Not even such a famous friend of Israel as Steven Spielberg is immune to this kind of mau-mauing. When his movie “Munich,” about the Israeli response to the Palestinian massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, was released last year, various commentators berated him for being insufficiently Manichean in his treatment of the conflict. As Leon Wieseltier wrote in the staunchly pro-Israel New Republic, “Palestinians murder, Israelis murder. Palestinians show evidence of a conscience, Israelis show evidence of a conscience … All these analogies begin to look ominously like the sin of equivalence, and so it is worth pointing out that the death of innocents was an Israeli mistake but a Palestinian objective.”

At first glance, it seemed as if Walt and Mearsheimer were being run through a familiar wringer. Indeed, many of the charges against them have been grossly unfair. To their chagrin, David Duke has enthusiastically embraced the paper, calling it “a modern American declaration of independence.” Some critics have used this to associate the authors with the former Klansman. “Walt, Mearsheimer, and Duke happen to have reached the same conclusions, and share the same interest in vilifying Jewish leaders and spouting conspiracy theories about Zionist plots against American interests,” wrote Dershowitz. Stretching in a different direction, the Israeli historian Michael Oren, writing in the New Republic, blamed the affair on the malign influence of the late Edward Said and a postmodern coterie “infused with the nihilism of postmodern French philosophers.” This charge was especially odd, since Walt and Mearsheimer are known as two of the foremost exponents of political realism, a hardheaded school of thought that owes far more to Henry Kissinger than to Michel Foucault.

On one level, then, the attacks on Walt and Mearsheimer are examples of the very phenomenon the writers describe. Yet for anyone who hopes for a more open and critical discussion of the Israel lobby, their paper presents profound problems. This is not just a case of brave academics telling taboo truths. In taking on a sensitive, fraught subject, one might expect such eminent scholars to make their case airtight. Instead, they’ve blundered forth with an article that has several factual mistakes and baffling omissions, one that seems expressly designed to elicit exactly the reaction it has received. The power of the Israel lobby is something that deserves a full and fearless airing, but this paper could make such an airing less, not more likely.

Walt and Mearsheimer’s paper began as an article commissioned by the Atlantic Monthly in 2002 on the subject of Israel and the U.S. National Interest. The magazine turned down the piece they submitted — editor Cullen Murphy wrote them a letter explaining why, though none of them will comment on what it said. According to Mearsheimer, he and Walt thought the piece was dead, but then a scholar who’d read it put them in touch with the editor of the London Review of Books, who agreed to publish a rewritten version. They posted the expanded essay on the Harvard Web site to coincide with the London publication.

The authors waste no time stating their case. “The U.S. national interest should be the primary object of American foreign policy,” they write on the first page. “For the past several decades, however, and especially since the Six Day War in 1967, the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering U.S. support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized U.S. security.”

Even one sympathetic to Walt and Mearsheimer’s criticism of the Israel lobby should be struck by this assertion. After all, there’s a very strong case to be made that the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy for the past several decades has been oil. Walt and Mearsheimer barely address oil, or the American relationship with Saudi Arabia. Similarly, in their view, the Iraq war had little to do with oil and much to do with Zionism.

“There is virtually no evidence that oil was an important cause of the Iraq war,” Mearsheimer says. “It is an intuitively plausible argument, but when you look for evidence that the oil companies were pushing for war, or that Paul Wolfowitz was thinking in terms of oil as a geopolitical weapon, you cannot find it. Instead, you find lots of evidence that the neoconservatives and the leaders of the Lobby were pushing hard for war against Iraq.”

In fact, though, such evidence does exist — it has been compiled by Paul Roberts, author of “The End of Oil,” by analysts like James Paul of the Global Policy Forum, and by Kevin Phillips in “American Theocracy.” Phillips quotes James Akins, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, saying, “what they [the Bush administration] have in mind is denationalization, and then parceling Iraqi oil out to American oil companies. The American oil companies are going to be the main beneficiaries of this war.” In his memoir “The Right Man,” David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter and neocon par excellence, wrote that Bush’s campaign to bring freedom to the Middle East would also “bring new prosperity to us all, by securing the world’s largest pool of oil.” After the conservative public interest group Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request, a court ordered the Commerce Department to turn over documents from Cheney’s Task Force; among them are Iraq oil maps and lists of foreign suitors for Iraqi oil-field contracts. And, of course, there’s the fact that, as Baghdad burned immediately after the 2003 invasion, the only government building the Americans saw fit to protect was the oil ministry.

This doesn’t prove that oil was the only factor in the war, and that Israel had nothing to do with it. But it does suggest that oil was at least a factor, casting some doubt on Walt and Mearsheimer’s assertion that “the war was due in large part to the lobby’s influence, especially the neoconservatives within it.”

Perhaps they don’t find any of the available evidence about the role of oil compelling, but that’s not what they argue — they simply ignore it. A similar pattern repeats throughout “The Israel Lobby.” There is little nuance and few caveats; facts that run contrary to their thesis are simply left out or, in a few cases, twisted. In his response, Dershowitz finds several factual errors that make the authors seem strangely careless. Most relate to the moral case against Israel.

As realists, Walt and Mearsheimer generally oppose giving idealism an important role in foreign policy decision-making. But because they argue in “The Israel Lobby” that considerations of morality can’t account for America’s support for Israel, they have to engage in moral arguments. “Viewed objectively, Israel’s past and present conduct offers no moral basis for privileging it over the Palestinians,” they write.

As Walt and Mearsheimer surely know, that’s a striking and hugely controversial claim. So it’s odd that they weren’t more careful in trying to back it up. Much of their case is compelling, but it is undermined by their own errors.

They are certainly correct when they write that, while Israel’s creation was largely a response to horrific crimes against the Jews, “[T]he creation of Israel involved additional crimes against a largely innocent third party: the Palestinians.

“Israeli scholarship shows that the early Zionists were far from benevolent towards the Palestinian Arabs,” they continue, citing the work of famed Israeli historian Benny Morris. “The Arab inhabitants did resist the Zionists’ encroachments, which is hardly surprising given that the Zionists were trying to create their own state on Arab lands. The Zionists responded vigorously, and neither side owns the moral high ground during this period. This same scholarship also reveals that the creation of Israel in 1947-48 involved explicit acts of ethnic cleansing, including executions, massacres, and rapes by Jews.”

All this has been documented, although it’s not the whole story. If Americans tend to believe that Israel has the moral upper hand over the Palestinians, it’s not because of the conditions of the country’s founding, it’s because of decades of Arab aggression and Palestinian terrorism. Amazingly, Walt and Mearsheimer don’t even mention Fatah or Black September, Munich or Entebbe. One might argue that Israel has killed more Palestinians than visa versa, but it doesn’t change the role of spectacular Palestinian terrorism in shaping American attitudes toward Israel.

Worse still is the way Walt and Mearsheimer sometimes subtly twist the historical record to make their case against Israel even more damning. Dershowitz catches them quoting David Ben-Gurion strikingly out of context: “Ben-Gurion is … quoted by Mearsheimer and Walt as saying that ‘it is impossible to imagine general evacuation [of the Arab population] without compulsion, and brutal compulsion,’ making it seem as if Ben-Gurion was advocating a ‘brutal compulsion.’ But they omit what Ben-Gurion said after that: ‘but we should in no way make it part of our programme.’ By omitting Ben-Gurion’s critical conclusions, they falsely suggest that Ben-Gurion was proposing the opposite of what he said.”

They do something similar, though less serious, when they write that the Jewish newspaper the Forward once described Paul Wolfowitz as “the most hawkishly pro-Israel voice in the Administration.” As Forward editor J.J. Goldberg noted in an editorial, “A check of the endnotes shows that the words did appear in the Forward, but they were describing the conventional wisdom, not the Forward’s view. The article was about a pro-Israel rally where Wolfowitz was booed for defending Palestinian rights. The point was that the conventional wisdom was wrong.”

Walt and Mearsheimer also confuse critical issues about Israeli citizenship, which they say is “based on the principal of blood kinship.” That’s simply not true — as Dershowitz writes, “In reality, a person of any ethnicity or religion can become an Israeli citizen. In fact, approximately a quarter of Israel’s citizens are not Jewish, a higher percentage of minority citizenry than in nearly any other country … The paper’s authors confuse Israel’s law of return — which was designed to grant asylum to those who were victims of anti-Semitism, including non-Jewish relatives of Jews — with its law of citizenship.”

These errors, and others like them, don’t nullify the paper’s thesis, but they’re evidence of a weird haphazardness. This is an enormously sensitive subject, but Walt and Mearsheimer’s approach is too often clumsy and crude. That’s especially true in their discussion of the divided loyalties of some American Jews, and of the pro-war manipulations of the lobby. They conflate groups that are merely sympathetic to Israel with those that actively back the hard-line policies of the Likud. Though they try to draw distinctions between the lobby and American Jewry more generally, they occasionally use the two terms interchangeably, citing Jewish campaign donations, for example, as evidence of the lobby’s power.

“The Lobby also has significant leverage over the Executive branch,” they write. “That power derives in part from the influence Jewish voters have on presidential elections. Despite their small numbers in the population (less than 3 percent), they make large campaign donations to candidates from both parties. The Washington Post once estimated that Democratic presidential candidates ‘depend on Jewish supporters to supply as much as 60 percent of the money.’” This treatment of Jewish money as a monolithic force is both ugly and misleading; the agenda of liberal donors like George Soros and Peter Lewis is quite different from that of a hardcore Israel supporter like Jack Rosen, head of the American Jewish Congress. Anyway, the fact that Jews are crucial funders of Democrats is not evidence of their power over an executive branch that has been Republican for most of the last 25 years.

One could go on and on in this way, listing logical errors and over-generalizations. And that’s unfortunate, because it clouds what is valuable in “The Israel Lobby.” Walt and Mearsheimer are correct, after all, in arguing that discussion about Israel is hugely circumscribed in mainstream American media and politics. Citing the liberal, pro-Israel journalist Eric Alterman, they write that the public debate among Middle East pundits “is dominated by people who cannot imagine criticizing Israel. [Alterman] lists 61 columnists and commentators who can be counted upon to support Israel reflexively and without qualification. Conversely, Alterman found just five pundits who consistently criticize Israeli behavior or endorse pro-Arab positions. Newspapers occasionally publish guest op-eds challenging Israeli policy, but the balance of opinion clearly favors the other side.” A person who got all their information from the American media would have little idea about the ways Jewish settlers continue to appropriate land in the West Bank, harassing local Palestinian farmers and uprooting their crops. Indeed, one can find far more critical coverage of the Israeli occupation in liberal Israeli newspapers like Haaretz than in any American daily.

And this gets at the real problem. It’s not that the lobby supports Israel, it’s that it consistently supports right-wing, irredentist factions in Israel. In doing so, it is out of step with most American Jewish opinion as well as much Israeli opinion, and yet it manages to act as if it speaks for both groups. The result is American policies that tacitly accept Israel expansionism, despite the fact that most American Jews favor territorial concessions. There are structural explanations for why the Israel lobby has been able to amass such influence despite how unrepresentative it is. Walt and Mearsheimer, unfortunately, lack the subtlety to explore them.

A few others have, though — Michael Massing wrote a hugely informative article about the Israel lobby for the American Prospect in 2002. Those who are most adept at influencing government policy in the Middle East, Massing wrote, “do not necessarily represent the broad range of Jewish views on the subject. At a time when Palestinian terror bombings grow more horrific daily and Israel military action in the occupied territories grows steadily harsher, the bias in political representation has complicated negotiations and reduced the likelihood that the United States will be able to mediate the conflict successfully.”

As Massing explained, the two most important pro-Israel lobbying outfits are AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Both are controlled by hard-liners and have been consistently biased toward the Likud, so much so that, as Massing writes, when the Labor Party’s Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister, he told AIPAC that it would no longer be Jerusalem’s representative in Washington. “[I]n contrast to the bullish statements AIPAC had issued on behalf of the Likud government, its board remained largely silent on Rabin’s peace initiative,” Massing wrote.

Indeed, AIPAC went out of its way to sabotage Rabin. In 1995, wrote Massing, its board “took up an issue calculated to impede Rabin’s efforts: the location of the U.S. embassy in Israel.” Like most countries, the United States had its embassy in Tel Aviv because of Jerusalem’s contested status. Under Oslo, talks on the future of the city were set to begin in 1996. “Flexing its muscle in Congress, [AIPAC] got 93 of 100 senators to sign a letter urging the administration to move the embassy by 1999, regardless of what happened in the negotiations. Going further, it got Republican Sen. Bob Dole, who was preparing to run for president against Bill Clinton, to introduce a bill that would make the transfer mandatory by that year.”

That bill was opposed by both Clinton and, importantly, the Israeli government. “Members of the Likud, by contrast, were jubilant,” Massing wrote. This episode goes to show that the Israel lobby is not, as Walt and Mearsheimer say, “a de facto agent for a foreign government.” It is, rather, part of a bi-national right-wing movement that encompasses Israeli conservatives and American hawks, Jewish and gentile. The power of this movement is deeply troubling — it perverts American political discourse, promotes policies that inflame the Arab world, destroys many Palestinian lives and ultimately endangers Israel. But to conflate this movement with American Jewry is dangerous, and that is what Walt and Mearsheimer sometimes do, albeit inadvertently.

They note the difference between the two, but then they ignore it, writing, for example, “There are also Jewish senators and congressmen who work to make U.S. foreign policy support Israel’s interests.” They argue as if there’s no need to point out the distinction between, say, Joe Lieberman, one of the Iraq war’s staunchest supporters, and Russ Feingold, one of its steadiest opponents. In their formulation, the fact that a congressman is Jewish creates suspicion of dual loyalties.

This accounts for some of the shock commentators have felt reading “The Israel Lobby.” While some of the outrage is part of the predictable hysteria that accompanies any serious criticism of Israel, there’s more to it than that. There is, after all, a reason for the taboo surrounding talk of Jewish power and treachery. Tales of Jewish groups using money and secret influence to twist politics for their own, unpatriotic ends are a hallmark of reaction, spouted by everyone from the Nazis to Father Charles Coughlin to David Duke. Walt and Mearsheimer are not anti-Semites, or aligned with anti-Semitic forces. They seem, however, somewhat oblivious as to why the issue they’ve taken on is so horribly sensitive, and they make little effort to address the causes of the taboo they’re trying to dislodge.

“They overlook the fact that the notion of this Jewish cabal with mystical powers has been an excuse for genocide for centuries,” says the Forward’s Goldberg, adding that you have to be careful “if you’re going to wander into that.”

Likewise, there is a history to countries, during crises of national morale, blaming their predicaments on Jewish manipulation. This is part of what frightens Goldberg. “America right now, I think people are going nuts,” he says. “You look at all the things going on, the Arctic is melting, the world hates us, we’ve bankrupted ourselves as a nation, you can name three or four things that are inconceivably bad. You don’t want to blame the American public — we elected this guy, twice. We can’t be that nuts. Somebody must have done this to us.”

For Goldberg, the paper is a worrying sign that a domestic version of the Dolchstosslegende — the conviction that Germany lost World War I because Jews “stabbed it in the back” — could somehow take root in America. “If Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer can buy into this stuff, I guess anybody can,” says Goldberg. “I actually didn’t believe it was possible. I’m one of those weirdoes who thought it wasn’t going to happen here. I found their document scary because it is so illogical and so passionate.”

Goldberg grants that Walt and Mearsheimer are “right that the Jewish community and the pro-Israel lobby, separately and in different ways, make it hard to have a debate, partly on purpose and partly because there’s a level of emotion there.” Before a rational discussion can proceed, some of that emotion has to be defused. Instead, it’s been stoked.

Meanwhile, Walt and Mearsheimer will likely pay a professional price, one that exceeds whatever criticism they deserve for their maladroit arguments. Walt will soon be stepping down from his job as academic dean — something he says was in the works well before the paper’s publication — and it’s unlikely he’ll ever be put in such a position again. “It is too soon to tell what all of the repercussions will be, but we believed going into this that both of us would pay a significant price in our professional lives,” says Mearsheimer. “We think, for example, that it would be almost impossible for Steve to ever be a high-level administrator at Harvard or any other top university. It is also highly unlikely that either one of us would ever get appointed to an important government position after this article. Plus there will be conferences and meetings that we won’t be invited to because of the piece.”

Other ambitious academicians may take notice and leave this subject alone, even if they could shed more light on it than Walt and Mearsheimer did. It would be a strange irony indeed if as a result of their attempt to break the taboo, it ended up stronger than ever.

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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