Breaking the silence

The overwrought response to John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's brave paper only confirms its thesis.

Published April 18, 2006 11:59AM (EDT)

John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government have put their hands into a hornet's nest with their paper in the London Review of Books, titled "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy." As political scientists who routinely analyze U.S. foreign policy, they have gained a reputation for lucid and principled argument, but outside the halls of academia are not exactly household names. In daring to simply describe the well-known operations of the Israel lobby, however, they have made themselves targets of a massive smear campaign. Ironically, this reaction is just what their paper predicted.

Fair and gentlemanly to a fault, and widely respected in their discipline, the two professors are impossible to imagine as fire-breathing racial bigots, devious purveyors of blatant falsehoods or wild-eyed conspiracy theorists prone to ignore obvious evidence, but these are the sort of epithets being hurled at them by their critics.

In "The Israel Lobby," Mearsheimer and Walt argue that U.S. policy toward the Middle East has been dangerously skewed by a powerful pro-Israel lobby, which inhibits free discussion of the issues and has made the pro-Israeli position a political sacred cow. Congress, they point out, virtually never criticizes Israel: It is an untouchable subject. And this taboo has had enormous consequences, which are themselves off limits for discussion. Because America's blank-check support for Israel arouses enormous Arab and Muslim rage, Israel is a strategic liability, not an asset.

Nor, Mearsheimer and Walt argue, is there any moral reason for America to act against its own interests by supporting Israel come what may. Citing distinguished Israeli historians and journalists, they demythologize Israel's history, demonstrating that the root of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the historical fact that "the creation of Israel entailed a moral crime against the Palestinian people" -- a crime that Israel's founders explicitly acknowledged, and that has never been rectified. They discuss Israel's illegal, almost 40-year-old occupation and colonization of Palestinian land, and its flawed democracy, which explicitly discriminates against Arabs.

They do not raise these points to smear Israel or single it out for special criticism -- as political realists, they are well aware that no state is perfect -- but simply to argue that it is not entitled to special treatment. America's self-interest dictates that the Jewish state should be approached like any other nation, which it manifestly is not.

Mearsheimer and Walt are at pains to point out that there is nothing sinister or conspiratorial about the Israel lobby: Lobbying is a legitimate political practice and Israel is entitled to be defended by interest groups as much as any other nation. What they do argue is that the Israel lobby has extraordinary power, and that some of the policies it espouses are inimical to America's national interests. Above all, they seek to end the taboo, enforced by knee-jerk accusations of anti-Semitism, that has prevented a full and open discussion of these issues.

The paper is not without its flaws. The authors' use of the term "Israel lobby" is at times too broad, simultaneously trying to encompass classic pressure politics and much fuzzier belief systems and taboos. Their tendency to use the term in this slightly elastic, one-size-fits-all way explains the caveats of even some outspoken critics of the Israel lobby, like the Nation's Eric Alterman. Their insistence that America's Middle East policies are centered on Israel ignores the importance of oil. Nor do they explore the history of the "special relationship" between Israel and the U.S. and the way that Israel has become a myth in the American mind, to the point where it is perceived by many as being actually part of America. The belief in the "special relationship," which is a powerful force, is not entirely the product of the Israel lobby. And on pressure politics, they could have been more specific in detailing examples of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's clout in Congress and the executive branch. (Journalist Michael Massing has documented this clout in pieces in the New York Review of Books and the Nation, among other places.) But these weaknesses are comparatively minor, and certainly do not justify the vitriol that has been directed against them.

That a powerful pro-Israel lobby exists and plays a significant role in determining America's Middle East policies may be controversial here, but everywhere else in the world, it is taken as virtually axiomatic. As Geoffrey Wheatcroft noted in a piece on the controversy over the paper in the Boston Globe, "On the eastern side of the Atlantic, it has long been recognized that there is an intimate connection between the United States and Israel, in which AIPAC clearly plays a major role. The degree to which this has affected American policy, up to and including the war in Iraq, has been discussed calmly by sane British commentators -- though also, to be sure, played up maliciously by bigots. In America, by contrast, there has been an unmistakable tendency to shy away from this subject." Wheatcroft quotes Michael Kinsley, who noted in Slate in 2002 that "the connection between the invasion of Iraq and Israeli interests had become 'the proverbial elephant in the room. Everybody sees it, no one mentions it.'"

Predictably, most of paper's harshest critics have avoided engaging its key arguments. Instead, they have raised straw men, attempted to shift the debate to the question of whether it is even acceptable to raise the subject, and either hinted or outright alleged that Mearsheimer and Walt are bigots. These tactics allow critics to sidestep all the crucial questions raised by the paper, while at the same time signaling to others tempted to comment that if they stick their heads up, they will be cut off.

The logical fallacy of guilt by association characterizes many of the more strident responses. For example, the staunchly pro-Israel paper the New York Sun gleefully pounced on white supremacist David Duke's endorsement of "The Israel Lobby." But in 1989, Duke ran as a Republican for a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives. Would it be fair to tar the Republican Party with Duke? It isn't important with whom Duke agrees -- he is a crank. It is important who agrees with him. No one in his or her right mind would accuse Walt and Mearsheimer of doing so.

Other critics have accused the authors of anti-Semitism, which is to say, of racial bigotry. Eliot A. Cohen of the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University published an emotional attack on the authors in the Washington Post, saying "yes, it's anti-Semitic." Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz also accused Mearsheimer and Walt of bigotry. The Harvard Crimson reported that "Dershowitz, who is one of Israel's most prominent defenders, vehemently disputed the article's assertions, repeatedly calling it 'one-sided' and its authors 'liars' and 'bigots.'" Dershowitz went so far as to allege that the paper paralleled texts at neo-Nazi sites. No one who actually knows either Mearsheimer or Walt, as this author does, could possibly find Dershowitz's charges plausible. Again, such arguments are red herrings, implying guilt by association. Because he cannot refute the substance of the paper, Dershowitz must compare his academic colleagues to neo-Nazis. (And he has the gall to actually deny that critics of Israel tend to be smeared as anti-Semites.)

The charge of anti-Semitism (where what is really meant is any criticism of Israeli policy and/or the Israel lobby) is unacceptable and antidemocratic. I have suffered from it a fair amount because I have written critically about Israel, in particular its creeping colonization of the West Bank -- a U.S.-backed policy that is largely responsible, along with George W. Bush's Iraq war, for America's record-low popularity in the Arab and Muslim world.

Dershowitz penned a quick response, which he elbowed onto the Web page of the Kennedy School at Harvard. No other working paper has been treated this way, with instant rebuttals being posted to it. Both Dershowitz's attempt to impugn the characters of the authors and the fact that he was given privileges not granted others only confirm some of the main allegations of the original paper. (In contrast, Harvard has not rushed to put up a response from, say, a pro-Palestinian academic.)

After clearly implying that Mearsheimer and Walt are driven by anti-Semitic motives, he attempts to impugn their scholarship. Dershowitz identifies a few minor errors, but he cannot obscure the actual history of Palestinian displacement and dispossession at the hands of Israelis.

For example, Dershowitz makes much of the fact that the authors quote Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion misleadingly, creating the impression that in the late 1930s he was advocating the violent expulsion of the Palestinians. In fact, as Dershowitz points out, in the quote Ben-Gurion was not calling for expulsion, but expressing a bizarre conviction that the small Zionist state he then envisaged would persuade the Palestinians to relinquish their claim on an independent state in the rest of Palestine. What Dershowitz does not mention is that Ben-Gurion's "plan" was so fantastic as to bring into question his sincerity in stating it as he did. Israeli historian Benny Morris noted, Ben-Gurion "always refrained from issuing clear or written expulsion orders; he preferred that his generals 'understand' what he wanted done. He wished to avoid going down in history as the 'great expeller.'" And in fact, when push came to shove in 1947 and 1948, Ben-Gurion did explicitly order expulsions, as at Lydda and Ramla, and was implicated in others by virtue of being in command at the time. Ben-Gurion also kept the 700,000 expelled Palestinian refugees from ever returning or being given reparations: Their villages were razed, their houses bulldozed or taken over, their orchards seized.

Dershowitz insists that, contra Mearsheimer and Walt's assertions, the mainstream American media offers full and critical coverage of Israel. This is a laughable contention to anyone who has compared American press coverage of Israel with that offered by the rest of the world. Even some American officials have noted the extremely limited nature of U.S. coverage of Israel. In an April 9 Op-Ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette titled "Of Course There Is an Israel Lobby," ambassador Edward Peck wrote, "Knowing the fiercely negative reactions to accurate, detailed reporting of controversies surrounding Israel, the media fail to cover Israel's violations of every principle for which the United States -- and Israel -- loudly proclaim they stand. There is only rare, skimpy coverage of the ongoing Israeli mass punishments, house demolitions, illegal settlements, assassinations, settler brutality, curfews and beatings. On the other hand, the blind Palestinian rage generated by decades of receiving humiliating, savage suppression in their homeland is reported in lurid, bloody detail."

Above all, Dershowitz sets up the straw man that the authors claim that a central "cabal" of "Jews" tightly controls the U.S. press and the U.S. government and prevents them from criticizing Israel. Like other critics, including noted warmonger Max Boot, Dershowitz charges that Mearsheimer and Walt are conspiracy theorists who subscribe to what Dershowitz calls "a paranoid worldview" shared by the likes of David Duke and Pat Buchanan.

This charge -- with its obvious implications that Mearsheimer and Walt are anti-Semites in the Henry Ford/Protocols of the Elders of Zion tradition -- is refuted by every word they have written. In fact, Mearsheimer and Walt are at pains to make clear that there is no "cabal," and that the pro-Israel lobby is a lobby like any other (although more powerful and sacrosanct than most.)

Here's their definition: "We use 'the Lobby' as shorthand for the loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. This is not meant to suggest that 'the Lobby' is a unified movement with a central leadership, or that individuals within it do not disagree on certain issues. Not all Jewish Americans are part of the Lobby, because Israel is not a salient issue for many of them. In a 2004 survey, for example, roughly 36 per cent of American Jews said they were either 'not very' or 'not at all' emotionally attached to Israel.

"Jewish Americans also differ on specific Israeli policies. Many of the key organizations in the Lobby, such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, are run by hardliners who generally support the Likud Party's expansionist policies, including its hostility to the Oslo peace process. The bulk of US Jewry, meanwhile, is more inclined to make concessions to the Palestinians, and a few groups -- such as Jewish Voice for Peace -- strongly advocate such steps. Despite these differences, moderates and hardliners both favor giving steadfast support to Israel."

It should be noted that it was Mearsheimer and Walt's publisher who capitalized the word "Lobby." But in any case, they make numerous distinctions. They are not talking about Jews as a whole or about a unified phenomenon. They acknowledge that Christian Zionists are a key element of the lobby. They depict no conspiracy. Insofar as they talk about the lobby's "manipulation," its "influence" and its "stranglehold" over American policy -- words that Dershowitz cites as indicating their conspiratorial and unsavory bent -- well, that is what powerful lobbies do. They manipulate, influence and, in best-case scenarios, achieve a stranglehold over policy.

The storm over the authors' characterization of the lobby has shifted attention from the most unassailable part of their paper: Their contention that America's unqualified support for Israel has enraged the Arab and Muslim world, served as an important source of anti-American terrorism and hurt America's ability to pursue the war on terror.

Anyone who has spent any time in the Arab or Muslim world knows that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and America's support for Israel's unjust treatment of the Palestinians, are the main sources of anger at America and have been for decades. In a recent Zogby poll, one question that was asked of Arab publics was whether their dislike of the United States was because of its values or its policies. Here are the percentages that said it was because of U.S. policies in the region: Jordan, 76; Morocco, 79; Lebanon, 80; Saudi Arabia, 86; United Arab Emirates, 75; Egypt, 90. Another question was why people thought the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq. Here are the percentages for those who believed it was to "protect Israel": Jordan, 64; Morocco, 82; Lebanon, 82; Saudi Arabia, 44; Egypt, 92. That is, not only are Americans disliked for their invasion of an Arab country, but the Arab public generally attributes the assault to a desire to protect Israel. All those instances when the Americans vetoed U.N. Security Council censures of Israel for its predations against Palestinians or neighbors, all those tens of billions of dollars in aid the U.S. gave Israel, all the times it winked at atrocities such as the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and indiscriminate shelling of Beirut have added up over time.

Arabs and Muslims like Americans and democracy just fine in principle. What they don't like is U.S. foreign policy. Their main grievance before 2003 was of U.S. complicity in the dispossession of the Palestinians. Now they have another major objection, the U.S. occupation of Iraq -- and they clearly see the two as related. I am not arguing that the Arab public is correct, only that critics are blind if they cannot see that it is knee-jerk U.S. support for the worst Israeli policies that has soured Arabs and Muslims on the United States. To avoid accepting this conclusion, we would have to believe that they have consistently lied to pollsters for decades, and we would have to take it upon ourselves to represent the Arabs and Muslims, since they cannot represent themselves.

None of this is hard to understand. The United States is not generally hated by, say, Thais, or Paraguayans, or Cameroonians. This is because we have not done anything to them. We have, however, abetted an epochal wrong against the Palestinian people, with whom Arabs and Muslims feel a similar kinship to that felt by mid-19th century Americans with the Texans trapped at the Alamo. For obvious reasons, an open discussion of the causes and consequences of their anger against us is vital for our national security.

The outraged and dismissive reaction to Mearsheimer and Walt's paper illustrates their thesis. The United States faces severe challenges in the Middle East, including issues having to do with Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, al-Qaida and what to do about the Israeli-Palestinian situation now that Hamas has won the Palestinian elections. A debate about the best policies to achieve American interests is being made difficult or impossible by the tactics of intimidation deployed on both sides of the Atlantic. With a possible war against Iran being floated by the Bush administration, the stakes are far too high not to have the full and open discussion we never had before Iraq. When Ben Franklin exited the Constitutional Convention, he was asked what kind of government the United States would have. "A republic, if you can keep it," he is said to have replied. If we cannot even discuss the shape of U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East without a lynch mob forming, we won't be able to keep it.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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