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The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy

Douglas Caddy

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September 6, 2007


A Prosecutorial Brief Against Israel and Its Supporters


The New York Times


By John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt

484 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.


“The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” arrives carrying heavy baggage. John J. Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, and Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, set off a furor last year by arguing, in an article that appeared in The London Review of Books, that uncritical American support for Israel, shaped by powerful lobbying organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, does grave harm to both American and Israeli interests.

A bitter debate has raged ever since, with accusations of anti-Semitism leveled by, among others, Alan M. Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor, and Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, one of the principal lobbying organizations taken to task by Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt.

“The Israel Lobby,” an extended, more fully argued version of the London Review article, has done nothing to calm the waters. The authors have been barred from making appearances by at least one university and several cultural centers to discuss their subject, and continue to reap a whirlwind of criticism and abuse. If they were looking for a fight, they have found it.

Slowly, deliberately and dispassionately Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt lay out the case for a ruthlessly realistic Middle East policy that would make Israel nothing more than one of many countries in the region. On those occasions when Israel’s interests coincide with America’s, it should count on American support, but otherwise not. What Americans fail to understand, the authors argue, is that most of the time the two countries’ interests are opposed.

The reason they do not realize this, Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt insist, can be explained quite simply: The Israel lobby makes sure of it. Working closely with members of Congress, public-policy organizations and journals of opinion, energetic, well-financed groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee, along with dozens of political-action committees, perpetuate the myth, as the authors see it, of Israel as an isolated, beleaguered state surrounded by enemies and in need of America’s unstinting financial and military support.

This lobby is particularly adept at stifling debate before it begins, the authors argue. “Whether the issue is abortion, arms control, affirmative action, gay rights, the environment, trade policy, health care, immigration or welfare, there is almost always a lively debate on Capitol Hill,” they write. “But where Israel is concerned, potential critics fall silent and there is hardly any debate at all.”

There is nothing underhanded or devious about this, the authors say. Like the National Rifle Association or the AARP, the Israel lobby relies on the traditional political weapons available to any special-interest group in pressing its agenda. It just happens to be unusually skillful and effective.

“It is simply a powerful interest group, made up of both Jews and gentiles, whose acknowledged purpose is to press Israel’s case within the United States and influence American foreign policy in ways that its members believe will benefit the Jewish state,” they write.

The problem, Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt argue, is that Israel has become a strategic liability with the end of the cold war and a moral pariah in its dealings with the Palestinians and, most recently, the Lebanese. Uncritical American support for its closest Middle East ally has damaged American credibility in the Arab world, encouraged terrorism, stymied the search for a solution to the Palestinian problem, and in every way made America’s international position weaker and more dangerous.

Coolly, not to say coldly, Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt mount a prosecutorial brief against Israel’s foreign and domestic policies, and against the state of Israel itself. They describe a virtual rogue state, empowered by American wealth and might, that blocks peace at every turn, threatens its cowering neighbors with impunity, crushes the national aspirations of the Palestinians and, whenever the opportunity arises, bites the hand that feeds it.

Working tirelessly in the background is the Israel lobby, playing Iago to America’s Othello, leading president after president down ever more dangerous paths. Without intense pressure from the Israel lobby, the authors argue, America would not have undertaken the war in Iraq.

Most American readers will bristle at the authors’ characterization of Israel. This is to be expected, Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt argue, because of the completely false image of Israel and its history that has been manufactured by the Israel lobby. As a result, Americans completely misinterpret the Palestinian issue and fail to support a productive policy that would tilt away from Israel and toward the Palestinians.

The authors state, on several occasions, their belief that Israel has a moral and legal right to exist, but the effect of their book is to leave it dangling by a moral and strategic thread. In essence they call for the United States to cut Israel loose, to return more or less to American policy before the 1967 war, when the United States tried to occupy a middle ground between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Strangely, the authors do not itemize the fabulous benefits delivered by this approach in the 1950s and ’60s.

It is a little odd that so chilly a book should generate such heat. Most of Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt’s arguments are familiar ones, and it is hardly inflammatory to point out that the major Jewish organizations tend to take a much tougher line on, say, a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem, the Iraq war or settlements in the West Bank, than most American Jews favor. The writers stand on eminently defensible ground when they argue for a more constructive, creative American role in peace talks.

The general tone of hostility to Israel grates on the nerves, however, along with an unignorable impression that hardheaded political realism can be subject to its own peculiar fantasies. Israel is not simply one country among many, for example, just as Britain is not. Americans feel strong ties of history, religion, culture and, yes, sentiment, that the authors recognize, but only in an airy, abstract way.

They also seem to feel that, with Israel and its lobby pushed to the side, the desert will bloom with flowers. A peace deal with Syria would surely follow, with a resultant end to hostile activity by Hezbollah and Hamas. Next would come a Palestinian state, depriving Al Qaeda of its principal recruiting tool. (The authors wave away the idea that Islamic terrorism thrives for other reasons.) Well, yes, Iran does seem to be a problem, but the authors argue that no one should be particularly bothered by an Iran with nuclear weapons. And on and on.

“It is time,” Mr. Mearsheimer and Mr. Walt write, “for the United States to treat Israel not as a special case but as a normal state, and to deal with it much as it deals with any other country.” But it’s not. And America won’t. That’s realism.

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It would be nice to think that the Mearsheimer/ Walt book, now that it has been published, might lead to a rational, sober debate about America's Middle East policy and whether it currently serves the long term interests of the American people. Fat chance. America's ties to Israel are deeply rooted in religion and the Judeo-Christian ethic, making rational discussion almost impossible--and that's the way the Israel lobby wants to keep it.

America's current Middle East policy is carefully crafted for the sole purpose of satisfying Israel's regional needs and ambitions. Israel knows it, the Arab world knows it and unblinkered observers throughout the world know it. One day America might realise it and try to do something about it, but it still won't do them any good because the Israel lobby won't let them change it. They have a vice-like hold on the American legislature. Fear and intimidation render Congress a timid, sycophantic little mouse.

So much for being the world's most powerful nation. America isn't even permitted to formulate its own foreign policy. America's capital city is not Washington but Tel Aviv.

Edited by Mark Stapleton
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