The Israel Lobby — Finally a Balanced Review

What does a new paper on the “Israel Lobby” really say about where the United States finds itself today?

April 6, 2006

What does a new paper on the "Israel Lobby" really say about where the United States finds itself today?

A paper written by Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago called, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” has recently generated a firestorm of controversy in the United States.

It has been widely distributed on the Internet, avidly discussed and dissected by bloggers, and assailed in numerous opinion pieces in newspapers both in the U.S. and in Israel.

In their paper, Mearsheimer and Walt, two of the most prominent U.S. scholars of foreign affairs, blame the "the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby" — a short-hand term for the loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to shape U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction — for perverting U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East and putting Israel's national interest above that of the United States.

The United States' unstinting support for Israel has cost it dearly, the authors argue. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted to support a country that is undeserving of U.S. support on either strategic or moral grounds.

Worse still, thousands of American lives have been lost in the September 11, 2001 attacks and in the current war in Iraq because U.S. foreign policy has been hijacked to serve Israel's cause. The authors go on to say that U.S. support for Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories made it a target of Islamic rage, resulting in Al Qaeda's attack on 9/11.

As if this were not bad enough, the “Israel lobby” — a diffuse network of lobbyists, journalists, think tanks and mostly Jewish neoconservative policymakers —then pressured the United States to invade Iraq. The war in Iraq, according to Mearsheimer and Walt, was fought for the sake of Israel's security, not American interests.

While these charges against the pro-Israel lobby are certainly not new — they have long been voiced by critics of the Iraq war and by critics of Israel — the fact that they have been leveled by two highly respected academics in a paper appearing on the website of Harvard's prestigious Kennedy School has caused considerable consternation among supporters of Israel in the United States.

Predictably enough, many have responded by accusing Mearsheimer and Walt of anti-Israel bias, or worse, antisemitism — lending credence to the authors' contention that charges of anti-semitism are used by the Israel lobby to silence dissent over the United States' support for Israel and criticism of Israeli government policies.

To accuse Mearsheimer and Walt of anti-semitism, however, is not merely self-defeating for Israel's defenders (and, probably, a false accusation); it prevents any serious discussion of their central argument.

This discussion is necessary and long overdue. Without it, myths and misunderstandings about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in shaping this U.S. foreign policy, will only continue to circulate and grow.

Mearsheimer and Walt perpetuate two of the biggest myths concerning U.S.-Israeli relations. The first is that these relations have always been good, marked simply by unwavering U.S. support for whatever policies Israeli governments decide to pursue. In fact, U.S. support for Israel has never been static — or unchanging.

Certainly, the Bush Administration's unwillingness to publicly criticize Israel makes it one of the most "pro-Israel" administrations in the history of U.S.-Israeli relations. Whether this silence actually serves Israel's long-term interests is another issue entirely.

But the Clinton Administration had a very public confrontation with Israel's government under Likud Prime Minister Netanyahu, as did the Bush Senior Administration with the Shamir government.

These confrontations between successive U.S. administrations and Israeli governments, and the ups and downs in U.S.-Israeli relations more generally, are hard to fathom if the Israel lobby is indeed as powerful as Mearsheimer and Walt suggest.

The second myth Mearsheimer and Walt promote is that American support for Israel is solely due to U.S. domestic politics and the activities of the Israel lobby.

While it would be foolish to ignore the influence of pro-Israel lobby groups, especially in Congress, in promoting American-Israeli relations, it would be equally foolish to believe that this is the only factor at work. There are many reasons behind the U.S. support for Israel, whatever one thinks of this support.

To cite just a few: U.S. support for Israel is motivated by a commitment to the only large-established democratic state in the region (however imperfect Israel's democracy is); a sense of a shared Judeo-Christian religious tradition; a widespread public sympathy for Jewish suffering in the Holocaust and, more recently, Israeli suffering from Palestinian terrorist attacks; and a need for a stable and reliable ally in a region noticeably lacking both.

Mearsheimer and Walt ascribe far too much importance to the Israel lobby. To the extent that it acts in a cohesive and single-minded manner (itself a highly questionable assumption given the diversity of views among Israel's "supporters" in the U.S. over what Israel's interests actually are — a diversity that mirrors Israel's own domestic political divisions), it is undoubtedly a political force to be reckoned with in Washington.

But it is hardly as omnipotent as Mearsheimer and Walt depict it to be. They go as far as to claim that: "The overall thrust of the U.S. policy in the region [the Middle East] is due almost entirely to U.S. domestic politics, and especially to the activities of the 'Israel Lobby.'"

This completely disregards all the other factors that shape U.S. foreign policy toward the region. Most significant has been the need to ensure a reliable long-term supply of reasonably priced Persian Gulf oil.

America's — and the world's — need for Persian Gulf oil has shaped much of what the United States has and hasn't done in the Middle East. Does that mean then that U.S. Middle East policy is controlled by U.S. oil companies, as some on the left believe?

Just as this belief is reductionist and simplistic, it is equally reductionist and simplistic to believe that the Israel lobby controls U.S. Middle East policy.

What both views lack is nuance and a sense of the complexity of domestic and international forces that influence foreign policy making.

This failure to grasp the varied and sometimes conflicting forces that shape U.S. policy toward the Middle East is regrettable, but understandable, when made by an undergraduate student. For instance, the interests of oil companies may often conflict with the interests of Israel.

It is quite shocking when it is made by senior professors, both of whom are renowned "realist" thinkers.

Perhaps it is just a symptom of the polarized political climate in which we live that even supposedly cool-headed realists are now prone to hyperbole and polemics.

But there may also be something else at work that leads two eminent scholars to make such exaggerated claims concerning the power of a domestic lobby and its ability to manipulate American foreign policy to serve the goals of another state.

Not antisemitism, but American patriotism. To be sure, this is not the flag-waving, triumphant patriotism which most Americans partake in. It is an anxious, defensive patriotism fuelled by concern that the ship of state has veered dangerously off course.

U.S Middle East policy — which, according to Mearsheimer and Walt, is dominated by its support for Israel — has brought disaster upon the United States (9/11, Iraq). The reason for this, they believe, is quite simple. The United States has not been pursuing its own national interests, as realists like them would advise.

Thus, to avoid further calamity for the United States (such as a military confrontation with Iran — the Israel lobby's next target of attack), Mearsheimer and Walt want U.S. Middle East policy to be exclusively concerned with America, not Israel.

This is the patriotic sentiment that animates their critique of the Israel lobby, and it explains their willingness to subject themselves to the fury and outrage that it was bound to unleash.