The Israel Lobby — Preserving All-Around Perspective

Does a pro-Israel foreign policy actually work against key U.S. foreign objectives?

April 7, 2006

Does a pro-Israel foreign policy actually work against key U.S. foreign objectives?

Despite the current firestorm about their paper on the "Israel Lobby", Mearsheimer and Walt are not the only prominent U.S. thinkers to have recently issued such a provocative appeal to the American national interest. Samuel Huntington, another Harvard professor and realist thinker, has also bemoaned the failure of U.S. policymakers to pursue American national interests.

Instead of pursuing "American" interests, Huntington has argued that U.S. foreign policy is being determined according to the interests of vocal and energetic ethnic lobbies.

Mearsheimer, Walt and Huntington would all like U.S. foreign policy to be guided solely according to U.S. national interests — whatever these supposedly are.

They are all uneasy over the excessive influence that ethnic lobbies have over U.S. foreign policy (unlike Huntington, Mearsheimer and Walt single out the Israel lobby).

Not that Mearsheimer and Walt are explicit about this concern. For example, they take care to note that "there is nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to sway U.S policy towards Israel." Elsewhere they concede that: "For the most part, the individuals and groups that comprise the lobby are doing what other special interest groups do, just much better."

Despite such caveats, they do not hesitate to label AIPAC (the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee), the most influential pro-Israel lobby group, "a de facto agent for a foreign government [Israel]."

If AIPAC serves foreign, rather than U.S. interests, then presumably, so too do other ethnic lobby groups. The implication is clear — this is downright unpatriotic.

American Jews, Cuban-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Irish-Americans and all the other ethnic groups that try with varying degrees of success to influence U.S. foreign policy towards their homelands (real or imagined) should take note. You may speak, but not too loudly. You may lobby, but not too well.

As the United States finds itself bogged down in an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, facing the amorphous threat of global Jihadism, and nervous about the economic rise of Asian powers (China and India), it seems that some members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, Mearsheimer, Walt, and Huntington are all establishment thinkers, — are now focusing their attention, and blame, on the nefarious political influence of ethnic interests groups.

If only these groups would shut up and stop meddling in the making of U.S. foreign policy, we would not be in this mess today, they seem to think. This is surely wishful thinking.

Take the war in Iraq. Mearsheimer and Walt appear to believe that this would not have come about — were it not for the machinations of the Israel lobby.

This belief discounts the fact that, rightly or wrongly, regime change in Iraq was considered to be in the U.S. national interest by many inside and outside the Bush Administration.

Regardless of whether this view has thus far been proven correct — on the basis of current evidence, it appears to have been disastrously wrong — the point is that, prior to the Iraq war, there was an intense and long-running debate over whether invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein's regime served U.S. national interests.

Surely not every supporter of the Iraq war was a member of the Israel lobby. Didn't many patriotic, non-Jewish Americans actually favor war, too? The United States went to war in Iraq for its own reasons. One may disagree with these reasons, as Mearsheimer and Walt have publicly done, but one must not deny their existence.

In short, the United States invaded Iraq because the Bush Administration, with the support of Congress and much of the U.S. public behind it, wanted to — not because the Israel lobby told it to.

Let me be clear. This article should not be read as a defense of the Israel lobby. Its activities, like those of other ethnic lobbies, are entirely legitimate and part and parcel of the pluralistic policymaking process in the United States.

But there is no reason why Americans, including American Jews, should not seriously consider whether the policies advocated by pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington really do serve American, or for that matter Israeli, interests.

Although Mearsheimer and Walt are wrong in their exaggerated and simplistic depiction of the power of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, they are right to question the policies promoted by pro-Israel groups.

To ask how U.S. military, financial and diplomatic support for Israel really benefits the United States is a valid and important question — including for friends of Israel.

If one consequence of such support is the perception around the world, and especially in the Arab world, of the United States as the unconditional backer — and banker — of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories, is this support too costly?

Put simply, is the de facto U.S. alliance with Israel a net strategic asset or a liability? Whatever view one takes on this question (for Mearsheimer and Walt, Israel is certainly a liability), it is a question that can and should be asked. No alliance, indeed, no foreign policy in general, is beyond criticism.

Since the end of the Cold War, many longstanding U.S. alliances have come under greater scrutiny — as policymakers in Washington have slowly begun to rethink and revise the regional and global commitments made by their Cold War predecessors.

The U.S.-Israeli relationship — however "special" and entrenched — should not automatically be declared off-limits from reevaluation.

If Israel truly is a valuable strategic partner for the United States, as the pro-Israel lobby insists, then nobody should have any reason to fear a public debate over the costs and benefits of America's support for Israel. A debate of this sort could help remind Americans of Israel's importance to the United States.

Why then do pro-Israel groups appear to be so opposed to such a debate? Why are they so quick to denounce and de-legitimize criticism of U.S. support for Israel? This kind of reaction can only lead one to wonder how confident the pro-Israel lobby really is about Israel's value to the United States.

In contrast to the overwhelmingly hostile reaction to Mearsheimer's and Walt's paper in the United States, its reception in Israel was far more mixed. Although commentators in the Israeli press noted many flaws and deficiencies in the paper, some actually welcomed its criticism of the Israel lobby.

An editorial in Ha'aretz, Israel's equivalent of The New York Times, declared that the paper was "a warning from America" with "a serious and disturbing message" that should not be ignored. Another writer in Ha'aretz described it as "a wake-up call" which made a "potent case."

This Israeli response is not as surprising as it seems. The American pro-Israel lobby has long been viewed with wariness and suspicion by left-wing Israelis who tend to regard it as an ally of Israel's right-wing.
Undermining the peace process

The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, for instance, publicly chastised AIPAC following his 1992 election victory for supporting Yitzhak Shamir's right-wing government and harming U.S.-Israeli relations.

During the years of the Oslo peace process, dovish Israeli policymakers often privately complained that some American Jewish organizations (such as the Zionist Organization of America) were acting against the policies of Labor governments and attempting to undermine the peace process.

In the mid-1990s, for instance, AIPAC lobbied Congress to pass a bill requiring the United States to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite the behind-the-scenes objections from the Rabin government.

The question of whether U.S.-based pro-Israel lobby groups are helpful or harmful to Israel is one that Israelis have debated for some time. While those on the right are generally very grateful for the activities of these groups, those on the left are often equally critical.

This latter view was unequivocally expressed by Tom Segev, a columnist for Ha'aretz, in his reaction to Mearsheimer's and Walt's paper: "The Israel lobby in the United States harms Israel's true interests. It made the continuation of the occupation and the settlements possible. Its influence led, among other things, to missing out on a peace treaty with Syria and to a loss of the opportunities created in Oslo. The effort to suppress the Palestinian national movement did not enhance Israel's security — on the contrary, it brought Hamas to power."

If Israelis can openly criticize the activities of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, then surely they should not be immune from public criticism in the United States or elsewhere of a particular lobby.

But this criticism must maintain a sense of perspective. It must be careful not to wildly overstate the power of these groups, or falsely assign responsibility to them for the mistakes and misjudgments of U.S. policymakers.

However one judges U.S. Middle East policy, its support for Israel, and the activities of the Israel lobby — and there are good reasons for being critical of all three — it is important that we not exaggerate the power of the latter in determining the former.

Not only is this a serious analytical error, but also it distracts our attention from addressing other things, such as U.S. energy policy, such factors are equally, if not more important to understanding why the United States was attacked on 9/11 — and why it is now in the quagmire of Iraq. To blame the "Israel Lobby" for all our Middle East related woes is far too easy an excuse.