Not since Foreign Affairs magazine published Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations?” in 1993 has an academic essay detonated with such force as “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy,” by professors John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Published in the March 23, 2006, issue of the London Review of Books and posted as a “working paper” on the Kennedy School’s Web site, the report has been debated in the coffeehouses of Cairo and in the editorial offices of Haaretz. It’s been called “smelly” (Christopher Hitchens), “nutty” (Max Boot), “conspiratorial” (the Anti-Defamation League), “oddly amateurish” (the Forward), and “brave” (Philip Weiss in The Nation). It’s prompted intense speculation over why The New York Times has given it so little attention and why The Atlantic Monthly, which originally commissioned the essay, rejected it.
The objects of all this controversy are two eminent members of the academic establishment. Mearsheimer is a graduate of West Point, a veteran of five years in the Air Force, and the author of three books, including The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. In 1989, Mearsheimer persuaded Walt to leave Princeton and to join the faculty at Chicago, and they worked closely together until 1999, when Walt left for Harvard’s Kennedy School; he’s been its academic dean for the last three years. Last year, he published Taming American Power: The Global Response to US Primacy. As their book titles suggest, both professors belong to the “realist” school of international relations, viewing national interest as the only effective ground for making foreign policy.
In their paper (the Web version runs eighty-two pages, forty of them footnotes), Mearsheimer and Walt argue that the centerpiece of US policy in the Middle East has been its unwavering support for Israel, and that this has not been in America’s best interest. In their view, the “extraordinary generosity” the US showers on Israel— the nearly $3 billion in direct foreign assistance it provides every year, the access it gives Israel to “top-drawer” weapons like F-16 jets, the thirty-two UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel that it has vetoed since 1982, the “wide latitude” it has given Israel in dealing with the occupied territories—all this “might be understandable if Israel were a vital strategic asset or if there were a compelling moral case for sustained US backing.” In fact, they write, “neither rationale is convincing.” Israel may have had strategic value for the US during the cold war when the Soviet Union had heavy influence in Egypt and Syria, but that has long since faded. Since September 11, Israel has been cast as a crucial ally in the war on terror, but actually, according to Mearsheimer and Walt, it has been more of a liability; its close ties to America have served as a rallying point for Osama bin Laden and other anti-American extremists. Morally, Israel qualifies as a democracy, the authors write, but it’s a deeply flawed one, discriminating…
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