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The Storm over the Israel Lobby


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 against its Arab citizens and oppressing the Palestinians who have lived under its occupation.

If neither strategic nor moral considerations can account for America’s support for Israel, Mearsheimer and Walt ask, what does? Their answer: the “unmatched power of the Israel Lobby.” At its core is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which is ranked second after the National Rifle Association (along with the AARP) in the National Journal‘s 2005 listing of Washington’s most powerful lobbies. AIPAC, they write, serves as “a de facto agent for a foreign government.” The lobby, they say, is also associated with Christian evangelicals such as Tom DeLay, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson; neoconservatives both Jewish (Paul Wolfowitz, Bernard Lewis, and William Kristol) and gentile (John Bolton, William Bennett, and George Will); think tanks (the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute); and critics of the press such as the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.

While other special-interest groups influence US foreign policy, Mearsheimer and Walt say, no lobby has managed to divert it “as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US and Israeli interests are essentially identical.” The result has turned the US into an “enabler” of Israeli expansion in the occupied territories, “making it complicit in the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinians.” Pressure from AIPAC and Israel was also a “critical element” in the US decision to invade Iraq, they write, arguing that the war “was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure.”

Finally, the professors maintain, the lobby has created a climate in which anyone who calls attention to its power is deemed anti-Semitic, a device designed to stifle discussion “by intimidation.” They end with a call for a “more open debate” about the lobby’s influence and the consequences it has had for America’s place in the world.

Such points have been made before, but rarely by such hardheaded members of the academic establishment. And the response has been furious. Leading the way has been The New York Sun, whose lead story of March 20 was headed “David Duke Claims to Be Vindicated by a Harvard Dean.” Duke, the white supremacist, was quoted as calling the paper “excellent” and a “great step forward.” “It is quite satisfying,” Duke said, “to see a body in the premier American University essentially come out and validate every major point I have been making since even before the [Iraq] war even started.” “Harvard’s Paper on Israel Called ‘Trash’ by Solon,” went another headline two days later, the Solon in this case being New York congressman Eliot Engel, who said, “Given what happened in the Holocaust, it’s shameful that people would write reports like this.” Congressman Jerrold Nadler called the paper “a meretricious, dishonest piece of crap,” while Marvin Kalb, who teaches at the Kennedy School, expressed disappointment “that a paper of this quality appeared under the Kennedy School label.”

In The Washington Post, Eliot A. Cohen, a professor at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, wrote that he was “a public intellectual and a proud Jew” who was about to celebrate Passover with his oldest son, who was

on leave from the bomb-strewn streets of Baghdad…. Other supposed members of “The Lobby” also have children in military service. Impugning their patriotism or mine is not scholarship or policy advocacy. It is merely, and unforgivably, bigotry.

David Gergen of US News & World Report expressed shock at the professors’ charges, writing that they were “wildly at variance with what I have personally witnessed in the Oval Office” while serving four presidents. “I never once saw a decision in the Oval Office to tilt US foreign policy in favor of Israel at the expense of America’s interest.” “As a Christian,” he wrote,

let me add that it is also wrong and unfair to call into question the loyalty of millions of American Jews who have faithfully supported Israel while also working tirelessly and generously to advance America’s cause, both at home and abroad. They are among our finest citizens and should be praised, not pilloried.

No one, however, was more vociferous than Alan Dershowitz. A professor of law at Harvard and the author of The Case for Israel, Dershowitz was quoted in the Sun as claiming he had proof that the authors had gotten some of their information from neo-Nazi Web sites. Dershowitz (whom the professors call an “American apologist” for Israel) hurriedly drafted a forty-three-page rebuttal and arranged for it to be posted on the same “working papers” site at the Kennedy School. “As an advocate of free speech and an opponent of censorship based on political correctness,” he wrote, “I welcome serious, balanced, objective study of the influence of lobbies—including Israeli lobbies—on American foreign policy.” But, he added,

this study is so filled with distortions, so empty of originality or new evidence, so tendentious in its tone, so lacking in nuance and balance, so unscholarly in its approach, so riddled with obvious factual errors that could easily have been checked (but obviously were not), and so dependent on biased, extremist and anti-American sources, as to raise the question of motive: what would motivate two well-recognized academics to depart so grossly from their usual standards of academic writing and research in order to produce a “study paper” that contributes so little to the existing scholarship while being so susceptible to misuse?

Dershowitz went on to note that the implication of the paper—that American Jews put the interests of Israel before those of America—“raises the ugly specter of ‘dual loyalty,’ a canard that has haunted Diaspora Jews from time immemorial.” He ended by challenging Mearsheimer and Walt to a debate.

The study also drew criticism from the left, notably from Noam Chomsky. While Mearsheimer and Walt “deserve credit” for taking a position “that is sure to elicit tantrums and fanatical lies,” he wrote, their thesis was “not very” convincing, for it ignored the influence that oil companies have had on US policy in the Persian Gulf, and it overlooked the extent to which the US-Israeli alliance performed “a huge service” for “US-Saudis-Energy corporations” by “smashing secular Arab nationalism, which threatened to divert resources to domestic needs.” US policy in the Middle East, Chomsky argued, is no different from that in other parts of the world, and the Israeli government had helped implement it, by, for instance, enabling the Reagan administration to “evade congressional barriers to carrying out massive terror in Central America.” Many would find the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis appealing, he wrote, because it leaves the US government “untouched on its high pinnacle of nobility,” its Wilsonian impulses distorted by “an all-powerful force [i.e., the lobby] that it cannot escape.”

Here and there, some voices were raised in support of the professors. The Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen called the citing of David Duke’s support for the paper a McCarthyite tactic and said the linking of Mearsheimer and Walt to hate groups was a form of “rank guilt by association” that “does not in any way rebut the argument made in their paper.” Cohen said that he found the essay itself “unremarkable, a bit sloppy and one-sided (nothing here about the Arab oil lobby), but nothing that even a casual newspaper reader does not know. Its basic point—that Israel’s American supporters have immense influence over US foreign policy—is unarguable.”

In an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, Tony Judt lamented the “somewhat hysterical response” to the paper in the United States and the “virtual silence in the mainstream media.” He attributed this to a fear of feeding anti-Semitism. The result was a regrettable “failure to consider a major issue in public policy,” a form of “self-censorship” that is bad for the Jews, bad for Israel, and above all bad for the United States. With East Asia growing daily and “our clumsy failure to recast the Middle East” coming “into sharp focus,” Judt acidly wrote, the strategic debate is fast changing, and “it will not be self-evident to future generations of Americans why the imperial might and international reputation of the United States are so closely aligned with one small, controversial Mediterranean client state.”

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