The Israel Lobby Revisited
by Stephen Zunes
It has been 21 months since John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt published their article “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” in The London Review of Books and four months since their publication of a book by the same name. Their main arguments are that unconditional U.S. support for the Israeli government has harmed U.S. interests in the Middle East and that American organizations allied with the Israeli government have been the primary influence regarding the orientation of U.S. Middle East policy. As a political scientist and international relations scholar specializing in the United States role in the Middle East, I certainly had no disagreements with their first contention. I took strong exception to their second, however.
There is no denying that the Israel Lobby can be quite influential, particularly on Capitol Hill and in its role in limiting the broader public debate. However, I found it incredibly naïve to assume that U.S. policy in the Middle East would be significantly different without AIPAC and like-minded pro-Zionist organizations. In response to what I saw as a rather simplistic and reductionist understanding of U.S. foreign policy by these prominent center-right international relations scholars, I wrote the article The Israel Lobby: How Powerful is It Really?
While most the criticisms of Mearsheimer and Walt’s article came from right-wing apologists of the Israeli government, many long-time critics of U.S. support for Israeli occupation, repression, colonization and related policies against their neighbors raised concerns as well. My article became one of the more widely-circulated and detailed critiques from the left.
My analysis drew profoundly negative reaction from those who insisted that it was not oil interests, military contractors, ideological imperialists, and related powerful sectors of America’s ruling class who were responsible for the U.S. invasion of Iraq and other tragic manifestations of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, but was instead the responsibility of a rich cabal of Jews who manipulated the Bush administration to engage in policies it would not have otherwise supported. I was denounced for propagating left-wing “lies” and “myths” by examining some of the broader structural, ideological, economic and institutional inherencies in U.S. foreign policy instead of acknowledging that it was all the fault of the Jews.
Just as the hysterical reaction from right-wing Zionist circles seemed to some to vindicate Mearsheimer and Walt’s arguments that an all-powerful Israel Lobby stifles legitimate debate about U.S. policy toward Israel and the broader Middle East, the reaction to my critique seemed to some to vindicate the notion that those who put the blame on the Israel Lobby are prone to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Mearsheimer and Walt’s book certainly does not fall into the anti-Semitic rants of many of their supporters. Like their original article, however, the book is still fundamentally flawed.
The Israel Lobby is seemingly powerful because it converges with more powerful interests driving U.S. policy, particularly the drive for hegemonic domination of the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Even when the Lobby was significantly weaker than it is now, U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East was the largely the same.
Mearsheimer and Walt, along with their defenders, fail to make the distinction between the undeniable impact the Lobby has had on limiting debate regarding U.S. policy toward Israel and the assertion that it is the major defining force behind U.S. policy in the Middle East. As Professor Joseph Massad at Columbia University – who has been subjected to vicious attacks from right-wing Zionist groups – puts it, the Israel Lobby is responsible for “the details and intensity but not the direction, content, or impact of such policies.” Indeed, as I pointed out in my original article, U.S. policy toward both Israel/Palestine and the region as a whole is quite consistent with U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America, Southern Africa, Southeast Asia and elsewhere. The consequences are more serious for Americans at home (for example, no Vietnamese or Nicaraguans ever flew airplanes into buildings), but they are not fundamentally different.
Any serious review of U.S. foreign policy in virtually every corner of the globe demonstrates how the United States props up dictatorships, imposes blatant double-standards regarding human rights and international law, supports foreign military occupations (witness East Timor and Western Sahara), undermines the authority of the UN, pushes for military solutions to political problems, transfers massive quantities of armaments, imposes draconian austerity programs on debt-ridden countries through international financial institutions, and periodically bombs, imposes sanctions, stages coups, and invades countries that don’t accept U.S. hegemony. If U.S. policy toward the Middle East was fundamentally different than it has been toward the rest of the world, Mearsheimer and Walt would have every right to look for some other sinister force leading the United States astray from its otherwise benign foreign policy agenda.
In many respects, their argument is nothing new. A small group of former State Department officials and former Republican congressmen at such publications as the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and organizations like the Center for the National Interest shares Mearsheimer and Walt’s critique of U.S. Middle East policy and their failure to acknowledge the nature of America’s hegemonic designs in the region and beyond. As political scientist Asad AbuKhalil – the self-described “angry Arab” currently serving as a visiting professor at the University of California in Berkeley – describes it, such analysis “absolves the Bush administration, any administration, from any responsibility because they become portrayed as helpless victims of an all-powerful lobby.”
I have been familiar with the work of Mearsheimer and Walt for many years. Professor Mearsheimer and I both received our doctorates from Cornell University’s Department of Government (which, incidentally, did not offer a single course dealing with the Middle East.) They are considered two of the countries leading scholars in the field of international relations from the “realist” tradition. While I do not believe they are motivated by a conscious anti-Semitism or any innate hostility toward Israel, their perspective has nevertheless been compromised by another kind of ideological bias.
As political scientists, Mearsheimer and Walt should recognize that American foreign policy is a result of a complex mix of ideological prejudices, bureaucratic processes, domestic politics, group-think, and more. The interplay of these different factors has been the subject of some of the most acclaimed studies of the discipline, including Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision, regarding the decision-making within the Kennedy administration during the Cuban missile crisis (which, ironically, is the first book Stephen Walt reportedly read as a graduate student at Berkeley.)
Putting most of the blame on the Israel Lobby is reductionism at its worst, taking just one vector of power and influence and turning into a monocausal theory. It is overly simplistic in that it embraces a naively pluralistic understanding of political power, denying the deeper power structures that drive U.S. policy in the Middle East. Indeed, I wish their analysis were correct, since a single, powerful lobby would be a much simpler problem to overcome.
Both authors blindly accept a number of naíve and demonstrably false assumptions regarding America’s role in the world. For example, they assert that the foreign policy of the United States — the world’s number one arms supplier for dictatorial regimes — “…is designed to promote democracy abroad” and the U.S. effort to spread democracy throughout the Middle East “has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion.” The reality, of course, is just the opposite: it has been U.S. support for the majority of the dictatorships in that part of the world that has primarily contributed to anti-American sentiment.
According to the disturbing nativism implied in Mearsheimer and Walt’s thesis, foreigners and those allied to their interest by ethnic or ideological connections undermine the benign instincts of America’s leaders. In doing so, the two analysts create an artificial duality with the Israel lobby on one side and U.S. national interest on the other. As such, if the pursuit of certain policies ends up being bad for the United States, it must have been the result of those with ulterior motives forcing American leaders to do so, not the well-documented hubris of the current administration. In defense of Bush, whom they insist has “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” they ignore his stubborn resistance to any facts that contradict his rigid ideological convictions, his choice to ignore public opinion calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and other changes in policies, and his dismissal of the opinions of allies whose support is so crucially needed in these dangerous times.
In an article published four weeks prior to the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the monthly magazine Tikkun, I predicted that sooner or later, the American public would realize that a U.S. invasion of Iraq had been a disaster. I also argued that there might be some in the foreign policy establishment who would revert to the time-honored tradition of blaming the Jews as a means of deflecting attention away from those who really have power in order to avoid a critical re-evaluation of America’s role in the world.
Sure enough, as public opinion polls show more and more Americans are recognizing that the Iraq War was essentially about oil, Mearsheimer and Walt – in defense of the foreign policy establishment they have served so well – are eager to shift attention toward nefarious foreign-influenced forces as being responsible for the Bush administration’s disastrous decision to invade and occupy Iraq. In reality, however, while guilty of advocating many immoral, illegal and dangerous policies over the years, the Israel Lobby was not a major factor in the decision to go to war.
Not only have there been a plethora of books and articles on the decision-making in the lead-up to the war in which it appears that Israel was not a major factor, it has since been revealed that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon specifically warned Bush against occupying Iraq or invading Iraq without an exit strategy. The Israeli prime minister also feared that an insurgency could radicalize the region and spill over Iraq’s borders. Israeli Ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon was even instructed by Sharon to tell visiting Israelis not to encourage a U.S. invasion of Iraq for fear that its likely failure would be blamed on Israel. Israeli officials also warned the Bush administration that invading Iraq could destabilize the region, in large part due to concern that it would strengthen Iran, which the Israelis considered the primary threat. For example, in a visit to Washington in February 2002, both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Defense Minister Fouad Ben-Eliezer emphasized their concern that “Iran is more dangerous than Iraq.”
Indeed, as far back as the aftermath of the 1991 war, the head of the Israeli military intelligence revealed in an interview that Iraq was no longer a threat to Israel.
Interestingly, Mearsheimer and Walt acknowledge that the Israelis were initially skeptical about the administration’s obsession with “regime change” in Iraq, and they present very little evidence of active support by the Lobby for the war. At most, they point out that mainstream U.S. Zionist leaders “refused to speak out.” Indeed, a careful reading of their book reveals that they present no real evidence that Israel was the principal backer of long-planned invasion. Israeli officials came on board only after the decision had been made, apparently with the promise that Iran would become the next target. In other words, the Israeli government and the Israel Lobby were willing to use their clout to help their friends in the White House garner support from the public and Congress for a decision which the Bush administration had already made on its own. Given Bush’s strong support for Israel’s acts of aggression, they were willing to return the favor. This is very different, however, than somehow being responsible for the decision itself.
The Role of Neoconservatives
Mearsheimer and Walt highlight what they claim to be the affinity for Israel by influential neo-conservatives as a major factor in the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. In particular, they cite the efforts of the neo-cons behind the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). In reality, however, those who made up PNAC and other neo-conservatives opposed Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq because they feared it would challenge U.S. hegemony in the region, which was always their priority. For example, in the introduction to the influential 2000 PNAC report Rebuilding America’s Defenses, they explicitly spelled out the neo-conservative agenda: “At present the United States faces no global rival. America’s grand strategy should aim to preserve and expand this advantageous position as far into the future as possible.” The strong support by PNAC members and other neo-cons of Israel only goes as far as they see American and Israeli interests converging. They have not been major supporters of Israel, for example, when the right-wing has not been in power there. And even under the rightist prime minister Ariel Sharon, most Israeli government officials – with a few notable exceptions – saw Israel’s political and strategic interests at odds with the grandiose American neo-conservative designs on Iraq.
Indeed, the Defense Guidance Plan of 1992, rejected by the senior Bush administration as being too extreme but adopted in large part by his son’s administration, also makes clear that the primary concerns of the neo-conservatives was advancing U.S. hegemony, not supporting Israel. The role for Israel, at least under its right-wing governments, was as an important ally in that struggle for American primacy in the Middle East and beyond, but not the main focus, which they spelled out quite clearly: “In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the preeminent outside power in the region and preserve US and Western access to the region’s oil.”
The evolution of PNAC is based on – in the words of their initial statement of principles – “A Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity.” Throughout the group’s published statements, American primacy, not Israeli primacy, is their focus. Mearsheimer and Walt cite the 1996 paper written for a right-wing Israeli think tank by two leading American Jewish neo-cons – Douglas Feith and David Wurmser – which encouraged Israel to make a “clean break” with the Oslo Peace Process and rely more on force to advance its objectives, including the removal of Saddam Hussein. However, if one actually reads the paper, it is a clear call for Israel to break from the U.S.-led peace process and the perceived restraints on Israeli actions by the U.S. government, then under the leadership of the more moderate Clinton administration. It was not a call for the United States to take risky initiatives at the behest of Israel. Similarly, the paper demonstrates how, rather than being a case of the Israelis getting the neo-cons to pressure the United States to change its policies to a more hard-line position, it was American neo-cons pressuring Israel to change its policies to a more hard-line position.
The people behind PNAC and other neo-conservatives were indeed allied with more traditional conservatives like former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney to push the United States to take a more assertive position in the region. This was not in support of Israel, but to establish “full spectrum dominance” by the United States over any international or regional rival, in the Middle East or anywhere else. For example, Feith, frequently cited as someone supposedly willing to put Israel’s interests ahead of America’s, used his post as under-secretary of defense for policy during the first term of the Bush administration to sanction and eventually order the purge of top Israeli Defense officials, over the protests of the Israeli government, for their decision to upgrade Harpy drones for China, which the Bush administration deemed a threat to U.S. strategic dominance in East Asia.
In any case, the neo-conservatives were not nearly as “profoundly important” as Mearsheimer and Walt pretend they are in shaping U.S. Middle East policy under the current Bush administration. Their primary role has been to provide the intellectual framework and rationalizations for policies – motivated by a number of strategic, economic and ideological factors – that would likely have been pursued in any case.
Indeed, one of the major fallacies of Walt and Mearsheimer’s book is the assumption that access and connections equal control over policy. For example, they describe in detail the activities of pro-Israel think tanks like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), emphasizing how WINEP has employed a number of former government officials. They are unclear as to how these activities translate into influence on policy, however, or how this translates into influence on the president or secretary of state, or any other key decision-maker. An influential group may convince a president to appoint one of their people to an assistant secretary position in the Defense Department or State Department, but that doesn’t mean they control policy, which is ultimately determined by the president and others at the top, who make their decisions based on what they – rightly or wrongly – believe to be in the best interest of the United States.
Other Middle East Policies
There are also serious questions regarding Mearsheimer and Walt’s argument that, were the Lobby not so powerful, U.S. policy toward the region would somehow be “more temperate,” as if the United States has pursued temperate policies in Central America, Southeast Asia, and other regions where perceived strategic, geopolitical and economic interests were at stake. For example, they insist that without the Lobby, “the United States would almost certainly have a different and more effective Iran Policy,” ignoring the Bush administration’s propensity to take similarly rigid and uncompromising posture toward Cuba and other so-called “rogue states.”
Mearsheimer and Walt blame U.S. support for Israel’s war on Lebanon during the summer of 2006 as another example of the Lobby’s power, ignoring that it was the United States that pushed Israel to attack Lebanon in the first place as a proxy war against Iran and Syria. Indeed, the desperate effort by the Bush administration to blame the Iranian and Syrian governments for the conflict illustrates that U.S. support for the Israeli offensive – which ended up being a major strategic setback for the Israelis – was motivated primarily by perceived U.S. regional interests than by concern for Israel’s right to self-defense.
Similarly, a strong case can be made that the United States’ unremitting hostility toward Hamas playing any role in Palestinian self-governance is less a reflection of the power of the Lobby than, as with the case of Hezbollah in Lebanon, it is of the U.S. obsession with preventing any anti-American Islamist group in the Middle East from exercising effective governance.
There is no question that the Israel Lobby has worked hard and largely successfully to garner congressional support, even from otherwise liberal Democrats, to support the Bush administration in its policies towards Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. However, Mearsheimer and Walt have yet to make a convincing case that the Bush administration’s policies towards these and other Middle Eastern countries would be very different without it.
The Lobby and Israel Policy
As I acknowledged in my original article, the Israel Lobby is far more influential regarding U.S. policy toward Israel than in the broader Middle East, but Mearsheimer and Walt grossly exaggerate their role regarding U.S.-Israeli relations as well.
The authors are particularly inaccurate in their assessment regarding the influence of the Lobby on the executive branch, which is primarily responsible for foreign policy, where lobbyists of all kinds tend to have less influence than they do in Congress. For example, the two presidents who most dramatically shifted U.S. policy in a more “pro-Israel” direction were Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, who were less dependent on Jewish voters and campaign contributions from pro-Israel Political Action Committees (PACs) and individuals than any modern presidents. Nixon’s tilt toward Israel was a result of his belief that that country, having proven itself more powerful than any combination of Arab armies in the 1967 war, would be an important Cold War asset. In a similar vein, Bush has seen Israel’s right-wing government as a natural ally in his “war on terror.”
The U.S.-Israeli alliance is based primarily on strategic considerations rather than a powerful lobby. In my original critique, I cited a number of examples illustrating that whenever the president has deemed U.S. interests to be at variance with Israeli interests, U.S. national interest has prevailed. More recent examples include President Bush successfully blocking Israel’s lucrative plan to upgrade Venezuela’s F-16 fighters and his refusal to provide massive financial “compensation” for Israel’s disengagement from the occupied Gaza Strip and possible further disengagements from the West Bank.
Of course, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and related groups have been primarily responsible for Congress passing a number of resolutions by overwhelming bipartisan majorities every session declaring its support for particular Israeli policies, including defending and covering up for blatant Israeli violations of international humanitarian law. However, virtually all of these are non-binding resolutions. When AIPAC has tried to get Congress to force the president’s hand through binding legislation – such as the periodic attempts mandating that the United States move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – they almost always fail.
One of the major arguments regarding the supposed power of the Lobby is through the contributions of its allied political action committees (PAC). In 2006, “pro-Israel” PACs and individuals are estimated to have contributed more than $9 million to party coffers and Congressional campaigns. While that is certainly a significant amount, it ranks significantly below that of PACs and individuals supporting the interests of lawyers ($58 million), retirees ($36 million), the real estate industry ($33 million), health professionals ($32 million), securities and investment firms ($29 million), the insurance industry ($21 million), commercial banks ($16 million), the pharmaceutical industry ($14 million), electrical utilities ($12 million), the oil and gas industry ($11 million), and the computer industry ($10 million), among others. Even contributions given in support of unions representing public sector workers, the building trades, and transportation workers each were significantly higher than the total contributions given in support of the Israeli government. Indeed, if political contributions made that big a difference, one would assume that – given that nine of the top 20 PACs are affiliated with labor unions – U.S. government policy would be solidly behind working people and far more hostile to the interests of powerful corporations. In any case, with rare exceptions, PACs allied with the Israel Lobby generally do not contribute more than 10% of the total amount raised by a given campaign.
True, there are cases when members of Congress critical of unconditional U.S. support for Israeli policies lost re-election bids – such as Rep. Paul Findley and Rep. Cynthia McKinney. But, as I illustrated in my original article there were other far more significant sources of support for opponents and reasons for their defeat than the “pro-Israel” PACs. Furthermore, it is important to note that the vast majority of House members who refuse to follow AIPAC’s line are easily re-elected. For example, every Democratic member of Congress who refused to support the July 2006 House resolution supporting Israel’s attacks on Lebanon, subjected to vigorous lobbying by AIPAC, was re-elected by a larger margin than they were two years earlier.
It is also important to recognize the broad array of interests that find it advantageous to exaggerate the Lobby’s power. Some members of Congress and their aides want to deflect criticism from progressive constituents opposed to their support for the occupation and other Israeli policies. Some foreign service officers want to do the same to foreign leaders by making the U.S. government appear to be a hostage to special interests beyond the administration’s control. There are also the constituent components of the Lobby itself, which find it useful for fundraising purposes and as a means of intimidating members of Congress. There are Jews who find the idea of having such power and influence a liberating antidote to centuries of oppression. And, of course, there are bigots who find the exaggeration of Jewish power and influence a highly-effective means of spreading their anti-Semitic ideology.
As a result, while it is important to acknowledge where the Israel Lobby does indeed have clout, it is also important to be wary of the multiplicity of reasons why so many people would, consciously or unconsciously, tend to overstate its influence.
Consistency in Policy
A number of examples given by Mearsheimer and Walt regarding the unique influence of the Israel Lobby when, examined more closely, do not appear to be unique at all.
One example they give of the Lobby’s supposed power was the failure of the Bush administration to more harshly criticize the Israeli government for ordering a missile strike on the home of a Hamas leader in June 2003. Yet, U.S. support for the assassinations of alleged terrorist leaders is not a policy that comes about as a result of Israeli influence. For example, earlier that year, the U.S. government itself ordered a missile attack on an automobile in Yemen that killed an alleged al-Qaeda leader and five others.
Mearsheimer and Walt also claim that the failure of the United States to follow through on previous U.S. commitments to enforce a promised Israeli freeze on its illegal settlements in the West Bank was a response to pressure by the Lobby, ignoring the fact that the United States has never pressured Turkey, Morocco, or Indonesia to freeze their settlements in their occupied territories, which are also illegal.
The authors try to make the case that more moderate elements within the administration, such as Secretary of State Powell, lost out to hardliners like Cheney and Rumsfeld on policy decisions involving Israel as a result of pressure from the Israel Lobby. Rather than being proof of the power of the Lobby, however, it is more accurately just one of many examples in which Powell came out on the losing end of power struggles within the administration, most of which involved issues unrelated to Israel. In addition, the authors fail to consider that Cheney and Rumsfeld might have been motivated by their own ideological preconceptions.
This underscores another major fallacy of Mearsheimer and Walt: their claim that, “For past several decades, the centerpiece of U.S. Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel.” Any serious look at U.S. diplomatic history in the region, however, underscores the primacy of access to Persian Gulf oil as well as support for strategic allies – of which Israel is perceived to be the most important, but not the only one – to counter Communist and left-wing nationalist forces in earlier decades and, more recently, anti-American Islamic extremism. Instead of recognizing that the United States uses Israel to strengthen its domination of the region, however, Mearsheimer and Walt insist that it is the other way around. In one sense, it is not an either/or proposition. As the leftist Israeli journalist Uri Avnery put is, “The U.S. uses Israel to dominate the Middle East, Israel uses the U.S. to dominate Palestine.” It is a quid pro quo the United States is quite willing to accept. Mearsheimer and Walt are essentially correct in observing that the United States doesn’t gain much by Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. But history shows it hasn’t actually significantly hurt U.S. relations with its Arab allies, who are quite willing to give lip service to the Palestinian cause but see maintaining a close strategic relationship with the United States as more important. While Mearsheimer and Walt are certainly correct that U.S. support for the Israeli government has greatly harmed popular perceptions of the United States within the Arab and Islamic world and has contributed to the rise of anti-American extremism, the failure of the U.S. government to be more sensitive to this fact is more a reflection of the longstanding historic tendency to downplay the importance of the masses relative to their governments than an example of the Israel Lobby somehow forcing the United States to pursue policies against its own interests.
Corporate Influences in Israel Policy
In their lengthy book, Mearsheimer and Walt largely ignore the influence of the military-industrial complex in the close U.S.-Israeli relationship. For example, the authors note that “The US has provided Israel with nearly $3 billion to develop weapons systems, and given it access to such to-drawer weaponry as Blackhawk helicopters and F-16 jets…,” with the assumption that this is the result of the Israel Lobby. They fail to mention, however, that Sikorsky, manufacturers of Black Hawk helicopters, lobbied vigorously for these arms transfers and that Lockheed Martin, manufacturer of the F-16s and the nation’s largest defense contractor, donated more than $1 million to the campaigns of members of relevant Congressional committees alone. Both companies have a “revolving door” relationship with Pentagon, as former top procurement officers are immediately offered lucrative jobs upon their retirement to lobby their former colleagues.
Mearsheimer and Walt downplay this role of American arms manufacturers by noting that Israel is allowed to spend up to one-quarter of its military aid domestically. However, even that 75% is far more than any other country receives. Even “domestic” Israeli arms production involves the purchase of American parts and includes lucrative partnerships with American firms. Furthermore, this U.S. military assistance to Israel makes it possible for the United States to then sell arms to Arab countries concerned about countering perceived strategic vulnerabilities as a result of Israeli procurement of American armaments.
The combined U.S. foreign aid currently provided to the governments of Egypt and Colombia, which – like the Israeli government – engage in serious human rights abuses, is close to the amount of aid received by the Israeli government. Yet neither of these two countries has a massive lobby working on its behalf or an influential ethnic community that identifies with those states.
It is also important to note that the United States spends far more money to fund its far-flung bases in the Arab world than it does to support Israel and that Americans spend 50 times as much annually on the war in Iraq than on aid to Israel.
Similarly, while the authors are quick to note how a number of think tanks supportive of a militaristic U.S. policy have a disproportionate number of Jews in influential positions, they fail to mention that their boards of directors also include non-Jewish representatives from major arms manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Cypress International, which presumably have other motivations for supporting a militaristic U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The Role of Ideology
Another factor overlooked by Mearsheimer and Walt is the role of ideology and prejudice. Most detailed studies of the Bush White House, for example, reveal that the president has a genuine ideological affinity with Israel, which he has spoken of publicly on a number of occasions. And such a bias is not just among right-wing fundamentalist Christians like Bush.
The sentimental attachment many Americans – particularly liberals of the post-World War II generation – have for Israel should not be underestimated and goes a long way in explaining why so many otherwise liberal members of Congress and other influential left-of-center voices take positions that even within Israel itself would be considered to be on the right-wing of the political spectrum. There is a great appreciation for Israel’s internal democracy, progressive social institutions (such as the kibbutzim), the relatively high level of social equality, and Israel’s important role as a sanctuary for an oppressed minority group that spent centuries in the Diaspora. Through a mixture of guilt regarding Western anti-Semitism, personal friendships with Jewish Americans who identify strongly with Israel, and fear of inadvertently encouraging anti-Semitism by criticizing Israel, American liberals show an enormous reluctance to acknowledge the seriousness of Israeli violations of human rights and international law. Many American liberals of this generation have an idealist view of Israel that is both as sincere and inaccurate as the idealized view of Stalin’s Russia embraced by an earlier generation of American leftists or that of various Third World revolutionary regimes by many in my generation. To many Americans who are middle aged and older, Israel is still seen as it was portrayed in the idealized and romanticized 1960 movie Exodus, starring a young Paul Newman.
Contributing to this view is the widespread racism in American society against Arabs and Muslims, often encouraged in the media. Such racist attitudes toward Arab and Muslim peoples (i.e., the only language they understand is force), particularly since 9/11, is a phenomenon that – while certainly encouraged by elements of the Israel Lobby – has unfortunately been deeply rooted in American society, and Western culture in general, for centuries. This is compounded by the identification many Americans have with Zionism in the Middle East as a reflection of their own historical experience in North America as immigrants and pioneers. In both cases, European migrants – many of whom were escaping religious persecution – built a new a nation based upon noble, idealistic values while simultaneously suppressing and expelling the indigenous population seen as violent and “primitive.” The strong identification Americans have with Israel, then, is less the fact that it is a Jewish state as it is perceived as a Western state.
The exaggerated view of the power of the Lobby also becomes self-fulfilling. Peace and human rights activists and their organizations tend to be far more forgiving of Democratic candidates who take right-wing positions regarding Israel than they do of any other issue because they have come to believe these candidates are supposedly powerless to stand up to the Lobby and therefore should be absolved of any responsibility. As a result, since these politicians do not have to worry about pressure from the other direction, giving in to the demands of the Lobby becomes the path of least resistance. This is why quotes by leaders of the Lobby used by Mearsheimer and Walt to illustrate their supposed influence, rather than providing proof of their power, are more likely deliberate hyperbole to scare off challenges.
Before the Lobby even bothers to mobilize around a particular issue, pre-emptive censorship takes place. For example, host organizations have canceled scheduled events on the excuse that they might result in protests from the Jewish community, even in cases where no organized opposition had yet emerged. Recent examples include the postponement of the play “My Name is Rachel Corrie” by the New York Theater Workshop; the cancellation of an appearance at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs by Mearsheimer and Walt; the cancellation of a speech by former South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu at St. Thomas University in Minneapolis; and the denial of venue of a scheduled concert by Lebanese folk musician Marcel Khalife by the Joan Kroc Theater in San Diego. In each case, the sponsoring or hosting organization did not buckle to protests, but made their decision based simply on private concerns expressed by certain members of the Jewish community about the possibility that there would be protests.
The Default Explanation
In Mearsheimer and Walt’s world view, the Israel Lobby becomes the default explanation for every wrong turn the United States has made in the Middle East. They have a hard time accepting the possibility that those who have led the United States into these tragic misadventures could be acting out of sincere, however seriously misguided, conviction.
Given that their flawed arguments have already gotten far more support and attention than they deserve – with their book on bestseller lists and their being granted major forums in towns and cities across the country – it is ironic that they insist they have been “stifled.” Nor do they acknowledge that forums that have denied them a podium may have chosen to do so because they recognize that their work is fundamentally flawed and not because of pressure from the Lobby.
The fact that so many people have so easily bought into Mearsheimer and Walt’s transparently superficial arguments may be indicative of a subtle but pervasive anti-Semitism in American society, even among supposed progressives. Or perhaps it’s just a kind of naive liberalism that finds it psychologically more comfortable to blame immoral, irrational, and dangerous policies on a small group of bad guys rather than take a more systemic, radical critique of the nature of U.S. imperialism. Of course, the same kind of simple-minded, superficial arguments have been leveled against Mearsheimer and Walt. Abraham Foxman’s reply, The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control is an even worse piece of analysis.
There is no question that the Israel Lobby is one important factor influencing U.S. policy in the Middle East, particularly regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is not, however, the only factor or the most important factor.
There is also no question that the Israel Lobby has made informed debate on U.S. support for Israeli policy far more difficult than it would be otherwise and, as a result, has made it much harder for peace and human rights activists to make as much headway in challenging U.S. policy as we would otherwise be able to do. However, while this is certainly not insignificant, this is very different than the assertion of Mearsheimer and Walt that U.S. policy would be considerably more enlightened without the Lobby’s influence.
Their book and article and the debate surrounding them has been a distraction from the serious re-evaluation of U.S. Middle East policy so desperately needed.
Stephen Zunes is Middle East editor for Foreign Policy in Focus. He is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and chair of its Middle East Studies program.
Copyright © 2007, Institute for Policy Studies