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Issue Date:  December 14, 2007

By John J. Mearsheimer and
Stephen M. Walt
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 483 pages, $26
Frank talk about the Israel lobby

Reviewed by PHILIP C. WILCOX JR.

This book is an urgent call for a candid but civilized discussion of Israeli policy and America’s interests in the Middle East by two distinguished academics who think the U.S.-Israel relationship has become dysfunctional and mutually harmful, due in large part to the Israel lobby. It makes a powerful case. The book is a heavily footnoted expansion of John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s audaciously controversial article in the London Review of Books in 2006. Predictably, the book has provoked a renewed storm of commentary, mostly critical and not always civil.

The book defines the “lobby” as a loose coalition of Jewish and fundamentalist Christian groups and neoconservatives who support a special U.S.-Israel relationship based on alleged “shared values and strategic interests.” The authors argue that this rationale has worn thin because of Israel’s settlement and occupation policies and its leaders’ reluctance to accept a genuine Palestinian state, all of which breed anti-U.S. hostility in the Arab and Muslim world.

Nevertheless, they say, the lobby has been remarkably successful in promoting U.S. support for Israeli policies in three ways: supporting huge, unconditional aid to Israel; squelching public criticism of Israeli policies; and shaping American policies that defer to those of Israel, especially concerning occupation and settlements. Such policies harm both U.S. and Israeli interests. The book makes a compelling case that the lobby has inflated aid, muted criticism and hindered U.S. peacemaking. But it overstates the responsibility of the lobby, influential as it is, for American policy failures in the Middle East, most notably, the war in Iraq.

Professors Mearsheimer and Walt explain how the lobby, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has persuaded Congress to grant massive, unconditional aid to Israel, some $154 billion since 1948, about $500 annually per Israeli today and vastly greater than aid to any other country. The strategic and moral basis for this lavish aid is doubtful, given Israel’s huge military superiority, the Arab states’ offer of peace if Israel liberates the Palestinians, and Israel’s reluctance to do so.

The authors amply document the success of the lobby in discouraging criticism of Israeli policies. They point to vigilante groups that work hard to discourage critical media coverage and public debate, especially of Israel’s oppressive occupation and settlement policies toward the Palestinians. Reporting and comment in the mainstream U.S. media is indeed more restrained and cautious than in Europe, not to mention in Israel, where the leading daily, Haaretz, offers forthright reporting and comment that is rare here. In American academia, lobby groups target professors who criticize Israeli policy and work, sometimes successfully, for denial of appointments and tenure to those deemed unfriendly.

-- AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma

Hundreds of supporters of Israel gather in Philadelphia in July 2006 to show solidarity with Israel in the ongoing Middle East conflict.

The lobby works to discredit criticism of Israel and obscure the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by blaming it entirely on the Palestinians, promoting a highly idealized vision of Israel and rejecting legitimate criticism as hostile and biased. The lobby often conflates legitimate criticism of Israeli policy with criticism of Israel as a Jewish state and its right to exist. Worse yet, some elements of the lobby resort to smearing critics of Israeli policy as anti-Semitic.

The authors acknowledge that the lobby’s success in discouraging criticism of Israeli policy builds on the deep emotional and cultural resonance between many gentile Americans and the Holy Land and feelings of moral debt for the Holocaust. I think Americans’ deference to Israel also builds on an Islamophobic undercurrent, which 9/11 and Palestinian terrorism have exacerbated. The authors mention -- but could have given more attention to -- powerful feelings in the Jewish community, including long memories of anti-Semitism, the idealization of Israel deeply inculcated in Jewish communal life, and the centrality of Israel to the identity of many American Jews. These sensibilities, quite apart from efforts of the lobby, produce denial and angry, emotional reactions among some Jews to legitimate criticism of Israeli policies. Criticisms of massive, continuing settlement in the West Bank and resulting injustices to Palestinians are often dismissed as hostile, downplayed as minor aberrations, or justified in response to Palestinian terrorism. The latter is often seen as a product of pure hatred rather than an ugly but historically predictable symptom of oppression.

Shaping policy

The book also claims that the lobby has succeeded, through granting and withholding campaign money, threats of withholding votes, and placement of its members in key policy jobs, in influencing both Congress and the executive branch to support or defer to Israeli policies, especially concerning peace and territorial issues, which undermine American interests.

Based on my experience, the authors are right that the lobby has largely succeeded in silencing Congress through constant badgering of members and candidates to toe the line, and by promoting resolutions and legislation that reflect the views of the Israeli government that are often harmful to U.S. interests and sometimes hinder the executive branch.

I think Professors Mearsheimer and Walt overstate the case that the lobby has been the primary and often decisive influence in shaping executive branch policy. Certainly it has been influential, by placing sympathizers in key government positions and making regular contacts with policymakers at all levels. It has bred caution among State Department and other officials, and it has influenced 42 U.S. vetoes of U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of Israel that sometimes merited U.S. support, for example on settlements. Pressure from the lobby has influenced a remarkable “no surprises” policy whereby U.S. officials vet policy initiatives with Israeli officials before pursuing them, including in negotiations with the Palestinians. As with the media, the constant attentions of the lobby have created a kind of self-censorship inside the executive branch.

U.S. presidents, however, have great power, and some -- for example, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush -- have used it effectively to support American policies opposed by the lobby. Although presidents are sometimes constrained, they are not always hostages to the lobby.

In this respect, Professors Mearsheimer and Walt give too much credit to the lobby by calling it the “necessary but not sufficient cause” for the war against Iraq, with neoconservative officials deeply attached to Israel tipping the balance toward war. More likely, other factors were sufficient -- for example, the desire of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to project power in the region after 9/11, to deal with the WMD threat, and to transform Iraq into a new American client in the region.

The discussion of the lobby’s role in the disaster in Iraq has dominated criticism of the book, not only in predictable attacks by members of the lobby but among liberal Jews who support Israel but oppose its policies and the lobby. (Progressive Jewish groups resent the authors’ inclusion of their groups, which support Israel but oppose its policies, in defining the lobby.) These flaws have tended to divert attention from the book’s considerable virtues in describing the lobby’s work in suppressing debate and analyzing the dysfunctional and mutually harmful nature of U.S.-Israel relations.

I think the authors should have said more about the grave threat that Israeli settlement and occupation pose not just to U.S. interests but to the future of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state, and how American indulgence of these policies is not true friendship.

This might have brought more thoughtful reactions from reviewers and from the moderate majority of American Jews who are not part of the lobby and whose support must be mobilized along with other Americans if a new and more sensible U.S.-Israeli relationship and U.S. leadership in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are to be achieved.

Philip C. Wilcox Jr., a retired diplomat who is now president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, served as director for Israeli and Arab-Israeli affairs in the Department of State and as U.S. chief of mission in Jerusalem.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2007

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