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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Putting the 'Israel Lobby' in Perspective

by Mitchell Plitnick and Chris Toensing

Middle East Report Online (October 31 2007)

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's 82-page paper "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy" has entered the canon of contemporary political culture in the United States. So much, positive and negative, has been written about the March 2006 essay that the phrase "the Mearsheimer-Walt argument" is now shorthand for the idea that pro-Israel advocates exert a heavy - and malign - influence upon the formulation of US Middle East policy. To veteran students of Middle East affairs, this idea is hardly new, of course. But the fact that two top international relations scholars affiliated with the University of Chicago and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, respectively, have espoused this analysis has lent it unprecedented currency. Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish a book-length version of the professors' argument in late 2007. Along with President Jimmy Carter's volume Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (Simon & Schuster, 2006)), "The Israel Lobby" (as the paper is commonly known) has opened up a debate that many members of the lobby have long sought to suppress.

Like Carter, Mearsheimer and Walt have faced ugly and unsubstantiated allegations of racism for drawing attention to the imbalance in US Middle East policy and the lobby's clout. Walt's Harvard colleague, Alan Dershowitz, labeled them "bigots" and "liars", and the Anti-Defamation League accused them of promulgating "a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control". Reams of angry newsprint later, these kneejerk cries of anti-Semitism have not registered and for good reason. Plainly, a lobby that is universally recognized by Washington insiders - and even promotes itself - as one of the few most powerful in the country is influential. Saying so cannot be inherently anti-Semitic.

The related allegation of sloppy research is also silly. In December 2006, Mearsheimer and Walt released a point-by-point rebuttal, perhaps not coincidentally also 82 pages long, of the charges of poor scholarship leveled by Benny Morris, Martin Kramer and others. Almost every charge was a misreading of the original paper. Nor is "The Israel Lobby" "piss-poor, monocausal social science", as political scientist and blogger Daniel Drezner would have it. On the contrary, the text is full of caveats and qualifiers.

The essential flaw in the Mearsheimer-Walt argument is not, as many critics have said, the authors' exaggeration of the pro-Israel lobby's power, for although the authors do this in some instances, the thrust of their argument remains sound. It is not even their inattention to the other factors that have historically defined the US interest in the Middle East for the bipartisan foreign policy establishment. Rather, the most serious fault lies in the professors' conclusion - soothing in this day and age - that US Middle East policy would become "more temperate" were the influence of the Israel lobby to be curtailed. This conclusion is undercut by the remarkable continuities in US Middle East policy since the Truman administration, including in times when the pro-Israel lobby was weak. And other factors - chiefly the drive for hegemony in the Persian Gulf - have also embroiled the United States in plenty of trouble.

The Cold War prism

Mearsheimer and Walt issue a broad indictment of their subject. "No lobby", they write, "has managed to divert US foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US and Israeli interests are essentially identical". Has the lobby's influence always explained US support for Israel? This question is crucial because it helps to define the extent to which that influence explains US policy toward Israel today.

From the day in 1948 that President Harry Truman announced his support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, Israel has held a special place in the hearts and minds of many Americans, Jewish and otherwise. The fledgling state was more European than Middle Eastern in orientation, providing common cultural ground. The mythos surrounding the creation of Israel and the sympathy generated by the horrifying tragedy of the Holocaust played major roles in shaping popular American sympathy in the 1960s and 1970s, when the "special relationship" between Israel and the United States was cemented. Christians, including many African-Americans, responded warmly to the narrative wherein a plucky people, fleeing horrific persecution and age-old prejudice, made the desert bloom in the Holy Land and stoutly defended their new polity against all comers.

On the official level, Israel found its early sources of support elsewhere, while working tirelessly to build support in the United States. After Israel's decisive victory over neighboring Arab states in 1967, the United States committed itself more and more to what might be called "the Israel track". The reason, however, was neither a domestic lobby nor a sentimental soft spot among policymakers for the Jewish state. The reason was that policymakers saw the Middle East through the prism of the Cold War.

Concern about Soviet backing for Egypt had led Lyndon Johnson, while a congressman, to oppose President Dwight Eisenhower's determination to force Israel to pull out of the Sinai and away from the Suez Canal in 1956, without some move toward changing the status quo. The outcome of the 1967 war, entailing the humiliation of Soviet-allied Egypt and Syria, strengthened President Johnson's conviction that Israel was a useful Cold War asset. After the war, an anonymous State Department official told the press: "Israel has probably done more for the United States in the Middle East in relation to money and effort than any of our so-called allies elsewhere around the globe since the end of the Second World War. In the Far East we can get almost no one to help us in Vietnam. Here the Israelis won the war singlehandedly, have taken us off the hook and have served our interests as well as theirs." Aspiring chief executive Richard Nixon - also not known for philo-Semitism - supported Israel vigorously on the 1968 campaign trail, pursuant to a visit to Israel the previous June, when he met wounded Egyptian soldiers in an Israeli hospital. There he wrote down an Egyptian tank commander's complaint: "Russia is to blame. They furnished the arms. We did the dying."

Under the quintessential Cold Warrior Nixon and his foreign policy doyen Henry Kissinger, US material aid to Israel rose precipitously, and diplomatic support was vastly strengthened. By the Nixon Doctrine of 1969, developed in reaction to the Vietnam quagmire, the United States would project its power abroad through regional proxies rather than American troops. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Shah's Iran were chosen in the Middle East. Israel promptly proved its worth by helping King Hussein of Jordan in brutally stamping out a Palestinian rebellion in 1970, stabilizing a key Western ally in the region at the expense of the PLO, seen in Washington as a Soviet proxy. In 1973, Nixon and Kissinger agreed to a major airlift of munitions to Israel toward the tail end of that year's Arab-Israeli war. Though the United States paid dearly for that decision with the Arab oil embargo, the next year aid to Israel topped $2 billion. As in subsequent years, much of this aid was pumped back into the US economy in the form of arms purchases, giving the American arms industry a strong interest in the US-Israeli strategic alliance. Nixon's was a path born of Cold War strategy and opposition to Arab nationalism - perceived as a threat to oil-rich Saudi Arabia - not the efforts of a lobby.

Mearsheimer and Walt acknowledge that Israel "may have been a strategic asset during the Cold War", but they insist on counting the costs, like the expense of the aid and the economic damage wrought by the 1973 embargo. These costs are viewed as penalties of supporting Israel rather than the expected price to pay in the Cold War calculus of Nixon and Kissinger. Israel attained its place in US Cold War strategy by its 1967 victory and its ability to stand against Soviet Arab proxies in a way Arab countries could not have done. However questionable the strategy might have been, the support of Israel did not come about due to the actions of a lobby.

The rise of the Israel lobby

The major institutions of the Israel lobby arose during the Reagan years to defend the US-Israeli strategic alliance forged in the wake of the 1967 war. The most prominent such institution is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). According to its website, AIPAC boasts a $47 million annual budget and "100,000 members in all fifty states". In 2001, Fortune ranked AIPAC fourth most powerful among all lobbying groups. It is routinely in the top five, and is usually the only foreign policy lobby on the entire list. Although AIPAC itself does not directly engage in campaign contributions, it sets the agenda for the many pro-Israel PACs that do, and it has further mounted well-documented campaigns against members of Congress it judges insufficiently supportive of Israel. The Reagan administration was also intimately connected to the Christian Coalition, and many figures from that administration, both Christian and Jewish, have resurfaced in the administration of George W Bush. From the 1980s on, there can be no doubt that these two major players in lobbying on behalf of hardline Israeli policies have been highly influential, especially in Congress.

Arguably, as Mearsheimer and Walt contend, the likes of AIPAC and the Christian right have been necessary for keeping the special relationship intact, for the end of the Cold War threw Israel's usefulness into a different light. There was no Soviet Union to compete with, and pan-Arab nationalism was largely a lost cause. But concern remained that nationalist or Islamist forces might win control of oil-producing Arab states. The role Israel played in smashing Arab nationalists was and is still valued in Washington. Israeli military and intelligence assistance has been well-documented in Latin America and other parts of the world. In the Middle East, where US intelligence weaknesses are glaring, Israel plays a virtually irreplaceable role, with its population of native speakers of Arabic. Additionally, support for Israel, while somewhat diminished by the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the 1987-1993 Palestinian intifada and the 2006 Lebanon war, remains quite strong among Americans to this day. Americans generally do not support blind backing of whatever Israel does, but the positive disposition toward Israel is a factor in the minds of decision makers. While it is perhaps impossible to separate that positive disposition from the activities of the Israel lobby, the fact that Mearsheimer and Walt themselves speak of their concern for Israel demonstrates that there is much more to it than mere promotion and advocacy.

It is also important that resolving the issues of Israeli occupation and Palestinian statelessness has never been an end in itself for Washington, but simply a means toward other policy goals. Peace initiatives are thus much more vulnerable to derailment by domestic forces.

Finally, one should note that US responses to Israeli demands are not always absolutely positive. From Reagan's sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia to the first Bush administration's threat to withhold loan guarantees from Israel, there are scattered examples of Israel and the pro-Israel lobby proving unable to veto executive branch decisions. Ongoing disputes over Israeli arms sales to China (and previously to India), the current Bush administration's quiet non-response to Israeli requests for financial compensation for its Gaza "withdrawal" and its message to the Olmert government that it should not ask for funding for its "convergence plan" are additional examples. Pro-Israel lobbyists bitterly opposed many of these US moves, as they do any hint of US "pressure" on Israel to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians.

Palestine in global strategy

To what extent does the Israel lobby shape US Middle East policy today? Mearsheimer and Walt's argument is strongest when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the Cold War, when Nixon and Reagan were implacably hostile to the PLO as overly friendly to the Soviets, support for Israel against the Palestinians fit into a broader US strategy. Since the Soviet Union's demise, however, Washington has derived scant benefit from its pro-Israel leanings to balance the undoubted cost, especially in anger at the United States among Arabs and Muslims. For this reason, the administrations of Presidents George H W Bush and Bill Clinton exerted considerable diplomatic energy to broker an Israeli- Palestinian settlement. To the extent that the failure of this diplomacy was caused by systemic favoritism shown to Israeli negotiating positions, the Israel lobby and US officials linked to the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy must bear a great deal of the blame. The lobby was also an important factor weakening - or eviscerating - US opposition to Israeli "facts on the ground" that prejudiced the outcome of a future final status settlement in Israel's favor.

George W Bush's foreign policy team assumed office with a different mindset than its predecessors'. The passions aroused by occupation and Palestinian suffering in the Arab and Muslim world were not a strategic factor in the Bush team's worldview, for they had exacted no pound of flesh from the United States since the 1973 embargo, an experiment the Bush team rightly calculated the oil-producing Arab states were loath to repeat. The Bush White House's default position was to ignore the simmering intifada, leaving Israel a free hand in its harsh military measures, just as pro-Israel Republicans on the Christian right demanded.

Mearsheimer and Walt actually give the Bush administration too much credit, when they write: "It is now largely forgotten, but in the fall of 2001, and especially in the spring of 2002, the Bush administration tried to reduce anti-American sentiment in the Arab world and undermine support for al-Qaeda, by halting Israel's expansionist policies in the Occupied Territories and advocating the creation of a Palestinian state". What they are describing was a short-lived revival of Clinton-era thinking, as personified by Secretary of State Colin Powell, after the September 11 2001, attacks required the United States to seek greater Arab cooperation in the "war on terror". Prior to September 11, the Bush administration had scarcely budged from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's position that any resumption of substantive Israeli-Palestinian talks would have to wait until there was utter "calm" - as defined by Israel - in Israel-Palestine. Afterward, to rally Arab support, Powell began stating forgotten US commitments to achieve a "settlement freeze" and even mentioned the term "peace plan". The United States never followed through, however. Mearsheimer and Walt argue that this is because the Israel lobby had "swung into action" to re-equate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat with Osama bin Laden. Another, more plausible explanation, given the Bush administration's predilections, is that Arab states freely cooperated in rounding up radical Islamists even without the semblance of a "peace process" in Israel-Palestine. There was no cost to untying Sharon's hands once more that would outweigh the benefit of pleasing Bush's pro-Israel supporters.

There is universal agreement that the policy debate initially held between Powell, on the one hand, and Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on the other, ended in victory for the Cheney-Rumsfeld camp. And all the evidence suggests that Cheney and Rumsfeld are motivated by their own ideology, not by the lobby's pressure.

At any rate, by 2002 the White House's commitment to renewing Israeli-Palestinian talks was long gone. Bush waited several days after the beginning of Operation Defensive Shield, the massive Israeli tank invasion of the West Bank in March-April 2002 that targeted numerous Palestinian Authority installations, before dispatching Powell to the region. Mearsheimer and Walt cite the Powell mission as evidence of a commitment to evenhandedness, but they do not mention that Powell took "the slow boat to Tel Aviv", stopping first in Rabat and Cairo. With encouragement from other US officials, Israel interpreted the delay in Powell's arrival as carte blanche to escalate its offensive. These events, as well as subsequent Bush administration neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio, bespeak a White House that does not need lobbying to let Israel drive events, so long as this does not complicate other, more pressing US interests.

The attack-Iraq caucus

The Bush administration's real interest in 2001 was the Persian Gulf, specifically Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In their most explosive argument, Mearsheimer and Walt state that "the war [in Iraq] was due in large part to the lobby's influence, especially the neoconservatives within it". They then follow the trail of statements from neoconservatives advocating the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein's regime and tie this advocacy to devotion to Israel.

Here they run into problems of direct evidence. It is easy to show the neoconservatives' affinity for Israel - actually, the Israeli right - but the professors have not made the case that this affinity was a "necessary, if not sufficient cause" of the 2003 invasion. Nor is it even clear that love for Israel motivated the pro-war impulses of the neoconservatives themselves. For instance, the professors adduce the so-called "Clean Break Paper" of 1996, which was put together by a "study group" featuring key Bush administration hawks David Wurmser and Douglas Feith, and saw removing Saddam Hussein as a key Israeli goal, to bolster their theory. The central theme of this paper, however, is promoting Israel as a regional hegemon independent of the United States. Far from encouraging US action in the service of Israeli interests, this paper was entirely rooted in the idea that Israel must quickly wean itself off US support and exert its proven ability to dominate the region militarily on its own.

Mearsheimer and Walt are not the first to point to the activities of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) as especially revelatory. The genealogy of PNAC's ideas, however, suggests a much broader set of motivations than loyalty to Israel. PNAC made its debut in 1997 by issuing a statement of principles decrying drift in US foreign and defense policy and calling instead for "a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity". The statement was signed by six hawkish politicians, most notably Cheney and Rumsfeld. Among the signatories who were soon to be household names were I Lewis "Scooter" Libby and Paul Wolfowitz.

Next came two letters, one addressed to Bill Clinton and the second posted to the House and Senate majority leaders. The occasion for the PNAC letters was the pending failure of containment in ensuring that Iraq was not reconstituting its banned arsenal. In a speech in 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had made clear that regime change was containment's real agenda, saying that the United States would back sanctions "as long as it takes" to usher in "a successor regime" that would comply with UN resolutions.

PNAC's concern was the fate of US Middle East policy goals, not the integrity of UN resolutions. "It hardly needs to be added", they wrote to Clinton, "that if Saddam does acquire the capability to deliver weapons of mass destruction ... the safety of American troops in the region, of our friends and allies like Israel and the moderate Arab states, and a significant portion of the world's supply of oil will all be put at hazard". Unless Saddam's regime was taken out, "we will have suffered an incalculable blow to American leadership and credibility; we will have sustained a significant defeat in our worldwide efforts to limit the spread of weapons of mass destruction ... This could well make Saddam the driving force of Middle East politics". The hawks gathered by PNAC did not fear Iraq's putative weapons; they feared the potential of an "uncontained" Iraq to disrupt US hegemony in the region.

At one level, the PNAC letters did not diverge from previous articulations of US interests in the Middle East. A September 1978 Joint Chiefs of Staff memorandum listed three strategic goals for the United States in the region: "To assure continuous access to petroleum resources, to prevent an inimical power or combination of powers from establishing hegemony and to assure the survival of Israel as an independent state in a stable relationship with contiguous Arab states". Kenneth Pollack, who ran Iraq policy at Clinton's National Security Council and then authored a book-length case for invading Iraq in 2002, writes that these goals "have guided US policy ever since".

But the PNAC letters about Iraq sprung from a deeper ideological well. The introduction to PNAC's full-length report, Rebuilding America's Defenses, published in 2000, summarized the group's 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." PNAC recommended adding $15 to $20 billion in defense spending annually, "restoring" the size of the active-duty military to 1.6 million personnel and "selectively" modernizing military hardware.

Most of the PNAC members are staunchly and vocally pro-Israel. What unites the neoconservatives with their traditional Cold Warrior confreres Cheney and Rumsfeld is not Israel, however, but a common set of ideas about US power. The convergence of interests first appeared in the aborted Defense Policy Guidance of 1992. This document is the Pentagon's classified internal assessment, made every two years, of comprehensive military strategy. In 1992, the task fell to Paul Wolfowitz, who set about conceiving a justification for maintaining the military at something approaching Cold War strength. He delegated the actual writing of the Defense Policy Guidance to his top aide, Libby, who in turn passed it off to his colleague Zalmay Khalilzad. What Khalilzad came up with stunned Washington when the draft was leaked to the press: The United States was uniquely qualified to be the sole superpower, and to maintain that status, the United States should actively block the rise of any possible rival.

Khalilzad was specific: "In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve US and Western access to the region's oil". The White House swiftly disowned the document, but it found an appreciative reader in Dick Cheney. "You've discovered a new rationale for our role in the world", Khalilzad recalls being told by his boss. Rebuilding America's Defenses cites the 1992 Defense Policy Guidance as its primary intellectual inspiration. When the Cheney Defense Department was reunited in the administration of George W Bush, much of this "inspiration" made its way into the 2002 National Security Strategy. Together with Washington's long-standing interest in Persian Gulf oil, the genealogy of PNAC suggests that the decision to invade Iraq was determined by grand ambitions for US power, not a "desire to make Israel more secure", as Mearsheimer and Walt assert.

Wanted: a counterweight

In the fifteen months since the publication of "The Israel Lobby", history has thrown up a series of Rorschach blots in which it is possible to see confirmation or refutation of the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis. While Israel bombarded and invaded Gaza in the summer of 2006, following the capture of a single Israeli soldier, the Bush administration sat on its hands. The White House continues to hew to Israel's position that "there is no partner" on the Palestinian side as long as Hamas has ministers in the Palestinian Authority. Is this because the lobby will not permit otherwise, or because the Bush administration is bent on preventing any Islamist movement from exercising effective governance, lest movements elsewhere take heart? For 34 days in the summer of 2006, Israel bombed and shelled Lebanon while Washington actively blocked a ceasefire in the name of Israel's "right to defend itself". Certainly AIPAC and the Christian right were pushing the same line, but President Bush's immediate casting of blame upon Iran and Syria for provoking the war suggested a deeper-seated agenda than solidarity with Israel. There is reason to believe that Bush green-lighted Israel's assault to neutralize an Iranian ally in advance of eventual US strikes upon Iran's nuclear facilities. Certainly, it appears that the United States dropped its resistance to a ceasefire only when Israel proved incapable of defeating Hizballah quickly. In 2007, despite the belligerent clamor from AIPAC and other elements of the Israel lobby, the prospect of an attack on Iran seems to have faded. But the key factor here is the deepening disaster in Iraq and the constraints it imposes.

Mearsheimer and Walt have taken a courageous step, one that their professional positions certainly did not require and that opened them up to vociferous criticism - most of it hysterical and unfair. Others should take the professors up on their challenge to open up a debate that has not occurred broadly enough in the past (and this review is offered in that spirit).

The influence of the Israel lobby should neither be underestimated nor overstated. It is not some omnipotent force that can turn the world's sole superpower against its own perceived interests. The lobby derives its strength, in some measure, from being largely unopposed in Washington. Israel will remain a strong US ally, for many reasons, for the foreseeable future. But that need not mean that the United States cannot pressure Israel into the compromises required for a just peace with the Palestinians. This can happen if a counterweight to the Israel lobby is built. But such a counterweight is only effective if it understands what its opponent can and cannot accomplish. In this task, the Mearsheimer-Walt paper is a good foundation upon which rational discussion can build.


Complete footnotes are available in the original version of this report at

Mitchell Plitnick is director of Education and Policy for Jewish Voice for Peace and a regular columnist for Tikkun Magazine. Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report, published by the Middle East Research and Information Project.

Copyright 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

Bill Totten


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