The Israel Lobby
and the War Party

by , December 13, 2007

How many times have we read some variation on the following lede?

"Israeli armored forces backed by aircraft thrust into the southern Gaza Strip today, killing four Palestinians a day before Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were to begin laying the groundwork for peace talks."

The Israelis don’t want to negotiate, but they’re willing to go through the motions – after all, why not? It’s just another way for them to thumb their noses at everyone, including their American benefactors. They’ll never make meaningful concessions: there’s no reason to as long as there are no constraints on their behavior. As long as a steady stream of American aid and arms keeps the Israeli ship of state afloat, Israel is the regional superpower, with none of its neighbors a match for its nuclear-armed military might.

Why should the Israelis be interested in peace, when war has been so good to them? War gave them their country to begin with: first against the British, then against the indigenous Arabs, then against the entire Arab world – all of whom they beat handily.

The Iraq war has been very good for them, if not for us. Israel’s sphere of influence, which never extended much beyond Lebanon, now reaches into Kurdistan – giving them easy access to Iran.

We stood by while the Israelis bombed Lebanon, killing mostly civilians and targeting factories, waterworks, and other non-military, non-Hezbollah facilities, such as churches. Aid to Israel has been increased, and Congress recently passed, with bipartisan support, a resolution naming a military arm of Israel’s number one enemy in the region as an officially-designated "terrorist" group, paving the way for a shooting war.

Peace? Israel doesn’t need it or want it. Oh, sure, the people of Israel may want it, at least in theory. In practice, however, the successive governments they keep electing are not the least bit interested in real negotiations with the Palestinians or anybody else in the region. Where’s the payoff? From the Israeli perspective, things are going just swimmingly, thank you: no need to upset the apple cart.

There have been a few setbacks, however, but nothing serious. Their drive to push us into a military confrontation with Iran has been stalled, for the moment – but that just means the road to war with Tehran is going to be a little longer. No one really cares that Iran stopped its alleged nuclear program in 2003 – that is, if it ever had one, which I seriously doubt. The whole issue has been trumped up by the West for the sole purpose of humiliating the Persians, and disabusing the mullahs of any illusions that the humbling of Iraq will prove a boon to them.

Israel is sitting pretty, right now, openly threatening its patron and financier, the United States government, with taking the Iranian nuke matter into its own hands and launching an attack on suspected nuclear facilities – leaving U.S. troops in Iraq to face the Iranians and their Iraqi allies. Gee, thanks a lot, guys.

This kind of blackmail wouldn’t be tolerated by Washington coming from any other country on earth: it would be considered a hostile act, carried out by a rogue nation. Yet Israel is not just any other country: it has the distinction of commanding Washington’s most powerful lobby in the foreign policy realm. And its power is not limited to Washington: as John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, point out, the Lobby "strives to ensure that public discourse portrays Israel in a positive light, by repeating myths about its founding and by promoting its point of view in policy debates. The goal is to prevent critical comments from getting a fair hearing in the political arena. Controlling the debate is essential to guaranteeing U.S. support, because a candid discussion of U.S.-Israeli relations might lead Americans to favor a different policy."

It’s all about stifling debate, and, if that’s no longer possible, framing the debate in terms that are advantageous to Israel’s partisans. For example, Mearsheimer and Walt’s recent visit to Princeton was an occasion of high controversy, which a reading of The Daily Princetonian shows to have been a perfect example of how and why the Lobby is so successful. No less than three articles cover this brouhaha in all its aspects, the first being a news account of the event itself. Mearsheimer and Walt delivered their lecture, which "drew strong reactions from the audience," and not exactly in their favor, as telegraphed by the headline: "Critics of Israeli lobby draw fire."

The piece goes on to report what Mearsheimer and Walt actually said, which is that Israel is simply not treated as a "normal country" by the U.S. government. We give a level of aid and unconditional support that undermines our own interests in the region, and makes the task of fighting terrorism directed at the United States much more difficult. With the end of the Cold War, the divergence of American and Israeli interests is even more radical, yet the "special relationship" persists and grows even more perilously "special."

But of course Israel is not treated like a normal country, especially when there is any discussion of the delicate subject at hand, namely the existence of the Lobby. In this case, Princeton could not permit the unvarnished message of Mearsheimer and Walt to stand alone: it had to have a corrective at hand, in the form of a "moderator," Wilson School Professor Robert Keohane, who proffered this penetrating analysis of the presentation:

"Keohane, in response to the authors’ presentation, said he believed Mearsheimer and Walt’s ideas were presented ‘in good faith’ but also called their book ‘a flawed work of political science.’ Keohane referenced what he saw as numerous ‘inconsistencies with realities’ in their thesis, noting that Syria recently participated in Middle East peace talks despite opposition from some pro-Israel groups and observing that Israel-Palestinian policies in Europe were consistent with those in America despite the lack of a strong pro-Israel base on the continent."

Pretty weak tea. So the U.S. acknowledged Syria’s existence – so what? (They still haven’t sent an ambassador to Damascus.) And the allies are marching in lockstep with Uncle Sam. Well, they had better. The real bone of contention, however, was the thesis advanced by Mearsheimer and Walt that the Lobby – properly understood as an alliance of various groups including major Jewish organizations and neoconservatives in the administration and on the periphery – was the decisive factor driving us to war in Iraq. Amid "supportive shouts from the audience," Keohane denied the key role played by the neoconservatives and offered up the quite-tired-by-now post-9/11 "everything changed" argument to explain the invasion and occupation of a country that had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The rest of the Daily Princetonian "news" account is devoted to a summary of the pans the Mearsheimer-Walt book has received at the hands of its pro-Israel critics, and ends by wondering if they aren’t anti-Semitic. Well, according to Keohane, yes and no:

"Much attention has been paid to the question of whether the authors or their work are in any sense anti-Semitic. I do not believe that this is relevant. Whether out of ignorance or a desire to court controversy, the authors have chosen to make use of language and imagery similar to that deployed in the past by avowed anti-Semites."

Translation: These guys are either Nazis or just plain stupid. Take your pick.

Just to make sure that anyone exposed to the malicious ignorance of Mearsheimer and Walt don’t come away with any wrong ideas, the Daily Princetonian features two other pieces, one an "open letter" from Professor Aaron Friedberg of the Wilson School directed to the sponsors of the event, chastising them for even issuing the invitation, and the other an op-ed by a trio of pro-Israel students who disingenuously declare at the outset that Mearsheimer and Walt had their day on campus "unimpeded by any protest whatsoever" – except, of course, for the contentious Professor Keohane, without whom the students would have been forced to examine and judge the arguments all by their lonesome selves.

Even in the act of debating the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis, the Princetonian trio contest the legitimacy of even posing the question of how and why the Lobby is so successful: "their argument against the ‘Israel lobby’ actually sours the environment for the debate" – and therefore no one should ever bring up the subject, which is "sloppy," "illogical," and has been "criticized by both sides of the political spectrum." How fortunate for the Lobby that the parameters of the political spectrum – as defined by themselves – place all criticism and even mention of the Lobby beyond the pale. To top it off, Mearsheimer and Walt are "ignoring the American democratic process," according to these critics, who apparently don’t realize that this is precisely what Mearsheimer and Walt aren’t ignoring. Their argument is that the "democratic" process itself is quite amenable to determined pressure by a concerned minority, which is perfectly legitimate and understandable – just as it’s perfectly legitimate and understandable to raise this issue and point out how the Lobby distorts American foreign policy in the Middle East.

What do they teach them at Princeton, aside from how to make solipsistic arguments?

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

I just got my copy of the Dec. 17 issue of The American Conservative, which contains my article, "Robinson Jeffers, Peace Poet." I wouldn’t count on them putting it online, so go out and get yourself a copy.

Read more by Justin Raimondo