Outing the ‘Israel Lobby’

When John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt published their controversial essay "The Israel Lobby" in the London Review of Books in March 2006, their work elicited the kind of response of which most academics only dream.

But it was also attacked and condemned by critics for its provocative and pointed argument that a wide-ranging coalition that includes neoconservatives, Christian Zionists, academics, columnists and Washington lobby groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is responsible for shaping US foreign policy in the Middle East and suppressing the public debate in Washington.

Columnist Christopher Hitchens, himself no stranger to controversy, called the work "slightly but unmistakably fishy." The Anti-Defamation League called it "a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control." Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz said it was riddled with distortions, and questioned the motivations of Walt, who served at the time as academic dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Mearsheimer, who teaches at University of Chicago, to produce a paper that "contributes so little to the existing scholarship while being so susceptible to misuse."

To be sure, the article would not have engendered such visceral reactions if not for the robust credentials of its authors. Overnight, two pillars of the academic establishment achieved notoriety for pushing into the open a subject that had long remained a taboo.

And the object of their critique, the "lobby" – general parlance to describe those actors who actively promote a "pro-Israel" policy – launched an aggressive campaign to discredit their work and injure their reputations. More than one year later, they are still standing, proving that, according to Michael Massing, "the wide attention their argument has received shows that, in this case, those efforts have not entirely succeeded."

Now, Mearsheimer and Walt have expanded their article into a 355-page book called The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In it, they argue much the same, that there exists neither a strategic nor a moral reason for the US to diplomatically, military and unequivocally support Israel in the Middle East. As such, the US should treat Israel as it does its other allies and conduct foreign policy that benefits US interests.

And they accuse the "Israel lobby" as molding the political debate in a way that ultimately undermines the long-term security of the US "While other interest groups – including ethnic lobbies representing Cuban-Americans, Irish-Americans, Armenian-Americans, and Indian-Americans – have managed to skew US foreign policy in directions that they favored, no ethnic lobby has diverted that policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest," they write.

To what extent is the lobby an agent of the Israeli government, as opposed to a network or "political coalition" of people who have their own ideas about what is best for Israel? Mearsheimer and Walt write that, "It is the specific political agenda that defines the lobby, not the religious or ethnic identity of those pushing it."

They also argue that the lobby acts on its own, and sometimes even against the express interests and policy of the Israeli government. That may be due, in large part, to the fact that the institutional leadership of the lobby is comprised of individuals and organizations whose views are more closely associated with those of the right-wing Likud party in Israel.

On this point, Mearsheimer and Walt’s broadbrush term "the Israel lobby" is a bit misleading, as they themselves admit, because it does not account for the multiplicity of views within the "pro-Israel" political community. It should more accurately be called the "pro-Likud" lobby. Nonetheless, the two authors include moderate pro-Israel groups, of whom they clearly approve, such as Americans for Peace Now and Israel Policy Forum, under their overly general rubric of the "Israel lobby," and muddy the waters further.

Indeed, the borders of the lobby – as defined by the authors – are fuzzy, but Mearsheimer and Walt identify the group of academics, think-tanks, political action committees, neoconservatives and Christian Zionists who they believe form the core, and that tends to bolster their argument that the common denominator of all these groups is their ideological connection.

They include, in no particular order: AIPAC, John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, ADL, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization, Zionist Organization of America, Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, Bernard Lewis, Charles Krauthammer, Daniel Pipes and the Middle East Forum, the Israel Project, Elliot Abrams, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Center for Security Policy, William Kristol, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Congresspersons such as Eliot Engel of New York, and others.

Mearsheimer and Walt also detail the extent to which the lobby and its supporters have employed, in the words of Michael Massing, "bullying tactics" to silence Israel critics. Massing wrote the most substantive critique of the initial article in the New York Review of Books, writing that "despite its many flaws," the Walt-Mearsheimer essay had "performed a very useful service in forcing into the open a subject that has for too long remained taboo."

After publishing their article, the two authors themselves were accused of being anti-Semites, a charge they go to great lengths in their book to rebut. And they cite the response to former President Jimmy Carter’s recent book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid as an example of the phenomenon.

"Not only was Carter publicly accused of being an anti-Semite and a ‘Jew hater,’ he was even charged with being sympathetic to Nazis," they write. "Since the lobby seeks to keep the present relationship intact, and because in fact its strategic and moral arguments are so weak, it has little choice but to try to stifle or marginalize serious discussion."

One of the most extreme examples of this public intimidation was crafted – in McCarthyist fashion – by Pipes, who, in the aftermath of the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks, invited university students around the country to post comments and behavior of their professors that were deemed hostile to Israel and the US on his website, Campus Watch.

Yet for all the attention paid to how the aggregate influence of the "lobby" contributes negatively to US policy, Mearsheimer and Walt do not focus extensively on the nuts and bolts of how the lobby actually works to translate its wishes into US policy, and this would have strengthened their argument. Missing is a list of campaign contributions by lobby-affiliated individuals to certain candidates, or more firsthand investigation and interviews with key figures. Thus, even though the book is richly sourced, much of the information comes from secondhand sources such as newspapers and public statements, and so, feels secondhand

The last, and best, part of the book focuses on how the lobby has helped to shape the public and Congressional debate on the Iraq, Syria, Iran, and last summer’s Israel-Hezbollah war. While it is questionable the extent to which the lobby actively pushed the US-led invasion of Iraq, Mearsheimer and Walt successfully demonstrate that it has exerted significant influence on Congress, promoting and advocating economic sanctions bills that target Syria and Iran.

The political coalition of right-leaning groups that form Mearsheimer and Walt’s "Israel lobby" do not pull the strings of Washington politicians as a puppeteer would a puppet. The lobby is not a monolithic entity, created out of some shadowy conspiracy, and the authors of this book, suffice it to say, are not anti-Semites. They are international relations specialists, part of the "realist" school of thought that emphasizes national interest and security in determining policy.

The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy adds some substance to an argument that has already been made. If readers were not convinced of the authors’ views the first time around, it is doubtful they will find much to change their minds in this book. But Mearsheimer and Walt’s argument has cracked the door to long overdue debate.

Read more by Khody Akhavi