The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy

John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt
page 5     next    previous     back to page 1


If the Lobby’s impact were confined to U.S. economic aid to Israel, its influence might not be that worrisome. Foreign aid is valuable, but not as useful as having the world’s only superpower bring its vast capabilities to bear on Israel’s behalf. Accordingly, the Lobby has also sought to shape the core elements of U.S. Middle East policy. In particular, it has worked successfully to convince American leaders to back Israel’s continued repression of the Palestinians and to take aim at Israel’s primary regional adversaries: Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

Demonizing the Palestinians

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 terrorist groups like al Qaeda, by halting Israel’s expansionist policies in the occupied territories and advocating the creation of a Palestinian state.

Bush had enormous potential leverage at his disposal. He could have threatened to reduce U.S. economic and diplomatic support for Israel, and the American people would almost certainly have supported him. A May 2003 poll reported that over 60 percent of Americans were willing to withhold aid to Israel if it resisted U.S. pressure to settle the conflict, and that number rose to 70 percent among “politically active” Americans.115 Indeed, 73 percent said that United States should not favor either side.

Yet the Bush Administration failed to change Israel’s policies, and Washington ended up backing Israel’s hard-line approach instead. Over time, the Administration also adopted Israel’s justifications for this approach, so that U.S. and Israeli rhetoric became similar. By February 2003, a Washington Post headline summarized the situation: “Bush and Sharon Nearly Identical on Mideast Policy.”116 The main reason for this switch is the Lobby.

The story begins in late September 2001 when President Bush began pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to show restraint in the occupied territories. He also pressed Sharon to allow Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, even though Bush was highly critical of Arafat’s leadership.117 Bush also said publicly that he supported a Palestinian state.118 Alarmed by these developments, Sharon accused Bush of trying “to appease the Arabs at our expense,” warning that Israel “will not be Czechoslovakia.”119

Bush was reportedly furious at Sharon’s likening him to Neville Chamberlain, and White House press secretary Ari Fleischer called Sharon’s remarks “unacceptable.”120 The Israeli prime minister offered a pro forma apology, but he quickly joined forces with the Lobby to convince the Bush administration and the American people that the United States and Israel faced a common threat from terrorism.121 Israeli officials and Lobby representatives repeatedly emphasized that there was no real difference between Arafat and Osama bin Laden, and insisted that the United States and Israel should isolate the Palestinians’ elected leader and have nothing to do with him.122

The Lobby also went to work in Congress. On November 16, 89 senators sent Bush a letter praising him for refusing to meet with Arafat, but also demanding that the United States not restrain Israel from retaliating against the Palestinians and insisting that the administration state publicly that it stood steadfastly behind Israel. According to the New York Times, the letter “stemmed from a meeting two weeks ago between leaders of the American Jewish community and key senators,” adding that AIPAC was “particularly active in providing advice on the letter.”123

By late November, relations between Tel Aviv and Washington had improved considerably. This was due in part to the Lobby’s efforts to bend U.S. policy in Israel’s direction, but also to America’s initial victory in Afghanistan, which reduced the perceived need for Arab support in dealing with al Qaeda. Sharon visited the White House in early December and had a friendly meeting with Bush.124

But trouble erupted again in April 2002, after the IDF launched Operation Defensive Shield and resumed control of virtually all of the major Palestinian areas on the West Bank.125 Bush knew that Israel’s action would damage America’s image in the Arab and Islamic world and undermine the war on terrorism, so he demanded on April 4 that Sharon “halt the incursions and begin withdrawal.” He underscored this message two days later, saying this meant “withdrawal without delay.” On April 7, Bush’s national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, told reporters that, “‘without delay’ means without delay. It means now.” That same day Secretary of State Colin Powell set out for the Middle East to pressure all sides to stop fighting and start negotiating.126

Israel and the Lobby swung into action. A key target was Powell, who began feeling intense heat from pro-Israel officials in Vice President Cheney’s office and the Pentagon, as well as from neoconservative pundits like Robert Kagan and William Kristol, who accused him of having “virtually obliterated the distinction between terrorists and those fighting terrorists.”127 A second target was Bush himself, who was being pressed by Jewish leaders and Christian evangelicals, the latter a key component of his political base. Tom DeLay and Dick Armey were especially outspoken about the need to support Israel, and DeLay and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott visited the White House and personally warned Bush to back off.128

The first sign that Bush was caving came on April 11 – only one week after he told Sharon to withdraw his forces – when Ari Fleischer said the President believes Sharon is “a man of peace.”129 Bush repeated this statement publicly upon Powell’s return from his abortive mission, and he told reporters that Sharon had responded satisfactorily to his call for a full and immediate withdrawal.130 Sharon had done no such thing, but the President of the United States was no longer willing to make an issue of it.

Meanwhile, Congress was also moving to back Sharon. On May 2, it overrode the Administration’s objections and passed two resolutions reaffirming support for Israel. (The Senate vote was 94 to 2; the House version passed 352-21). Both resolutions emphasized that the United States “stands in solidarity with Israel” and that the two countries are, to quote the House resolution, “now engaged in a common struggle against terrorism.” The House version also condemned “the ongoing support of terror by Yasir Arafat,” who was portrayed as a central element of the terrorism problem.131 A few days later, a bipartisan congressional delegation on a fact-finding mission in Israel publicly proclaimed that Sharon should resist U.S. pressure to negotiate with Arafat.132 On May 9, a House appropriations subcommittee met to consider giving Israel an extra $200 million to fight terrorism. Secretary of State Powell opposed the package, but the Lobby backed it, just as it had helped author the two congressional resolutions.133 Powell lost.

In short, Sharon and the Lobby took on the President of the United States and triumphed. Hemi Shalev, a journalist for the Israel newspaper Ma’ariv, reported that Sharon’s aides “could not hide their satisfaction in view of Powell’s failure. Sharon saw the white in President Bush’s eyes, they bragged, and the President blinked first.”134 But it was the pro-Israel forces in the United States, not Sharon or Israel, that played the key role in defeating Bush.

The situation has changed little since then. The Bush Administration refused to deal further with Arafat, who eventually died in November 2004. It has subsequently embraced the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, but has done little to help him gain a viable state. Sharon continued to develop his plans for unilateral “disengagement” from the Palestinians, based on withdrawal from Gaza coupled with continued expansion on the West Bank, which entails building the so-called “security fence,” seizing Palestinian-owned land, and expanding settlement blocs and road networks. By refusing to negotiate with Abbas (who favors a negotiated settlement) and making it impossible for him to deliver tangible benefits to the Palestinian people, Sharon’s strategy contributed directly to Hamas’ recent electoral victory.135 With Hamas in power, however, Israel has another excuse not to negotiate. The administration has supported Sharon’s actions (and those of his successor, Ehud Olmert), and Bush has even endorsed unilateral Israeli annexations in the Occupied Territories, reversing the stated policy of every president since Lyndon Johnson.136

U.S. officials have offered mild criticisms of a few Israeli actions, but have done little to help create a viable Palestinian state. Former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft even declared in October 2004 that Sharon has President Bush “wrapped around his little finger.”137 If Bush tries to distance the United States from Israel, or even criticizes Israeli actions in the occupied territories, he is certain to face the wrath of the Lobby and its supporters in Congress. Democratic Party presidential candidates understand these facts of life too,which is why John Kerry went to great lengths to display his unalloyed support for Israel in 2004 and why Hillary Clinton is doing the same thing today.138

Maintaining U.S. support for Israel’s policies against the Palestinians is a core goal of the Lobby, but its ambitions do not stop there. It also wants America to help Israel remain the dominant regional power. Not surprisingly, the Israeli government and pro-Israel groups in the United States worked together to shape the Bush Administration’s policy towards Iraq, Syria, and Iran, as well as its grand scheme for reordering the Middle East.

Israel and the Iraq War

Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the U.S. decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was a critical element. Some Americans believe that this was a “war for oil,” but there is hardly any direct evidence to support this claim. Instead, the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure. According to Philip Zelikow, a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (01-2003), executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and now Counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the “real threat” from Iraq was not a threat to the United States.139 The “unstated threat” was the “threat against Israel,” Zelikow told a University of Virginia audience in September 2002, noting further that “the American government doesn’t want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell.”

On August 16, 2002, eleven days before Vice President Cheney kicked off the campaign for war with a hard-line speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Washington Post reported that “Israel is urging U.S. officials not to delay a military strike against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.”140 By this point, according to Sharon, strategic coordination between Israel and the U.S. had reached “unprecedented dimensions,” and Israeli intelligence officials had given Washington a variety of alarming reports about Iraq’s WMD programs.141 As one retired Israeli general later put it, “Israeli intelligence was a full partner to the picture presented by American and British intelligence regarding Iraq’s non- conventional capabilities.”142

Israeli leaders were deeply distressed when President Bush decided to seek U.N. Security Council authorization for war in September, and even more worried when Saddam agreed to let U.N. inspectors back into Iraq, because these developments seemed to reduce the likelihood of war. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told reporters in September 2002 that “the campaign against Saddam Hussein is a must. Inspections and inspectors are good for decent people, but dishonest people can overcome easily inspections and inspectors.”143

At the same time, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak wrote a New York Times op-ed warning that “the greatest risk now lies in inaction.”144 His predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, published a similar piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Case for Toppling Saddam.”145 Netanyahu declared, “Today nothing less than dismantling his regime will do,” adding that “I believe I speak for the overwhelming majority of Israelis in supporting a pre-emptive strike against Saddam’s regime.” Or as Ha’aretz reported in February 2003: “The [Israeli] military and political leadership yearns for war in Iraq.”146

But as Netanyahu suggests, the desire for war was not confined to Israel’s leaders. Apart from Kuwait, which Saddam conquered in 1990, Israel was the only country in the world where both the politicians and the public enthusiastically favored war.147 As journalist Gideon Levy observed at the time, “Israel is the only country in the West whose leaders support the war unreservedly and where no alternative opinion is voiced.”148 In fact, Israelis were so gung-ho for war that their allies in America told them to damp down their hawkish rhetoric, lest it look like the war was for Israel.149

The Lobby and the Iraq War

Within the United States, the main driving force behind the Iraq war was a small band of neoconservatives, many with close ties to Israel’s Likud Party.150 In addition, key leaders of the Lobby’s major organizations lent their voices to the campaign for war.151 According to the Forward, “As President Bush attempted to sell the . . . war in Iraq, America’s most important Jewish organizations rallied as one to his defense. In statement after statement community leaders stressed the need to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction.”152 The editorial goes on to say that “concern for Israel’s safety rightfully factored into the deliberations of the main Jewish groups.”

Although neoconservatives and other Lobby leaders were eager to invade Iraq, the broader American Jewish community was not.153 In fact, Samuel Freedman reported just after the war started that “a compilation of nationwide opinion polls by the Pew Research Center shows that Jews are less supportive of the Iraq war than the population at large, 52% to 62%.”154 Thus, it would be wrong to blame the war in Iraq on “Jewish influence.” Rather, the war was due in large part to the Lobby’s influence, especially the neoconservatives within it.

The neoconservatives were already determined to topple Saddam before Bush became President.155 They caused a stir in early 1998 by publishing two open letters to President Clinton calling for Saddam’s removal from power.156 The signatories, many of whom had close ties to pro-Israel groups like JINSA or WINEP, and whose ranks included Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, William Kristol, Bernard Lewis, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, had little trouble convincing the Clinton Administration to adopt the general goal of ousting Saddam.157 But the neoconservatives were unable to sell a war to achieve that objective.Nor were they able to generate much enthusiasm for invading Iraq in the early months of the Bush Administration.158 As important as the neoconservatives were for making the Iraq war happen, they needed help to achieve their aim.

That help arrived with 9/11. Specifically, the events of that fateful day led Bush and Cheney to reverse course and become strong proponents of a preventive war to topple Saddam. Neoconservatives in the Lobby – most notably Scooter Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, and Princeton historian Bernard Lewis – played especially critical roles in persuading the President and Vice-President to favor war.

For the neoconservatives, 9/11 was a golden opportunity to make the case for war with Iraq. At a key meeting with Bush at Camp David on September 15, Wolfowitz advocated attacking Iraq before Afghanistan, even though there was no evidence that Saddam was involved in the attacks on the United States and bin Laden was known to be in Afghanistan.159 Bush rejected this advice and chose to go after Afghanistan instead, but war with Iraq was now regarded as a serious possibility and the President tasked U.S. military planners on November 21, 2001 with developing concrete plans for an invasion.160

Meanwhile, other neoconservatives were at work within the corridors of power. We do not have the full story yet, but scholars like Lewis and Fouad Ajami of John Hopkins University reportedly played key roles in convincing Vice President Cheney to favor the war.161 Cheney’s views were also heavily influenced by the neoconservatives on his staff, especially Eric Edelman, John Hannah, and chief of staff Libby, one of the most powerful individuals in the Administration.162 The Vice President’s influence helped convince President Bush by early 2002. With Bush and Cheney on board, the die for war was cast.

Outside the administration, neoconservative pundits lost no time making the case that invading Iraq was essential to winning the war on terrorism. Their efforts were partly aimed at keeping pressure on Bush and partly intended to overcome opposition to the war inside and outside of the government. On September 20, a group of prominent neoconservatives and their allies published another open letter, telling the President that “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the [9/11] attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.”163

The letter also reminded Bush that, “Israel has been and remains America’s staunchest ally against international terrorism.” In the October 1 issue of the Weekly Standard, Robert Kagan and William Kristol called for regime change in Iraq immediately after the Taliban was defeated. That same day, Charles Krauthammer argued in the Washington Post that after we were done with Afghanistan, Syria should be next, followed by Iran and Iraq. “The war on terrorism,” he argued, “will conclude in Baghdad,” when we finish off “the most dangerous terrorist regime in the world.”164

These salvoes were the beginning of an unrelenting public relations campaign to win support for invading Iraq.165 A key part of this campaign was the manipulation of intelligence information, so as to make Saddam look like an imminent threat. For example, Libby visited the CIA several times to pressure analysts to find evidence that would make the case for war, and he helped prepare a detailed briefing on the Iraq threat in early 2003 that was pushed on Colin Powell, then preparing his infamous briefing to the U.N. Security Council on the Iraqi threat.166 According to Bob Woodward, Powell “was appalled at what he considered overreaching and hyperbole. Libby was drawing only the worst conclusions from fragments and silky threads.”167 Although Powell discarded Libby’s most outrageous claims, his U.N. presentation was still riddled with errors, as Powell now acknowledges.

The campaign to manipulate intelligence also involved two organizations that were created after 9/11 and reported directly to Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith.168 The Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group was tasked to find links between al Qaeda and Iraq that the intelligence community supposedly missed. Its two key members were Wurmser, a hard core neoconservative, and Michael Maloof, a Lebanese-American who had close ties with Perle. The Office of Special Plans was tasked with finding evidence that could be used to sell war with Iraq. It was headed by Abram Shulsky, a neoconservative with longstanding ties to Wolfowitz, and its ranks included recruits from pro-Israel think tanks.169

Like virtually all the neoconservatives, Feith is deeply committed to Israel. He also has long-standing ties to the Likud Party. He wrote articles in the 1990s supporting the settlements and arguing that Israel should retain the occupied territories.170 More importantly, along with Perle and Wurmser, he wrote the famous “Clean Break” report in June 1996 for the incoming Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.171 Among other things, it recommended that Netanyahu “focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq — an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right.” It also called for Israel to take steps to reorder the entire Middle East. Netanyahu did not implement their advice, but Feith, Perle and Wurmser were soon advocating that the Bush Administration pursue those same goals. This situation prompted Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar to warn that Feith and Perle “are walking a fine line between their loyalty to American governments … and Israeli interests.”172

Wolfowitz is equally committed to Israel. The Forward once described him as “the most hawkishly pro-Israel voice in the Administration,” and selected him in 2002 as the first among fifty notables who “have consciously pursued Jewish activism.”173 At about the same time, JINSA gave Wolfowitz its Henry M. Jackson Distinguished Service Award for promoting a strong partnership between Israel and the United States, and the Jerusalem Post, describing him as “devoutly pro-Israel,” named him “Man of the Year” in 2003.174

Finally, a brief word is in order about the neoconservatives’ prewar support of Ahmed Chalabi, the unscrupulous Iraqi exile who headed the Iraqi National Congress (INC). They embraced Chalabi because he had worked to establish close ties with Jewish-American groups and had pledged to foster good relations with Israel once he gained power.175 This was precisely what pro-Israel proponents of regime change wanted to hear, so they backed Chalabi in return. Journalist Matthew Berger laid out the essence of the bargain in the Jewish Journal: “The INC saw improved relations as a way to tap Jewish influence in Washington and Jerusalem and to drum up increased support for its cause. For their part, the Jewish groups saw an opportunity to pave the way for better relations between Israel and Iraq, if and when the INC is involved in replacing Saddam Hussein’s regime.”176

Given the neoconservatives’ devotion to Israel, their obsession with Iraq, and their influence in the Bush Administration, it is not surprising that many Americans suspected that the war was designed to further Israeli interests. For example, Barry Jacobs of the American Jewish Committee acknowledged in March 2005 that the belief that Israel and the neoconservatives conspired to get the United States into a war in Iraq was “pervasive” in the U.S. intelligence community.177 Yet few people would say so publicly, and most that did — including Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) and Representative James Moran (D- VA) — were condemned for raising the issue.178 Michael Kinsley put the point well in late 2002, when he wrote that “the lack of public discussion about the role of Israel … is the proverbial elephant in the room: Everybody sees it, no one mentions it.”179 The reason for this reluctance, he observed, was fear of being labeled an anti-Semite. Even so, there is little doubt that Israel and the Lobby were key factors in shaping the decision for war. Without the Lobby’s efforts, the United States would have been far less likely to have gone to war in March 2003.

page 5     next    previous     back to page 1