The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy

John J. Mearsheimer & Stephen M. Walt
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Apart from its alleged strategic value, Israel’s backers also argue that it deserves unqualified U.S. support because 1) it is weak and surrounded by enemies, 2) it is a democracy, which is a morally preferable form of government; 3) the Jewish people have suffered from past crimes and therefore deserve special treatment, and 4) Israel’s conduct has been morally superior to its adversaries’ behavior.

On close inspection, however, each of these arguments is unpersuasive. There is a strong moral case for supporting Israel’s existence, but that is not in jeopardy. Viewed objectively, Israel’s past and present conduct offers no moral basis for privileging it over the Palestinians.

Backing the Underdog?

Israel is often portrayed as weak and besieged, a Jewish David surrounded by a hostile Arab Goliath. This image has been carefully nurtured by Israeli leaders and sympathetic writers, but the opposite image is closer to the truth. Contrary to popular belief, the Zionists had larger, better-equipped, and better-led forces during the 1947-49 War of Independence and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) won quick and easy victories against Egypt in 1956 and against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in 1967 – before large-scale U.S. aid began flowing to Israel.24 These victories offer eloquent evidence of Israeli patriotism, organizational ability, and military prowess, but they also reveal that Israel was far from helpless even in its earliest years.

Today, Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East. Its conventional forces are far superior to its neighbors and it is the only state in the region with nuclear weapons. Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties with Israel and Saudi Arabia has offered to do so as well. Syria has lost its Soviet patron, Iraq has been decimated by three disastrous wars, and Iran is hundreds of miles away. The Palestinians barely have effective police, let alone a military that could threaten Israel. According to a 2005 assessment by Tel Aviv University’s prestigious Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, “the strategic balance decidedly favors Israel, which has continued to widen the qualitative gap between its own military capability and deterrence powers and those of its neighbors.”25 If backing the underdog were a compelling rationale, the United States would be supporting Israel’s opponents.

Aiding a Fellow Democracy?

American backing is often justified by the claim that Israel is a fellow-democracy surrounded by hostile dictatorships. This rationale sounds convincing, but it cannot account for the current level of U.S. support. After all, there are many democracies around the world, but none receives the lavish support that Israel does. The United States has overthrown democratic governments in the past and supported dictators when this was thought to advance U.S. interests, and it has good relations with a number of dictatorships today. Thus, being democratic neither justifies nor explains America’s support for Israel.

The “shared democracy” rationale is also weakened by aspects of Israeli democracy that are at odds with core American values. The United States is a liberal democracy where people of any race, religion, or ethnicity are supposed to enjoy equal rights. By contrast, Israel was explicitly founded as a Jewish state and citizenship is based on the principle of blood kinship.26 Given this conception of citizenship, it is not surprising that Israel’s 1.3 million Arabs are treated as second-class citizens, or that a recent Israeli government commission found that Israel behaves in a “neglectful and discriminatory” manner towards them.27

Similarly, Israel does not permit Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens to become citizens themselves, and does not give these spouses the right to live in Israel. The Israeli human rights organization B’tselem called this restriction “a racist law that determines who can live here according to racist criteria.”28 Such laws may be understandable given Israel’s founding principles, but they are not consistent with America’s image of democracy.

Israel’s democratic status is also undermined by its refusal to grant the Palestinians a viable state of their own. Israel controls the lives of about 3.8 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, while colonizing lands on which the Palestinians have long dwelt. Israel is formally democratic, but the millions of Palestinians that it controls are denied full political rights and the “shared democracy” rationale is correspondingly weakened.

Compensation for Past Crimes

A third moral justification is the history of Jewish suffering in the Christian West, especially the tragic episode of the Holocaust. Because Jews were persecuted for centuries and can only be safe in a Jewish homeland, many believe that Israel deserves special treatment from the United States.

There is no question that Jews suffered greatly from the despicable legacy of anti-Semitism, and that Israel’s creation was an appropriate response to a long record of crimes. This history, as noted, provides a strong moral case for supporting Israel’s existence. But the creation of Israel involved additional crimes against a largely innocent third party: the Palestinians.

The history of these events is well-understood. When political Zionism began in earnest in the late 19th century, there were only about 15,000 Jews in Palestine.29 In 1893, for example, the Arabs comprised roughly 95 percent of the population, and though under Ottoman control, they had been in continuous possession of this territory for 1300 years.30 Even when Israel was founded, Jews were only about 35 percent of Palestine’s population and owned 7 percent of the land.31

The mainstream Zionist leadership was not interested in establishing a bi-national state or accepting a permanent partition of Palestine. The Zionist leadership was sometimes willing to accept partition as a first step, but this was a tactical maneuver and not their real objective. As David Ben-Gurion put it in the late 1930s, “After the formation of a large army in the wake of the establishment of the state, we shall abolish partition and expand to the whole of Palestine.”32

To achieve this goal, the Zionists had to expel large numbers of Arabs from the territory that would eventually become Israel. There was simply no other way to accomplish their objective. Ben-Gurion saw the problem clearly, writing in 1941 that “it is impossible to imagine general evacuation [of the Arab population] without compulsion, and brutal compulsion.”33 Or as Israeli historian Benny Morris puts it, “the idea of transfer is as old as modern Zionism and has accompanied its evolution and praxis during the past century.”34

This opportunity came in 1947-48, when Jewish forces drove up to 700,000 Palestinians into exile.35 Israeli officials have long claimed that the Arabs fled because their leaders told them to, but careful scholarship (much of it by Israeli historians like Morris) have demolished this myth. In fact, most Arab leaders urged the Palestinian population to stay home, but fear of violent death at the hands of Zionist forces led most of them to flee.36 After the war, Israel barred the return of the Palestinian exiles.

The fact that the creation of Israel entailed a moral crime against the Palestinian people was well understood by Israel’s leaders. As Ben-Gurion told Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, “If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. . . . We come from Israel, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?”37

Since then, Israeli leaders have repeatedly sought to deny the Palestinians’ national ambitions.38 Prime Minister Golda Meir famously remarked that “there was no such thing as a Palestinian,” and even Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the 1993 Oslo Accords, nonetheless opposed creating a full-fledged Palestinian state.39 Pressure from extremist violence and the growing Palestinian population has forced subsequent Israeli leaders to disengage from some of the occupied territories and to explore territorial compromise, but no Israeli government has been willing to offer the Palestinians a viable state of their own. Even Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s purportedly generous offer at Camp David in July 2000 would only have given the Palestinians a disarmed and dismembered set of “Bantustans” under de facto Israeli control.40

Europe’s crimes against the Jews provide a clear moral justification for Israel’s right to exist. But Israel’s survival is not in doubt – even if some Islamic extremists make outrageous and unrealistic references to “wiping it off the map” – and the tragic history of the Jewish people does not obligate the United States to help Israel no matter what it does today.

“Virtuous Israelis” versus “Evil Arabs”

The final moral argument portrays Israel as a country that has sought peace at every turn and showed great restraint even when provoked. The Arabs, by contrast, are said to have acted with great wickedness. This narrative – which is endlessly repeated by Israeli leaders and American apologists such as Alan Dershowitz – is yet another myth.41 In terms of actual behavior, Israel’s conduct is not morally distinguishable from the actions of its opponents.

Israeli scholarship shows that the early Zionists were far from benevolent towards the Palestinian Arabs.42 The Arab inhabitants did resist the Zionists’ encroachments, which is hardly surprising given that the Zionists were trying to create their own state on Arab lands. The Zionists responded vigorously, and neither side owns the moral high ground during this period. This same scholarship also reveals that the creation of Israel in 1947-48 involved explicit acts of ethnic cleansing, including executions, massacres, and rapes by Jews.43

Furthermore, Israel’s subsequent conduct towards its Arab adversaries and its Palestinian subjects has often been brutal, belying any claim to morally superior conduct. Between 1949 and 1956, for example, Israeli security forces killed between 2,700 and 5000 Arab infiltrators, the overwhelming majority of them unarmed.44 The IDF conducted numerous cross-border raids against its neighbors in the early 1950s, and though these actions were portrayed as defensive responses, they were actually part of a broader effort to expand Israel’s borders. Israel’s expansionist ambitions also led it to join Britain and France in attacking Egypt in 1956, and Israel withdrew from the lands it had conquered only in the face of intense U.S. pressure.45

The IDF also murdered hundreds of Egyptian prisoners-of-war in both the 1956 and 1967 wars.46 In 1967, it expelled between 100,000 and 260,000 Palestinians from the newly-conquered West Bank, and drove 80,000 Syrians from the Golan Heights.47 It was also complicit in the massacre of 700 innocent Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps following its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and an Israeli investigatory commission found then-Defence Minister Sharon “personally responsible” for these atrocities.48

Israeli personnel have tortured numerous Palestinian prisoners, systematically humiliated and inconvenienced Palestinian civilians, and used force indiscriminately against them on numerous occasions. During the First Intifida (1987-1991), for example, the IDF distributed truncheons to its troops and encouraged them to break the bones of Palestinian protestors. The Swedish “Save the Children” organization estimated that “23,600 to 29,900 children required medical treatment for their beating injuries in the first two years of the intifida,” with nearly one-third sustaining broken bones. Nearly one-third of the beaten children were aged ten and under.”49

Israel’s response to the Second Intifida (00-2005) has been even more violent, leading Ha’aretz to declare that “the IDF … is turning into a killing machine whose efficiency is awe-inspiring, yet shocking.”50 The IDF fired one million bullets in the first days of the uprising, which is far from a measured response.51 Since then, Israel has killed 3.4 Palestinians for every Israeli lost, the majority of whom have been innocent bystanders; the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli children killed is even higher (5.7 to 1).52 Israeli forces have also killed several foreign peace activists, including a 23 year-old American woman crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in March 2003.53

These facts about Israel’s conduct have been amply documented by numerous human rights organizations – including prominent Israeli groups – and are not disputed by fair-minded observers. And that is why four former officials of Shin Bet (the Israeli domestic security organization) condemned Israel’s conduct during the Second Intifada in November 2003. One of them declared “we are behaving disgracefully,” and another termed Israel’s conduct “patently immoral.”54

But isn’t Israel entitled to do whatever it takes to protect its citizens? Doesn’t the unique evil of terrorism justify continued U.S. support, even if Israel often responds harshly?

In fact, this argument is not a compelling moral justification either. Palestinians have used terrorism against their Israeli occupiers, and their willingness to attack innocent civilians is wrong. This behavior is not surprising, however, because the Palestinians believe they have no other way to force Israeli concessions. As former Prime Minister Barak once admitted, had he been born a Palestinian, he “would have joined a terrorist organization.”55

Finally, we should not forget that the Zionists used terrorism when they were in a similarly weak position and trying to obtain their own state. Between 1944 and 1947, several Zionist organizations used terrorist bombings to drive the British from Palestine, and took the lives of many innocent civilians along the way.56 Israeli terrorists also murdered U.N. mediator Count Folke Bernadotte in 1948, because they opposed his proposal to internationalize Jerusalem.57 Nor were the perpetrators of these acts isolated extremists: the leaders of the murder plot were eventually granted amnesty by the Israeli government and one of them was elected to the Knesset. Another terrorist leader, who approved the murder but was not tried, was future Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Indeed, Shamir openly argued that “neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat.” Rather, terrorism had “a great part to play … in our war against the occupier [Britain].”58 If the Palestinians’ use of terrorism is morally reprehensible today, so was Israel’s reliance upon it in the past, and thus one cannot justify U.S. support for Israel on the grounds that its past conduct was morally superior.59

Israel may not have acted worse than many other countries, but it clearly has not acted any better. And if neither strategic nor moral arguments can account for America’s support for Israel, how are we to explain it?

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