American foreign policy has been weighed down for all too many years by an albatross hung round Uncle Sam’s neck, one that distorts our stance especially vis-à-vis Middle Eastern issues and ultimately works against U.S. interests in the region and around the world: that albatross is unconditional support for the state of Israel. Of course, saying this amounts to a hate crime in today’s political atmosphere, and it is almost impossible to criticize the Jewish state without being accused of religious bigotry, which is just how Israel’s partisans want it. In the halls of Congress and the corridors of power, Israel is above criticism. But not anymore
Of course, we’ve been criticizing Israel, and its inordinate influence over American foreign policy, in these pages for quite some time, and we are not alone. On the Right, some conservatives, such as Pat Buchanan and The American Conservative magazine, have broken the taboo, and on the Left, too, Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, James Petras, and a host of others have refused to be a part of the Israel-can-do-no-wrong consensus. In the intelligence community, Larry Johnson, Philip Giraldi, and James Bamford have been critical of Israel and its amen corner in the U.S., while among academics, Juan Cole has often provided a skeptical view of Israeli government actions and Israel’s apologists in the U.S.
In the “mainstream” media, however, and certainly in Washington, D.C., the power of Israel’s lobby is unchallenged. This hegemony has now been thoroughly detailed and analyzed in an important study by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, published by Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison distinguished service professor of political science and a co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago, is the leading advocate of the “realist” school of foreign policy. Walt is academic dean of the Kennedy School. Their study, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” [.pdf] starts out with a bang:
“The U.S. national interest should be the primary object of American foreign policy. For the past several decades, however, and especially since the Six Day War in 1967, the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering U.S. support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized U.S. security. This situation has no equal in American political history. Why has the United States been willing to set aside its own security in order to advance the interests of another state?”
This situation, I would submit, has no equivalent in the history of the world. Nation-states are notorious for jealously guarding and pursuing their own interests. Why, then, would the most powerful state on earth abjectly subordinate itself to the influence and even direction of an ally, one that, furthermore, does not reciprocate this altruism?
Answer: the Lobby.
The reality, say Mearsheimer and Walt, is that Israel is a net liability in the worldwide struggle against terrorism and efforts by the U.S. to modify the behavior of so-called “rogue states.” The Israeli-centric policy pursued by Washington’s warlords “exaggerates Israel’s ability to help on these issues and ignores the ways that Israel’s policies make U.S. efforts more difficult.” Aside from that, “Israel does not act like a loyal ally.” In addition to ignoring pleas to modify their own behavior in the West Bank and Gaza, the Israelis sell arms to China and continue to spy on us yes, even since Pollard.
Aside from the flaws in the practical case for an Israeli-centric policy, the moral case for elevating Israel’s interests over our own is very weak. Mearsheimer and Walt note that much of the sympathy for Israel has been based on its alleged status as the underdog: David standing alone against the demographic Goliath of the Arab world. Yet this picture, strenuously promoted by the Israel lobby, is far from the truth. Israelis the underdogs? Give me a break! As the authors point out, Israel is the strongest military power in the region.
Okay, then, what about the fact that Arab regimes oppress their own people, while Israel is relatively free? In the name of promoting “democracy,” the Bush administration and its predecessors have tilted toward Tel Aviv and held Israel up as a model for the region. But this is based on an incomplete analysis of Israel’s internal regime. Israel a democracy? Not for the millions of Palestinian helots it rules. And what about the racist criteria for Israeli citizenship? If a Palestinian marries an Israeli, the former cannot [.pdf] be a citizen of Israel, nor even move there.
The authors even take on the widely held although rarely expressed view that unconditional support for Israel is deserved on account of the Holocaust: according to this logic, it’s payback time. But who is doing the paying? The Israelis victimized a group that had nothing to do with this crime, which was committed by Europeans. And the Zionists went on to commit their own crimes when they expelled “up to 700,000 Palestinians,” according to the authors of this study, from 1947-48.
In detailing the crimes of the Israelis, Mearsheimer and Walt come to a conclusion that will outrage the Lobby, not because it is a lie but because it is indisputable: “In terms of actual behavior,” they write, “Israel’s conduct is not morally distinguishable from the actions of its opponents.” If the suicide bombers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad continue to plague innocent civilians who fall victim to terrorist attacks in Israel, then this kind of violence is a reflection of the activities of the organized Zionist terrorist outfits who fought in the war for independence. These activities included mass expulsions, executions, and rapes by Jewish “settlers” in the early days of the Zionist state:
“Between 1949 and 1956, for example, Israeli security forces killed between 2,700 and 5,000 Arab infiltrators, the overwhelming majority of them unarmed. The IDF also murdered hundreds of Egyptian prisoners-of-war in both the 1956 and 1967 wars. 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.”
The Zionists say they are merely defending themselves against “terrorism,” but they themselves utilized terrorism to establish their state, as the authors of this study document. They cite Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, then a member of an underground Zionist organization, as quite honestly advocating methods that one now associates with al-Qaeda:
“Indeed, Shamir openly argued that ‘neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat.’ Rather, terrorism has ‘a great part to play in our war against the occupier [Britain].'”
Israel’s alleged moral superiority is a myth. Neither strategic nor moral arguments explain America’s unconditional support for Israel: instead, “the explanation lies in the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby.”
While it’s true that there is no centralized leadership of “the Lobby,” as the authors call it, and there are significant disagreements between various groups within the Jewish community over U.S. policy toward Israel, there is, however, a party line that is almost never crossed or contradicted. When it is, the response from the Amen Corner is virulent.
When Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote a letter to President Bush expressing his opposition to the “security wall,” and asking that the U.S. put pressure on Israel to stop construction, he was accused of “perfidy” by leading figures in the Lobby. The nature of the attacks revealed an attitude toward Israel not unlike that held by the Communists of the Cold War era toward the Soviet Union. As Mearsheimer and Walt point out:
“Critics declared that, ‘It would be obscene at any time for the president of the World Jewish Congress to lobby the president of the United States to resist policies being promoted by the government of Israel.’ When Seymour Reich, president of the Israel Policy Forum, suggested to Condi Rice that the Israelis should be pressured to reopen a Gaza Strip border crossing, the Lobby went ballistic, and Reich soon recanted, announcing that ‘the word “pressure” is not in my vocabulary when it comes to Israel.'”
The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), now embroiled in a spy case [.pdf], has been rated the second heaviest hitter in the world of Washington lobbyists, just behind the AARP, but ahead of the NRA and the AFL-CIO. Adding heft to their efforts is the Christian evangelical factor: the theology of many born-again Christians is linked to unconditional support for Israel, because the ingathering of Jews in the Holy Land is seen as a signal that the End Times are upon us and God, in the evangelicals’ view, is definitely on the side of Tel Aviv.
The Lobby has mastered “interest group politics” like no one else has. They rely on the general indifference of the population and their own zeal to curry favor with legislators, but beyond this they exert a unique influence, one that doesn’t just dominate the debate but, instead, prevents any real debate from taking place. As Mearsheimer and Walt put it:
“The Lobby strives to ensure that public discourse about Israel portrays it in a positive light, by repeating myths about Israel and its founding and by publicizing Israel’s side in the policy debates of the day. The goal is to prevent critical commentary about Israel 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.”
This really gets at the core of the Lobby’s unique effectiveness: they not only try to influence legislators and policymakers in the executive branch to take a pro-Israel position down the line, they also seek to smear the opposition, to delegitimize and marginalize critics as “anti-Semites.”
When it comes to Congress, “Israel is virtually immune from criticism.” Some are Christian Zionists, like Dick Armey, who once proclaimed that his “number one priority” in terms of foreign policy is to support Israel come hell or high water. The authors cite Morris Amitay, a former head of AIPAC, as saying:
“There are a lot of guys at the working level up here [on Capitol Hill] who happen to be Jewish, who are willing to look at certain issues in terms of their Jewishness. These are all guys who are in a position to make the decision in these areas for those senators. You can get an awful lot done just at the staff level.”
AIPAC is “the core of the Lobby’s influence in Congress.” Money is used as a weapon to bring down perceived anti-Israel candidates, such as former senator Charles Percy. Mearsheimer and Walt even bring up Jack Abramoff (naughty, naughty!) as an example of the power of lobbyists in Washington, and echo Pat Buchanan’s famous line that the place is “Israeli-occupied territory“:
“The bottom line is that AIPAC, which is a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on the U.S. Congress. Open debate about U.S. policy towards Israel does not occur there.”
The authors detail the penetration of the Clinton administration by the Lobby, which meant that the American delegation to the Oslo “peace process” negotiations basically took its orders from Tel Aviv. Yes, the delegation supported Oslo, but only within the limits determined by the Israelis. Palestinian negotiators had every reason to believe that, as they put it, they were “negotiating with two Israeli teams: one displaying an Israeli flag, and one an American flag.”
And things only got worse when Bush II took over.
The Lobby is adept at media manipulation, so much so that real criticism of Israel is rarely heard in “mainstream” news outlets. On the editorial pages, pro-Israel commentary is the rule, while pieces sympathetic to the idea that the Arabs might have a case are exceptions that stand out due to their extreme rarity. The news-gathering and reporting departments are a bit better, because it is hard to deny the realities on the ground as Israelis bulldoze Palestinian homes and systematically colonize Arab lands, but this is offset by the intensity of the pressure tactics deployed by pro-Israel activists, who target individual reporters and news organizations. One executive at CNN is cited as saying he sometimes get as many as 6,000 e-mails in one day kvetching that a news report is “anti-Israel.”
The authors list most of the big Washington think tanks, and characterize them as having few if any critics of Israel on staff. What happened in this arena is exemplified, they say, by the example of the Brookings Institution, the politics of which might be described as centrist, advocating policies historically associated with the more moderate wing of the Democratic Party:
“A good indicator of the Lobby’s influence in the think tank world is the evolution of the Brookings Institution. For many years, its senior expert on Middle East issues was William B. Quandt, a distinguished academic and former NSC official with a well-deserved reputation for evenhandedness regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, however, Brookings’ work on these issues is conducted through its Saban Center for Middle East Studies, which is financed by Haim Saban, a wealthy Israeli-American businessman and ardent Zionist.The director of the Saban Center is the ubiquitous Martin Indyk. Thus, what was once a non-partisan policy institute on Middle East matters is now part of the chorus of largely pro-Israel think tanks.”
According to Mearsheimer and Walt, the Lobby is also trying to “police” their word the activities and beliefs of college professors and students. Faculty deemed not supportive of Israel are targeted, monitored, and subjected to “overt intimidation,” as in the infamous case of Columbia University, where pro-Israel forces went to great lengths even making a propaganda film to stifle any expression of support for Palestinian rights. And it isn’t just pressure tactics brought by private groups: they are now seeking to outlaw criticism of Israel by denying federal funds to campuses where Israel is not treated with kid gloves.
The Lobby has walled itself off from any substantive criticism by launching a smear campaign against anyone who points to their privileged status, and that the authors of this study have come to grips with this is an act of bravery that one hopes they will not come to regret:
“No discussion of how the Lobby operates would be complete without examining one of its most powerful weapons: the charge of anti-Semitism. Anyone who criticizes Israel’s actions or says that pro-Israel grops have significant influence over U.S. Middle East policy an influence that AIPAC celebrates stand a good chance of getting labeled an anti-Semite. In fact, anyone who says that there is an Israel Lobby runs the risk of being charged with anti-Semitism, even though the Israeli media themselves refer to America’s ‘Jewish Lobby.’ In effect, the Lobby boasts of its own power and then attacks anyone who calls attention to it.”
Exactly. And what’s more, they have gotten away with it, at least until now. The effect of all this is that, in the foreign policy arena, the Israeli tail wags the American dog.
The Lobby’s efforts to get us into war with Iraq are detailed, and the role played by the neocons within and outside the administration is examined with unusual candor. The central role played by neoconservatives is described, and the timeline of their triumph is explained. While they had some limited success in furthering their agenda of regime change in Iraq during the Clinton years, the authors describe 9/11 as the turning point. Key individuals are named: Dick Cheney and his staff, especially the now-indicted [.pdf] Scooter Libby, and former Undersecretary of State for Policy Douglas J. Feith, a co-author of the notorious “Clean Break” document. Without the Lobby, the authors conclude, the decision to go to war would have been far less likely.
It isn’t just regime change in Iraq that flowed directly from the Lobby’s efforts, however: the entire project to effect a “democratic” transformation of the Middle East via direct U.S. intervention owes its origins to the Lobby’s relentless efforts. After Iraq, the efforts to target Syria with sanctions and effect regime change in Iran were ratcheted up in Washington, in spite of the Bush administration’s ambivalence. The dominance of the Lobby in Washington means that we are fighting wars for Israel’s sake, not our own. The Jewish state is protected, in spite of whatever difficulties the U.S. military encounters in actually carrying out their project in the region, while Americans “do most of the fighting, dying, rebuilding, and paying.”
The authors of this important study are not optimistic that the power of the Lobby can be curtailed. While there are plenty of opportunities for American policymakers to distance themselves from policies that are not congruent with American interests, “that is not going to happen anytime soon.” Why not? The authors aver:
“AIPAC and its allies (including Christian Zionists) have no serious opponents in the lobbying world. They know it has become more difficult to make Israel’s case today, and they are responding by expanding their activities and staffs. Moreover, American politicians remain acutely sensitive to campaign contributions and other forms of political pressure and major media outlets are likely to remain sympathetic to Israel no matter what it does.”
The blunt pessimism of this conclusion is, I think, unwarranted. But I don’t have time or space to go into just why, right now. Suffice to say that the spy charges filed against AIPAC honcho Steve Rosen and his associate, Keith Weissman, will go a long way toward exposing the real nature and role of the Lobby, and may even force AIPAC and its affiliates to register as agents of a foreign power placing severe limits on their activities, particularly in the legislative-electoral arena.
In any case, the publication of this study [.pdf] is a milestone in the annals of the debate over American foreign policy. For the first time in memory, the power of the Lobby has been challenged by two prominent academics: try as the Lobby’s activists might, they won’t succeed in smearing either Mearsheimer or Walt as neo-Nazis, nor will they be able to dismiss their concerns as the ravings of fringe characters. As far as the Lobby is concerned, the jig is up and all I can say is, it’s about time.