The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy

Book Review Essay: Published in Third Concept, No. 294,  August 2011


Marching to Zion: The Israel Lobby
By Eddie J. Girdner

 Izmir University

John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.



            The Arab Awakening has raised new questions about the U.S.- Israeli relationship. Local rulers upon which the U.S. has relied for stability in the Middle East region, such as former President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, are being toppled. This is creating a dilemma for the United States which undoubtedly is trying to restore the old regime in Egypt to the greatest extent possible and prevent other pro-US regimes from falling. It also raises security issues for Israel which had relied upon President Mubarak and has serious problems with its regional neighbors. At the same time, recent U.S. administrations have been unable to rein in Israel from its disastrous and illegal settlement policies in the West Bank. Israel continues to wage local wars against Arabs, such as the 2006 war against Lebanon and the 2008-2009 attack on Gaza and continues to occupy the Golan Heights.

            Incredibly, however, there has been no substantive debate on the U.S.- Israeli relationship in the United States since the l950s. Unlike in Israel, where a daily debate and sharp criticism of Israel’s foreign policy is aired daily in the local press, for all practical purposes, it is impossible to objectively evaluate Israeli policy toward the Palestinians in the United States. The American media is overwhelming pro-Israel and there are no prominent columnists in the American press who criticize Israel, such as Robert Fisk in Britain. Meanwhile, Israel has continued to use a portion of the huge amount of U.S. largess to build illegal settlements creating “facts on the ground” to preempt any effort to establish a viable Palestinian state. America is unique in this sense, unlike Europe where support for the Palestinian cause is approached in a more balanced way.

            Any attempt to address this issue in the U.S. is political suicide for any politician or official. Mearsheimer and Walt have analyzed in great depth and detail why this is so. They have also massively documented the literature upon which their study is based.

            The authors have done a commendable job explaining how lobbying by interest groups, particularly pro-Israel interest groups, works in the United States. Their analysis of this process is rock solid and their book is surely the best, probably the only, comprehensive analysis ever done. It should surely be required reading for every scholar, teacher, official, and interested person, who wishes to understand how the U.S. system of government works and how U.S. foreign policy toward Israel, in particular, can be accounted for. Apparently Yassir Arafat and many officials in Arab states have not understood how American politics actually works, to their loss, although even if they had, they would not have been able to overcome the inordinate power of the Israel lobby. The American political system also exploits the vast ignorance of the American public as to the process of making foreign policy as well as the history of the founding of the state of Israel.

            This book cannot be recommended too highly along those dimensions, which it would indeed be difficult to credibly dispute, although the Israel lobby has bitterly attacked the authors to try to limit the damage. The main tactic of the Israel lobby is to accuse critics of Israel of “anti-Semitism,” a standard ploy. Fortunately the charge carries less weight today than in the past as it has been used too widely and too often. It is generally a lie, as the authors point out, and it was false in their case.

            In other respects, this book does have some weaknesses in its analysis. This is due to the authors’ approach which lacks a broad theoretical framework for interpreting the role and thrust of U.S. imperial power in the world. While Israel’s interests are paramount for the Israel lobby, Mearsheimer and Walt are interested in seeing a U.S. foreign policy which makes and keeps the U.S. strong in the world. That is, a policy which strengthens U.S. “national interests” around the globe. They believe that the U.S. policy of supporting everything that Israel does with no critical dimension actually damages U.S. national security interests and that this is counterproductive. They argue that Israel has become a strategic liability for the United States, not a strategic asset.

            One reason for this is that a pro-Israeli U.S. foreign policy creates anti-American sentiment in the region and is also the root of terrorism toward the U.S. The authors are willing to recognize that it is indeed U.S. foreign policy toward Israel that drives most terrorism against the US. This is a refreshing improvement on the George W. Bush Administration party line, forwarded by the neo-conservatives, that the world hates American because of its “freedom and open society.”

            The other part of their argument that U.S. policy toward Israel hurts American national interests depends, to a large extent, upon how one chooses to define “national interest,” a notoriously incoherent concept. The neo-conservatives do not care if the world loves America, but in their view nations must fear America’s military might. In this realist vision, it makes sense to have an “ally” with several hundred nuclear bombs in the Middle East. Members of the Israel lobby community argue that Israel is a valuable asset in the “war on terrorism” and Israel has been viewed as a “regional stabilizer.” (p. 56) It is a major thrust of the authors’ argument, however, that Israeli military might does not, in fact, strengthen US national interests, because it cannot be utilized by the United States. It would enrage public opinion in the Arab world to include Israeli soldiers with American soldiers in a military operation. So the US has not been able to make use of Israeli assets, except for such tasks as the sharing of intelligence. To what extent the US needs Israel as a ‘strategic ally” is part of this debate.  

Mearsheimer and Walt also believe that the US was serious about wanting to establish democracy throughout the Middle East with George W. Bush’s Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI). Given their level-headed analysis of how domestic U.S. politics actually works, it is surprising to find the authors making this assertion. Clearly, U.S. policymakers had no such intention, and it is obvious that democracy would indeed be a problem to perceived U.S. national interests in almost every case. Indeed, this is why the US clings to its established dictators in the region until it is no longer possible. The GMEI was rather about establishing more modern neo-liberal regimes which could be dominated by U.S. and Israeli capital, yield profits for the corporations of both countries and co-opt these regimes into the global capitalist system. Dictators such as Hosni Mubarak were initially alarmed at the U.S. rhetoric about creating democratic regimes, but soon realized that it was largely a public relations exercise and that there was little to worry about. He was free to go on putting his political opponents in jail and the U.S. would look the other way.

            Similarly, Mearsheimer and Walt argue that the Iraq War was not about oil. They claim that there is no evidence for this. In fact new documents are coming out which provide much evidence for the oil factor. Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq by Greg Muttitt, about the role of British Petroleum is based on secret memos, and official documents from November 2002, just a few months before the U.S. invasion began. Pritish Petroleum (BP), Shell, and British Gas pushed former Prime Minister Tony Blair to invade Iraq for a share of the oil resources. A document from the British Foreign Office, dated November 6, 2002, notes that “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP is desperate to get there.” BP officials told the Foreign office that Iraq is “more important than anything we’ve seen in a long time. Were willing to take big risks to get a share of the Iraqi reserves, the second largest in the world.” The point was not lost on former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan who noted in his book, The Age of Turbulence, “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everybody knows: The Iraq War is largely about oil.”    

In other words, the political economy aspect of the book is weak, and indeed, misleading. The authors do not see the U.S. as a global hegemon and imperialist nation out to wage wars for oil. They are better at analyzing U.S. domestic politics and this is the real strength of the book.

In fact, the authors knew they were going to stir up enough of a hornet’s nest just laying out the straight facts about how the Israel lobby works in the U.S. and of course were at once bitterly attacked as anti-Semitic. This was not at all surprising, given that even former President Jimmy Carter was bitterly attacked as anti-Semitic after his book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid was published.

            Mearsheimer and Walt’s book is quite comprehensive and extremely well documented. The authors take the American system of interest group activity to be perfectly normal politics and they stress that the activities of the Israel lobby do not work any different from any other interest group in the United States. I think they try to bend over backwards to avoid the charge that they are attacking the Jewish community and are thus anti-Semitic, at the expense of oversimplification to some extent. I am not sure that this argument is true given their account of many of the attacks of the Israel lobby upon honest and sincere people who have dissenting views.

            Mearsheimer and Walt also point out that they do not question the right of Israel to exist but want the United States to treat Israel just as it treats any other country. This has not been the case since the l950s and U.S. bias has grown stronger since the l960s. From a secular standpoint, however, this approach could also be questioned as Israel can be seen as one of the two confessional states, which exist as religious states, along with Pakistan. It is questionable whether religious belief should be the fundamental basis for the existence of a state in the modern world. Of course it would not be possible to question the right of Israel to exist as a confessional state in the United States. This issue is, then, off the table.

            Further, this means in practice that Muslim and Christian Arabs in Israel get treated as second-class citizens. A Jewish woman who marries a Palestinian cannot be a citizen of Israel. And to be a Jew, one must have a Jewish mother. Noam Chomsky has written about this, particularly in his earlier book, The Fateful Triangle, which is one of the best books ever written on the U.S. and Israel.

            What about the issue of free speech, which is taken for granted as a right in the United States? Neither Israel nor the Israel lobby has shown themselves to be sensitive to observing this right. In June 2011, when an aid convoy of ships was preparing to embark for Gaza, the Israeli Government threatened to bar any journalist from entering Israel for a period of ten years who reported from one of the ships in the convoy. This is nothing but intimidation, the effort to prevent the world from learning what is happening on the ships as they approach Gaza. One should question the legitimacy of this type of intimidation of the press and repression of information today, when Arab regimes are being denounced for not allowing reporters to report the news. A few months ago, noted author and activist, Noam Chomsky, was questioned at the border of the West Bank and refused permission by Israel to enter the West Bank from Jordan and give a speech. This can only be denial on the basis of Chomsky’s frequent criticism of Israel. Israel is looking more and more repressive in the eyes of the world with these actions. It is the same sort of authoritarian crushing of information that one would expect from a totalitarian state and at the same time, the United States of America massively underwrites the state of Israel to the tune of more than three billion U.S. dollars a year. Actually it is more.

            How does the Israel lobby work? There are several major Israel lobby organizations which are at the heart of the community in the U.S, that one can call the Israel lobby community. These organizations operate effectively to keep massive U.S. aid and military weapons flowing to Israel and effectively crush any opposition to blind support for any and all Israel policies, with no domestic criticism. As of 2005, direct U.S. economic and military assistance to Israel reached 154 billion dollars (in 2005 dollars). (p. 24) It continues at more three billion dollars a year. Further, Israel is the only state in the world that is not required to account for how the money is spent. The US, of course, routinely vetoes UN Security Council Resolutions critical of Israel.   

            Mearsheimer and Walt define the Israel lobby as “the loose coalition of individuals and organizations that actively work to shape U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.” (p. 112) It is made up of organizations and individuals who do more than just lobby, of course. At the core is a group of organizations which ensure aid to Israel and the support of Israel’s policies. These include first and foremost the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Other important organizations in the lobby include the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINSA), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and Christians United for Israel (CUFI). The annual budget of AIPAC is between 40 and 60 million U.S. dollars.   

            The Israel lobby is closely aligned with prominent neo-conservatives, many of who served in the George W. Bush Administration, not all of whom are Jewish. Prominent neo-conservatives have helped move the lobby to the right in recent years and want to prevent any other country from competing with the U.S. for global power. These individuals are influential and usually have served in the U.S. Government in prominent positions. They include Elliot Abrams, Kenneth Adelman, William Bennett, John Bolton, Douglas Fieth, I. Lewis Libby, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, James Woolsey, and David Wurmser. These individuals are out of power presently, but not our of circulation and have great influence in conservative political circles.       

            Neo-conservatives also include prominent journalists such as Robert Bartley, David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristal, Bret Stephens, and Norman Podhoretz. Neo-conservative academics include such well-known figures as Fouad Ajami, Eliot Cohen, Aaron Friedberg, and Bernard Lewis. They also fill up positions at neo-conservative think-tanks, which churn out policy ideas for the U.S. Government. Such persons include many names familiar from the George W. Bush Presidency and who are still very much in circulation, including Max Boot, David Frum, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Robert Kagan,  Michael Leeden, Daniel Pipes and Meyrav Wurmser. The leading neo-conservative publications include Commentary, the New York Sun, the Wall Street Journal (op-ed page), and the Weekly Standard. Some influential neo-conservative think tanks include the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Center for Security Policy (CSP), The Hudson Institute, the Foundation for Defense of Democracy (FDD), the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), The Middle East Forum (MEF), the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).

These are very right-wing individuals and groups and align with right-wing groups in Israel such as the Likud Party and Benjamin Netanyahu. The memberships of these groups overlap and form a network or web. But the authors carefully point out that this is not a “conspiracy.” They just operate much like other policy networks in the United States, but more successfully. Another aspect of the issue is that the writings of these individuals get circulated and read by students in universities and shape attitudes for future scholars and policymakers.

Also an important part of the Israel lobby is Christian Zionists, such as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell. Such powerful Christian ministers can mobilize much support for Israel with their extensive TV networks. This Christian religious element is indeed very important and involves the rural and small-town masses across America without much education and unlike the Jews, without much money. Most Americans assume that Palestine belongs to the Jews, by God’s command. Most of them probably learned it in a Sunday school in a small town. They believe that they are doing God’s will when they support Israel and some believe that God will punish them if they don’t. They believe that America’s aid to Israel is part of the activity of America as a “Christian nation.”    

Mearsheimer and Walt provide a useful description of how the Israel lobby operates. They lay out the nuts and bolts of the operating of the American political system. And this has very significant implications for American democracy. For example, every candidate for a public office, such as for the Senate and House of Representatives, is thoroughly screened by AIPAC. Each individual is asked to write a position paper outlining their views and policies toward Israel for AIPAC, the most powerful of the lobby organizations. AIPAC is not a political action committee (PAC), although the name sounds like it is, but rather a lobby. If a candidate passes muster as a loyal supporter of Israel, then this information can be conveyed to various political action groups (PACS) who actually distribute political contributions to candidates. If one gets on the approved list, then he or she is on the gravy train and the money starts to flow into their campaign coffers and can come from anywhere in the U.S. Like magic! The floodgates open and the life-blood of American politics, dollars, flow in giving the candidate the money he or she needs to win the election. If not, the money will flow to his or her opponent. If there is even a slight hint that one might be a threat to the national interests of Israel, he is likely to be targeted by the lobby for defeat and lose the election.

Also voting records and statements are closely monitored. If the member of Congress is not in lock-step with supporting Israel, the lobby has the power to get him defeated, in almost every case. This is in spite of the fact that the lobby is far more right-wing on Israel and supportive of Israel than the general public opinion. This should raise serious questions as to whether this is in fact a democratic process. It is really a way of intimidating members of Congress and candidates, a form of coercion using the almighty dollar, the plasma of American Politics. Money is the fuel upon which American politics runs. As one disgusted congressman one time remarked, “the system is rotten, the system stinks.” But Americans, of course, swear that it is the very best system in the world and the best system that money can buy. Maybe they are right.

This system surely undermines the whole notion of political  representation, when the lobby is essentially buying candidates with donations of money from wealthy Jews and some Christians. Indeed, one can say buying votes. Is it not true that lobbying is a system of legalized bribery by capitalists and various lobbies, like the Israel lobby, with more than 35,000 lobbyists crawling through the streets of Washington, shilling for votes in exchange for campaign money? It is certainly not taught that way in American politics classes in American universities. Americans are generally blind to the faults of their own system and think that their system of democracy is the best in the world. Some of the more honest political scientists in the U.S. are willing to admit, however, that the lobbying system is the weakest side of American democracy. Surely lobbying raises the question of whether it is democratic at all.

Another element of the Israel lobby is the practice of harassing and intimidating academics in the U.S., attempting to get universities to deny them tenure if they criticize Israel in their teaching and writing. The lobby has attempted to prevent academics from receiving academic appointments. In the case of now well-known professor, Norman Finkelstein, the lobby attempted to get the University of California to cancel the publication of his noted book, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. There are several other cases which are mentioned by the authors. The lobby also tries to get students to spy on professors and report any criticism of Israel that they hear in their classes. A web site has been set up for this purpose. This surely goes beyond intimidation to being a sort of way of blackmailing professors who tell the truth about history and what is going on in Israel and the Middle East. It is, in fact, a way of trying to shut them up. And sometimes it gets them fired. Maybe this is normal interest group activity in the United States, but it seems to go way beyond normal procedure to practices that intimidate, insult, and harm individuals for speaking out about what is on the historical record. This is surely unacceptable activity in a democracy and in universities.   

Mearsheimer and Walt have provided the reader with a very valuable service in revealing how this system works. I do not mean just for those in other countries around the world who may not be very much aware of how the American system of government works, and they may be shocked to understand just how crude those basic mechanisms actually are. But it is valuable to Americans in particular, most of whom do not understand how their own system works. Even those who teach American politics can learn quite a lot from this book if they are willing to admit the truth.

The second part of the book shows how the Israel lobby has influenced U.S. foreign policy in several cases. These chapters cover U.S. policies toward the Palestinians, toward the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, toward Syria, toward Iran, and toward the war against Hizbollah in Lebanon in 2006. Since the book was published, the Israeli invasion, destruction and killing in Gaza in 2008-2009 has taken place. This event further illustrates the points about Israeli repression of Palestinian rights made in the book.

As an illustration of the power of the Israel lobby, the authors claim that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 would not have happened without the influence of the Israeli lobby. They make a good case for this argument. No one can know if it this true, but the lobby certainly provided a great groundswell of support for the Neo-conservatives’ destruction of Iraq.

In general, the book is an extremely useful analysis of the functioning of the American political system and should be thoroughly digested for this, as well as other, reasons. It also outlines the principle new sources for the actual history of the founding of Israel, against the myths which have been perpetrated and are widely believed in America and around the world.

Indeed, there can be little criticism of the book on the level of the role of the lobby. Where the book is weak is in its broader vision. The book, of course, does not challenge the American political system. But beyond that, the authors want to show their true blue American patriotic colors. They clearly want to keep America strong in the world, but argue that lock-step support for Israel actually damages that objective. With this perspective, however, they fail to view the U.S. in its global hegemonic role. Indeed, they avoid the more radical perspectives of giant figures such as Noam Chomsky and the late Chalmers Johnson. From these writers they might have learned much. Essentially, Mearsheimer and Walt do see America as basically democratic and moral, but just not following a moral path in its support for the Israeli political repression of Palestinians. This leads them to make some rather foolish arguments about “…the Bush administration’s grand scheme for transforming the Middle East into a sea of democracies.” (pp. 202-203) They speak of a … “a bold effort to transform the Middle East by spreading democracy.” This is, of course, ludicrous, as noted above. There was never any such scheme as U.S. policy toward the region today should make clear. Today, the US continues to support the rulers of Bahrain as they harshly repress protests, since it is the home port of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

Mearsheim and Walt also claim that the George W. Bush administration radically reversed its policy to go to war against Saddam Hussein in 2003. But, in fact, there was never any sharp reversal of policies. The PNAC had been planning the invasion of Iraq since the l990s and the neo-conservatives were looking for a pretext for the invasion.

The authors’ analysis of the role of oil is also weak as discussed above. Of course the war was not just about oil, but control of the oil as a basis for U.S. global hegemony and the neo-conservatives surely viewed the war as consolidating US strategic control. They authors say the U.S. goal was simply to prevent any one country from dominating the region. That way the oil would continue flowing. They argue that the oil companies did not have much influence, compared to the Israel lobby. Actually, the neo-conservatives did want one country to dominate the region, namely the United States. Mearsheimer and Walt take issue with more radical thinkers like Noam Chomsky in this context, but are better domestic policy analysts than analysts of international political economy.

Nevertheless, this is certainly a very important book and should be must reading and be on the shelf of anyone who wants to understand the dynamics of Middle East politics and the world today because Israel has such grave repercussions for the whole region, indeed for the entire world. This includes teachers, students and policy makers. The book should be required reading in every graduate seminar in American politics and courses on the Middle East. With the old Middle East order crumbling nowadays, the day of reckoning is drawing closer and the U.S. will be forced to come to terms with this issue. Chomsky has speculated that at some point Israel might break free from any U.S. restraints and become a loose canon, willing to use its hundreds of nuclear weapons in its own interests, disregarding warnings from the U.S. This would only be a step further from Israeli intransigence today in refusing the U.S. demand that Israel stop expanding settlements on the West Bank, which is illegal but still underwritten by U.S. funding. Finally, the question must be asked about the operation of the Israel lobby in the U.S. Is this indeed democracy?


Eddie J. Girdner, author of USA and the New Middle East. New Delhi: Gyan Publishers, 2008.

June 30, 2011

Eddie J. Girdner, Professor

Department of International Relations

Izmir University, Izmir, Turkey






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