The Israel Lobby: How Powerful is it Really?

Since its publication in the London Review of Books in March, John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt’s article “The Israel Lobby” — and the longer version published as a working paper for Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government — has received widespread attention from across the political spectrum. These noted professors put forward two major arguments: the first is the very legitimate and widely acknowledged (outside of official Washington) concern that U.S. Middle East policy, particularly U.S. support for the more controversial policies of the Israeli government, is contrary to the long-term strategic interests of the United States. Their second, and far more questionable, argument is that most of the blame for this misguided policy rests with the ” Israel lobby” rather than with the more powerful interests that actually drive U.S. foreign policy.


The Mearsheimer/Walt article has been met by unreasonable criticism from a wide range of rightist apologists for U.S. support of the Israeli occupation, including Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel (who accused the authors of being “anti-Semites”), Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz (who falsely claimed that the authors gathered materials from websites of neo-Nazi hate groups), pundits like Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes, and publications like the New York Sun and the New Republic. The authors have also been unfairly criticized for supposedly distorting the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though their overview is generally quite accurate. The problem is in their analysis.


The article has garnered unreasonable praise from many in progressive circles, who have posted it on websites, circulated it on listservs, and lauded it as an example of speaking truth to power. Though critiques in establishment circles of the bipartisan U.S. support for the Israeli occupation are unusual and welcome, progressive promoters of this article have largely failed to assess the ideological agenda of its authors and the validity of their specific arguments.


It should be noted that Mearsheimer and Walt are prominent figures in the realist school of international relations, which discounts international law, human rights, and other legal and moral concerns in foreign policy. The realist tradition downplays diplomacy not backed by military force, belittles the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations, and dismisses the growing role of international nongovernmental organizations and popular movements.


With some notable exceptions, Mearsheimer and Walt have been largely supportive of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War and subsequently. For example, during the 1980s, Mearsheimer — a graduate of West Point  — opposed both a nuclear weapons freeze and a no-first-use nuclear policy. A critic of nonproliferation efforts, Mearsheimer has defended India’s atomic weapons arsenal and has even called for the spread of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states such as Germany and Ukraine. He was also an outspoken supporter of the 1991 U.S.-led Gulf War.


It is ironic, then, that these two men have suddenly found themselves lionized by many progressive critics of U.S. foreign policy as a result of their article. Any adulation should be tempered by the authors’ blind acceptance of a number of naïve assumptions regarding America’s role in the world, such as their assertion that the foreign policy of the United States — the world’s number one arms supplier for dictatorial regimes — is designed “to promote democracy abroad.”


It is always welcome and significant when traditional conservatives, hawks, and others in the foreign policy establishment speak out against specific manifestations of U.S. foreign policy, such as when Mearsheimer and Walt joined other prominent conservatives in academia in opposing the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. However, such realist opposition grows not out of concern over any of the important moral or legal questions but out of a rational calculation that a particular war could lead to greater instability and thereby run counter to America’s national security interests. Indeed, Israel’s violation of international legal norms and its impact on the civilian population in the occupied territories are mentioned in the article primarily as a means to counter claims that U.S. policy in support of the Israeli government is based upon a moral imperative.


What progressive supporters of Mearsheimer and Walt’s analysis seem to ignore is that both men have a vested interest in absolving from responsibility the foreign policy establishment that they have served so loyally all these years. Israel and its supporters are essentially being used as convenient scapegoats for America’s disastrous policies in the Middle East. And though they avoid falling into simplistic, anti-Semitic, conspiratorial notions regarding Jewish power and influence for the failures of U.S. Middle East policy, it is nevertheless disturbing that the primary culprits they cite are largely Jewish individuals and organizations.


Also problematic are the article’s references to U.S. Middle East policy resulting in part from the influence of “Jewish voters,” since most American Jews take more moderate positions regarding Iraq, Iran, and Palestine than does Congress or the Bush administration. Similarly, while Mearsheimer and Walt do not claim that the Israel lobby is monolithic or centrally directed, they fail to emphasize how not all pro-Israel groups support the policies of the Israeli government, particularly its right-wing administrations. Groups like Americans for Peace Now, the Tikkun Community, Brit Tzedek v’ Shalom, and the Israel Policy Forum all identify themselves as pro-Israel but oppose the occupation, the settlements, the separation wall, and Washington’s unconditional support for Israeli policies.


Perhaps the most twisted argument in their article is the authors’ claim that the 2003 invasion of Iraq “was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure.” This is ludicrous on several grounds. First of all, Israel is far less secure as a result of the rise of Islamist extremism, terrorist groups, and Iranian influence in post-invasion Iraq than it was during the final years of Saddam Hussein’s rule, when Iraq was no longer a strategic threat to Israel or actively involved in anti-Israeli terrorism. Indeed, it had been more than a decade since Iraq had posed any significant threat to Israel and some of Israel’s biggest supporters on Capitol Hill were among the most outspoken voices against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.


Within the Bush administration, although the neoconservatives who championed the invasion of Iraq were supporters of Israel’s rightist governments, they had for many years also been supporters of rightist governments in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere out of a belief that such alliances strengthened American hegemony. More fundamentally, the United States has had strong strategic interests in the Persian Gulf predating the establishment of modern Israel. Indeed, oil companies and the arms industry exert far more economic and ideological influence over Washington’s policy in the Persian Gulf region than does the Israel lobby. (See The U.S. Invasion of Iraq: Not the Fault of Israel and Its Supporters.)


Mearsheimer and Walt also claim that the Israel lobby has urged Washington to put “very heavy” pressure on Syria. In reality, the Israeli government — fearing instability and a rise of Islamic fundamentalism should the Assad regime be toppled — has been encouraging the United States to back off from putting too much pressure on Syria. Furthermore, dozens of House members who voted in favor of the Syria Accountability Act in 2003 have opposed a number of resolutions supporting Israeli policies. (See The Syrian Accountability Act and the Triumph of Hegemony.)


The authors’ claim that the Israel lobby is a major factor in the formulation of overall U.S. Middle East policy is plainly false. Indeed, U.S. policy in the Middle East over the past several decades — orchestrating military interventions and CIA-backed coups, backing right-wing dictatorships, peddling neoliberal economic policies through the International Monetary Fund and other international financial institutions, undermining the United Nations and international law, imposing sanctions against nationalist governments, etc. — is remarkably similar to U.S. policy toward Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. If the United States can pursue such policies elsewhere in the world without pressure from the Israel lobby, why is its presence necessary to explain U.S. policies in the Middle East?


If the agenda advocated by the Israel lobby was substantially at variance with U.S. foreign policy elsewhere in the world, one could make a strong case that these lobbyists were influential. However, that is simply not the case. This is why some of the most outspoken opponents of U.S. foreign policy in general and of U.S. support for Israel in particular — such as Noam Chomsky, Phyllis Bennis, Mitchell Plitnick, Simona Sharoni, Joseph Massad, Steve Niva, and Norman Finkelstein — have raised serious questions about the supposed power of the Israel lobby, noting that it is responsible, in the words of Professor Massad, for “the details and intensity but not the direction, content, or impact of such policies.”


When it comes to U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine, groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its related political action committees

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