Five years ago, Atlantic Monthly commissioned two academics, John Mearsheimer of Chicago University and Stephen Walt of Harvard, to write a significant article about the influence of the Israeli lobby on American foreign policy. When the piece was at last completed, the magazine declined to publish, deeming it too hot for delicate American palates. It eventually appeared in 2005, in the London Review of Books, provoking one of the most bitter media and academic rows of recent times. The authors were accused of antisemitism, and attacked with stunning venom by some prominent US commentators. Mearsheimer and Walt obviously like a fight, however, for they have now expanded their thesis into a book.
Its argument is readily summarised. The authors support Israel’s right to exist. But they are dismayed by America’s unconditional support for its governments’ policies, including vast sums of cash aid for which there is no plausible accounting process. They reject the view articulated as a mantra by all modern American presidents (and 2008 presidential candidates) that Israel and America share common values, and their national interests march hand in hand.
On the contrary, say the authors, America’s backing for Israel does grave damage to its own foreign-policy interests. And many Israeli government actions, including the expansion of West Bank settlements and the invasion of Lebanon, reflect repressive policies that do not deserve Washington’s endorsement: “While there is no question that the Jews were victims in Europe, they were often the victimisers, not the victims, in the Middle East, and their main victims were and continue to be the Palestinians.”
The authors argue that American policy towards Israel is decisively and unquestionably wrong-headed. They quote the experience of a Senate candidate who was invited to visit AIPAC early in his campaign for “discussions”. Harry Lonsdale described what followed as “an experience I will never forget. It wasn’t enough that I was pro-Israel. I was given a list of vital topics and quizzed (read grilled) for my specific opinion on each. Actually, I was told what my opinion must be . . . Shortly after that . . . I was sent a list of American supporters of Israel . . . that I was free to call for campaign contributions. I called; they gave from Florida to Alaska”.
Settlers have been given the green light by the Israeli government in the past to set up communities deep in Palestinian territories, in defiance of UN and other agreements.
When congresswoman Betty McCollum, a liberal with a solid pro-Israel voting record, opposed the AIPAC-backed Palestinian AntiTerrorism Act, which was also opposed by the state department, an AIPAC lobbyist told McCollum’s chief-of-staff that her “support for terrorists will not be tolerated”. Former president Jimmy Carter incurred not merely criticism but vilification when he [recently] published a book entitled Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, likening Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians to that of the old white regime in South Africa towards its black majority.
Whatever view Europeans take of Israel, most find it difficult to comprehend the sheer ferocity of American sentiment. Ian Buruma wrote an article for The New York Times entitled “How to Talk About Israel”. He said how difficult it is to have an honest debate, and remarked that “even legitimate criticism of Israel, or of Zionism, is often quickly denounced as antiSemitism by various watchdogs”.
Such remarks brought down a storm on his head. The editor of The Jerusalem Post, also a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, published an open letter to Buruma that began: “Are you a Jew?” He argued that nonJews should discuss these issues only in terms acceptable to Jews.
The American media, claim the authors, even such mighty organs as The New York Times and The Washington Post, do less than justice to the Palestinians, much more than justice to the Israelis. Robert Bartley, a former editor of The Wall Street Journal, once said: “Shamir, Sharon, Bibi – whatever those guys want is pretty much fine by me.” There is no American counterpart to such notably Arabist British polemicists as Robert Fisk.
Mearsheimer and Walt’s book argues its points at such ponderous length that it makes pretty leaden reading. But it is extraordinary that, in a free society, the legitimacy of the expression of their opinions should be called into question. “We show,” say the authors, “that although Israel may have been an asset during the cold war it is increasingly a strategic liability now that the cold war is over. Backing Israel so strongly helps fuel America’s terrorism problem and makes it harder for the United States to address the other problems it faces in the Middle East.”
Americans ring-fence Israel from the normal sceptical processes of democracy, while arguments for the Palestinians are often denounced as pernicious as well as antisemitic. All the 2008 presidential candidates, say Mearsheimer and Walt, know that their campaign would be dead in the water if they hinted that Israel would receive less than 100% backing if they win. They note that many Israelis are much bolder in attacking their own governments than any American politician would dare to be.
Part of the trouble is that AIPAC faces no significant opposition. Palestinians, and indeed all Arabs, command negligible sympathy in America, especially since 9/11. The authors think that the most helpful step towards diminishing the Israel lobby’s grip would be for election campaigns to be publicly financed, ending candidates’ dependence on private contributions: “AIPAC’s success is due in large part to its ability to reward legislators and congressional candidates who support its agenda, and to punish those who do not.”
But the authors know reform will not happen. The Israel lobby is vastly strengthened by the support of America’s Christian Zionists, an important element of George W Bush’s constituency. Some may think these people are lunatics, but there are an awful lot of them. They are even more strident in their opposition to Arab rights in Palestine than the Israeli Likud party.
Mearsheimer and Walt conclude, weakly but inevitably, with a mere plea for more open debate in the US about Israel. “Because most Americans are only dimly aware of the crimes committed against the Palestinians,” they say, “they see their continued resistance as an irrational desire for vengeance. Or as evidence of unwarranted hatred of Jews akin to the antisemitism that was endemic in old Europe.
“Although we deplore the Palestinians’ reliance on terrorism and are well aware of their own contribution to prolonging the conflict, we believe their grievances are genuine and must be addressed. We also believe that most Americans would support a different approach . . . if they had a more accurate understanding of past events and present conditions.”
For Europeans, all this adds up to a bleak picture. Only America might be capable of inducing the government of Israel to moderate its behaviour, and it will not try. Washington gives Jerusalem a blank cheque, and all of us in some degree pay a price for Israel’s abuses of it.
After that remark, I shall be pleasantly surprised to escape an allegation from somebody that I belong in the same stable of antisemites as Walt and Mearsheimer. Yet otherwise intelligent Americans diminish themselves by hurling charges of antisemitism with such recklessness. There will be no peace in the Middle East until the United States faces its responsibilities there in a much more convincing fashion than it does today, partly for reasons given in this depressing book.
The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John J Mearsheimer and Stephen M Walt
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