COMMENTARY
 
Israel Lobby under fire
Weekly Pulse
April 28-May 4, 2006
In his 2004 masterpiece Imperial Hubris, the anonymous author had termed America’s unqualified support to Israel as one of the principal reasons why the US was losing the ‘war on terrorism.’ Israel, he said, was a sovereign state capable of self-survival. There was no reason, he added, why the United States should defend Israel while annoying its Middle Eastern Arab allies.

A number of other Muslim, European, and liberal-leftist authors have castigated the Bush administration for its pro-Israel policy, calling it the principal reason why US relations with the Muslim world remain strained.

Like the anonymous author of Imperial Hubris, they are now joined by two leading proponents of the predominant neo-realist creed in US foreign policy—John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago’s Department of Political Science and Stephen Walt of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. They have co-authored an 83-page study titled “The Israel Lobby and the US Foreign Policy,” excerpts of which were published in the March 23 issue of the London Review of Books. The study’s full text is available on the Web site of Harvard's Kennedy School.

Like the anonymous author in Imperial Hubris, Mearsheimer and Walt consider Israel “a liability” for America in its “war on terror” and broader efforts to deal with “rogue states.” The study makes two claims: first, that uncritical US support for Israel across the decades has not served America's best interests; and, two, US foreign policy choices have for years been distorted by one domestic pressure group, the Israel Lobby.

The authors argue that although often justified as reflecting shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, the US commitment to Israel is due primarily to the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby.’ The study describes the various activities that pro-Israel groups have undertaken in order to shift US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. The authors hold Israel Lobby responsible for pushing America into a disastrous war in Iraq. Here are its main arguments:

“For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centerpiece of US Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering support for Israel and the related effort to spread ‘democracy’ throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized not only US security but that of much of the rest of the world. This situation has no equal in American political history.

“Why has the US been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state? One might assume that the bond between the two countries was based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, but neither explanation can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the US provides.

“Instead, the thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the other country–in this case, Israel–are essentially identical.

“Israel has been the largest recipient of economic and military assistance since World War Two, to the tune of well over $140 billion. Since 1982, the US has vetoed 32 Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, more than the total number of vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members. The US comes to the rescue in wartime and takes Israel’s side when negotiating peace.

“Beginning in the 1990s, and even more after 9/11, US support has been justified by the claim that both states are threatened by terrorist groups originating in the Arab and Muslim world, and by ‘rogue states’ that back these groups and seek weapons of mass destruction.

“Saying that Israel and the US are united by a shared terrorist threat has the causal relationship backwards: the US has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel, not the other way around. Unconditional support for Israel makes it easier for extremists to rally popular support and to attract recruits.

“As for so-called rogue states in the Middle East, they are not a dire threat to vital US interests, except inasmuch as they are a threat to Israel. The relationship with Israel actually makes it harder for the US to deal with these states. Israel’s nuclear arsenal is one reason some of its neighbours want nuclear weapons, and threatening them with regime change merely increases that desire.

Another reason to question Israel’s strategic value is that it does not behave like a loyal ally. Israeli officials frequently ignore US requests and renege on promises (including pledges to stop building settlements and to refrain from ‘targeted assassinations’ of Palestinian leaders).

“Some aspects of Israeli democracy are at odds with core American values. Its 1.3 million Arabs are treated as second-class citizens. Israel’s creation was undoubtedly an appropriate response to the long record of crimes against Jews, but it also brought about fresh crimes against a largely innocent third party: the Palestinians.

So if neither strategic nor moral arguments can account for America’s support for Israel, how are we to explain it? The explanation is the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby. Jewish Americans have set up an impressive array of organisations to influence American foreign policy, of which American Israeli Public affairs Committee (AIPAC) is the most powerful and best known. The Lobby also includes prominent Christian evangelicals, who believe Israel’s rebirth is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and support its expansionist agenda; to do otherwise, they believe, would be contrary to God’s will.

“A key pillar of the Lobby’s effectiveness is its influence in Congress. AIPAC forms the core of the Lobby’s influence in Congress. Its success is due to its ability to reward legislators and congressional candidates who support its agenda, and to punish those who challenge it. Money is critical to US elections, and AIPAC makes sure that its friends get strong financial support from the many pro-Israel political action committees.

“The bottom line is that AIPAC, a de facto agent for a foreign government, has a stranglehold on Congress, with the result that US policy towards Israel is not debated there, even though that policy has important consequences for the entire world. In other words, one of the three main branches of the government is firmly committed to supporting Israel.

“Maintaining US support for Israel’s policies against the Palestinians is essential as far as the Lobby is concerned, but its ambitions do not stop there. It also wants America to help Israel remain the dominant regional power. The Israeli government and pro-Israel groups in the United States have worked together to shape the administration’s policy towards Iraq, Syria and Iran, as well as its grand scheme for reordering the Middle East.

“The Lobby’s influence causes trouble on several fronts. It increases the terrorist danger that all states face – including America’s European allies. It has made it impossible to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a situation that gives extremists a powerful recruiting tool, increases the pool of potential terrorists and sympathisers, and contributes to Islamic radicalism in Europe and Asia.

“Equally worrying, the Lobby’s campaign for regime change in Iran and Syria could lead the US to attack those countries, with potentially disastrous effects. We don’t need another Iraq. At a minimum, the Lobby’s hostility towards Syria and Iran makes it almost impossible for Washington to enlist them in the struggle against al-Qaida and the Iraqi insurgency, where their help is badly needed.”

Post-Script

As it has often happened in the past, any scholarly bid to criticize Israel in the US is often portrayed by pro-Israeli academic and media figures as amounting to anti-Semitism, or it fails to generate a healthy debate in the mainstream US media, the latest publication has received a similar reaction. Columnist Christopher Hitchens, for instance, finds the author’s claims as “unmistakably smelly”—the smell in question, of course, is that of anti-Semitism, writes Tony Judt in New York Times, April 19.

The essay and the issues it raises for American foreign policy have been prominently dissected and discussed overseas. In America, however, it’s been another story: virtual silence in the mainstream media. Why?

The reason, according to Tony Judt, is “fear. Fear of being thought to legitimize talk of a “Jewish conspiracy;” fear of being thought anti-Israel; and thus, in the end, fear of licensing the expression of anti-Semitism.” No surprise that one of the authors, Prof. Stephen Walt, would have to quit his deanship of Harvard’s Kenney’s School of Government in June.