WASHINGTON — Two American scholars who earlier this year authored a paper charging that the “Israel Lobby” had seized control of America’s Middle East policy have reopened their attacks, this time claiming that Jerusalem’s allies pressured the Bush admini
stration into supporting Israel during its recent war in Lebanon against Hezbollah.
At an August 28 symposium in Washington hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Stephen Walt of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago contended that Israel had planned the war many months in advance, obtained the administration’s approval and waited for an excuse to launch it. Washington’s alleged “green light” for Israel to attack Hezbollah, and its efforts to provide Israel with enough time to complete its mission before a cease-fire kicked in, were mainly due to the power of “The Lobby,” the scholars said.
“The principal reason, of course, that the United States backed the Israeli policy in Lebanon, while the rest of the world criticized it, is the Israel Lobby,” Mearsheimer said during the symposium. The two scholars depicted a web of Jewish activists, Evangelical Christian groups, journalists and pundits, politicians and think-tank analysts supporting without reservation an Israeli campaign that was militarily foolish, politically counterproductive, morally wrong and devastating for America’s foreign policy goals.
The presentation by the two was ridiculed as unbalanced and shallow in an August 29 Washington Post article and their positions have clearly not made much headway within official Washington. But the recent symposium seriously angered pro-Israel activists.
“I take it very seriously. I think that the damage they are doing, the mischief that this is causing, is underestimated,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein explained that because the two are considered respectable scholars in the academic community, their analysis, however shallow, “seeps through the intellectual discourse. They are given more and more legitimacy.”
Mearsheimer and Walt argued that the war made it politically more difficult for the United States to confront rogue regimes such as those in Iran and Syria. They also argued that the war undermined America’s attempts to pacify Iraq by engaging that country’s Shiite majority, weakened pro-American Middle Eastern regimes in Egypt and Jordan and hurt America’s relations with its European allies.
Morally, they said, the war was unjustified because of the large number of Lebanese civilian casualties and the extensive damage to civilian infrastructure and property as a result of Israel’s bombing.
If neither political nor moral considerations can explain America’s support of the war, the two concluded, then only the power of a domestic special-interest lobby can. “In fact, The Lobby was the main driving force behind the U.S. Middle East policy, as it has been since the late 1960s,” Mearsheimer said. “In this case, as in so many others, The Lobby’s influence has been harmful to U.S. interests but also harmful to Israel as well,” he added.
The two scholars ignored widespread reports that the Bush administration supported the war because it viewed it as a front in its overall war on terrorism and as a part of America’s confrontation with Iran. They also could not produce any solid evidence to support their assertions that the war was pre-planned and pre-approved by the administration. In their prepared remarks, the two frequently mentioned Jewish senior administration officials who they say pushed President Bush to launch the war in Iraq in 2003 and enthusiastically supported Israel’s war against Hezbollah. These Jewish officials did so, said the two scholars, because of their “attachments” to Israel.
In March, Walt and Mearsheimer, two of America’s leading international relations scholars, caused a storm in the nation’s Middle East policy community by publishing an article in the London Review of Books, based solely on selective citations from books and newspaper articles, criticizing the power of America’s pro-Israel lobby. In their essay, the two contended that “The Lobby” is dominating America’s Middle East policy and aggressively silencing any expression of criticism of Israel in politics, campuses and the media.
The article triggered supportive reactions among traditional critics of Israel and furious responses from Jerusalem’s allies in the United States. Some pro-Israel activists went so far as to accuse the two scholars of antisemitism. Walt and Mearsheimer recently published a rebuttal to the criticism. On Monday they said that they would soon publish an article supporting assertions made in their March article, which critics said were factually wrong.
Critics of the two scholars say that their appearance this week, under the auspices of a virulently anti-Israeli organization such as CAIR, shows that they have crossed the line from academia to advocacy.
“They no longer can play the game that they are innocent, naive virgin scholars who have come across this subject and now feel duty-bound for truth and understanding to expose it,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Now they have a mission: an advocacy of the Arab narrative.”
The positions voiced by the two professors do not seem to reflect a widespread attitude in the American government. According to several well-placed sources, only a few officials in the administration or on Capitol Hill think that the United States was wrong in supporting Israel’s military campaign in Lebanon. In fact, the more prominent criticism in Washington has come from the ranks of conservatives, who strongly believe that Israel should have pushed harder and faster to crush Hezbollah and send a formidable message to Islamic terrorists and states that sponsor them.
Israel may be looking at an embarrassing face-off with the American government over combat ethics, particularly Israel’s use of cluster bombs in the war. Last week, the State Department confirmed reports that it was “looking into” the circumstances in which Israel used cluster bombs in Lebanon.
“What we are looking to see is if they were used. We are looking to see if there is evidence of that,” said State Department spokesman Gonzo Gallegos. “Once we determine that, we look to see how they were used, who were the targets.” Israel and the United States reached a secret understanding almost 30 years ago regarding the use of the bombs against targets adjacent to civilian population centers.
The American-made munitions — Israel also uses cluster bombs made in Israel or bought from Britain — are small bomblets that are encased in artillery shells. They burst from the shells before impact and spread, creating large explosive fields. The bomblets — dozens or even hundreds are encased in each round of artillery — do not always explode immediately, leaving the possibility that the ordnances may accidentally be set off. A number of cluster bombs have exploded in southern Lebanon since the cease-fire took hold two weeks ago, killing and injuring civilians as well as Lebanese bomb-disposal experts.
Israel does not deny its use of these munitions in Lebanon, but contends that it did so in a way that “conforms with international standards,” according to an official Israeli statement. When the United States concluded that during the Lebanon War in 1982 Israel violated the agreement on using cluster bombs, the Reagan administration suspended shipments of cluster bombs to Israel for six years.
Jewish activists and Israeli sources in Washington said this week that the likelihood of similar sanctions this time is low. Without pressure from Congress, such sanctions are unlikely, and there are no indications of such pressure, sources said. In addition, Israeli sources pointed out that the American military has been using cluster munitions in Iraq, in circumstances that Israeli officials believe are similar to those in which the weapons were recently used in Lebanon.
Referring to the State Department probe into the use of cluster bombs by Israel, the Presidents Conference’s Hoenlein said: “The United States is doing what it needs to do, pro forma, because it is something that is required.” He added, however, that the issue is “very important because members of Congress have expressed concern about it” in the past.