John Mearsheimer, the University of Chicago professor who co-authored a controversial article last winter about the power of the “The Israel Lobby,” met his critics head-on last week for a debate before a rowdy audience on the stage of New York’s historic Cooper Union. It was a vigorous exchange, replete with accusations of antisemitism, conspiracy-mongering, censorship and rank dishonesty, accompanied by cheers and catcalls from the sharply divided audience. When it was over, both sides were claiming victory.
Mearsheimer’s paper, co-authored by political scientist Stephen Walt of Harvard University, portrays “The Israel Lobby” as a sprawling aggregate of organizations, private citizens and government officials that collectively holds a “stranglehold” over America’s Middle East policy. In the paper, published in March by the London Review of Books, the authors claim that “the Lobby” overrides U.S. national interest to force an unhealthy alliance with Israel that fuels Arab and Muslim anti-Americanism. They claim that “the Lobby” pushed America into war with Iraq and works to suppress open debate of the American-Israeli relationship. The paper sparked a furor when it first appeared, fueled partly by the authors’ claim that it could not have been published in the United States because of the power of “the Lobby.”
Facing Mearsheimer on the stage at Cooper Union were Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk, who were senior Middle East policy-makers in the Clinton administration, and Shlomo Ben-Ami, an Oxford-trained historian and former Israeli foreign minister. Arguing on Mearsheimer’s side were historian Tony Judt, director of New York University’s Remarque Institute and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, and Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University. The moderator was Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. Slaughter fought throughout the evening — more successfully than not — to keep the exchange civil and on topic.
Only a few minutes into the debate, Indyk said that he thought the Walt-Mearsheimer paper “rose to the level” of antisemitism, as many of its detractors have charged. “If he had written a paper about Aipac, which is the lobby, then I wouldn’t have had a problem with that,” Indyk said, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the best-known pro-Israel lobbying organization. “But this notion of a loosely aligned group of people that all happen to be working assiduously for Israel is indeed a cabal, the very thing he insists he is not referring to. This is exactly what he suggests. And this cabal includes anyone that has anything positive to say about Israel… And what does this cabal do? It ‘distorts’ American foreign policy, it ‘bends’ it, all these words are used to suggest that this cabal is doing something anti-American.”
Mearsheimer took many more hits throughout the evening, including quite a few from Indyk. And despite the periodic cheers from the crowd supporting his position, Mearsheimer often seemed lost and out of his depth. Time after time, he repeated vague charges that “the Lobby” had “phoned” the president and delivered orders, or he alluded to specific events that drew retorts from Ross, Ben-Ami or Indyk to the effect of, “I was there and nothing of the sort happened.”
Even the two scholars brought on to support Mearsheimer seemed reluctant to embrace his views wholeheartedly. Khalidi, and Judt to some extent, wanted to define the notion of the “lobby” both more broadly and more narrowly, suggesting that Israel’s American supporters have an influence on the culture that shapes perceptions and constrains public discussion of the Middle East. Khalidi was particularly insistent on this point: “We are not just talking about foreign policy. We should also be talking about American domestic legislation. We should also be talking about the public debate in this country…. If you believe that there are two sides to the debate in this country on this issue, then you are out of your mind.”
The evening’s sharpest exchanges, however, centered not on the scope and power of “the Lobby” but on the paper’s scholarship, which its three critics repeatedly said was shoddy. The research was “ridiculous,” Ross said at one point, addressing Mearsheimer. “You quote selectively. You basically identify certain things that you think that are important to your case. You ignore every bit of evidence that contradicts your case. And then you make these kind of broad statements.”
This objection came up numerous times when discussing the two major claims in the paper: that “the Lobby” was largely responsible for the Iraq War, and that America’s close relationship with Israel — instigated by “the Lobby” — was the major reason for terrorism against the United States, including the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Mearsheimer, challenged repeatedly, asserted these two points again. “It seems very clear to me and very clear to others,” he said at one point, “that the Israel lobby was one of the principal guiding forces behind the Iraq War, and in its absence we probably would not have had a war.” This statement was met with loud applause. He also cited Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the reputed mastermind of the September 11 attacks, who has said that his animus for the United States stemmed from its support for the Jewish state. “There is a considerable amount of evidence that there is a linkage between the two,” Mearsheimer said, referring to the attacks and the American-Israeli relationship.
Mearsheimer’s argument about Iraq seemed to fall apart once he acknowledged that Israeli officials — who presumably direct “the Lobby” — actually saw Iran as a greater threat than Iraq. Mearsheimer claimed that the Israelis merely agreed to “go along” with the Iraq invasion because they knew that Iran and Syria would be next “on the hit list.” But his questioners suggested that the admission undermined his contention that an all-powerful “Lobby” can “bend” foreign policy to its will. If it does truly pull all the strings, as the paper contends, why couldn’t “the Lobby” have pushed the administration to attack Iran instead?
The most effective criticism voiced was about the reductivist quality of the paper’s argument — seeing everything that happened in the Middle East as resulting solely from the work of “the Lobby.” Ben-Ami, the Israeli diplomat, pointed again and again to the faultiness of what he called a “single-cause explanation” for America’s actions in relation to Israel, ignoring the role of the oil lobby, America’s Arab allies and the arms industry.
Most of all, Ben-Ami said, Mearsheimer overlooked the importance of political leadership. Dennis Ross added that most of Mearsheimer’s complaints relate to the policies of the current Bush administration, which Ross called “unique” in its single-mindedness on a variety of issues — from the Middle East to global warming and international law. “Do you blame global warming on the Jewish lobby?” he asked Mearsheimer.
Other panelists cited instances, particularly during the Clinton and first Bush presidencies, when a determined American president acted contrary to the lobby’s desires or pushed Israel in directions in which it might not have wanted to go — such as accepting a division of Jerusalem — and “the Lobby” could do nothing about it.
“There is hardly one case when the lobby can change the policy,” Ben-Ami said. “It can only surf on it, fine-tune it. It cannot force its will on it. Lobbies are there but you have a president, you have the intellectual profile of a president. You have elected twice a president who is a political theologian without Jewish votes. He doesn’t need a Jewish lobby to do the things that he does.”
Judt, however, countered that successive administrations had tried and failed to achieve a halt to Israeli settlements in the post-1967 territories, which continue to thrive in defiance of four decades of U.S. policy. By contrast, he noted sarcastically, other small nations have repeatedly found American presidents willing and able to impose their views by a wide variety of means, including military force.
What the debate last Thursday highlighted, more than anything else, was how poor a vehicle for a discussion on this critical issue the Walt-Mearsheimer paper really is. Every single one of the panelists on the stage agreed that the Israel lobby, narrowly defined as Aipac, has very considerable influence on the legislative and executive branches of the American government. Few questioned the existence of inhibitions to open debate of American-Israeli relations, particularly among elected politicians. And there is little doubt that there is an important public conversation to be had about this reality. But as the evening proved — veering off as it did to Iraq and Iran, to responsibility for 9/11, and to antisemitism — the Walt-Mearsheimer article may have done more to distract attention from a real debate than to ignite one.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman