On the face of it, there’s little that’s new in the provocative research paper “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” published online last week by two leading political scientists, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Their underlying thesis, that Israel’s advocates have pressured America into an unjustified and damaging alliance with Israel, has been around for decades, flogged with little success by generations of Israel’s detractors. Their more immediate argument, that Israel and its allies manipulated America into war with Iraq, has been simmering at the edges of the debate since before the invasion. By now it’s part of our national background noise.
What is new and startling is the document’s provenance. Its authors are not fringe gadflies but two of America’s most respected foreign-affairs theorists. One, Mearsheimer, is a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago. The other, Walt, is academic dean of the nation’s most prestigious center of political studies, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Though it’s tempting, they can’t be dismissed as cranks outside the mainstream. They are the mainstream.
Even more startling, given who they are, is the flimsiness of their work. Countless facts are simply wrong. Long stretches of argument are implausible, at times almost comically so. Much of their research is oddly amateurish, drawn not from credible documents or primary source interviews but from newspaper clippings, including dozens from this newspaper, seemingly dug up in quick Internet word searches aimed at proving a point, not exploring the truth. Some are wildly misquoted. An undergraduate submitting work like this would be laughed out of class. A dean apparently gets to see it posted on Harvard’s Web site.
Considering the authors’ credentials, the paper calls for substantive rebuttal by those who disagree. But that, as we’ll see, is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. The larger, more urgent question is how things came to this pass. What could possibly have led two of the best and brightest foreign policy mandarins to compose and publish such an embarrassment?
Some of Israel’s more overheated defenders were trying this week to diagnose the problem as a character flaw in the authors. Their solution is to counterattack. That’s a mistake. Leaving aside the folly of trying to answer a claim that Israel is a bully by bullying the messenger, the response misses the point. Mearsheimer and Walt are products of their time.
These are dark, poisonous days we live in, and the poison is spreading. In Iraq, America has stumbled into a quagmire of historic proportions, with global consequences that are proving nothing short of catastrophic. If that weren’t enough, our nation is nearly bankrupt, with a national debt nearly equal to our Gross Domestic Product. And the Arctic is melting. The miscalculations seem inexplicable. There must be someone to blame.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, at the sight of respected professors, and not only professors, coming unhinged.
The Mearsheimer-Walt paper shows how far the notion that Israel is to blame for the Iraq War has moved from the crackpot fringe to the center. Three years ago it was heard mainly from campus radicals. Two years ago it started getting picked up by a handful of Washington insiders, memorably including Senator Ernest Hollings and General Anthony Zinni. Now it’s reached the heart of the academic establishment.
And the notion has grown with the telling. Compared with the professors, Hollings and Zinni now seem modest in their claims. They argued merely that the Iraq War had been fought for Israel’s benefit. In this they were echoing the widespread theory that the war was foisted on the Bush administration by a cabal of mostly Jewish neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith. That was a shaky enough argument back in 2004. It was already clear by then, from the disclosures of former Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill and others, that President Bush had Saddam Hussein in his sights from the moment he entered office. It was also clear, or should have been, that Bush and Cheney had assembled an administration of known quantities, including Wolfowitz and Feith, who served their purposes. The notion that a group of Pentagon underlings could bamboozle the White House into an unintended war was ludicrous on its face. Whatever else might be said of George Bush, he knows his mind and is not easily manipulated.
Mearsheimer and Walt, however, have constructed a far more ambitious theory. They mean to indict the entire U.S.-Israel relationship, going back to the point in 1973 when American aid rose into the billions and America became the essential broker in Middle East diplomacy. Since then, they write, “the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy has been its relationship with Israel. The combination of unwavering U.S. support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized U.S. security.” Indeed, “the United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel.”
But if America’s ties to Israel were the main cause of America’s current troubles in the Muslim world, as Mearsheimer and Walt argue, then Muslim hostility would have been rising steadily since 1973. It has not. There have been periods of conflict and periods of good will. Things were bad during the early 1980s, around the time of the Lebanon War. They picked up in the late 1980s, when America was working actively to broker Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, and improved even more in the 1990s, when Israel was working toward reconciliation with the Palestinians.
Throughout, groups of terrorists sought to attack American targets, including Hezbollah in the 1980s, Al Qaeda beginning in the 1990s. But they did not represent a groundswell of mass rage. No, the groundswell began in 2000 with the outbreak of the televised intifada. It became a firestorm after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
If America’s support for Israel has been steady since 1973, as the authors say, then it cannot explain a crisis that erupted in 2000 or 2003.
What’s different, of course, is the “effort to spread democracy throughout the region.” Mearsheimer and Walt present it as a natural corollary of American support for Israel, but it’s nothing of the sort. Support for Israel is a broadly popular aspect of American policy that goes back decades. Spreading democracy in the Middle East — or, more precisely, imposing it — is an eccentric doctrine taken up, amid intense controversy, by the current administration. Some of its key advocates see democratization as a way of protecting Israel; others, conversely, support Israel as an outgrowth of their vision of democracy. Some elements of the pro-Israel advocacy community back this crusade enthusiastically; most do not.
Mearsheimer and Walt have no time for such subtleties. For them, the cause of Israel is inseparable from the ideological crusade of the past three years. The Israel they depict, in a relentless, selective marshaling of facts, half-truths and occasional untruths, is a moral burden and a strategic liability. It was conceived in racism and founded in “explicit acts of ethnic cleansing, including executions, massacres, and rapes by Jews.” It has been bent since 1948 on expansionism and ethnic purification, and since 1967 on tightening its brutal grip on the West Bank and Gaza. The authors claim repeatedly that they do not question Israel’s right to exist, but they spend page after page doing just that, with barely a hint of a counter-argument.
Then, having dismissed the case for Israel, they ask: “[I]f neither strategic nor moral arguments can account for America’s support for Israel, how are we to explain it?” Their answer is “the Israel Lobby.”
Their lobby is a sprawling alliance of Jewish organizations, major newspapers, Democratic and Republican politicians, liberal and conservative think tanks and more Jewish organizations, all single-mindedly determined to help Israel achieve its goals at the expense of American interests. “The core of the Lobby,” they write, “is comprised of American Jews who make a significant effort in their daily lives to bend U.S. foreign policy so that it advances Israel’s interests.” To be sure, they hasten to add, “not all Jewish-Americans are part of the Lobby.” One 2004 survey found that “roughly 36 percent of Jewish-Americans said they were either ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ emotionally attached to Israel.” Good news: No more than 64% of American Jews are out to undermine America.
Here, again, they protest: They do not mean to impugn. There is, they say, “nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to sway U.S. policy towards Israel.” They don’t mean to suggest “the sort of conspiracy depicted in anti-Semitic tracts like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
It’s just that the Lobby has, well, “a stranglehold on the U.S. Congress,” controls key access to the executive branch and suppresses dissent throughout society. Its “not surprising” goal, they write, is to weaken Israel’s enemies to the point that “Israel gets a free hand with the Palestinians, and the United States does most of the fighting, dying, rebuilding, and paying.” Nothing “improper” there.
At times their narrative is surprisingly ill-informed. They state, incorrectly, that Israel did not allow Palestinian refugees to return after 1948. They claim, incorrectly, that Israel’s citizenship laws are based on something they call “blood kinship.”
They state, incredibly and without substantiation, that Israel’s counter-terrorism raids in the 1950s were aimed at territorial expansion. They claim that Yitzhak Rabin, who first endorsed Palestinian statehood in a Yediot Aharonot interview in 1974, was opposed to Palestinian statehood.
At a more basic level, they ignore or gloss over critical distinctions in their effort to portray “the Lobby” as a monolith. Supporters of Israel’s cause are depicted as unanimous in backing territorial expansion and opposing concessions to the Palestinians; when the authors happen to notice advocates of compromise, such as Edgar Bronfman and Seymour Reich, they are presented as lonely voices of dissent rather than as leaders of major factions within the organized Jewish community.
The very term “pro-Israel” becomes, in their hands, elastic to the point of deceptiveness. One minute it describes those who are sympathetic to Israel; the next minute it denotes those whose main motivation is loyalty to Israel. By switching back and forth, they manage to make the casual sympathizers melt in among the diehards to create the appearance of a vast, terrifying octopus.
The deception is helped along by the cherry-picking of quotes. In one egregious case, they attempt to prove how deeply Paul Wolfowitz is “committed to Israel” by quoting the Forward, which “once described him as ‘the most hawkishly pro-Israel voice in the Administration.’” A check of the endnotes shows that the words did appear in the Forward, but they were describing the conventional wisdom, not the Forward’s view. The article was about a pro-Israel rally where Wolfowitz was booed for defending Palestinian rights. The point was that the conventional wisdom was wrong.
Some facts need repeating, though they shouldn’t. Israel was founded by majority vote of the United Nations General Assembly. It has faced and continues to face powerful enemies intent on its destruction. Its citizenship is open to all races and creeds, from European Jews to South American Indians and Vietnamese boat people. Tens of thousands of Israelis are West Bank and Gaza Palestinians who gained their citizenship by marrying Israelis.
Most important, Israel has had the support of successive American administrations in large part because it enjoys the sympathy of much of the American people. In part this flows from Christian religious convictions. In part it reflects admiration for Israeli spunk. In part it stems from a perception of shared values. Israel has not always lived up to its own best ideals. But, unlike much of the world, it tries.
Mearsheimer and Walt join a long line of critics who dislike Israel so deeply that they cannot fathom the support it enjoys in America, and so they search for some malign power capable of perverting America’s good sense. They find it, as others have before, in the Jews.