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That ‘Israel Lobby’ Controversy? History Has Proved Us Right

Ten years ago, John Mearsheimer and I published a controversial article and subsequent book examining the impact of the “Israel lobby” — that is, a loose coalition of pro-Israel individuals and organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Christians United for Israel, just to name a few. We argued that decades of unconditional U.S. support for Israel — the so-called “special relationship” — is not explained by U.S. strategic interests or by shared values, as is often claimed, but is due primarily to the political efforts and activities of the lobby.

The result, we also argued, does more harm than good to both the United States and Israel. For the United States, the “special relationship” undermines America’s standing in the Arab and Islamic worlds, has encouraged a more confrontational approach with Iran and Syria, and contributes significantly both to America’s terrorism problem and to needless and costly debacles like the 2003 invasion of Iraq. For Israel, unquestioning U.S. support for almost all its actions has allowed the decades-long subjugation of the Palestinians to continue unchecked, undermining the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and threatening Israel’s future as a democratic and/or Jewish state.

We made it clear that the lobby was not a monolith controlling every aspect of U.S. Middle East policy, but rather a collection of disparate groups and individuals united by the aim of defending Israel’s actions and deepening the special relationship. We explicitly rejected the idea that anything nefarious was going on, explaining that AIPAC and related organizations were simply part of a powerful interest group like the farm lobby or the National Rifle Association. Their efforts to influence U.S. policy are “as American as apple pie.” And we used the term “Israel lobby” to highlight that not all American Jews support these policies and that some key members of the lobby (such as Christian Zionists) aren’t Jewish. The book also emphasizes that none of these groups or individuals is solely responsible for the choices U.S. leaders make.

As the article and book predicted, a firestorm of criticism followed their publication, including more than a few accusations that we are anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our aim was to elicit a debate that would help move America’s foreign policy in a wiser direction and increase Israel’s chances of achieving a durable, peaceful two-state solution with the Palestinians. By successfully squelching any criticism of Israel in almost any form, and by encouraging military action against Israel’s foes, the lobby — in our view — had led us away from both.

Unfortunately for Israel as well as the United States, the past 10 years provide ample evidence that our core argument is still correct. Nevertheless, shifts inside the pro-Israel community and in Israel itself may yet lead to positive shifts in U.S. Middle East policy and to a healthier relationship between the two countries.

There is little question the lobby remains a potent political force today. The “special relationship” is firmly intact: An increasingly prosperous Israel continues to receive billions of dollars in U.S. assistance, and it is still largely immune from criticism by top U.S. officials, members of Congress or contenders for public office. Being perceived as insufficiently “pro-Israel” can disqualify nominees for important government positions; one need look no further than Chuck Hagel’s contentious confirmation hearings — and the 178 times Israel came up — to see how crucial a role being pro-Israel plays in achieving political success in this country. People who criticize Israel too pointedly can still lose their jobs. Wealthy defenders of Israel such as Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban play outsize roles in American politics, especially on Israel-related issues. A number of hard-line individuals and groups in the lobby remain staunch opponents of the sensible 2016 nuclear deal with Iran and may eventually help convince President Trump or the Congress to overturn it.

The clearest illustration of the lobby’s enduring power, however, is the Obama administration’s failure to make any progress on settling the Israel-Palestinian conflict. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were strong supporters of Israel, and both believe a two-state solution is, as Obama put it, “in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest and the world’s interest.” But even with backing from pro-peace, pro-Israel organizations such as J Street, their efforts to achieve “two states for two peoples” were rebuffed by Israel, working hand in hand with AIPAC and other hard-line groups. So instead of seriously pursuing peace, Israel expanded its settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories, making it more difficult than ever to create a viable Palestinian state.

Given AIPAC’s enduring influence in Congress and its unyielding opposition to any meaningful compromise with the Palestinians, Obama and Kerry ultimately could offer Israel only additional carrots (such as increased military aid) to try to win their cooperation. Like their predecessors, they could not put pressure on Israel to compromise by threatening to reduce U.S. support significantly. As a result, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had little incentive to make a deal. So, the two-state solution, which the United States has long sought and Netanyahu has long opposed, is now further away than ever. This outcome is bad for the United States and for Israel.

Despite the lobby’s continuing influence, however, there is a more open discussion of Israel-related issues today than there was before we wrote our article and book. Together with long-term trends in the region and the United States, the ability to speak more openly about Israel is likely to diminish the lobby’s impact on U.S. foreign policy in the future.

For starters, despite joining forces with Netanyahu to oppose the Iran deal, AIPAC was unable to convince Congress to reject the agreement. This failure signaled a rare defeat for the lobbying group, and a triumph for J Street and other groups that had backed the deal.

Furthermore, the taboo of publicly criticizing Israel, the lobby or the special relationship has been broken. In recent years, writers such as Peter Beinart, John Judis, Dan Fleshler and others have written important works examining the role of pro-Israel groups in American politics and criticizing their impact on U.S. foreign policy. Prominent journalists such as Thomas Friedman, Andrew Sullivan and Roger Cohen have penned their own criticisms of Israel’s policies and the lobby’s activities. More Americans have become aware of the complexities of life in Israel-Palestine and are more sympathetic to the needs and desires of both populations.

There is also a growing divide within the American Jewish community over what is best for Israel itself. Scholars like Dov Waxman, Steven Simon and Dana Allin have documented that American Jews today are less reluctant to criticize Israel’s policies or the actions of the Israeli government. The creation of the pro-peace lobby J Street, the rapid growth of progressive groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, and the success of controversial online journals critical of Zionism, such as Mondoweiss, show that attitudes about Israel are more complicated than in the past. Reflexive support for whatever Israel does is no longer the default condition for many American Jews.

These developments are especially evident among young people, and as Waxman emphasizes in his 2016 book “Trouble in the Tribe,” they have amplified divisions between the Orthodox and more liberal branches of Judaism. One sees this trend in a recent poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee, which found that nearly 80% of American Jews disapprove of the job President Trump is doing but 71% of Orthodox Jews support Trump. The main reason? Orthodox Jews tend to see Trump as more supportive of Israel. Yet even among the Orthodox, a recent survey by Nishma Research found that only 43% of those between 18 and 34 “actively support” the Jewish state, compared with 71% of those over 55.

These trends stem from a core tension: The vast majority of American Jews remain deeply committed to liberal values, while Israel has been moving away from them for many years now. There is a certain tension between liberalism and Zionism, because liberalism assumes that all humans possess the same set of basic rights and it emphasizes mutual tolerance, while Zionism is a nationalist movement that in its current iteration privileges one people at the expense of another. Until 1967, however, that tension between liberal and Zionist values was muted because most Israelis were Jewish and the second-class status of Israel’s Arab minority did not receive much attention.

When Israel gained control of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the resulting subjugation of millions of Palestinians brought that tension to the fore. The occupation of the Palestinian territories has endured for half a century, and today, certain sections of Israel’s government are openly committed to retaining the West Bank in perpetuity and creating a “Greater Israel.” This policy not only involves denying the Palestinian subjects meaningful political rights, but also leads Israel to react harshly whenever the Palestinians respond with violence and terrorism (as happened in response to the two intifadas and in Israel’s repeated assaults on Gaza), further tarnishing its image in the United States and elsewhere.

But as former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert each warned, in the long run, denying the Palestinians a viable state of their own will turn Israel into a state akin to apartheid South Africa. Such a state will be increasingly difficult for Israel’s supporters — and especially liberal American Jews — to embrace and defend against the inevitable criticism that will be directed at it. Furthermore, the steady rightward drift of Israeli politics — exemplified by the 2016 “transparency law” marginalizing Israeli human rights organizations, as well as by Netanyahu’s decision to renege on a plan to allow non-Orthodox Jewish men and women to pray together at the Western Wall — also clashes with the political values of most American Jews.

Even more disturbing, the Israeli government has begun to turn a blind eye to incidents of genuine anti-Semitism, when doing so is seen as safeguarding other priorities. Netanyahu was slow to condemn the anti-Jewish and neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, for example, and he declined to criticize Trump’s waffling response to these disturbing events. Netanyahu also remains on good terms with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban despite Orban’s anti-Semitic campaign against financier George Soros. Indeed, Netanyahu’s son Yair Netanyahu recently posted to Facebook an explicitly anti-Semitic meme about Soros, thereby earning a swift condemnation from the ADL.

These and other events have accelerated what Waxman describes as a “splintering” among pro-Israel organizations. Past depictions of a weak Israeli David surrounded by a hostile Arab Goliath no longer ring true against the reality of a prosperous, nuclear-armed Israel that denies millions of Palestinian Arabs basic rights and uses its vast military power to keep those disenfranchised subjects powerless and afraid. Israel still faces a number of security challenges, but, contrary to what used to be the conventional wisdom, it is not weak, isolated or vulnerable to conventional attack. Instead, it has become a fiercely nationalistic state pursuing increasingly illiberal policies, which makes it increasingly hard for liberals to defend with enthusiasm.

These trends, however, have yet to affect Israel’s most ardent defenders here in the United States. If anything, their efforts to silence criticism of Israel have reached new heights. How else can one explain the AIPAC-sponsored Senate bill that would make it a crime in the United States to participate in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, legislation that the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Rights have rightly denounced as a direct threat to free speech?

Even if they succeed in muzzling some criticism in the short term, over time these tactics will turn off many Americans, including large numbers of American Jews who prize freedom of speech, tolerance and human rights, and who understand how important those values are for preserving the security of minority populations everywhere.

Barring a major shift in Israel’s political trajectory, therefore, the fissures within the lobby — and in the American Jewish community more broadly — are likely to widen. If the balance of power in that community shifts in favor of more moderate and pro-peace groups, then there may be a glimmer of hope. “Two states for two peoples” will be harder to achieve today than it would have been under either President Clinton or President Obama, but political pressure from a powerful, pro-Israel and pro-peace lobby in the United States is probably the only development that would convince U.S. leaders to act as fair-minded mediators and persuade the Israeli government to grant the Palestinians a viable state of their own. Over the long term, that may also be the only way to preserve a secure Israel and the strong bonds of the U.S.- Israel relationship.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and the co-author (with John J. Mearsheimer) of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).


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