De-Mystifying American Middle East Policy: A Response to Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer

The follow-up book to the controversial article “The Israel Lobby” by John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt has now been published. Like the article itself, the book is sure to stir controversy and, one expects that, like the original article, that controversy will consist largely of wild accusations of anti-Semitism and not nearly enough substantive debate. That is a loss for everyone involved, whether they agree with the thesis of the book or they do not.

In the wake of the original article, together with Chris Toensing, I published an article critiquing Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s thesis that the Israel lobby was a primary factor in the decision to go to war with Iraq.[1] The book does little to update their original thesis, though it does expand on it significantly, so our article, in the summer edition of Middle East Report, can be read as a partial response. But the book, like the article, makes much more wide-ranging statements than blaming the second Gulf War on the Israel lobby’s influence, and thus demands a similarly considered response.John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt

Is It Anti-Semitism?

As a Jew, who was worked for years to try to improve the situation in Israel and the Occupied Territories, and as someone who has extensive experience with both anti-Semitic ideas and anti-Semitic violence, I am compelled to open this analysis by addressing the question of whether Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s work reflects anti-Semitism. The question is unavoidable; the very idea of a lobby that draws much of its strength from a community holding an undue influence over American policy carries with it loud echoes of Jewish conspiracy theories up to and including the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion that stirred up intense anti-Semitism in Russia and Eastern Europe in the early 20th century.

Yet we Jews point with justifiable pride at the organization of our community into considerable political clout. No one argues when the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is ranked among the top five most influential lobbying groups in Washington.[2] Many other organizations work for the interests of the Jewish community in many different ways, frequently pursuing progressive domestic and international policies. Major Jewish organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish World Service and others are active on a host of political issues having nothing to do with Israel and they do impactful and excellent work. Some of these organizations as well as other, non-Jewish ones, also work very hard to push policies they support regarding Israel and the United States’ relationship with it. As Walt and Mearsheimer repeatedly point out, this is simply good, American-style politics.

Walt and Mearsheimer do not, however, assert that these groups intentionally seek to divert US policy away from American interests in service to Israeli ones. That would, indeed, be anti-Semitic. They say that the end result is harm to US, and sometimes Israeli, interests, but they consistently state that they are not accusing “The Lobby” of doing this intentionally. They assert repeatedly that those backing such policies believe them to be in America’s best interests.

As I will demonstrate below, Walt and Mearsheimer seriously underestimate the impact of other forces outside of the Jewish community (although they do repeatedly mention them in their book, they are clearly depicted as having considerably less impact than Jewish groups) in their work. The Christian Zionists and the arms industry in particular are mentioned but downplayed in Walt and Mearsheimer’s book. There are ways in which institutionalized anti-Semitism can be seen in this dynamic but that is an analysis for a different time and it does not reflect a personal bias by Walt and Mearsheimer.

The ideas Walt and Mearsheimer present are not comfortable and, in my view, sometimes not accurate. But they are not personally anti-Semitic, nor are they motivated by animosity toward Israel.

What Do They Say?

Walt and Mearsheimer believe that American Middle East policy has been disastrous and that a big reason for that disaster has been the US’ largely uncritical support of Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories and with respect to the surrounding Arab states. This is a serious issue of foreign policy and, like any other crucial point of foreign policy in a democracy, must be open to constant examination, debate and review.

Walt and Mearsheimer analyze some of the popular explanations for the “special relationship” between Israel and the US, particularly the “moral” and “strategic” explanations. Their analysis concludes that these are not adequate explanations for American policy. Instead, they say, it is the influence of “The Lobby” that really explains US policy. They then try to demonstrate how “The Lobby” works to promote Israeli interests and illustrate how this has led to numerous disastrous decisions, for the region, for the Palestinians, for Israel and for the US.

The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy is divided into two parts, plus some concluding thoughts offering an alternative vision. In Part 1, Walt and Mearsheimer describe “The Lobby”, how it developed and how it works, as well as some of the historical and political background of the Israel-Arab conflict. Part 2 looks at the manner in which Walt and Mearsheimer believe the Lobby has driven US Mideast policy by examining certain specific areas of policy.

Put bluntly, the first part of the book is a lot better than the second, but both have flaws as well as some very important points to make.

Aid to Israel: Arms and Diplomacy

Walt and Mearsheimer begin by describing the nuts and bolts of American support of Israel. The substantive aid, both in dollars and arms, is considerable, of course. But they seriously understate the boon that aid to Israel gives to the American arms industry. Indeed, they downplay this severely by pointing out that Israel is allowed to spend about a quarter of the aid money in its own economy where the normal practice is that all military aid money must be spent with American arms dealers. While this is true, it’s also misleading. The approximately 75% of the aid Israel receives (a total of about $2.5-3 billion annually)[3] that is spent with US companies is still almost double what any other country gets, so this is still a taxpayer-financed windfall for the arms industry. Moreover, aid to other countries in the region, most clearly Egypt and Jordan, which amounts to another $2 billion a year or so, would not be justifiable politically if not for the aid Israel receives. All of that money comes back to American arms manufacturers. And it is in the interest of US arms manufacturers to help fund the Israeli arms industry because of the many partnerships between Israeli and American arms and hi-tech manufacturers.[4] On every level, the American arms industry receives a gigantic subsidy, directly and indirectly, through US military aid to Israel. Walt and Mearsheimer pay scant attention to this factor, a virtually insurmountable incentive to maintain military aid to Israel, even absent other considerations, including AIPAC.

The diplomatic support the US gives to Israel is considerably more critical than the money. The US has vetoed a great many UN Security Council resolutions regarding Israel[5] and prevented many others form coming to a vote by threatening a veto. The US holds nearly exclusive rights as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. Walt and Mearsheimer make a strong case that the US has tilted heavily towards Israel rather than being a fair mediator, although they correctly point out that this favoring of the Israeli position is not as absolute as some Palestinian supporters sometimes claim.

But the case for “The Lobby” influencing diplomacy is, at best, unclear. Mearsheimer and Walt go to some length to describe the activities of AIPAC as well as key think-tanks such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). These are groups to be reckoned with, to be sure. At WINEP, one finds many government officials of the recent past, and some in government today have been associated with WINEP, and other, similar think-tanks. But that is no different from other issues, both in foreign and domestic policy. It neither speaks to undue influence on policy nor does it explain how the ideas promoted by these groups would hold sway over people like the President, Vice President and Secretary of State who have no connection to them.

No, in the executive branch, lobbying and pitching a case can have an effect, but not one anywhere near what Walt and Mearsheimer suggest. The mere appointment of certain individuals to assistant posts and even frequent contact with decision-makers can only go so far; in the end, the decision-makers are not going to completely change their thinking as to what, in their estimation, is in America’s best interests; certainly not on an issue so vital as American influence in the Middle East and ensuring the flow of petrodollars form that region. They can be open to persuasion, but there simply isn’t the same kind of pressure on the executive, even the president, as there can be on elected officials who can be re-elected indefinitely. That many of them come to a different conclusion than Mearsheimer and Walt (and, I would add, than myself and others who believe that US policy has been misguided in the Middle East) does not mean they have been misled, nor that they are acting in anything other than what they believe to be in America’s interest. This applies to the Israel-Palestine conflict in exactly the same way as it did to Cold War strategy (where our government treated Cuba and even Nicaragua as imminent threats to US security, as absurd as that was) and other foreign policy decisions.

Instead, policy formation comes back to strategy and tactics. Walt and Mearsheimer make a strong case, and one I generally agree with, that US policy has often been counter-productive and has gotten more so over the years. But they implicitly assert that because this is the conclusion that they come to, it must mean that something other than the perception of what best serves US interests is dictating policy-making in the White House. But that does not necessarily follow. It could simply be that decision-makers just have a different analysis and come to different conclusions. Indeed, given that many presidents and advisers to presidents begin from a different worldview than Walt and Mearsheimer, this is by far the more likely reason.

“The Lobby” In Congress

Much of this, though not all, comes back to Congress, where, as Walt and Mearsheimer correctly point out, the “Israel Lobby” is at its most influential. Some of the most active PACs in campaign financing are the so-called “pro-Israel” PACs (the phrase is commonly used and so I will use it here, although this writer is among the great many Jews who believe that the policies pursued by many of these PACs have done and continue to do great harm to Israel), and there is virtually no counterbalancing activity.[6] The idea, often put forward, that an “Arab Lobby” or a “Saudi Lobby” or the influence of big oil provides that counterweight, will be addressed later in this paper.

Votes in Congress reflect an extremely unusual level of consensus on many bills related to Israel. The pressures from “The Lobby” are a factor in terms of votes and campaign contributions, as we will see. But it’s not the only factor by a long shot. There is the long-time alliance with Israel; the relationship Israel has with the United States which is, in fact, based on similarities in the culture and structure of the two societies (both being Western-oriented, both being melting pot societies, both having basic democratic structures) and even some similar flaws (both countries being born through a systematic displacement of those living in the territory at the time, both having serious historical and present-day problems with racial or ethnic discrimination, both having issues, albeit to significantly different degrees, with militarization in society, among others). There is also the fact that Americans generally feel a kinship with Israelis whereas Palestinians, especially because terrorist attacks have historically brought the most visible portrayals of them in American media, are often seen as alien or even frightening.

For Congress members, the calculus is simple. Most Americans, even in the post-9/11 era, do not put foreign policy at the top of their voting agenda, much less any single foreign policy issue, with the exception of conflicts in which the US is directly involved with soldiers on the ground. There is strong grassroots support for Israel among Americans,[7] and the people putting their money and their votes where their mouths are often support hard-line Israeli policy, or at the very least, are pushing a positive view of Israel. In many cases, the Congressional candidate in question legitimately agrees with the positions being advanced by these PACs. In many other cases he or she might not, but in general, voting the other way will cost votes and campaign contributions for a futile action on a bill where they would not prevail anyway. Pro-Palestinian or pro-peace groups simply have not mobilized either money or substantial grassroots support that translates into votes on this issue, so Congress members and candidates who might vote in ways that these PACs would not like at times see no benefit in doing so but see many pitfalls.

AIPAC leads the way in educational lobbying. They finance trips to Israel for Congress members and key staff and regularly visit the halls of Congress, making their case. There is simply no one making similar efforts for a competing point of view. It also doesn’t help that many of the most visible public demonstrations supporting Palestinian rights, protesting Israeli actions or simply promoting peace have a distinctly anti-Israel tone to them. Blaming or demonizing AIPAC for this is the worst kind of passing of the buck—instead of the hand-wringing over “The Lobby”, everyone would be much better served if those who support the Palestinians or simply a more moderate and even-handed approach organized, raised funds, put together trips, meetings, etc. and brought their point of view to greater prominence.

It is true, as Mearsheimer and Walt point out, that most Americans favor US even-handedness in this dispute; that many Americans believe that the US has tilted too heavily in favor of Israel to the detriment of all concerned; and that most Americans, and even a substantial number of American Jews, would favor more pressure on Israel, as well as on the Palestinians and other Arab states, if it would bring about a resolution to this vexing conflict.[8] But the polls they themselves use also show a substantial minority of Americans who simply believe that Israel is entirely correct in its stances and policies, while only a tiny number believe this of the Palestinians. This clearly tilts the popular balance of power. All of this leads one to expect that, even without AIPAC’s efforts, the public support would strongly favor Israel when it shakes out in the wash.

The Counter-Lobbies

One argument that is often made against the idea that “The Lobby” has a major impact on US policy is that there are other lobbies working against it, such as the “Arab Lobby”, “Saudi Lobby” or “Oil Lobby”. Indeed, Walt and Mearsheimer use the ineffectiveness of these groups as proof of “The Lobby’s” overwhelming power. But in fact, there is little mystery about these groups’ inability to level the playing field.

By any measure, domestic lobbying efforts on behalf of the Palestinians are microscopic compared to the “pro-Israel” counterpart. Consider, for example, that between 1989 and 2004 Arab and Muslim PACs contributed a total of about $450,000 in political contributions. Israel PACs gave over $3 million in 2004 alone.[9] Also, where some Jewish organizations count Israel as one of many issues while others focus primarily or exclusively on Israel, all the major Arab organizations are multi-issue. The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the largest national Arab political organization, certainly promoted Palestinian rights, but it spends a great deal of its money and effort on domestic issues as well as broader issues of US-Arab relations beyond the issue of Israel-Palestine.

Other factors blunt the Arab-American lobby, as has already been discussed. The Saudis certainly do have a presence in Washington and Saudi Arabia itself is a key element in US policy in the region. The Bush Administration in particular has a long-standing relationship with the Saudi royal family. But the Saudis use this connection for their own interests, and the Palestinians, while perhaps on the list, are not at or near the top. They are more concerned with their own security, their own economic interests and their own ability to remain in power.[10] Similarly, the oil lobby, which is a considerable campaign financier, has other priorities.[11] The Palestinians themselves employed a single lobbyist in Washington and even this service was discontinued recently due to lack of funds. [12]George W. Bush and Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan

In short, there is no significant counter-balance to the efforts of AIPAC and many other groups’ efforts to promote Israel’s interests. It’s not that Saudi, Arab and oil lobbies don’t exist and exert considerable influence; they certainly do. But where AIPAC and the many other groups we are talking about have Israel as the sole or the top item on their agenda, these other lobbies have other priorities. This goes a long way toward explaining the effectiveness the so-called “pro-Israel” groups have, to the extent that they impact policy. This argument against Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s thesis is simply wrong. That doesn’t mean, however, that Walt and Mearsheimer are correct in asserting that “The Lobby” is the most significant factor in determining America’s Middle East policy.

“The Lobby” and the Neoconservatives: Not One and the Same

In the end, foreign policy is not made in Congress or in the media, but in the Executive branch of government, in the White House. It’s set up this way on the presumption that the President and his Cabinet have information that the public does not and so the foreign policy process is somewhat insulated from popular pressure. Of course, Presidents still must be elected and re-elected, and Congress controls the budget. These things constrain presidential authority and certainly have a significant impact on foreign policy. But the power to determine policy and global strategy for the United States still rests in the White House, not in Congress and, as compared to domestic policy, not as much in the hands of the public, well-heeled or otherwise.

Indeed, the American public and much of the lobbying force focus much more on domestic issues than foreign policy. This changes when American lives are directly threatened, which is not the case with regard to Israel. It is therefore harder for lobbies to influence foreign than domestic policy, and this is how our governmental structure was intentionally set up (and we might note, this is in stark contrast to Israel, whose populace has, historically, been much more concerned about foreign policy compared to Americans. This illustrates the difference between a country that feels its own territory threatened and which is familiar with war on its borders and territory and the comparatively safe American public). Thus, the case for the great power of the “Israel Lobby” is more difficult to make once we move past Congress. The fact that Congress doesn’t get much lobbying on foreign policy issues, apart from major conflicts in which the US is engaged like Iraq, provides “The Lobby” with an unusual opening in the legislative process, but the Executive is both less susceptible to traditional lobbying and the place where foreign policy lobbying is most sensibly directed. Yet, since lobbying is less effective in the executive, it is much harder for Walt and Mearsheimer to make their case that US policy is being set because of “The Lobby’s” influence. This explains their failure to do so, in my estimation, and also their need to go to some lengths to provide some basis for their contention.

That’s how we get to perhaps the greatest single flaw in Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s thesis: their conflation of the neoconservatives and “The Lobby”. By considering the neoconservatives, both in and outside of government as part of “The Lobby,” it easily follows that it was “The Lobby” that pressed hard for the war on Iraq and got what it wanted, and that it is “The Lobby” pushing for war on Iran and blocking potential talks between Israel and Syria. This is probably the most explosive claim made in the book, and it is also the most dubious.

Neoconservatism has become largely identified in the popular mind with support for Israel. And there is no doubt that Israel figures prominently in the neocons’ view of current strategy. Because most of the most prominent neocons are Jewish, and because the neocons, Jewish or not, support a hard-line position in support of Israel, many have assumed that they are heavily invested in Israeli interests, whether related to or good for the United States or not. This idea has been bolstered greatly by the fact that a number of prominent neoconservatives wrote a famous paper in the mid-90s for then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu detailing their recommendations for Israel.[13] Put bluntly, however, the notion that the neocons are thinking in terms of Israeli security as an end in and of itself when contemplating American policy is a complete misreading of the neoconservatives. [14]

The neoconservative view of foreign policy is a very activist one, but also one which barely tolerates diplomacy, preferring military strength and, if necessary, aggression. Exporting democracy (which, in this case, is synonymous with deference to US plans and interests as well as holding free elections) is a cornerstone of neoconservative thinking, as is nation-building (which means creating such democracies so that they will be natural allies of the United States). Many people view neocon goals as being those of an American empire. [15]

It is in this context that neoconservative policies regarding Israel must be understood. Far from seeing Israeli interests as separate from American ones, they see “Israeli interests” in terms of their goals for American foreign policy. While prominent “pro-Israel” groups like AIPAC or the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations promote what they believe to be Israeli interests because they support Israel and believe Israeli and American interests are parallel or even identical, the neocons see Israel as an arm of American foreign policy in the Middle East and encourage a more aggressive Israel not for Israel’s sake, but to advance their militaristic agenda for American foreign policy.

The distinction is crucial. Contrary to Walt and Mearsheimer’s characterization of “The Lobby” and Israeli interests influencing the neocons, and thus creating a situation where the US went to war with Iraq; has antagonized Syria; and is threatening war on Iran largely for the sake of Israel’s security, it is in fact the neocons that have subverted “The Lobby”, playing a powerful role in the rightward drift of some of its leading Jewish groups and leaving them unrepresentative of a large portion of the mainstream Jewish community. The war on Iraq and the other neocon ambitions in the Middle East are based entirely on their view of what should be America’s policy priorities in that region. Israel is central but incidental to these plans and figures prominently not on its own merits but because they are the one country in the region that fits the neocon model of a fellow democracy and ally.

The neocon plans have been around for some time, but, as Walt and Mearsheimer correctly point out, 9/11 and subsequent developments were what allowed them to finally bear fruit. They also found receptive ears in Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, none of whom truly qualify as neoconservatives, but all of whom share, or at least came to share after 9/11, the neocon view of foreign policy. To allege that these men were somehow unduly swayed by lobbying efforts to make a decision to invade a country is to portray them as weak-willed and easily swayed. Whatever else might be said about Cheney and Rumsfeld (and there is plenty that this author might say), there is no basis at all for such a characterization.

Iraq

Mearsheimer and Walt show that the war on Iraq has been detrimental to America’s goals. True enough, but it has been far worse for Israeli concerns. The Iraq war has strengthened the tripartite bond between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, and the de-stabilization of the region, while detrimental to the US, is far more harmful to Israel, which actually has to “live” there. To some extent, Mearsheimer and Walt do use the outcome of the war to show that “The Lobby” is detrimental to US interests. But if that is any part of the rationale, the fact that it has been so much more detrimental to Israel would run counter to their argument.

More pertinent is the fact that there was never much potential gain in the Iraq invasion for Israel. To the extent that elements in Israeli intelligence (and it was only elements that worked with the neocons to build the false case for war) helped some American planners, it becomes even clearer that Israel knew full well that Iraq presented no threat to them.[16] Saddam Hussein’s reported payments to the families of suicide bombers could not possibly have been considered a significant factor in those attacks, as they were quite plentiful even before Saddam was doing this.[17] And after Iraq’s defeat in 1991, the decade of devastating sanctions and the documented destruction of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, it was clear that Iraq was no threat to Israel. There was simply no reason for Israel to risk alienating a large segment of the American people in order to push for this war and, in fact, they did not. It was an American misadventure, and the Israeli involvement was by American request, not on their own impetus.

What’s Missing In Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s Thesis

I’ve detailed at some length several of the problems with Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s thesis. There are a few more points that should be addressed before we step back and look at their book more broadly and see what they got right as well as wrong.

One problem is their reading of Israel’s history. It is rather thin, but that is to be expected in a book that is not meant as a scholarly history book. But one key point is missing that needed to be there when detailing the growth of America’s relationship with Israel, and that is Israel’s role in countering Arab nationalism.

Israel’s ongoing and various conflicts in the 1950s and 1960s and into the 1970s with Egypt are depicted in this book exclusively through a Cold War lens. To be sure, the Cold War was a major factor, with Egypt and Syria in the Soviet sphere and Israel in the American. But Gamal Abdel Nasser was not only supported by the Soviet Union, but also had ambitions of uniting the Arab world under his leadership. Indeed, his entering into the United Arab Republic with Syria was a first step toward realizing this ambition. [18]

Nasser’s defeat in 1967 was a killing blow to these ambitions, a fact not lost on American planners and pundits, in and out of government at the time. It was not only Israel’s show of strength; Nasser’s nationalism made him a less desirable ally, despite the fact that he did hope to ingratiate himself to the US. And, whether correctly or not, both Pan-Arab nationalism in the past and the individual Arab nations’ nationalism in the present, is a key element in the thinking of those decision-makers who believe Israel is a strategic asset to the US.Harry Truman, Abba Eban, David Ben-Gurion

And this leads us to the other major problem with Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s thesis. They repeatedly state in the book that if not for “The Lobby” American policy would be different. Certainly it is true that, as Walt and Mearsheimer see America’s interests, US policy could not be based on strategic concerns, and they therefore conclude that the only possible explanation is the influence of “The Lobby”. But not everyone sees America’s interests the same way, and not everyone, including scholars, pundits, and decision-makers, agree with their analysis of the situation or how America’s interests are best pursued. Indeed, there is much disagreement about what “American interests” are in the first place.

Walt and Mearsheimer’s only support for their repeated statements that policy would be different if not for “The Lobby” is their own analysis of the political situation in the Mideast. The logic is clearly circular, given that their analysis is also based on “The Lobby” being the major (and I stress, they do not claim it to be the sole) factor in determining US policy in the Middle East. It’s a point based on itself.

Moreover, America’s policy in the Mideast is not inconsistent with its policies in other areas, either today or historically. There is not a single instance where the US has supported a popular uprising or independence movement unless it was a US-sponsored movement, as with the Contras in Nicaragua, hardly an example of a progressive movement for independence from tyranny. It is inconceivable that it would do so at the expense of an ally. Thus, supporting the Palestinians would represent the break with traditional US policies, not supporting Israel.[19]

The US supports Morocco in its occupation of Western Sahara, a situation that is much more similar to Israel-Palestine than any other conflict. The biggest difference between the two is that Morocco gets less material aid from the US and the Moroccan occupation is much less discussed than the Israeli one, thus necessitating much less diplomatic support. The US supported its ally Indonesia for nearly a quarter of a century in its occupation of East Timor, an occupation far more brutal than Israel’s, which saw between 1/4 and 1/3 of the Timorese population killed. The US has supported Turkey in its often murderous policies against the Kurds in its own country and across the border with Iraq.

The US support for Israel, while it has some unique characteristics due to Israel’s special relationship with the US, is entirely consistent with US foreign policy more generally, even when it would seem to have an interest in pressuring its governmental ally, as some believe it does in Western Sahara. There is every reason to expect that the US would be just as poorly disposed toward Palestinian aspirations whether or not there was an “Israel Lobby” and no reason to believe the contrary.

What They Get Right

Despite this extensive critique of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, it is important to note that Walt and Mearsheimer are quite correct in some parts of their thesis. There is a great amount of advocacy and activism on behalf of Israel in the United States. This is as it should be as long as it is an issue people feel passionately about. But contending opinions are not debated clearly. To some extent, this is due to the fact that those holding different visions and opinions on Mideast policy have done a poor job of presenting them and pushing them. It is also due to the fact that debating this issue immediately gets diverted into emotionally-charged arguments about anti-Semitism and/or Islamophobia. Plus, Israel’s history and its very nature are mythologized in the US in a way it is not even in Israel, and this means that without a serious, calm debate about these issues, the status quo prevails.

They are certainly correct about “The Lobby’s” impact on Congress, as noted above. While I have taken great care to make the case that Congress does not make policy, such unique bi-partisan unanimity as we see in Congress on issues regarding Israel certainly has some effect. Congress does control the budget, and the overwhelming votes Israel gets in Congress sends a clear directive to the Executive about what the House and Senate want to see in foreign policy. While this aspect is not determinative (particularly because most of the Congressional resolutions are simply “sense of Congress” resolutions), it cannot be simply ignored by any president, or he may end up in many different political battles with Congress over other issues as well as this one.

Walt and Mearsheimer are also correct in saying that current US policy–regarding Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Lebanon–is seriously tarnishing the view of the United States in the Arab world,[20] a view that was not, historically, so negative as it is now.

If anything, Walt and Mearsheimer understate how negatively US policy has impacted Israel. Because of the blind US support that not only provides significant arms and financial support, but also shields Israel from at least part of the consequences of its actions which most of the rest of the world, most crucially Europe, disapproves of, Israel has less incentive to compromise than it otherwise would. Worse, American policies, as well as Israeli ones, have, in recent years, served to decrease stability in the region, leading to greater influence for fanatics and uncompromising figures in the Arab world.

Walt and Mearsheimer have done a great service with their book, even if I disagree with much of it. The often hysterical objections to the book, much like the case with former President Jimmy Carter’s unfortunately titled and often flawed and inaccurate, but nonetheless important book, have not dimmed its sales. Whether one agrees with Walt and Mearsheimer or not, bringing this issue into more direct public debate will, in the end, be a service to all, Israel very much included.

Walt and Mearsheimer are also correct in stating that change will be difficult. One reason America’s Mideast policy has not shifted more since the end of the Cold War is that long-standing foreign policies develop a certain amount of inertia. Relationships between the US and other countries are not frequently re-evaluated unless something specific occurs to force a reassessment. That’s a factor, but it obviously does not explain current policy, especially the radical steps the Bush Administration has taken

Conclusion

Walt and Mearsheimer try to build a case for explaining why US policy in the Middle East is as it is. I do not believe they make that case, but a fuller exploration is indeed needed. What is clear is this:

  • Israel is a long-time ally of the US
  • It has great domestic support, and not only from “The Lobby”
  • US policy became centered on Israel before “The Lobby” became all that powerful
  • It is debatable whether the end of the Cold War and other developments in the region and around the globe were sufficient to make the US reassess its strong alliance with Israel;
  • The fact that Walt and Mearsheimer, as well as many other analysts, this writer included, believe current policy to be negative for all concerned does not mean that decision-makers don’t disagree and believe their own strategies are in the best interests of the US

Walt and Mearsheimer spend some time at the end of their book on their own recommendations for Mideast policy. The cornerstone is treating Israel like “any other country.” It would, indeed, be in Israel’s interest to be treated as any other country, not just by the US but by the entire world, but circumstances on all sides (not the least of which is Israel’s position as “the Holy Land”) would seem to make this unlikely.

What seems most likely to be effective is for the US to act in Israel’s actual interest, rather than focusing primarily on military superiority. Perhaps the most important paradigm shift that must occur in the common, intellectual and policy-making discourse is a move away from the zero-sum notion that what is good for the Palestinians is bad for Israel and towards one that truly recognizes that a peace agreement which affords both peoples potential for the future — politically socially and economically — is as much in Israel’s interest as it is in the Palestinians’.

This would start with reversing President Bush’s letter to Ariel Sharon in 2004 which assured him that Israel would never have to go back to the pre-1967 borders and would never have to admit a single Palestinian refugee back in to Israel proper. It is very likely that these conditions would be the outcome of negotiations, but they need to be just that–the outcome of negotiations, not pre-determined boundaries of dialogue.

It would also mean that the US engages seriously in diplomacy, not after the model of Camp David II, but rather more like that of the first Camp David summit and Bill Clinton’s efforts in late 2000 on the Clinton Parameters. That is, the US needs to be active in mediating, in presenting compromise ideas and in pushing both sides on the need to find a compromise that both can live with. It also means that the US needs to press the issue of settlements with Israel just as strongly as it does the issue of terrorism with the Palestinians.

The opportunity to pursue a new and productive Middle East policy which can lead to peace, security and opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians alike is here in the form of the Arab League Peace Proposal, first issued in 2002 and updated and re-issued earlier this year. But the obstacles remain considerable, and “The Lobby” is only one of them. How can involved Americans begin to bring about a change in entrenched US policy?

The Jewish community is, obviously, a prime actor in this. As the community directly connected to Israel and because the world correctly acknowledges that the history of anti-Semitism and the possibility that institutional, murderous anti-Semitism, while largely non-existent now in the West, could raise its ugly head again as it has in the past, the Jewish community holds a great deal of sway on people’s views of the conflict. Right now, much of the voice of that community is not representing the majority or the diversity of opinion that exists within it. A strong pro-Israel and pro-peace “Lobby”, the seeds of which already exist, must be nurtured and nourished.

Pro-Israel/pro-peace voices need to also form links with Israeli compatriots, both in and out of government as well as with such moderate Arab-American groups as the American Task Force on Palestine. These alliances will be crucial both in amplifying our voices and in establishing our credibility with pundits and decision-makers.

We must move the discourse away from the both the starkly “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” aspects and into one where the civil, human and national rights of all concerned are paramount. This can be tricky–people are generally more comfortable picking good guys and bad guys in a conflict and then supporting the designated good guys. A truly balanced peace movement must seek the end of Israel’s occupation, which is a much more concrete and achievable goal than ending terrorism, which must, of course, be simultaneously pursued. But American diplomacy has been weak on the point of settlements, even though it is officially opposed to them. This has to change.

America must also lead an international effort to transform the resources that have, over the years, taken the form of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians into the basis of a stable economy that exists in partnership with Israel. This is the only reliable way to ensure a broad consensus strong enough to prevent extremists on all sides from holding undue sway as they have for most of this conflict’s history. These are efforts that many peace-minded people, who are deeply concerned and invested in Israel and its well-being, particularly in the Jewish community can lead.

The recent tactics of some unions, churches and other large, international bodies to simplistically condemn the occupation and even to extend this to a boycott of Israel entirely have merely served to polarize the debate even further. On the other hand, when such bodies wish to ensure that their own money, whether investments, tax dollars or charity, is not invested in any way in the occupation, this is perfectly legitimate, and in fact necessary, and should not be viewed as anti-Israel. Moderate forces and voices must take a stronger and more prominent stance for even-handedness — one which displays real empathy for Palestinian suffering while avoiding the tendency to see Israel as simply an oppressive force, with no regard to the real fears and legitimate concerns of Israelis.

On one point I agree with Walt and Mearsheimer absolutely, and it is perhaps their most fundamental one: current US policy in the Middle East is a disaster, and the fact that much of our government seems intent on not only maintaining that policy, but on making it even more hard-line is tantamount to the classic sign of insanity: repeating the same action over and over yet expecting a different result the next time. A serious reassessment of America’s Middle East policy is long overdue and it is high time we stopped allowing hysterical reactions on all sides of the debate stymie that reassessment.

What we have now has failed utterly in every sense: it has not brought stability to the region, freedom to the Palestinians, or security to Israel. Indeed, all of those goals have been receding farther and farther for some time. To be sure, American policy is not the only reason for this, but the United States is the most powerful nation in the world by far and it is what we, as Americans can most affect. It is not reasonable to assert that the US has pursued the best course but has been rebuffed by others’ efforts, nor is it acceptable to simply throw our hands up in the air and say there is no solution. There are clear courses we haven’t tried. It’s time to try them now, for the sake of Israelis, Palestinians, the entire Middle East and, indeed, for America as well.


[1] Mitchell Plitnick/Christopher Toensing, “The Israel Lobby In Perspective” http://www.merip.org/mer/mer243/plitnick_toensing.html or in print, Middle East Report #243, summer 2007

[3] For information on American foreign aid in general, see http://www.fas.org/asmp/profiles/aid/aidindex.htm

[4] The Arrow missile is the most well-known among many joint American-Israeli military development projects. See e.g. http://www.boston.com/news/world/middleeast/articles/2007/08/27/israel_hamas_smuggled_tons_of_weapons/ For how this relationship harms both the Israeli state-owned military industry as well as the private sector see Sharon Sadeh, Israel’s Beleaguered Defense Industry, Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 5 No. 1, March 2001 or online at http://meria.idc.ac.il/journal/2001/issue1/jv5n1a5.html

[5] For a list of US vetoes of Israel-related resolutions see http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/UN/usvetoes.html

[6] All data regarding campaign financing comes from The Center for Responsive Politics at http://www.opensecrets.org/

[7] Many polls reflect a generally favorable view of Israel when the question is asked in that general sense. See for example http://www.ynetnews.com/Ext/Comp/ArticleLayout/CdaArticlePrintPreview/1,2506,L-3368650,00.html and http://pewresearch.org/pubs/237/americans-support-for-israel-unchanged-by-recent-hostilities

[8] For an excellent review of American attitudes about US policy, see the analysis of many polls offered by World Public Opinion at http://www.americans-world.org/digest/regional_issues/IsraelPalestinians/viewConflict.cfm

[10] See, for example John McArthur, The Vast Power of the Saudi Lobby, Providence Journal, April 16, 2007 or online at http://www.harpers.org/archive/2007/04/jrm-pubnote-20070417

[11] See, for example, the web site of the American Petroleum Institute, the largest oil lobby organization, which hardly touches on foreign policy at all for where the focus is for oil company lobbies http://www.api.org/policy/

[12] See As Hamas-Fatah Struggle Gains Steam, P.A. Loses Its D.C. Voice, The Forward June 20, 2007 or online at http://www.forward.com/articles/11001/

[13] See Plitnick and Toensing article referenced above for how the paper for Netanyahu, the “Clean Break” paper, is being misinterpreted

[14] For just one example of whether neocons are thinking in terms of American or Israeli interests when considering Mideast policy, see Did US Want Israel to Attack Syria? Christian Science Monitor, August 9, 2006 or online at http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0809/dailyUpdate.html This is one of many such reports which counter Walt’s and Mearsheimer’s problematic response to Neoconservative jockeying for war on Lebanon as well as the buildup to a potential war with Iran.

[15] For important materials regarding the roots of neoconservative philosophy, see Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History. (University of Chicago Press, 1999) and Leo Strauss, The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism. (University of Chicago Press, 1989). For how this plays out today see Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack. (Simon and Schuster 2004).

[16] For a deeper exposition of whether Israel pushed the US into Iraq and the cooperation between elements of Israeli and American intelligence in building the case for war, see Joel Beinin, Mitchell Plitnick and Cecilie Surasky, Did Israel Lead the US Into the War On Iraq? http://www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org/publish/article_237.shtml

[17] For the story of the payments see e.g. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2846365.stm

[18] For more on the threat of Arab nationalism to American interests, see Avi Shlaim The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, (W.W. Norton and Co. 2000)

[19] For an excellent analysis of how US policy toward Israel fits in well with its policy in other arenas, see Stephen Zunes, The Israel Lobby: How Powerful Is It Really? Foreign Policy in Focus, http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/3270

[20] A 2003 poll of Arabs and their views on the US presented at the Brookings Institute can be found at http://www.brookings.edu/fp/saban/survey20030313.pdf The author of that survey comments on how sharp a decline there has been at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/liveonline/03/special/politics/sp_politics_brookings031403.htm

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