Back in 2007, when John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt released their book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, I disagreed with many parts of their thesis. Most of the criticisms at the time attacked the authors as anti-Semites or made straw man arguments about points the authors were not making. Thus, Christopher Toensing of MERIP and I put together an article responding to Walt and Mearsheimer in what I think was a more rational manner. I later issued an update to that article.
While not agreeing with the Walt/Mearsheimer thesis, I disagree at least as much with the two major alternatives: what I’d call the Foxman thesis, and what I’d call the
Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League wrote a book in response to Walt and Mearsheimer which offered very little beyond the same straw man arguments and insinuations of nefarious motives about the Israel Lobby authors. But Foxman’s case, separate from his critique of Walt and Mearsheimer, is that the Israel Lobby, as symbolized by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) simply educates the public and Congress but is only one of many lobbying groups and, in the end, American Middle East policy was based on a careful analysis of American interests, which, to Foxman, are usually identical to Israeli ones.
Professor Noam Chomsky, well-known critic of American and Israeli policy, contends that the Lobby is very powerful as long as it goes along with extant US policies. That is, it does not play a significant role in determining those policies, but does close off debate and discussion about it.
When I wrote my own response to Walt/Mearsheimer, I was living and working on this issue in California. Having now spent three years in Washington, and having been at hundreds of meetings with Congress members and their aides, and State Department and White House staff, it’s very clear that AIPAC is always the 800-pound gorilla in the room.
Still, I stand by my original critique of Walt and Mearsheimer. There are instances where what we might consider bad decisions are caused by the Lobby and some where they’re caused by such other considerations.
I believe the Obama Administration’s recent veto of a UNSC resolution condemning Israeli settlements is a case where it was indeed all about the Lobby.
This resolution could have been passed with US abstention. Criticism of Obama wouldn’t have been that much worse than it already was. The resolution was obviously in line with stated US policy and it had no action items, so it would not have forced Israel into any immediate action. The resolution was not far removed from past UNSC resolutions the US has not vetoed. Further, the resolution would have bolstered Obama’s negotiation efforts, which badly need it.
US policy and actions regarding, for instance, Gaza or Lebanon may be misguided and objectionable, but in those cases there are clear policy calculations at work. Given Obama’s stances, approach and prior actions, there is no rational calculus, apart from domestic concerns, that can lead to the conclusion that this veto was a good idea.
It also seems pretty clear, not only from the Beltway grapevine but also from Obama’s public behavior, that he did not want to veto this resolution. All of this leads me to the issue of Obama’s alleged “cowardice” on this issue.
Obama’s two years in office have been characterized by his powerful tendency to avoid political fights, to stake out compromise positions at the outset, leading to further retreats. This has been as evident on domestic issues as it has in the Israel-Palestine conflict. He has shown a distinct inability to lead his own party. This is attributable to some degree to his having been less of a Democratic Party mover and shaker than most of those he defeated in the primaries (most obviously his Secretary of State). But it’s also due to his failure to use his “bully pulpit” to press fellow Democrats to follow his lead.
Jimmy Carter was similarly disadvantaged within his own party, and it cost him; but Carter was willing to use his office to push Democrats to back him, so he was able to get something done in his one term. Obama is not willing to act similarly. If he does screw up some such courage, it seems likely he will want to apply it to domestic issues.
Israel-Palestine is more expensive in terms of political capital and the potential political gains, though great, are far less certain.
A strong president willing to put the power of his office behind Mideast peace can overcome the Lobby and can take comparatively bold steps in the Middle East. But it’s not going to happen just because the President understands the issue, really wants to free the Palestinians and bring peace to Israel and has good ideas. He has to put the effort and political capital into it, and he has to press Congress to follow his lead. Carter did that, so did George HW Bush. Once in a while, Ronald Reagan did (the AWACS sale, for instance) as well. To date, Obama has either not tried or failed to do this and has been undermined in Mideast efforts not chiefly by Republicans but by fellow Democrats as a result. Maybe that will change in his second term, if he gets one, but to date there has been no reason to expect it.
Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that Obama, who has done more than his predecessors to bolster Israel’s security, who brought Israel into the OECD, and has brought security coordination between the US and Israel to an all-time high still has not realized that he is going to be pilloried on this issue no matter what he does. American Jews, most of whom do not base their vote on Israel, are still going to vote for him, but those who work to maintain the status quo will still blast him. Undermining his own policy as he did on the UN vote is not going to help him. But Obama is faced with the prospect of not only getting hit by Republicans, but also by Democrats for such an action. And, while the Israel Lobby has limited influence on the white House and State Department, it is perceived by members of Congress (wrongly, in my opinion) to be a body they do not want to cross if they want to keep their jobs.
This veto was about the Lobby and about Obama’s inability to stand up to it. Yes, the Israel Lobby’s power is often overstated, and it’s a convenient scapegoat for wrong-headed and unjust US foreign policies in many cases. But no one who has even a passing familiarity with Washington would ever deny that it is one of the most efficient and effective lobbies in town, especially among those which work on foreign policy, where they have no peer. And in this case, that was decisive.