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“Pro-Israel” Politics and the Mearsheimer-Walt Paper

The Editorial Board
July 1, 2006

An Editorial
Judging from the ferocity of reactions to “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” the academic paper by Professors John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Stephen Walt (Harvard’s Kennedy School) that was published in an abridged form by the London Review of Books in March, one might think these two highly regarded foreign-policy analysts had revived Joseph Goebbels from the dead.
Their paper sharply questions the value to the U.S. of having Israel as an ally, and attributes the Jewish state’s special status to the efficacy of the domestic American “Israel Lobby” — led by, but by no means confined to, the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC). Mearsheimer and Walt also attribute the war in Iraq to this “Israel Lobby,” writing that “Americans believe that this was a war for oil, but there is hardly any direct evidence to support this claim. Instead, the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure.”
Such an analysis, to Ruth Wisse, “resembles . . . Wilhelm Marr’s 1879 pamphlet, ‘The Victory of Judaism over Germandom,’ which declared of the Jews that ‘There is no stopping them . . .’ ” Her fellow Harvard faculty member, Alan Dershowitz, has improbably charged Mearsheimer and Walt with deriving materials from “hate” websites. Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) described the paper as “the same old anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist drivel. . . . Given what happened in the Holocaust, it’s shameful that people would write reports like this.” Many others have sounded alarms, and Mearsheimer and Walt have been roundly criticized, from both the right and the left, for their surprisingly sketchy scholarship and their one-sided treatment of the complex history of Israeli-Arab relations.
We have nothing to add to the barrage — but we’d be unhappy to see a fundamental point implicit in the paper go undiscussed amid the clamor: namely, that while the “bulk of U.S. Jewry,” as Mearsheimer and Walt observe, “is more inclined to make concessions to the Palestinians,” a neoconservative perspective has long held sway among the Jewish organizations that most influence U.S. Mideast policy.

Typically called a “pro-Israel” perspective, Jewish neoconservatism has been anything but. To the contrary, it has “helped” Israel trap itself in a decades-long occupation of the ferociously angry and desperate Palestinian people. Like an alcoholic’s codependent partner, neoconservative Jews have “helped” successive Israeli governments foster hubristic illusions of a “Greater Israel” through the expansion of illegal settlements, which has caused the country to sacrifice its soldiers, its citizens and its moral standing for a bunch of concrete and barbed-wire structures. When Yitzhak Rabin opened negotiations with the PLO and Ehud Barak agreed to the partitioning of Jerusalem, neoconservative Jews damned them with faint praise. When Likud-dominated governments and their more openly pro-settlements policies have come to power, they were given vociferous support. The “pro-Israel” view, then, has been, at best, ‘pro-Likud,’ and, at worst, a siren song.
Neoconservative Jews have also sought opportunistic alliances in the U.S. with the Christian right, notwithstanding the fundamentalist religious strictures that such ‘allies’ seek to impose on American politics and culture. Neocon Jews have performed hatchet jobs on dissident foreign leaders, with the Sandinistas, Hugo Chavez, Nelson Mandela, and Fidel Castro all smeared as “anti-Semites” at one point or another. Perhaps most dangerously, neoconservative Jewish cheerleading for the invasion of Iraq has fostered a widespread view of that unpopular war as being fought “for Israel’s sake.”
In exchange for such ‘help,’ Israel has been recruited over the years to do some of America’s foreign-policy dirty work, such as providing weapons and military training to repressive governments in Latin America and racist governments in South Africa and Rhodesia. At the United Nations (where Israel has endured numerous unfair acts of condemnation and exclusion), Israel has stood alone or nearly alone with its great-power patron in casting embarrassing votes that have nothing to do with self-interest.
Such behaviors give credibility to the major criticism leveled by leftists against Mearsheimer’s and Walt’s paper: that it wrongly ignores the ways that Israel has, indeed, served America’s strategic interests by helping American oil companies and arms dealers maintain the very profitable status quo in the Middle East. As Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco has suggested, “there are far more powerful interests that have a stake in what happens in the Persian Gulf region than does AIPAC . . . [and] whose lobbying influence and campaign contributions far surpass that of the much-vaunted Zionist lobby and its allied donors to congressional races.” In other words, the influence of the” Israel Lobby” is impressive only because it concurs with the interests of our country’s oil companies, arms dealers and other real makhers.

But even if Mearsheimer and Walt exaggerate the independent influence of the “Israel Lobby,” they cannot be dismissed as anti-Semitic fantasists. American Jews are widely represented in our country’s halls of economic and political power and academic and cultural influence. In most ways, our influence has been progressive, democratizing and enriching. When it comes to Israel, however, neoconservatives have for too long ruled the Jewish roost.
Nahum Goldmann, a founder of the World Jewish Congress, identified the danger of this some twenty-seven years ago, in a message to an international symposium for Mideast peace in Washington, D.C. organized by New Outlook magazine. In a passage that might well have been quoted by Mearsheimer and Walt, Goldmann noted that “American Jewry is more generous than any other group in American life and is doing great things, financially and socially, in favor of Israel. But by misusing its political influence, by exaggerating the aggressiveness of the Jewish lobby in Washington, by giving the [Israeli] regime the impression that the Jews are strong enough to force the American administration and Congress to follow every Israeli desire, they lead Israel on a ruinous path . . .”
“Ruinous,” indeed, because Goldmann understood that if peace is ever to be achieved between Israelis and Palestinians, it will only happen through a commitment to compromise, rooted in the realization, on both sides, that the claims of the opponent have some moral legitimacy. But Jewish neoconservatives cede none of this. They have treated the struggle, at every turn, as one between Israeli righteousness and Palestinian treachery, Israeli self-defense and Palestinian aggression — with the ultimate goal of Israeli victory and Palestinian surrender. In their one-way view, the “Israel Lobby” mirrors Palestinian extremists, who refuse to acknowledge the moral legitimacy of Israel’s right to exist and insist, instead, that the death, destruction and turmoil caused by their warfare will someday yield a Palestinian victory.

Reality may now be overtaking the “Israel Lobby.” Israel’s settler strategy met electoral defeat in April; AIPAC is under FBI investigation; neoconservatism is in general political shambles; and a large majority of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs now stand in favor of a two-state solution (according to a joint poll of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah and the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University). Perhaps all of this will embolden the American Jewish majority to overcome its long-lasting paralysis about criticizing Israel’s occupation policies, about criticizing U.S. military policy, and about breaking ranks with the “Israel Lobby.” Given the existential threat to Israel that was very real in the past (and is still stupidly fomented by Arab and Iranian rhetoric if not military capability), this paralysis has been understandable. Yet it has removed from the stage the most credible countervailing force to the misleadership of Jewish neoconservatism — which is outspoken Jewish liberalism.