The Storm over "the Israel Lobby"
We wrote ‘The Israel Lobby’ in order to begin a discussion of a subject that had become difficult to address openly in the United States (London Review of Books, 23 March). We knew it was likely to generate a strong reaction, and we are not surprised that some of our critics have chosen to attack our characters or misrepresent our arguments. We have also been gratified by the many positive responses we have received, and by the thoughtful commentary that has begun to emerge in the media and the blogosphere. It is clear that many people–including Jews and Israelis–believe that it is time to have a candid discussion of the US relationship with Israel. It is in that spirit that we engage with the letters responding to our article. We confine ourselves here to the most salient points of dispute.
One of the most prominent charges against us is that we see the lobby as a well-organised Jewish conspiracy. Jeffrey Herf and Andrei Markovits, for example, begin by noting that ‘accusations of powerful Jews behind the scenes are part of the most dangerous traditions of modern anti-semitism’ (Letters, 6 April ). It is a tradition we deplore and that we explicitly rejected in our article. Instead, we described the lobby as a loose coalition of individuals and organisations without a central headquarters. It includes gentiles as well as Jews, and many Jewish-Americans do not endorse its positions on some or all issues. Most important, the Israel lobby is not a secret, clandestine cabal; on the contrary, it is openly engaged in interest-group politics and there is nothing conspiratorial or illicit about its behaviour. Thus, we can easily believe that Daniel Pipes has never ‘taken orders’ from the lobby, because the Leninist caricature of the lobby depicted in his letter is one that we clearly dismissed. Readers will also note that Pipes does not deny that his organisation, Campus Watch, was created in order to monitor what academics say, write and teach, so as to discourage them from engaging in open discourse about the Middle East.
Several writers chide us for making mono-causal arguments, accusing us of saying that Israel alone is responsible for anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic world (as one letter puts it, anti-Americanism ‘would exist if Israel was not there’) or suggesting that the lobby bears sole responsibility for the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. But that is not what we said. We emphasised that US support for Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories is a powerful source of anti-Americanism, the conclusion reached in several scholarly studies and US government commissions (including the 9/11 Commission). But we also pointed out that support for Israel is hardly the only reason America’s standing in the Middle East is so low. Similarly, we clearly stated that Osama bin Laden had other grievances against the United States besides the Palestinian issue, but as the 9/11 Commission documents, this matter was a major concern for him. We also explicitly stated that the lobby, by itself, could not convince either the Clinton or the Bush administration to invade Iraq. Nevertheless, there is abundant evidence that the neo-conservatives and other groups within the lobby played a central role in making the case for war.
At least two of the letters complain that we ‘catalogue Israel’s moral flaws’, while paying little attention to the shortcomings of other states. We focused on Israeli behaviour, not because we have any animus towards Israel, but because the United States gives it such high levels of material and diplomatic support. Our aim was to determine whether Israel merits this special treatment either because it is a unique strategic asset or because it behaves better than other countries do. We argued that neither argument is convincing: Israel’s strategic value has declined since the end of the Cold War and Israel does not behave significantly better than most other states.
Herf and Markovits interpret us to be saying that Israel’s ‘continued survival’ should be of little concern to the United States. We made no such argument. In fact, we emphasised that there is a powerful moral case for Israel’s existence, and we firmly believe that the United States should take action to ensure its survival if it were in danger. Our criticism was directed at Israeli policy and America’s special relationship with Israel, not Israel’s existence.
Another recurring theme in the letters is that the lobby ultimately matters little because Israel’s ‘values command genuine support among the American public’. Thus, Herf and Markovits maintain that there is substantial support for Israel in military and diplomatic circles within the United States. We agree that there is strong public support for Israel in America, in part because it is seen as compatible with America’s Judaeo-Christian culture. But we believe this popularity is substantially due to the lobby’s success at portraying Israel in a favourable light and effectively limiting public awareness and discussion of Israel’s less savoury actions. Diplomats and military officers are also affected by this distorted public discourse, but many of them can see through the rhetoric. They keep silent, however, because they fear that groups like AIPAC will damage their careers if they speak out. The fact is that if there were no AIPAC, Americans would have a more critical view of Israel and US policy in the Middle East would look different.
On a related point, Michael Szanto contrasts the US-Israeli relationship with the American military commitments to Western Europe, Japan and South Korea, to show that the United States has given substantial support to other states besides Israel (6 April). He does not mention, however, that these other relationships did not depend on strong domestic lobbies. The reason is simple: these countries did not need a lobby because close ties with each of them were in America’s strategic interest. By contrast, as Israel has become a strategic burden for the US, its American backers have had to work even harder to preserve the ‘special relationship’.
Other critics contend that we overstate the lobby’s power because we overlook countervailing forces, such as ‘paleo-conservatives, Arab and Islamic advocacy groups . . . and the diplomatic establishment’. Such countervailing forces do exist, but they are no match–either alone or in combination–for the lobby. There are Arab-American political groups, for example, but they are weak, divided, and wield far less influence than AIPAC and other organisations that present a strong, consistent message from the lobby.
Probably the most popular argument made about a countervailing force is Herf and Markovits’s claim that the centrepiece of US Middle East policy is oil, not Israel. There is no question that access to that region’s oil is a vital US strategic interest. Washington is also deeply committed to supporting Israel. Thus, the relevant question is, how does each of those interests affect US policy? We maintain that US policy in the Middle East is driven primarily by the commitment to Israel, not oil interests. If the oil companies or the oil-producing countries were driving policy, Washington would be tempted to favour the Palestinians instead of Israel. Moreover, the United States would almost certainly not have gone to war against Iraq in March 2003, and the Bush administration would not be threatening to use military force against Iran. Although many claim that the Iraq war was all about oil, there is hardly any evidence to support that supposition, and much evidence of the lobby’s influence. Oil is clearly an important concern for US policymakers, but with the exception of episodes like the 1973 Opec oil embargo, the US commitment to Israel has yet to threaten access to oil. It does, however, contribute to America’s terrorism problem, complicates its efforts to halt nuclear proliferation, and helped get the United States involved in wars like Iraq.
Regrettably, some of our critics have tried to smear us by linking us with overt racists, thereby suggesting that we are racists or anti-semites ourselves. Michael Taylor, for example, notes that our article has been ‘hailed’ by Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke (6 April). Alan Dershowitz implies that some of our material was taken from neo-Nazi websites and other hate literature (20 April). We have no control over who likes or dislikes our article, but we regret that Duke used it to promote his racist agenda, which we utterly reject. Furthermore, nothing in our piece is drawn from racist sources of any kind, and Dershowitz offers no evidence to support this false claim. We provided a fully documented version of the paper so that readers could see for themselves that we used reputable sources.
Finally, a few critics claim that some of our facts, references or quotations are mistaken. For example, Dershowitz challenges our claim that Israel was ‘explicitly founded as a Jewish state and citizenship is based on the principle of blood kinship’. Israel was founded as a Jewish state (a fact Dershowitz does not challenge), and our reference to citizenship was obviously to Israel’s Jewish citizens, whose identity is ordinarily based on ancestry. We stated that Israel has a sizeable number of non-Jewish citizens (primarily Arabs), and our main point was that many of them are relegated to a second-class status in a predominantly Jewish society.
We also referred to Golda Meir’s famous statement that ‘there is no such thin g as a Palestinian,’ and Jeremy Schreiber reads us as saying that Meir was denying the existence of those people rather than simply denying Palestinian nationhood (20 April). There is no disagreement here; we agree with Schreiber’s interpretation and we quoted Meir in a discussion of Israel’s prolonged effort ‘to deny the Palestinians’ national ambitions’.
Dershowitz challenges our claim that the Israelis did not offer the Palestinians a contiguous state at Camp David in July 2000. As support, he cites a s tatement by former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and the memoirs of former US negotiator Dennis Ross. There are a number of competing accounts of what happened at Camp David, however, and many of them agree with our claim. Moreover, Barak himself acknowledges that ‘the Palestinians were promised a continuous piece of sovereign territory except for a razor-thin Israeli wedge running from Jerusalem . . . to the Jordan River.’ This wedge, which would bisect the West Bank, was essential to Israel’s plan to retain control of the Jordan River Valley for another six to twenty years. Finally, and contrary to Dershowitz’s claim, there was no ‘second map’ or map of a ‘final proposal at Camp David’. Indeed, it is explicitly stated in a note beside the map published in Ross’s memoirs that ‘no map was presented during the final rounds at Camp David.’ Given all this, it is not surprising that Barak’s foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was a key participant at Camp David, later admitted: ‘If I were a Palestinian I would have rejected Camp David as well.’
Dershowitz also claims that we quote David Ben-Gurion ‘out of context’ and thus misrepresented his views on the need to use force to build a Jewish state in all of Palestine. Dershowitz is wrong. As a number of Israeli historians have shown, Ben-Gurion made numerous statements about the need to use force (or the threat of overwhelming force) to create a Jewish state in all of Palestine. In October 1937, for example, he wrote to his son Amos that the future Jewish state would have an ‘outstanding army . . . so I am certain that we won’t be constrained from settling in the rest of the country, either by mutual agreement and understanding with our Arab neighbours, or by some other way’ (emphasis added). Furthermore, common sense says that there was no other way to achieve that goal, because the Palestinians were hardly likely to give up their homeland voluntarily. Ben-Gurion was a consummate strategist and he understood that it would be unwise for the Zionists to talk openly about the need for ‘brutal compulsion’. We quote a memorandum Ben-Gurion wrote prior to the Extraordinary Zionist Conference at the Biltmore Hotel in New York in May 1942. He wrote that ‘it is impossible to imagine general evacuation’ of the Arab population of Palestine ‘without compulsion, and brutal compulsion’. Dershowitz claims that Ben-Gurion’s subsequent statement–’we should in no way make it part of our programme’–shows that he opposed the transfer of the Arab population and the ‘brutal compulsion’ it would entail. But Ben-Gurion was not rejecting this policy: he was simply noting that the Zionists should not openly proclaim it. Indeed, he said that they should not ‘discourage other people, British or American, who favour transfer from advocating this course, but we should in no way make it part of our programme’.
We close with a final comment about the controversy surrounding our article. Although we are not surprised by the hostility directed at us, we are still disappointed that more attention has not been paid to the substance of the piece. The fact remains that the United States is in deep trouble in the Middle East, and it will not be able to develop effective policies if it is impossible to have a civilised discussion about the role of Israel in American foreign policy.
John Mearsheimer & Stephen Walt University of Chicago & Harvard University.
This letter originally appeared in the London Review of Books.