“Let’s move over here–in the corner. It’ll be better for us to talk in private. Or else some people might get the wrong idea,” chuckles John Mearsheimer, a Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and co-author of the incendiary book, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.”
The controversial book’s co-author, Stephen Walt, an Academic Dean at the prestigious Harvard Kennedy School of Government, smiles and concurs as we all find comfortable seats in the back end, lounge corner of San Francisco’s Prescott Hotel for our exclusive, in-depth interview.
“The wrong idea” according to the authors is the inaccurate labeling and smearing of their reputation as “Anti-Semites.” According to them and their supporters, they’ve unfairly earned this slander solely due to their detailed and systematic criticism of an “Israel Lobby” and its alleged actions in greatly influencing U.S. foreign policy in the volatile Middle Eastern regions of Israel and Palestine.
The Anti-Defamation League, which retaliated by publishing “The Deadliest Lies: The Myth of the Israeli Lobby” on the same release date as “The Israel Lobby,” lambasted the professors’ work as an “anti-Jewish screed: a relentless assault in scholarly guise.” However, talking to them in person and later observing their demeanor at a speech followed by question and answer session held at U.C. Berkeley, the two professors both appeared very calm, rational, collected and lacking the stereotypical, passionate vitriol and acidic anger unfortunately espoused by all parties associated with the endless “Israel-Palestine conflict.”
For anyone with even the slightest experience in dealing with the “Israel-Palestine” issue, whether that experience be academic, polemical, political, or even a friendly discussion over coffee, it becomes glaringly obvious the topic is contentious, divisive and, dare I say, explosive. To call it a “powder keg” of a situation would be a glorious understatement.
It is with that understanding and assumption that I conducted this interview in order to achieve, if it all possible, a rational discussion about a tragic conflict producing irrational acts and consequences.
The following is the unedited conversation and interview with the authors regarding their controversial thesis, their critics and detractors, the stifling of academic dissent, foreign policy in the Middle East, and the resulting profound implications for the United State’s relationship with the Muslim World in the 21st century.
ALI: I guess life must have been boring for you guys, and you had nothing interesting going on. So, you decided to spice things up, right? What goes on in your head that makes you get up one day and decide, “You know what? I think we’re going to tackle the “Israeli Lobby.”
WALT: We wrote this not because our lives were boring, but because we were concerned with what was happening with American foreign policy and specifically American Middle East policy. We felt there was an aspect that wasn’t get that much attention in the U.S; the influence of the “Israeli Lobby” was the elephant in the room that no one was willing to talk about. We believe this was having unfortunate affects on the U.S., other countries, and Israel itself, and no one, especially mainstream circles, would speak or write about it. We thought we were in positions of relative security and if we didn’t [talk about it], then no one else would.
MEARSHEIMER: Nevertheless, we fully understood we were grabbing the third rail, and pro-Israeli forces in the U.S. would come after us in a serious way. We’ve not been surprised by the reaction to our piece here in the U.S.
ALI: Ok, for the unacquainted, let’s become familiar with the central thesis of “The Israel Lobby,” lay it out for me and the readers. There’s this group you label the “Israel Lobby.” Who are they and why should we, as average Joe Americans, even care about them?
WALT: The Lobby isn’t a single organization. It is a loose coalition of different groups and individuals that actively work and try to move American foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction and try to maintain a special relationship with the U.S. and Israel. This group includes some predominantly Jewish American groups, such as AIPAC, the Anti Defamation League, The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. It also includes non-Jewish groups like Christian Evangelicals, such as Christians United for Israel. This is not a single organization, and they don’t agree on every issue, but they all want to maintain that special relationship. It’s an interest group like other groups we have in U.S.
Interest groups are part of American politics. So, there’s nothing illegitimate or wrong with what the Israeli Lobby is doing. But, like some other interest groups, when they have profound impact on U.S. foreign policy, they may be leading to foreign policies that aren’t in the interest of the country as a whole. So, Americans should be concerned about this and other interest groups if they are leading to policies that are contrary to the American national interest.
MEARSHEIMER: American should care about the Israeli Lobby, because it has a profound effect on the shape of U.S. Middle East policy. We believe by and large that effect is negative. In other words, the Lobby is pushing policies not in the U.S. interest and not in Israel’s interest either. The best example of that is the Lobby’s influence has with regards to the occupation and the building of settlements in the West Bank. The U.S. has opposed settlement building since the Israelis first conquered the West Bank and Gaza strip in 1967. It has been the official policy of every president since Lyndon B. Johnson to oppose settlement building, but no president has been able to put any meaningful pressure on Israel to stop building settlements. The principle reason is due to the Lobby, which goes to great lengths to make sure no President can force Israel to do something that it doesn’t want to do. Since Israel doesn’t want to end the settlements, no President has been able to put an end to the settlement building.
What are the consequences that result from this? It is one of the main reasons why the U.S. is deeply hated in the Arab and Islamic world. It is one of the main causes of America’s terrorism problem. It is clear that Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, one of the main architects of the 9-11 attacks, were deeply battered by American policies in the Occupied Territories [in Palestine.] So, we as Americans should care how the Lobby influences U.S.- Middle East policies, because it sometimes influences them in a way which is not in the best interests of the U.S.
ALI: However, doesn’t the publication of your book, the media publicity blitz surrounding it, the release of Jimmy Carter’s “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid,” and Norman Finkelstein’s very public criticism of Alan Dershowitz’s “Case for Israel,” all provide examples that a healthy debate about Israel does indeed exist and the Lobby is either ineffective or not as influential as you suggest?
WALT: Nobody believes that the discourse in the U.S. is 100% pro-Israel. That is completely impossible. Our point in the book and our publication of the book doesn’t contradict this, we contend that conversation and public discourse in mainstream media circles is overwhelmingly pro-Israel. It’s not to say occasionally you won’t have other voices out there. But the fact is we had trouble getting our original article published in the U.S., and we have had some coverage, but relatively little, regarding our book in mainstream media circles.
We’ve seen various efforts made to try and minimize the exposure by getting events cancelled when were supposed to speak about this, or having media arrangements fall through. So, it’s not to say you can’t occasionally get critical views out there, but the balance of coverage on the Middle East coverage is pro-Israel. But, if you look at the critical reviews of the book, the reviews in England have been uniformly positive. Generally, all across Europe as well. There have been a number of positive reviews in Israel itself. But the mainstream reviews in U.S. [is a different story], for example the Washington Post, the New York Times Sunday Book Review; the New Republic had a vicious attack comparing us to Osama Bin Laden and Ahmadinejad. So, getting favorable reviews, including in Israel, is relatively easy outside of the United States.
MEARSHEIMEHR: Based on reading our book, one would predict we would get hardly any positive reviews in the United States, and a lot of positive reviews outside of U.S., including Israel. That prediction has held up very well. We have been consistently slammed in the mainstream media inside The United States, and garnered lots of positive reviews outside the U.S., which is what the book would predict.
ALI: Is this proof of the New-Anti-Semitism? Is this the smoking gun evidence that the whole world is ganging up against Israel and American Jewry?
MEARSHEIMER: The fundamental flaw with that argument is that the book has received favorable treatment in Israel itself. One of the most positive reviews was written in Haaretz itself written by Daniel Levi who is an Israeli Jew. The most favorable review overall was written by an Israeli, Yuri Avnery. This is not to say that there are not people in Israel or U.S. who see our book as evidence of the The New Anti-Semitism. We don’t believe there is a New Anti-Semitism. We believe there is not a lot of Anti-Semitism in the U.S. or in Europe itself. And that charge is leveled at critics of Israel like us and Jimmy Carter, because it is an effective way of marginalizing and sidelining us. We are not Anti-Semites, Jimmy Carter is not an Anti-Semite, and the vast majority of people who like our book are not Anti-Semites, in fact many of them are Jews.
ALI: Briefly describe your initial journey towards publication at the Atlantic Monthly. Why did they ultimately reject the draft, and how did you find a publication home at London Review of Books?
MEARSHEIMER: Stephen and I decided in early 2002 to think seriously about writing a piece on The Israeli Lobby and U.S. foreign policy. Then, in the fall of 2002, we were commissioned by The Atlantic to write that piece, and we began working on it. We were slowed down by the fact the Iraq war was about to take place. We couldn’t write about it while it was still happening, because the Lobby was involved in pushing that war. So, we didn’t get a draft of the piece to the Atlantic until the Spring of 2004. After they saw the initial draft, they were very happy with it and asked us to make a number of changes, which we did. We submitted the second draft in January 2005, and shortly thereafter they rejected it. We believe they rejected it because they came to believe the subject was too controversial and would cause problems.
ALI: Were you surprised when it was rejected?
WALT: We differed on this. I was more surprised than John was. But we were both disappointed. Again, we had no indication that they weren’t going to publish it, and they had seen all of our previous drafts and had been very positive about all of them. So, for them to suddenly discover at the last minute that the entire piece was unacceptable, and that they didn’t want us to re-write it to make it acceptable, was very disappointing.
MEARSHEIMER: So, the Atlantic rejected the piece, and of course, surely, they will never say they rejected it out of fear about how the Lobby would react to the piece, but rather how the piece was written. We don’t believe that’s the case. We believe they got cold feet. After it got rejected, we talked to a number of journals about the possibility of getting the piece published somewhere in the 2005.
By the early summer of 2005, it became clear it would be impossible to get it published in the United States. So, we put the article away and didn’t think it was possible to get it published in the U.S. Someone gave a prominent American academic a copy of the piece we had submitted to the Atlantic, and he knew the editor of the London Review of Books. He wrote to me and asked me if we were interested in publishing it there. We talked about it and thought it was an excellent idea, and we talked to them and made an agreement to submit it by January 2006, a new version of the article. They published it two months later in March 2006. I mean, it’s interesting to think had this academic not gotten hold of the final draft we submitted to the Atlantic, it would have never appeared.
ALI: I want talk about this “stifling” of criticism. Let’s discuss this recent “Google” speech, where you were scheduled to appear, but according to you a Google representative at the last minute told you, “You can’t appear without having the other side represent,” and then they cancelled at the last second. In your opinion, is this “other side” really present?
WALT: As part of the publicity campaign for the book, our publicist began to setup various venues to come talk about the book. Three of those agreements were cancelled. We were cancelled at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs who had invited us to come and speak. The President of the Council got in contact with John and said, “In order to protect the institution, he was canceling the event. The subject was just too hot to cover,” and we can only appear there if they had someone who would represent the “other side,” and it was too late to get someone from the other side. I should mention they’ve had plenty of people who represent “the other side” speak at the Chicago Council and those people spoke on their own. Michael Oren, an Israeli American historian, for example has spoken on his own without someone else representing the other side.
MEARSHEIMER: Dennis Ross would be another good example. And we always say there is nothing wrong with this.
WALT: We think that’s fine. It’s entirely appropriate for Oren or Dennis Ross or lots of other people to come and speak there. They never said anything to us or our publicist about having someone there to debate us when were arranging everything. It was only after the cancellation, did they mention this. We had an agreement to speak at the City University of New York also in September, but that also fell through without an explanation. Finally, we were scheduled to speak at Google Headquarters here in Mountain View, California, which regularly hosts an author series where they bring authors on a variety of subjects to give talks. So, our publicist got an email the previous Friday late in the afternoon that the event had been cancelled and didn’t give us an explanation.
We were subsequently told that the decision had been made “very high up in the company,” and the Google representative said they had never seen an event like this get cancelled like the way they did. They said they would be interested in possibly rescheduling us, but we’ve never been able to reschedule the event, so clearly, it’s not going to happen. But, just to add a number of other places where we’ve spoken, such as the World Affairs Council in Dallas, the Hammer Museum, The City Club of Cleveland, all these people told us they had gotten emails, phone calls, or messages protesting our appearance and suggesting we be dis-invited. To their great credit, none of these places gave into that kind of pressure. In each of these places, we appeared without note-worthy incident; we had good discussions, they asked challenging questions. Some people agreed with us, some people disagreed with us a lot, but in all these places we had a very useful discussion and nothing bad happened at all.
ALI: I want to you hear some comments by your critics. George Schultz, Reagan’s Secretary of State, writes in the new book “The Deadliest Lies: The Myth of the Israeli Lobby,” –
MEARSHEIMER: That book was scheduled to be published on exactly the same date as our book was published on September the 4th.
WALT: Publishers know when things are going to appear months in advance and once our publisher made it clear it was going to be on their Fall list, then they can start preparing “The Deadliest Lies,” which is a very thin book that didn’t involve much work, and thus it could be arranged to have it timed with the release of our book. I mean, there are no secrets in the publishing world. Nothing unusual about this.
MEARSHEIMER: The Abraham Foxman book [“The Deadliest Lies] and the George Schultz preface in the forward are not based on the book we wrote, “The Israeli Lobby,” because it hadn’t been published at that time. It was rather based on the article that was published [in 2006.]
ALI: Well, he writes in the forward, “those who blame Israel and its Jewish supporters for U.S. policies they do not support – are wrong. They are wrong because, to begin with, support for Israel is in our [The U.S.] best interests. They are also wrong because Israel and its supporters have the right to try to influence U.S. policy. And they are wrong because the U.S. government is responsible for the policies it adopts.” If you both concede that what the Israeli Lobby does is within the confines of a democratic process, then isn’t Schultz’s critique valid? If the Lobby isn’t working democratically, then how is it abusing the process?
WALT: We make it very clear in our book that what the Israeli Lobby is doing is not an abuse of the Democratic Process, but we think all Americans have the right to organize around political causes they believe about. But the fact that it is legitimate activity doesn’t mean it is in the best interest of the country. Lots of other interest groups have skewed American policy in a way that is not good for the country as a whole. We never argue, and we don’t believe what the Lobby is doing is illegitimate, inappropriate, or not Democratic, it’s just that the effects are harmful to the United States.
Now, if George Schultz disagrees with us, then he can make that argument and we can have a debate on it. One of the reasons we wrote the book is to try and encourage debate. “Whether or not unconditional support for Israel is good for the U.S. or not? Was it making Americans safer? Was it Americans more popular around the world? Was it improving our relation with allies in The Middle East and elsewhere?” If all those are true, then, maybe, we’re wrong. We’re making the argument that unconditional support for Israel, as encouraged by the Israeli Lobby, has been deeply harmful.
I’d alert anybody who reads this article that they should go back and read page 112 of George Schultz’s memoirs called “Turmoil and Triumph” where he talks about his own involvement trying to do Middle East policy in the face of pressure from the Lobby. When he and President Regan were dealing with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he discovered Congress was about to vote a $250 million supplemental military aid package to Israel after the invasion of Lebanon, after [Israel] had used cluster bombs, after the Shatila-Sabra camp massacres. This is what he writes in his own memoirs:
“We fought the supplement and fought it hard. President Reagan and I weighed in personally making numerous calls to Senators and Congressman. The supplement sailed right by us and was approved by Congress as though President Reagan and I had not even been there. I was astonished and disheartened. This brought home for me vividly Israel’s leverage in our Congress. I saw that I must work carefully with the Israelis if I was to have any handle on Congressional action that might affect Israel, and if I were to maintain Congressional support for my efforts to make peace or progress in the Middle East.”
In 1982, and when he wrote his memoirs, he understood the Israeli Lobby was very powerful and he understood that it wasn’t good; it was interfering with what he and President Reagan wanted to do. But he understood it was too powerful to fight it. He might’ve forgotten that in 2006-2007, but that’s what he wrote in his own memoirs.
MEARSHEIMER: There’s no question that Israeli supporters in the U.S. have the right to push pro-Israeli policies. Their behavior in that regard is as American as apple pie. However, there is one form of behavior that many members of the lobby engage in that is antithetical to the American way of doing business. That is the proclivity for smearing critics of Israel. If you criticize Israeli policy, or the power of the Lobby in formulating, or influencing U.S. Middle East policy, you are almost certain to be called an Anti-Semite or worse. Smearing people has become one of the key tactics that large numbers of organizations and individuals use in the Lobby to deal with critics, and this is not as American as apple pie. This kind of behavior should be condemned.
ALI: Let’s switch gears and talk about an Arab-American professor at Columbia, Joseph Massad, who published a stinging criticism of your book in Al-Ahram. He suggests your thesis falls into a predictable trap, and I quote him, “the attraction of this argument is that it exonerates the United States’ government from all the responsibility and guilt that it deserves for its policies in the Arab world and gives false hope to many Arabs and Palestinians who wish America would be on their side instead of on the side of their enemies.” So, my question, after listening to this, does your thesis help exonerate the U.S. government from all its responsibility? Moreover, perhaps the U.S. is in fact using Israel, instead of Israel and its Lobby using the U.S, correct?
WALT: Professor Massad greatly overstates it when he says this exonerates the U.S. government from all responsibility. We understand that actors in the U.S. government are independent actors to some degree. You take the Iraq war where we believe the Israeli Lobby had a key role in pushing the U.S. to do this, but ultimately George Bush made the decision to invade. So, we wouldn’t let him or Vice President Cheney off the hook. We are not exonerating those people in the U.S. government. Any official or most officials in the government, and certainly people in Congress are shaped by the political and social forces that exist within American society. They always pay attention where the political support is going to be, and it’s quite clear, as we just saw from the George Schultz quote a moment ago, where the Secretary of State thinks policy ought to go in one direction [not giving Israel the supplementary aid] and President Reagan agrees and thinks it’s a terrible idea, but they get rolled by Congress as if they had not even been there.
So, I think the idea that the U.S. government would be pursuing the same policies vis a vis the Middle East the same policies it would be pursuing absent the Israeli Lobby and the political power of AIPAC, I think it is just wrong. It has been the official policy of every president, every president since Lyndon Johnson to not support the settlements but none of them ever do anything about it, and they are the Presidents. It’s because of an array of political forces that make it impossible for them to take action. Problem #2 is the dog wagging the tail argument, here the argument is that Israel basically is our tool, we give it orders, and it does what we want it to do in the Middle East.
MERSHHEIMER: That Israel is our Rottweiler argument.
WALT: I mean, if you look carefully at the record, there is not much evidence that it is the tool we are using to shape the Middle East. I’ll give you three examples. One is the first Gulf War of ’91 where the U.S. goes into throw Hussein’s Iraq out of Kuwait, Israel didn’t participate in the war, not because they didn’t want to, but if they had participated the Arab coalition would have fallen apart. So, we went to great lengths to keep them out. And then we had to defend them when the SCUD missiles starting coming to Israel. The second example is the Iraq War of 2003, here we are our knocking off an Israeli enemy, but the Israelis are not there doing it, it’s us doing it. They are on the sideline yet again. The third example is the Lebanon War in the Summer of 2006. We don’t like Hezbollah very much, and of course the Israelis don’t like them very much, but there is absolutely no evidence that we were pushing the Israelis to go after Hezbollah. More importantly, we certainly didn’t want the Israelis to go after Lebanon. If Israel was taking our orders in the Summer of 2006, they would have left Beirut alone. They would have done nothing to undermine the democratically elected government in Lebanon, which is something that Bush takes great credit for. We had helped put the government in power, and it was one of the big successes you could point to in Bush’s Middle East policy. If Israel was taking orders from us, they would’ve had a very different approach than us in Lebanon. It’s not that there isn’t some collusion, but the idea they are our obedient servant carrying out the wishes of American Imperialism in the Middle East is just dead wrong
MEARSHEIMER: Two quick points. The U.S. can’t use Israel to support its policies in the Middle East in a large part because it is radioactive, and by that I mean so unpopular in the region. We couldn’t use Israel in the first Gulf War or second Gulf War. My second point would be to focus on what happened after the Shah of Iran fell in 1979. Up until that point, the U.S. had relied heavily on the Shah to do much of its heavy lifting in the Middle East. After the Shah fell, the U.S. was deeply concerned that the Soviet Union might intervene in Iran, and number two that Iraq or Iran might try to dominate the region. In that case, we would need military forces in that region to deal with the problem did it arrive.
So, the United States, if we are to believe the story where Israel is our Rottweiler, then we should’ve been able to turn to Israel to replace the Shah. But, of course, we couldn’t do that, and instead we had to build the rapid deployment force, which is an over the horizon military capability. But we need bases in the Middle East to deploy equipment for the rapid deployment force should it have to come into the region quickly. None of the equipment for the rapid deployment force was put in Israel, because it was unacceptable for the U.S. to station or to put equipment in Israel. So, what we did is we developed a rapid development force of our own, and we deployed that equipment in Arab countries.
ALI: Why do these pro-Israeli groups have such a loyal and firm alliance with hawkish, Neo-conservatives and the Christian Right in recent years? This is, after all, the same Christian Right, if you read some of their ideology and dogma, who believe that the Second coming of Christ will end in either the mass slaughter or mass conversion of Jews in Israel.
WALT: The Israel Lobby is a heterogeneous group. They all want to maintain a special relationship with the U.S., but they don’t agree on everything. There are a number of prominent groups, such as AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations, the ADL, the Zionist Organization of America. There are a number of moderate groups that support a 2 state solution as well. The Israeli Policy Forum, the Americans for Peace Now are just a few examples. Then, there is this movement of Christian Evangelicals known as Christian Zionists. The more influential and wealthier organizations have tended to be right of center and more hard-line. AIPAC for example is hard-line. The Zionist Organization of America is very hard-line, opposing a 2 state solution.
ALI: Wait, what exactly do you mean by “hard-line?”
WALT: Generally those who oppose a 2 state solution, or like AIPAC never endorsing it. And also, basically supporting the “Settlement” enterprise. Groups like Israeli Policy Forum believe in the 2 state solution and oppose the Settlement enterprise.
MEARSHEIMER: It’s marginally a function of how you think of the [President] Clinton parameters. The Clinton parameters would be a broad outline for a 2 state solution. Organizations like the Israeli Policy Forum, people like Dennis Ross endorse the parameters, I mean he helped craft them.
WALT: I think we argue this in our book, if you look at the major organizations they tend to be more right of center, but they have become more conservative over time, and become more aligned with the Likud party in Israel, more aligned at least politically with conservative movements here in the U.S. The Israeli Lobby has moved in a rightward direction over time. And, it has been strengthened by the Christian Evangelicals who believe, and I’m oversimplifying a lot here, but their view of Israel is shaped by their interpretation of Old Testament prophecy. They believe the re-establishment of a Jewish state in all of Palestine is foreordained in Biblical prophecy, and it is a key sign leading up to the Second Coming, the End of times.
ALI: Like a pre-requisite?
WALT: It’s a pre-requisite, it’s gotta’ happen. It’s one of several steps we have to go through. So, they oppose any form of Palestinian state, they oppose any withdrawl of the settlement enterprise, because they think that’s inconsistent with what the Bible has predicted.
MEARSHEIMER: What the Bible says is necessary for the End times to come about.
WALT: Now, as you said, obviously this image of what happens to Israel or the Jewish people is not optimistic. Either they die, are converted, or they get left behind. But, obviously, if you are Jewish you don’t believe any of that prophecy stuff, and therefore there has been a tactical alliance between these groups, because it strengthens the political influence of both hard-line organizations. To put it in crude terms, I think the Jewish groups don’t much care for the Christian Zionist’s other views, because they don’t think they’re true, and they’re happy to get their support on this foreign policy dimension. As we can see the support for our very confrontational policy with Iraq and Iran today, where the Christian Zionists have been very bellicose, as have members of the Israeli Lobby been as well.
MEARSHEIMER: An additional point to make is that Israel, itself, has been progressively moving to the right as well. If you look carefully at Israeli public opinion, there is little support for the Clinton parameters, which is the only meaningful way you can create a viable Palestinian state. The Israelis say they are willing to give the Palestinians a state and favor a 2 state solution, but when you see what the majority of the Israelis want to give the Palestinians it does not in any shape, way, or form add up to a viable Palestinian state. Basically, it would be a series of enclaves in the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip would be another enclave. These enclaves would not be territorially contiguous, not connected, and the Israelis wouldn’t give the Palestinians control of East Jerusalem. The point I’m trying to make is that the fact the Lobby is dominated by hard-line individuals is facilitated by the fact that it is a worldview that is largely reflected by a majority of Israelis.
ALI: Professor Mearsheimer, you and several academics recently convened in Chicago, Rockafeller Chapel, and you said academia is the only space where Israel is “treated as a normal country, where past and present actions are critically assessed,” and the place where public opinion on the matter is most accurately reflected. If that is the case, then how do we explain the abrupt denial of tenure of Israeli and Dershowitz critic Norman Finkelstein? [Finkelstein’s very public tenure controversy at DePaul University ended in September ’07 when the Board decided to reject his tenure bid, despite overwhelming support for Finkelstein by his peers, his students, and national and international scholars]
MEARSHEIMER: I said in my comments, academia “tends to be the one place,” where Israel is treated like a normal country. I think there’s no question that there is more criticism of Israel in the academic world and in college campuses, then there is in mainstream media. Nevertheless, the Lobby works very hard to influence the discourse on university campuses and goes to considerable length in influencing hiring and promotion decisions regarding critics of Israel. The Normal Finkelstein case is illustrative of this. Nobody disputes that the Lobby put considerable pressure on DePaul University to deny Finkelstein tenure. They will deny that the pressure had any effect on the ultimate decision to deny him tenure, but this is hard to believe.
ALI: You suggest in your book that the image and framing of the issues has been skewed to reflect Israel as a “David” fighting a “Goliath” that is the Palestinians and neighboring Arab enemies. How much of this alleged symbolism is actually reflected in reality? How has this image been popularized and cemented in the mindset of American psychology?
MEARSHEIMER: There is no question that Israeli’s supporters have been very successful in conveying the message to most Americans that Israel is a David surrounded by an Arab goliath. Anyone who looks carefully at the history of the conflict quickly discovers that is not the case. To be more specific, Israelis won the 1948 war decisively, they won the 1956 decisively, they won the 1967 war decisively, and they won the 1973 decisively after suffering a massive surprise attack. All those victories were gained before massive U.S. aid came to Israel.
WALT: Up thru ’67 that’s exactly right. The U.S. was starting to provide significant military aid after ’67, but the aid goes up even more after the ’73 war.
MERSHEIMER: So, Israel won those 4 wars, and since then no Arab state has picked a fight with Israel for the simple reason they all understand Israel is the “Goliath” and they are the “Davids.” Today, Israel has the most powerful conventional army in the region by far. It’s the only state in the region that has nuclear weapons, it has a couple of hundred of them. It has a very close alliance to the U.S., which would surely come to its defense if its survival is threatened. It has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and would have a treaty with Syria had it not walked away from the deal. So, Israel is not only the most powerful country in the region, but it also has peace agreement with some of its neighbors, two of them they have fought wars with in the past. And it would’ve have peace deals with 3 of its principle adversaries had they reached a peace deal with Syria.
The Saudis started in 2002 to push a peace initiative that would’ve brought peace between Israel and the Arab League, and they resurrected it again this year and pushed it again. This tells you that most of the states in the region are interested in reaching some sort of modus of endii with Israel. They understand it is very powerful and not going away anytime soon, therefore it makes sense to make some peace agreement. Israel is in excellent shape in terms of military balance. In terms of its dealings with its neighbors, it is in very good shape.
One might say what about the Palestinians? The Israelis have had opportunities to cut a deal with the Palestinians, especially during the 90’s Oslo Peace Process. But they have never shown any serious interest in allowing the Palestinians to have a viable state. If they could change their thinking on that conflict and bring themselves to evacuate almost all the West Bank, and allow for a Palestinian state, then we believe they would have good relations with the Palestinians as well.
WALT: You have to bear in mind the balance of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Israel, today, has the 29th highest per capita income in the world, now that’s not a poor country. Palestinians are deeply impoverished, unable to have a viable economy in the face of all of the obstacles presented now by Israel. The Palestinians have no army, no air force, no navy, they barely have an effective security force, and of course they are deeply divided internally. When any group of people is put into a situation like that, they are going to use any tactic available. Which is why of course the Palestinians have relied on terrorism. John and I both regard the use of terrorist tactics as deplorable, and the loss of innocent human life on either side is deeply, deeply regrettable. So, we’re not defending that. But, the point is that the Palestinians hardly pose an existential threat to Israel. It’s very much a one sided competition. The problem is for all of Israel’s considerable military power it still does not permit them to dominate the Palestinians to the point they won’t try to resist with any means they can come up with. But the idea that Israel is the vulnerable party here, and its various neighbors are all powerful has got reality turned upside down.
ALI: How does the Lobby skew this image, in your opinion, for the Average American psychology?
WALT: By constantly repeating how vulnerable Israel is, by constantly exaggerating the dangers that is faces. And, it does have security problems in addition to problems from terrorist bombings, it has problems with Hezbollah to the north. But the groups of the Lobby are hyping the exaggerated threat that Israel faces in trying to convince people its security is very precarious; that Israel might be destroyed anytime soon, that it faces a gigantic sea of enemies that aren’t interested in peace. But if someone looks carefully at the true military balance, or looks carefully at what Israel’s relations with its neighbors really are and what those neighbors have already offered, it suggests Israel is already quite secure in regards to its overall existence. Its survival is not in jeopardy. Its security can be significantly enhanced if it would reach a reasonable settlement with the Palestinians and take that whole problem off the table once and for a all.
MEARSHEIMER: The principle way that the Lobby creates this image of a beleaguered Israel is by working 24-7 to shape the discourse about Israel. The Lobby not only portrays Israel as a “David” surrounded by “Goliaths,” but it also goes to great lengths to silence those who argue that the opposite is the case.
ALI: Here’s a criticism. The U.S. is country with over 300 million people. We have blogs, the internet, op/ed publications, websites, liberals, republicans, and a diversity of opinions. How can a tiny minority of Jewish people, which is about 2 to 3% of our population, have that much influence? Is this some sort of conspiracy theory suggesting Jewish boogeyman who own the vast, diverse media we have in the United States?
MEARSHEIMER: We want to be absolutely clear we are not talking about a conspiracy. We are also not making an argument that pro-Israel groups control the media. Our argument is that the Lobby has to work very hard to shape discourse in the United States, because it does not control the media. Certainly, there are pundits and columnists and owners of newspapers who are naturally pro-Israel. There are many others that need to be reminded that criticism of Israel carries with it a significant cost. It’s there where the Lobby is great on what is written in the mainstream media in regards to Israel. Our argument is that they are very effective in that regard.
Let’s just talk about the discourse in the mainstream media about the Middle East. Where do you see evidence of Arab Americans writing columns in major newspapers? Where is the evidence of Arab Americans who are constantly on T.V. or on radio constantly criticizing Israel and defending the Palestinians?
ALI: Someone can say Fareed Zakaria is Muslim–[Fareed Zakara is an influential and well known editor, columnist, and pundit]
WALT: He’s not Arab. He’s a South Asian Muslim. He does not take sides on Middle East questions very often. I think he understands this is a delicate issue, and particularly as delicate an issue for someone as prominent as he is who is known to be Muslim. Find me the Palestinian American columnist in the Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the SF Chronicle. They don’t exist.
MEARSHEIMER: What we have here in the United States is a one sided debate. We have pro-Israel forces and nothing else.
WALT: What you see of course is anytime a major media organization does publish something that is mildly critical they immediately get pressure put on them. For example, this past fall CNN ran a 3 part series on Muslim, Christian, and Jewish fundamentalism. The Forward, a Jewish newspaper, said it [CNN] suffered from an “unprecedented attack,” where organizations were putting pressure on advertisers that had bought advertising time. The whole purpose was not to stop the broadcast, because it already happened, but they wanted to put enough pressure on CNN that the next time a producer has an idea or a big story that is controversial, that producer is going to face an uphill battle. Or if a newspaper in Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, pushes an article that is critical of the Lobby, if the editor gets 5,000 letters protesting about that, then they will think twice the next time that they let something like that appear.
If you do this long enough and over many years, plenty of reporters, editors, and columnists realize it’s too much trouble. “I’ll write about something else, or I’ll write something bland.” That isn’t control of the media as in the old conspiracy scene, that’s an interest group, like how a number of interest groups work, working very hard to try and make sure that their story gets reported, and the other side tends not to get reported. I say “tend” because every now and then you see something representing the other side appear in various places, but the point is you want to make sure the balance of coverage is on one side.
MEARSHEIMER: I want to add another dimension to this. It is widely recognized in the U.S. that the Lobby has a powerful influence on U.S.-Middle East policy. If you look at almost all the critical reviews of our book, virtually all of the critics admit that the Lobby is powerful. Nevertheless, when you read American news accounts of U.S.-Middle East policy, you hardly ever see any discussion of the Israel Lobby’s presence, much less influence, in the shaping of the U.S. policy.
WALT: Not never, but it’s rare. It’s rare you find someone who is writing about Middle East policy who will devote a couple of paragraphs to the role that pro-Israeli forces are playing in shaping that policy. Even though everyone in Washington knows that they’re very influential.
ALI: Let’s talk about Iraq. You, unlike many academics, underplay the role of oil and oil lobbies in the Iraq War. If not oil, then what was the motivating reason for the pre-emptive attack, and how does/did Israel benefit from the attack on Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein?
MEARSHEIMER: With regards to the question of oil, there is hardly any evidence that oil was driving the Iraq war. Except for Kuwait, none of the oil producing states favored the war. And even though Kuwait favored the war, it didn’t push the U.S. hard to attack. Saudi Arabia was opposed to the war, as were the other oil producing states in the regime. There is hardly any evidence that I’m aware of that the oil companies which were pushing this war. The oil companies wanted to cut a deal with Saddam, so they could help him develop his oil fields, move his oil around the globe, and make lots of money in the process. The basic problem is there is not a lot of evidence to support the idea that oil was driving this war. What we believe was driving this was war was 1) The Israeli Lobby, and 2) the fact that George Bush and Cheney after 9-11 believed it was necessary to topple Saddam to win the war on terrorism. It’s a combination of them pushing this war to make this happen.
WALT: I would add to that, of course, the people who pushed for this believed it would benefit the U.S. and benefit Israel as well. They believed it would launch a process of political change throughout the Arab-Islamic world that would make the terrorism problem go away, enhance America’s overall strategic position by gradually creating a lot of countries that were Pro-American, and finally enhance Israel’s strategic position by creating a bunch of countries that were willing to make peace. They were tragically wrong on all counts. How would this war benefit Israel? The war didn’t benefit Israel, of course, it’s been a strategic disaster for Israel. It’s created a failed state nearby [Iraq], and it has enhanced the position of Iran, which is a country Israelis worry about even more than they worried about Saddam. This underscores a point we make in our book and make all the time is that the Israel Lobby in pushing for unconditional American support for Israel, and in some elements, pushing for hair-brained schemes like invading Iraq, it has been bad for the United States and unintentionally bad for Israel, too. It’s incorrect to see the Lobby as always pro-Israel. A lot of what they are supporting is very bad for Israel.
ALI: Seymour Hersh of the New Yorkers posits the U.S. is engaged in “The-Redirection,” whereby the U.S. and Israel are aligning themselves with moderate Arab dictatorships against Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. As professors of international relations and critics of the Israel Lobby, what blowback would this have, if any, on US-Muslim world relations?
MEARSHEIMER: The basic problem is that the strategy is not going to work. The fact is that Israel is radioactive in the region. The fact that Israel, the U.S., and Arab countries are going to form a right alliance against Iran and maybe Syria and Hezbollah is not going to work. Those Arab countries are going to be unwilling to reach an alliance with the Israelis and U.S. as long as the Palestinian issue continues to fester. One of the principle reasons for Condoleeza Rice is pushing for solution to a Palestinian problem now is because she understands now she can’t put together an anti Iran coalition without shutting down the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. But, there is no serious hope that conflict is going to be shut down anytime soon. That’s why you can’t put that balancing coalition against Iran together. In the populations of countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, there is a significant amount of sympathy towards Iran, and a significant amount of animosity towards U.S. and Israel.
WALT: One of those reasons those countries wont jump into bed fully with us on this, is because they are potentially fragile regimes and they worry about what their populations think if they were to try doing something like that. Second point to remember is Americans sometimes think we would be much better off if we had more democracy in the Middle East, and probably that’s true if you take a very long term view of it. But right now it’s false to imagine rapid democratic transitions in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. You would end up in countries that were very anti-American, because they don’t like the support we’ve given Israel and they also don’t like our support we’ve given to those ruling regimes as well.
MEARSHEIMER: One important piece of evidence that highlights how it’ll be impossible for the U.S. to put together that coalition is to see what happened during the Lebanon war in 2006. Initially, the Arab governments in Jordan and Egypt were very critical of Hezbollah, which is consistent with the policy that the Americans are trying to pursue. But, it quickly became clear to the leaders in Jordan and Egypt that the people in their societies sided with Hezbollah against the United States and against Israel. Therefore, the leaders in Jordan and Egypt had to turn on a dime and become critical of the U.S. and Israel and support Hezbollah.
ALI: Let’s close it with this final question and talk about U.S.-Muslim relations in regards to Palestine. Why is this issue, the Palestine issue, above all other issues at the forefront of the Muslim world’s anger against U.S. foreign policy? How does U.S. relation with Israel and the Lobby undermine or help our relations with the Muslim world in this regards?
WALT: For many people in the Muslim, Arab world there is a fundamental question of justice. What they see happening to the Palestinian people is a great injustice, although there were terrible crimes against Jewish people in history, and those crimes may justify the creation of a Jewish state. You can even argue on balance that it is ok to create a Jewish state in Palestine. John and I both thing it was a good thing. But, that act, creating a Jewish state in Palestine, involved the infliction of great crimes against the local residents–the Palestinians. Until there is some compensation and they are given a state of their own, and effort is made to compensate them and acknowledge what happened to them, the moral balance has not been equated.
Second, the entire episode resonates with the whole history of Western interference and domination of that region. It’s seen as another case where Western powers have inflicted great harm on Arab or Islamic peoples. So, it has a particular salience for people elsewhere in that region. Thirdly, it makes the U.S. look deeply hypocritical. The United States likes to talk about human rights, it likes to talk about democracy, it likes to talk about national self-determination. But here, by giving Israel nearly unconditional support, even as Israel continues its 40-year, 4-decade campaign to colonize the West Bank and previously Gaza, and for us to be supporting that enterprise the way we have is seen as deeply contrary to all the things the U.S. claims to stand for. That drives a number of people in the Arab-Muslim world, at least, makes them very angry. The fact we are so hypocritical and inconsistent with our own professed values.
MEARSHEIMER: It is the longest ongoing occupation in modern history.
WALT: It’s still ongoing; there are others like the British occupation of India that lasted much longer. Of all occupations that are currently happening, and there aren’t that many, it’s certainty the longest, continuing occupation that is still happening.
WAJAHAT ALI is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/. He can be reached at email@example.com