Two Years of "The Israel Lobby," Part 2

03/26/2008 05:43 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Two years ago this week, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt released their essay "The Israel Lobby" and kick-started a much-overdue discussion of America's relationship with Israel.

For those not in the know, Mearsheimer is a prominent political scientist at the University of Chicago, and Walt is a political scientist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government . In 2002, the Atlantic commissioned an article on the Israel lobby by the two profs, but, despite their making extensive revisions and edits to the piece, the magazine ultimately passed on it. Instead, Mearsheimer and Walt published the essay in the London Review of Books. Simultaneously, they released a Harvard working paper on the same topic, an extended version of the LRB essay, on the KSG website.

And then all hell broke loose. The Harvard working paper was downloaded nearly a million times, an astounding number for any academic text, let alone a political science working paper posted on a university website. The Israel Lobby sparked outrage among defenders of Israeli policy--I refuse to call them pro-Israel Americans because they harm Israel--who declared Walt and Mearsheimer to be nothing less than Jew-haters with good resumes. The Anti-Defamation League called the paper "a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control." Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz said the men had "destroyed their professional reputations," and released a detailed response. The furor was covered in the Washington Post Magazine, the New York Post, the New Yorker and other national publications. As Michael Massing put it, without hyperbole, "Not since Foreign Affairs magazine published Samuel Huntington's 'The Clash of Civilizations?' in 1993 has an academic essay detonated with such force as 'The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.'"

Mearsheimer and Walt alleged that "the United States has been willing to set aside its own security in order to advance the interests of another state [Israel]", and that U.S. Middle East policy is driven primarily by the "Israel Lobby," defined as a "loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to steer U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction." The Lobby set terms of acceptable debate on Israel in America, and intimidated those who stepped outside the consensus. Most immediately, they charged that the Lobby had been instrumental in driving the U.S. toward an unnecessary, self-destructive war in Iraq. Along with 9/11, they said, the Israel lobby was the key factor that influenced the Bush administration to invade Iraq.

Mearsheimer and Walt were not fringe professors, operating on the edges of academia. They were two of the most prominent political scientists in the country, advocates of the 'realist' tradition that has dominated international relations theory since the 1940 and 1950s. A November/December 2005 survey of international relations scholars released in Foreign Policy magazine (subscription required but the list is here) listed Mearsheimer and Walt as the fifth and the 22nd most influential profs in their field, respectively. In other words, these guys were establishment big-wigs. They were attacking the establishment from the inside.

But it seems that segments of the establishment secretly agreed with them. Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezisnki said they had "rendered a public service." Prominent historian Tony Judt defended them against charges of anti-antisemitism, as did University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape. Colin Powell's former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, praised as containing "blinding flashes of the obvious." For all the controversy they ignited, Mearsheimer and Walt were writing things many people already thought but were afraid to say.

Which is not to say appreciators of the paper didn't have their criticisms. While I believe "The Israel lobby"'s main thesis--an Israel lobby exists, and it restricts debate about the US relationship with Israel--to be true and well-argued, I find much of the rest of the paper (later expanded into a bestselling book) to be seriously flawed. In particular, I find specious the claims that the lobby had a definitive influence on the administration's rush to Iraq. Mearsheimer and Walt's history of the Arab-Israeli conflict is also one-sided and dramatically underplays Arab rejectionism. Noteworthy critiques have come from Walter Russell Mead, Shlomo Ben-Ami and Gershom Gorenberg, among others. But Mearsheimer and Walt have raised legitimate questions that need to be debated. They had the courage to face down howls of antisemitism (including a one-man accusation machine in the case of Alan Dershowitz), to accept being shunned by their colleagues and to ignore the professional pressure to toe the line.

It seems, however, two years after the paper first came out, that only a little has changed in the public conversation about Israel and America. Hillary Clinton and John McCain have shown no willingness to consider adopting a more evenhanded approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Barack Obama has had to face questions about his commitment to Israel, despite repeated assurances of his friendship to the Jewish state and a voting record strongly in favor of Israeli policies. His onetime adviser Brzezinski, in particular, has suffered a sad fate, being relegated to the sidelines by mobs calling him a bigot.

Obama has been doing his best to fight back. He told a mostly Jewish audience in Cleveland, "There is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, you're anti-Israel and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel...One of the things that struck me when I went to Israel was how much more open the debate was around these issues in Israel than they are sometimes here in the United States."

Everything he is saying here is absolutely correct. Whether or not he wins the debate over America's relationship with Israel remains to be seen, of course. But to the extent that the next President of the United States of America has any freedom to pressure Israel to stop building illegal settlements or to talk to Hamas, he or she will have two balding middle-aged political science wonks to thank.