THE BLOG

Debunking the Myth of "The Israel Lobby"

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

How to protect America? The flurry of recent terrorist arrests in Germany, Denmark, and Britain, make Europe a center of concern -- but we are in a different situation from the 20th century. Europe was then our strategic focus, the main theatre of conflict encompassing WWI, WWII, and the Cold War. Now, the danger of strategic pivot is in the Middle East because it is there that the main threats to American security originate from Islamic terrorism to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the prospect of Iran combining WMD with missile delivery systems.

In Europe, our principal ally for the 20th century was Great Britain with whom we shared common values of democracy, a Judeo-Christian tradition, the rule of law, a free press, and the confidence that if a new government was elected, it would not change our fundamental alliance. Similarly, in the Middle East, where Islamist terrorism was incubated, our principal ally has long been Israel, another country with whom we share common democratic and humanitarian values and a mutual opposition to Islamist fanaticism.

The joint strategic interest shared between the US and Israel has a long history of resisting aggressors in the Middle East who sought to invade their neighbors, some with the blessings of Moscow. When Syria invaded Jordan in 1970, it was only Israeli military strength that saved the Jordanian regime of King Hussein; in 1981, Israel destroyed the nuclear reactor of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, a critical factor in the US-led coalition being able to evict Saddam from Kuwait. For Israel's ongoing contribution to America's security through intelligence sharing, General George S. Keegan, a retired US Air Force Intelligence Chief, stated he could not have obtained the same intelligence "with five CIAs."

Recently, two well-regarded academics, John Mearshimer and Steven Walt, have written a book, THE ISRAEL LOBBY AND US FOREIGN POLICY, in which they attack the values of the strategic partnership between Israel and the US. They assert that the continuing support for Israel by the US government and the public is the result of the efforts of a domestic group, "The Israel Lobby," made up of Jews and Christians, who control America's Middle East policy and push it in a direction that does not serve American interests.

Some of their policy allegations are nothing short of startling. Did you know for starters, that the Iraq War was not the work of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and Condi Rice, as we all thought but of "The Israel Lobby"?

Those who know most about what actually happened strenuously contest Mearshimer-Walt. So does the history for, after all, the world-changing event of 9/11 provoked the administration's key policymakers, all non-Jewish, non-lobbymakers, the President, the Vice-President, the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, to decide that an attack on Iraq was in the best interests of the US. They were supported by most senior military leaders just emerging from an extraordinary victory in Afghanistan. Peter Wehner, former Director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives called Mearsheimer and Walt's description of the "Lobby" and their role in the Iraq War as "ludicrous."

Then there is 9/11. How can that be blamed on the "Israel Lobby"? Osama bin Laden and Islamist terrorists, we are told, wanted to punish America for not pushing Israel during their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza -- and America, of course, was doing what "The Israel Lobby" told it to do. Yet these attacks were planned during the Oslo years when there were high hopes for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. With America's encouragement, Israel and the Palestinians were in peace negotiations in 1993, the year of the first attack on the WTC; that Camp David negotiations were taking place in the year 2000, as bin Laden terrorist envoys were being trained as pilots in preparation of their attack on the WTC; not to speak of bin Laden himself who stated it was the US presence in Muslim Holy lands, especially in Saudi Arabia, that was what drove him to jihad and the attacks on the US. Most experts acknowledge that if Israel ceased to exist, al Qaeda's hatred and contempt for America would continue because of America's ties to "apostates and criminals" who rule in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, the Emirates, and Pakistan.

There's a whole list of characters missing from the Walt-Mearsheimer melodrama. Arab armies, airline terrorists, suicide bombers, are conspicuous by their absence. Why? Because the authors' thesis required every Israeli action to be seen as gratuitous oppression of the Palestinians. For example, when they argue that the 1967 Six-Day War could have been solved peacefully by Israel, they ignore the willingness of Israel to partition the land before 1967, just as they ignore the rise of Fatah and Palestinian terrorism, such as the Munich Olympic massacre, Black September, suicide bombings of innocent Israelis, the hijacking of airliners. They ignored the direct provocations to that war such as terrorist attacks coming from Egyptian territories, the closing of the Straits of Tiran and Egypt, the removal of the UN peacekeeping mission on Egypt's initiative, etc.

Perhaps the most unsettling description is their misrepresentation of UN Resolutions 242 and 338, the operative international resolutions that control the political parameters of a negotiated settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The authors imply in several places that Israel is required to return all the territories in the West Bank to the Palestinians and withdraw to the pre-1967 borders. Why? Because they leave out the key phrase from 242, which is that the Israelis and Palestinians were to negotiate "secure and recognized boundaries," since the previous boundaries were neither secure nor recognized, and so 242 does not require Israel to return all the land they conquered in the 1967 War. The authors of Resolution 242 emphasized time and again that Israel was not required to retreat to the prewar lines, and that Israel's future boundaries would necessarily be different from the lines of June 4, 1967. This was so central to the debate over the Resolution and so critical to this conflict as to be inconsistent with the academic qualifications of the authors.

Then they deny the Palestinians were principally responsible for the collapse of the Oslo process and the Camp David talks. This is quite contrary to the knowledge of virtually all Americans who attended Camp David II, including President Clinton, who said that the Israelis were ready to make a deal within the parameters of his proposals, but not Arafat. Indeed, the Saudi Ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar, was waiting at his home for Arafat to visit after the decisive meeting with Clinton, because he had arranged for political cover for Arafat's anticipated agreement from the Kings of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Jordan, and the President of Egypt -- only to have Arafat fail to show up.

Not to speak of the fact that if they allege that the US is so subservient to the "Israel Lobby," how is it that there are so many issues on which Jewish groups have been opposed by the US government? The dialogue with Yassir Arafat; the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia; the decision of President Reagan to go to the cemetery in Bitburg, Germany; the opposition to the construction of settlements in certain parts of the West Bank; the presence of Prime Minister Shamir to attend the Madrid Conference after the first Gulf War -- and the list goes on and on.

The authors' interpretations of so many of the events that they describe is contrary to that of many outsiders with expertise in the Middle East who have identified innumerable distortions, omissions, and errors, that cumulatively invalidate their conspiratorial thesis. One eminent Israeli historian, Benny Morris, who in fact is frequently quoted in their book in support of their thesis, had the following comment about it, "Their work is riddled with shoddiness and defiled by mendacity. Were 'The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy' an actual person, I would have to say that he did not have a single honest bone in his body."

How to assess a book that is hurled down from the ivory towers of Chicago University and Harvard's Kennedy School in Cambridge and that is dressed up as scholarship with a thousand footnotes and a 100-book bibliography, when only 3 of the footnotes refer to correspondence with sources and 2 to interviews with sources?

Walt-Mearsheimer argue they did not need interviews and indeed they said "We felt we already had sufficient information about 'The Lobby's' operations, and traditional research would not have altered our conclusions." Why the diminution of "traditional research," which in fact means original work? It means checking the nature and quality of that "sufficient information." It means testing it against other sources. It means the kind of documentation that is not just dressed up to appear as scholarship but, in fact, validates their conclusions, that would be necessary for a first-class publication, even for a decent undergraduate essay in an average university. Why were they afraid to test their interpretation of events against the facts? It can only be that their minds were made up already.

Conspiracy theories die hard. Much of the Muslim world still believes Mossad, not Osama, bombed the World Trade Center; cable television is currently running yet another weird take on the Kennedy assassination. How could two reputable academics leave themselves open to invalidation of their core arguments by experts in the Middle East who have identified so many one-sided presentations, tendentious statements, misquotations, omissions, and outright errors in the book?

Israel is certainly not immune from criticism as they suggest, nor should it be. There are plenty of grounds for criticism. There is much responsible criticism of Israel here in the US -- not to speak of criticism within the raucous process of Israeli politics. This prompted one commentator to respond to the perceived power of the "Israel Lobby" by quoting a 92-year-old man who was sued in a paternity suit, "He was so proud that he pleaded guilty."

Israel cannot and should not be blamed for everything that has occurred in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the creation of Israel to the present day. Such a one-sided presentation by Walt-Mearsheimer, one that collects every charge against Israel and the Jewish community in the U.S., some from the most unreliable of sources and some that misrepresent and inaccurately represent the views of those quoted (I am one), only raises questions of the fairness and balance of the authors and makes a considered dialogue on the issue more difficult. The accusation that Jews unhappy secretly control the politics of the country has historical echoes and contributes to a conclusion the authors allege they don't believe.

What the authors seem unwilling to recognize is that, for decades, American public opinion and American policies have sided with the Israelis with or without the "Israel Lobby." Former Secretary of State George Shultz recently pointed this out in his comments about the book, "The US supports Israel not out of favoritism based on political pressure or influence, but because both political parties, and virtually all our national leaders, agree with the American people's view that supporting Israel is politically sound and morally just." Then he said, "Those who blame Israel and its Jewish supporters for US policies they do not support are wrong. They are wrong because support for Israel is in our best interests. They are wrong because Israel and its supporters have the right to try to influence US policy. And they are wrong because the US government is responsible for the policies it adopts, not any other state or any myriad lobbyists and groups that battle daily -- sometimes with lies -- to win American support."

Former Secretary Shultz is supported by another long-time White House counselor and insider, David Gergen, who wrote in US News and World Report, "Over the course of four tours in the White House, I never once saw a decision in the Oval Office to tilt U.S. foreign policy in favor of Israel at the expense of America's interests."

There is another dimension which was left completely out of their "realist" approach to foreign policy that parallels the special feeling America has had for the United Kingdom (UK) even when we were the only superpower in the world counterbalancing Soviet power. We could have ignored England, but abandoning them would have been unthinkable given our long emotional identification with the UK and a century-long relationship of working together on foreign policy.
In a sense, the same is true with Israel. The United States supports Israel as a nation that shares its values and interests. The vast majority in this country recognize the consequences if America abandoned a long-time friend and ally for whom they have always had a special feeling partly because it is the "Holy Land" and the country of the Bible, and partly because it is a democracy founded by immigrants from different shores, many of them fleeing religious persecution. To do so would be a devastating comment, not just on the reliability of US commitment, but on the very character of the US. For if we do not stand by and for our friends, whom do we stand for?