Critics of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” by John J. Mearsheimer and Steven M. Walt cannot be surprised that the attacks on the book prior to publication have already helped propel it to #10 on Amazon’s best-seller list. Not only that, the names “Walt-Mearsheimer” have become almost People magazine famous, odd for two mild-mannered political scientists from the University of Chicago and Harvard.
It just shows you what a little “buzz” will do and a lot of buzz surrounds this book.
And why not? It’s an important, heavily sourced and documented book (108 pages of footnotes) by two distinguished professors at two of our best universities. It deals with Middle East policymaking at a time when America’s problems in that region surpass our problems anywhere else. And it is a serious book about a subject that is decidedly provocative, a much improved and expanded version of the original London Review of Books article.
The book asks the question: how much power does the pro-Israel lobby have? The authors answer: too much, and that both America and Israel suffer as a result.
It’s an arguable question and people are definitely arguing about it. It is also the kind of book you do not have to agree with on every count (I certainly don’t) to benefit from reading.
The authors do not say that there is anything intrinsically wrong about the existence of a pro-Israel lobby. As political scientists, they understand that lobbies are as American as corn in Kansas. They know that lobbies play a major role in virtually all areas of American policy-making, domestic and foreign. Nor do they suggest that the pro-Israel community is out of bounds when it uses its influence on Israel’s behalf.
Their question is whether or not that influence is used to promote policies that are in America’s interest, or Israel’s.
The authors answer is “no.” They believe that the interests of both countries would be better served by aggressive US involvement to produce an Israeli-Palestinian agreement along the lines of the so-called Clinton parameters. Israel would withdraw more or less to the ’67 lines, a Palestinian state would be established, Israel’s security would be guarded by ironclad guarantees, and the Palestinians would abandon any future claims on Israeli territory. They believe that it is the influence of the lobby that has prevented the US from vigorously pursuing this goal, despite the fact that both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush have endorsed it.
I spent almost 20 years as a Congressional aide and can testify from repeated personal experience that Senators and House Members are under constant pressure to support status quo policies on Israel. It is no accident that Members of Congress compete over who can place more conditions on aid to the Palestinians, who will be first to denounce the Saudi peace plan, and who will win the right to be the primary sponsor of the next pointless Palestinian-bashing resolution. Nor is it an accident that there is never a serious Congressional debate about policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. Moreover, every President knows that any serious effort to push for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement based on compromise by both sides will produce loud (sometimes hysterical) opposition from the Hill.
Walt and Mearsheimer mostly limit themselves to exploring whether all this is good for the United States (and to a lesser extent, Israel). The question I ask today, and not for the first time, is whether this type of behavior is good for Israel. Forty years after the Six Day War, the occupation continues, the resistance to it intensifies, and Israelis in increasing numbers question whether they have a future in the Jewish state.
Has “pro-Israel” advocacy consistently produced “pro-Israel” ends? At several critical moments, it most certainly has not.
Was it pro-Israel to lobby the Nixon administration in 1971 to support Israel’s rejection of Anwar Sadat’s offer of peace in exchange for a three mile pullback from the banks of the Suez Canal? Nixon capitulated to the pressure and backed off, leaving Israel free to reject Sadat’s offer. Two years later, Sadat attacked and Israel lost 3000 soldiers in a war that would have been prevented had Israel accepted the Sadat initiative. Israel gained nothing in that war, and ended up giving Sadat all the territory he sought in 1971, and much more.
Was it pro-Israel to urge the Reagan administration to back Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982? That war, and its bloody aftermath, lasted for 18 years with the last Israeli soldier not leaving Lebanon until 2000 – after a thousand soldiers were killed. Just days after Israel’s invasion, Lebanese Christian forces massacred almost a thousand Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp. And 241 United States Marines, serving as post-war peace keepers, were killed (the most on any single day since Iwo Jima) when Hezbollah blew up their barracks. In the end, the war accomplished nothing and Israel withdrew unconditionally.
Was it pro-Israel to press Congress to attach so many onerous conditions to aid to President Abbas’s Palestinian Authority that Abbas was unable to demonstrate to his people that a moderate President, who fully accepted Israel, would produce benefits that they would not achieve by choosing Hamas. The US (and Israeli) policies of all sticks and no carrots led predictably to Abbas’s defeat by Hamas and a Hamas-controlled Gaza which has resumed its attacks on Israeli towns.
Was it pro-Israel to prevent the Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administration’s from insisting on a permanent freeze on settlements or, at the very least, the immediate removal of the illegal settlements? Wouldn’t Israel be infinitely better off if the United States had used friendly persuasion to end the settlement enterprise right from the get-go? After all, the vast majority of Israelis consider the settlements to be impediments to peace and so has every President since the first settlement was erected.
Similar question could be asked about the arguments favoring the Iraq war as good for both the United States and Israel (when critics correctly predicted that it would be disastrous for both) and should be asked about some future attack on Iran.
These questions are especially urgent with a Presidential election coming up.
Once again, Presidential candidates are being told that in order to earn the “pro-Israel” label, they must heartily endorse the status quo. That means that when asked what they would do about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they must state unequivocal support for Israeli policies. They must put the onus for the failed diplomacy of recent years on the Palestinians. They must indicate that although they support peace, they will not adopt the kind of pro-active peacemaking engaged in by President Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. They must never use the words “even-handed or “honest broker.” There is a script and the candidates must not deviate from it.
For the vast majority of us who care deeply about Israel, the politically correct (and safe) approach to Israel is insulting. Sure, it keeps candidates out of trouble with that small minority of the pro-Israel community which believes that Israel can survive as a Jewish state while holding on to the territories. But that isn’t most American Jews, not by a long shot.
Candidates who avoid saying what they believe out of fear of offending lobbyists and activists who have been proven wrong over and over again are not doing Israel any favors. And they should not be rewarded for it by being granted the label of “pro-Israel.”
There is nothing pro-Israel about supporting policies that promise only that Israeli mothers will continue to dread their sons’ 18th birthdays for another generation. For that we are supposed to be grateful?