After several events were called off where Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer were due to discuss their upcoming book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy
, their backers said this week the cancellations were proof of their contention that American policy toward Israel can't be discussed openly.
They claim that the views expressed in the book - an expansion of the professors' 2006 paper accusing Jewish groups, neoconservatives and Evangelicals of hijacking American policy for the good of Israel and to the detriment of the US - are being stifled, as criticism of Israel routinely is in America.
It is an allegation that rings hollow to many in the Jewish community, who point to newspaper opinion pages and American campuses filled with viewpoints hostile to Israel.
But when it comes to Capitol Hill, the focus of many of the Jewish and pro-Israel groups named by Walt and Mearsheimer, even some of those organizations say that it's very rare to hear criticism of Israel or of US policy toward it.
While a few of these groups object to a climate they describe as shutting down debate that would actually be good for Israel, others argue that the limited criticism merely highlights the many reasons for the strong US-Israel relationship and itself rebuts the professors' scurrilous charges.
"There is no debate," said M.J. Rosenberg, director of the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum, a left-wing organization that pushes for peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Then he corrected himself, saying, "The debate is like this: 'I like Israel.' 'Well, I like Israel more.' The next one gets up and says, 'I don't like the Palestinians.' And the next one, 'I don't like the Palestinians more.'"
Rosenberg said there was no other topic on Capitol Hill, a place where contentious issues such as Iraq and gun control are regularly thrashed out, for which words are chosen so carefully.
"Members of Congress are so careful about what they say so as not to anger various pro-Israel organizations," said Rosenberg, who added that he had not read the Walt-Mearsheimer book, due out September 4.
A long-time congressional staffer, Rosenberg said Congressmen who didn't express support for Israel, mostly in the form of votes against nonbinding resolutions, would be faced with a deluge of lobbyists.
"It is easier to debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Knesset than in the Congress," said another longtime observer of Capitol Hill, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He said that pro-Israel resolutions pass by overwhelming majorities because "members of Congress by and large don't like hassle. On an issue like this it's better to take the path of least resistance."
There are a handful of persistent critics of Israel in the 535-member body, as well as a few dozen more who question the US strategy for supporting the Jewish state.
One congressional staffer who works for a representative who has opposed some of the pro-Israel resolutions said some members of Congress feared the pressure from constituents and, occasionally, from donors, but he added that such lobbying "is a reasonable part of the political system."
"There's no doubt the advocacy movement has been a success," said Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman of pro-Israel advocates. "So has the oil lobby. So has the Greek lobby."
Foxman's own book, The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control
, will also come out on September 4, in an effort to counter that of Walt and Mearsheimer. He defended the Jewish groups as playing a legitimate role in the American system like that of other interests.
Foxman also said that Israel itself was popular. "The fact that we are successful in Congress, [that Israel] is a bipartisan issue, is just as much a reflection of the issue than it is of the success of the advocacy movement," he said.
"[Support for] Israel is what the public wants," said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who runs one such advocacy organization, the Israel Project, whose polls have found that a solid majority of Americans favor Israel over the Palestinians. "It's not surprising that when the majority of their voters support Israel, that the Congress supports their voters' interests," she said.
"Being for Israel is like being for hot dogs, apple pie and baseball in America. It's connected to our values and to who we are in the world," Mizrahi said. She pointed to a weak pro-Palestinian bloc as one of the reasons for Israel's success in making its case in Congress.
While Israel has grassroots support in the US, she said, "The anti-Israel forces have astroturf. They have people who are paid to be grassroots... because the support for the anti-Israel case right now is not great."
Doug Bloomfield, a former legislative director for AIPAC, attributed that lack of support primarily to the identity of Israel's opponents - for example, Hamas and Hizbullah - none of whom are too appealing to members of Congress.
Bloomfield also said there was debate within Congressional committees over the language of legislation and other topics before bills were brought to the floor, and that there had been times when the US hadn't supported the Israeli position, as in the crisis over loan guarantees under President George H.W. Bush.
While the nonbinding pro-Israel resolutions are meant to inhibit dissenting opinion, according to Bloomfield members often sign on very willingly because they can tout their passage as accomplishments and use them for fund-raising.
But with the executive branch largely forming foreign policy, he dismissed their significance. "When it comes to the government deciding on a policy, these resolutions don't make the least bit of difference," Bloomfield said.
Rosenberg agreed that the resolutions were in themselves "mindless" and "ritualistic," but he argued they set a tone that made Congress and the administration less willing to countenance measures such as boosting Palestinian aid or pressuring Israel to compromise. In his opinion, that's not good for Israel, let alone America.
At the same time, he acknowledged that lobbying didn't account for Congress's underlying support for Israel, which was expressed in terms of the aid it provided Israel.
"The support for aid for Israel is universal because people support Israel's need for this aid," Rosenberg said.
The congressional staffer said that even if there wasn't debate as their should be on the pro-Israel resolutions or even on providing aid, "I don't see it as a huge problem because there's almost universal agreement that we should be providing assistance to Israel." That agreement comes from shared democratic values, a moral imperative to protect the Jewish state and the connection Americans feel with the Holy Land, he said.
"The idea of not supporting Israel is kind of like not supporting the military. Nobody believes that. Everyone supports the military. Everybody wants to see the military strong and effective. And the same for Israel," he said. "It's just a question of the best way to do that."