The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy
By John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
484 pages; $26.
America's generosity toward Israel is "beyond compare in modern history," Yitzhak Rabin once proclaimed. Since 1976 Israel has been the largest recipient of US foreign assistance. Direct aid is now more than $3 billion a year, about 2% of Israel's GDP, and more than $500 for each Israeli citizen. Only Israel gets is entire appropriation in the first 30 days of the fiscal year. Only Israel can direct one-quarter of its military assistance grant to its own defense firms, instead of spending all the money with American companies.
The United States also supplies political and diplomatic support to Israel, which otherwise stands alone in the international community. Implicitly or explicitly, American politicians have given a green light to settlements, the security fence, the isolation of Yasser Arafat, and the war in Lebanon. In the past 35 years, the United States has vetoed 42 resolutions aimed at Israel in the UN Security Council.
John Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard, believe that the United States "has given far more than it has gained" from "the special relationship." The pro-Israel lobby, they insist, is the "principal driving force" behind America's foreign policy in the Middle East. Acknowledging that it is engaged in "good, old fashioned, interest group politics, which is American as apple pie," they charge that leading members of the lobby are uncomfortable with free and open discussion - and use charges of anti-Semitism to silence their critics.
The authors have made this case before, in a 2006 article in The London Review of Books, which journalist James Traub has written, "slammed into the opinion-making world with a Category 5 Force." Foreign policy "realists," Mearsheimer and Walt believe that the national interests of the United States and Israel are increasingly divergent - and Israel no longer needs or deserves "unconditional support." They advocate treating Israel as a "normal state" and not a "special state" and using diplomatic and economic pressure instead of military force to insure that no country controls the Middle East.
Mearsheimer and Walt are distinguished scholars. Their serious and substantive recommendations deserve a hearing. But, alas, the authors are their own worst enemies. Their book is by turns informative and infuriating. Their tendentious, tell-it-like-it-is, taboo-trashing tone is not conducive to the "civilized discussion" they endorse. Neither is their effort to squeeze every shard of evidence into the procrustean bed they have made. One-sided and over-stated, The Israel Lobby all too often reads like a thesis in search of corroborating evidence.
Their analysis of the pro-Israel lobby, whose effectiveness is almost universally acknowledged, is a case in point. Mearsheimer and Walt dismiss the lobby's defeats - the US did sell AWACS to Saudi Arabia - as temporary or trivial. They then label the lobby a leviathan, crediting it, among other achievements, with dissuading the House of Representatives from urging Israel and Lebanon to "protect civilian life and infrastructure" - and from banning the transfer of cluster bombs to any country that did not agree not to drop them on civilian areas. The authors may well be right, but they tend to assume what they ought to prove.
Mearsheimer and Walt then engage in a bit of a bait and switch. They define the lobby as a "loose coalition" whose members include (in addition to the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations) journalists Charles Krauthammer and William Safire; Bush Administration neo-conservatives Paul Wolfowitz, Josh Bolton, Douglas Feith and Lewis Libby; and Christian Zionist congressmen Richard Armey and Tom DeLay.
This strategy permits them to find the lobby's fingerprints virtually everywhere. Without the lobby, they write, "America would probably not be in Iraq today." The lobby was "remarkably successful at convincing Bush... that a nuclear-armed Iran is an unacceptable threat to Israel." The lobby pushed the president to topple the regime in Syria - and give Israel the green light to go into Lebanon.
In maintaining that "neither strategic interests nor moral rationales" justify US support for Israel, Mearsheimer and Walt also begin with plausible, if provocative claims - and then leap beyond them. With the end of the Cold War, they emphasize, Israel's strategic value to the United States declined. During the first Gulf War, for example, support for Israel complicated the task of enlisting Arab states in the coalition to expel Iraq from Kuwait. And, of course, it has fueled anti-Americanism for decades.
But has Israel become "a strategic liability"? Is Israeli intelligence of "dubious value"? Is it not short-sighted and simplistic to state that even if Arab states acquired weapons of mass destruction or the Jewish state was vanquished "neither America's territorial integrity, its military power, its economic prosperity, nor its core political values would be jeopardized"?
Along with many others, Mearsheimer and Walt hold that Israel victimizes Palestinians and targeted Lebanese civilians. By acting no better than other states, they suggest, Israel forfeits its claim to special consideration as an ethical and democratic nation.
It's a debatable - but not an unreasonable - proposition. But the authors then invite criticism by implying, gratuitously, that it is the Arabs who really want peace. With scarcely a sentence about Arab intransigence, they applaud Arafat's extraordinary efforts "to make clear that he accepted Israel's existence," Bashar Assad's willingness to "end all support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad" if Israel returns the Golan Heights, and Iran's interest in working out "a modus vivendi with Israel." It's not hard to guess where they think the roadblocks are.
Mearsheimer and Walt are convinced that public support in the United States for Israel's policies "is not especially deep." Because of the pro-Israel lobby, they declare, there is a more open debate on occupation and a two-state solution in Israel than there is in America. Current Middle East policies, they insist, are "bad for both countries."
It's a shame that they didn't provide a road map in The Israel Lobby to pave the way for constructive engagement on these issues.
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.