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Some have called him "anti-Semitic." Others have castigated him for bad scholarship, while still others have praised him for breaking the ice on the United States' foreign policy towards Israel. Wherever your starting point, say the name John Mearsheimer to an Israel-literate audience and, rest assured, people will respond.
That's what happened last Thursday when the London Review of Books invited him and six other foreign policy experts to debate the merits of a controversial essay he wrote together with Harvard University international affairs professor Stephen Walt.
The essay, entitled "The Israel lobby," was published in an edited second-edition version in the London Review of Books earlier this year.
Several hundred people filled New York's Cooper Union auditorium to hear each panelist take a position on the recent controversy.
Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, is a leading proponent of a branch of political thought called "offensive realism," which blames security conflicts on the anarchy of the international system.
In their paper, the scholars make the claim that the United States is closer to Israel than it should be, in large part because of the influence of a so-called "Israel lobby." They define the Israel lobby as a "loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to steer US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction."
They have been criticized for their use of the term Israel lobby, which many have said suggests a cabal more than a "loose coalition."
Panelist Martin Indyk, a Brookings scholar and former US ambassador to Israel, took issue with Mearsheimer's and Walt's assertion that an unnamed coalition of people made up the 'Israel lobby.' He characterized the essay as "rising to the level of anti-Semitism," a charge Mearsheimer denied.
"If they had written a paper about the [pro-Israel] lobby AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), I would have had no problem," Indyk said. "But this loosely aligned group of people is indeed a cabal, the very thing he [Mearsheimer] says it isn't." This cabal, Indyk said, included anyone who had anything positive to say about Israel.
Former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami went further than Indyk in criticizing the paper, claiming that the notion of the 'Israel lobby' was really just "a cover for all the Jews," and that, in effect, the paper was claiming that a group of Jews control US foreign policy decisions.
But leftist scholar Tony Judt, a professor at New York University and an advocate of a single Israeli-Palestinian entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, argued that US ties to Israel go too far and encouraged what he called the American "misreading" of the Middle East.
"For many American Jews there is no difference between America's interest and Israel's interest, such that criticism of Israel is viewed as anti-American," he said.
Each panelist had a particular perspective, as did those in attendance, who cheered or booed the various arguments. While the audience included both supporters of Mearsheimer's paper and those who disagreed with it, many seemed to be in agreement with the controversial paper and applauded it loudly.
Indyk pressed the argument that the notion of an 'Israel lobby' basically dictating foreign policy was incorrect. While he acknowledged that the pro-Israel lobby existed and was powerful, he dismissed charges that it dictated foreign policy
Ben-Ami stressed the role of executive power, which ultimately could not be forced into anything, regardless of the strength of any lobby.
Yet Judt claimed that discussion about the US's relationship to Israel had been "strictly limited," in part because of the purported lobby.
"It worries me that the very first thing we do when someone writes a controversial article about Israel is question how close it comes to anti-Semitism, not the truth and falsity of the article," he said. "This has really closed down conversation in this country."
Judt reminded the panelists and the audience that 60 years ago, in the very same building, the Hungarian author Arthur Koestler spoke about the rise of the Cold War at a time when he was accused of bringing aid and comfort to what would later be called "McCarthyism." His answer to the accusations was, according to Judt, "You cannot help it if idiots and bigots share your views for their reasons. That doesn't mean you can be tarred with their views."
Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies and the director of Columbia University's Middle East Institute, kept pressing for the need to broaden the discussion to include not only foreign policy but domestic policy and public debate. A former advisor at the Madrid Conference in 1991 between the US, Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states, he focused on the ways in which he said debate about Israel was limited in America.
Khalidi said the debate around Israel was one-sided, unlike other big issues, such as abortion or gay rights.
"If you believe there are two sides to this debate, you are out of your mind," he said. "In American political discourse, there is one side to this debate. In Congress, there is one side."
But the discussion on Thursday was nuanced and multifaceted, and almost all the panelists agreed it was the first time a debate of this kind had taken place.
After discussing the question of anti-Semitism in the original paper, the panelists addressed the US military presence in Iraq as an entry to the larger argument of the piece.
According to Mearsheimer, who clearly opposes the war in Iraq, the war would not have been possible without the pressure of Israel and the 'Israel lobby.'
"There is much documentation to support that Israel is not only a force behind the war, but that the Israel lobby was one of the principle driving forces behind the war, and in its absence, the United States would not have gone to war," he said.
Some panelists railed against the scholarship of the piece, one of the main criticisms when it was originally published.
Dennis Ross, who served as the special Mideast coordinator under president Bill Clinton, joined Indyk in questioning the factual evidence of many of Mearsheimer's and Walt's claims.
Indyk said there was "no evidence" in the piece to back up the role of the purported Israel lobby in the war in Iraq, and blamed the authors for using "selective quotes" to support their claim.
Ben-Ami agreed, saying: "From the beginning, Israel said Iran was the fear, not Iraq. I believe this is a neoconservative fancy that has no meaning at all, a lunacy propagated, and we see the results. This was not the attitude of Israel."
Ben-Ami took issue with the power attributed to the 'Israel lobby.'
"There is hardly one case where a lobby can change a policy," he said. "It can only surf on it, fine tune, not change it or force its will on it."
Ben-Ami said the emphasis should be on leadership, not on the pressures of a lobby, alluding to a point he made in his recent book, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.
"There is a problem of leadership," he said. "Twice you [United States] have elected a president without Jewish votes. Bush doesn't need the Jewish lobby to do what he does. He was elected to be a leader. Those who are deaf to the type of pressure a lobby places were leaders and did good for the peace process."
Ben-Ami called himself a disciple of Yitzhak Rabin, who on his first visit to the US after his June 1992 election victory told AIPAC leaders, "Let us do our foreign policy, don't interfere," and asked them to focus on pressing in Congress for funds for the Palestinians.
Mearsheimer, however, insisted that the 'Israel lobby' was the key force behind much of US foreign policy, especially regarding Israel. An example he gave was the inability of any US president to prevent Israel from building more settlements, despite successive administrations' open opposition to settlements.
"Why couldn't they prevent them? Because of the lobby," he said.
Ben-Ami disagreed, saying: "One thing that doesn't exist in your article is [the State of] Israel. It is absent as an entity that has a dialogue with the US, that can convince them and that has an intimacy with them."
Ben-Ami accused Mearsheimer of advancing a paradigm shift: "You are arguing that for the first time in history, a remote, small country takes another powerful country hostage. Be careful not to be too simplistic with single-cause explanations."