Hard-hitting critique or deadly lies?

The incendiary debate over the American-Israel relationship.

us israel flag aipac 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
us israel flag aipac 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Bad for the US, bad for Israel On the eve of its publication on Monday, the book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt appeared set for strong sales, already featuring at No. 1 in Amazon.com's Israel History ranking and No. 10 in the US History ranking. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the book is an expansion of themes that first appeared in an article entitled "The Israel Lobby," written by Mearsheimer (of the University of Chicago) and Walt (of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government) in the London Review of Books last year. In essence, the authors argue in the book that a loose coalition of individuals and organizations shape US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction and that this lobby has pushed policies that are neither in America's national interest nor Israel's long-term interest. No other "ethnic lobby," the authors claim, has so diverted US policy away from the American national interest. "The Israel lobby is the antithesis of a cabal or conspiracy," they state. "What sets it apart, in short, is its extraordinary effectiveness." The authors stress that supporters of Israel "have every right to advocate their positions, and it is wrong to question their loyalty when they do. Yet it is equally legitimate for critics to point out that organizations like AIPAC are not neutral, or that the individuals ... are motivated by an attachment to Israel that is bound to shape their thinking about many foreign policy issues." They allege that groups within the lobby "try to marginalize anyone who criticizes Israeli policy or challenges the 'special relationship'" between the US and Israel, and that they attempt to deprive such critics of getting "a fair hearing." At times, the authors claim, "heavy-handed tactics" are employed to silence critics, including the leveling of accusations that such critics are anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. "Smearing critics of Israel or the lobby with the charge of anti-Semitism works to marginalize them in the public arena," the book states, asserting that the charge of anti-Semitism is "a widely used weapon." Although the authors state that the US should support the existence of Israel, they add that Israel's security is "ultimately not of critical strategic importance to the United States." The book claims that broader US policies in the Middle East - on Iran, Iraq and the Palestinians, for instance - reflect Israel's preferences. Israel and the lobby have pushed US policy in a "strategically unwise" direction over Iran for the past 15 years, they state, thwarting the possibility of detente. Only because of this pressure is there contemplation of the notion of a military strike against Iran. And if this "dangerous policy" were followed and such a strike were to take place, the US would be attacking "in part on Israel's behalf." On Iraq, the book says that pressure from Israel and the lobby was "not the only factor behind the decision" to invade, "but it was a critical element." The war stemmed in large part from "a desire to make Israel more secure," and were it not for Israel and the lobby, "America would not be in Iraq today." The writers claim that "many policies" that the US follows on Israel's behalf "now jeopardize US national security." Moreover, it charges, the lobby's influence "has not helped Israel either." The lobby, it contends, makes it "difficult to impossible for the US government to criticize Israel's conduct and press it to change some of its counterproductive policies," and in so doing, "may even be jeopardizing" Israel's long-term future. "The United States has enormous potential leverage at its disposal for dealing with Israel and the Palestinians," the book states. "It could threaten to cut off all economic and diplomatic support for Israel. If that were not enough, it would have little difficulty lining up international support to isolate Israel." Absurd, laughable and an attempt to delegitimize Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham H. Foxman seeks in his new book, The Deadliest Lies, to refute the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis. The self-proclaimed goal of Foxman's book is to "demolish the claims of an all-powerful Israeli lobby and a global Jewish conspiracy, revealing their historic roots in the most virulent forms of bigotry." Here are some excerpts from the ADL head's book, which is published by Palgrave Macmillan: Of course, the fact that there is a lobby (lower-case L) made up of Americans who believe that US interests are best served by a strong alliance with Israel is obvious and non-controversial. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) bills itself as "America's Pro-Israel Lobby." It is registered as a domestic lobby, is supported by donations from over l00,000 individual members, and receives no financial backing from Israel or any other foreign entity. There is nothing unusual about this. Spend ten minutes on Google and you can easily find similar advocacy groups that represent the interests of Irish Americans, Mexican Americans, Indian Americans, Italian Americans and practically every other imaginable ethnic and national group in the United States. Only the American lobby for Israel seems to be subject to such intense critical scrutiny and even demonization by people like Mearsheimer and Walt. The authors recognize that they are on shaky ground here. They acknowledge that, in a democratic America, pro-Israel activists have every right to lobby their government. They are also careful to state that they are not suggesting any conspiracy by Jews aimed at world domination, like that depicted by the notorious anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Mearsheimer and Walt clearly regard themselves not as bigoted, but as serious scholars attempting to make a responsible argument. But their claims of even-handedness and objectivity, in the end, are merely lip service, because of the nonstop one-sidedness of their presentation, their gross exaggeration of the power of the lobby, their disregard for the consistently broad-based American public support for Israel, their omission of the very many interests that the US has in a strong and safe Israel, and their overriding theme that policy-makers are controlled by the lobby. No matter how the authors protest, all of this adds up to an effort to delegitimize the work of pro-Israel activists. Unfortunately for the authors, the idea that colleges and universities in the United States are dominated by pro-Israeli voices is absurdly laughable, even more so than their claims that the Lobby controls Congress, the State Department and the White House. Thus, Mearsheimer and Walt are forced to do a lot of hedging and filling in their discussion of the Lobby and academia. They admit that "the Lobby has had the most difficulty stifling debate about Israel on college campuses," and in mild desperation they list many instances in which pro-Israel advocates merely criticized or disagreed with specific faculty members or university programs. For example, the fact that writings by the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said provoked "hundreds of e-mails, letters, and journalistic accounts that call on [Columbia University] to denounce Said and to either sanction or fire him" is cited as evidence of the power of the Lobby on campus. The fact that Said never was denounced, sanctioned or fired is apparently irrelevant. The truth is that American college campuses are enormously diverse from almost every point of view - and that includes ideologically. In fact, many campuses have become hotbeds of anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian, and, in a few cases, outright anti-Semitic activism. Jewish organizations are working hard to try to hold their own, but their voices are often being drowned out by those of militant anti-Israel groups.