Rather than accept the obvious—the vast majority of Americans identify with Israel —they seem comforted by theories of intrigue and manipulation. That’s perhaps why the new book by Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, was so quickly scooped up by leading European publishers and fast-tracked to start coming out this month.
Although the book was panned by most American reviewers, it will serve as red meat for those eager to believe the worst about American decision-making regarding Israel and the Middle East.
Tell me the secret, my European friends ask, spurred by the book’s presale notoriety: How has the “lobby” managed to call the shots on Israel in Washington, against America’s “best” interests, and even “lead” it to war in Iraq?
Wait a second, I reply. Let’s take this step by step.
First, the word “lobby” isn’t pejorative. There are thousands of lobbies proudly representing every imaginable interest. They’re a mainstay in the public policy arena. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his magisterial Democracy in America, written 170 years ago, noted the key role played by voluntary associations in the young country’s public life.
Second, among the lobbies are those representing Arab interests. Well-funded, they rely heavily on the law firms, public relations outfits, ex-diplomats, former legislators, and corporate offices available to them. And they’re joined by a growing number of Arab and Muslim organizations in the US who, like other groups, seek to influence decision-making and public opinion.
Third, there isn’t one Israel lobby, far from it. Jokes are made about “two Jews, three opinions,” so why should it be any different when it comes to the Middle East? There are groups active on the left, center, and right, each trying to convince lawmakers to embrace a particular viewpoint. Are some bigger and better organized? Yes, reflecting the realities of the Jewish community.
Fourth, those Europeans who decry the power of lobbies in Washington, and especially those they don’t like, ought to look at their own backyard. Brussels has become a magnet for literally thousands of interest groups eager to sway the thinking of the city’s eurocrats and parliamentarians.
Fifth, Jews comprise two percent of the American population. Even if every Jew were in alignment on Israel—about as likely as all Americans voting for the same candidate in the next elections—that couldn’t explain Washington’s strong, though by no means unconditional, support for Israel. What many fail to grasp is that Israel’s narrative has, for many reasons, captured Americans’ imagination. It’s that broad base of support, not ghoulish conspiratorial theories, which ultimately explains America’s position.
Sixth, according to the polls, the key reasons for support include Israel’s commitment to democracy, reliability as an ally, gutsy determination to defend itself against those who would destroy it, contributions to human civilization, and, not least, dramatic renewal of the Jewish state after nearly 1,900 years in exile.
Seventh, most Americans also aren’t terribly impressed by the counter-arguments. For decades, the Palestinians sided with America’s bitterest enemies. Terrorism against American targets, from ambassadors to airliners, hasn’t endeared them to the American heart. Americans, who built a pioneering society in the face of endless hardships, have had difficulty identifying with those who languish in refugee camps for decades as wards of the international community rather than building new lives. Americans believe in Israel’s deep yearning for peace, but wonder about the Palestinians’ commitment.
The striking absence of basic democratic values throughout the Arab world, including rights for women, Christians and other religious minorities, and the rule of law, hasn’t helped make friends among Americans, either. When Saudi Arabia, for instance, launched a media campaign touting shared values between Riyadh and Washington, it was a tough sell for a country that doesn’t let women drive and keeps Christianity under wraps.
Eighth, but as my European friends insist, what about the “unholy alliance” between American Jews and the religious right, of which President Bush is a part? Doesn’t that explain the true lobby? Many on the religious right do support Israel, I explain. But they don’t need American Jews to persuade them. They have their own reasons. And they express themselves as they wish—to the delight of some American Jews, the consternation of others.
But here again, there’s a gap in understanding.
It’s not just they who identify with Israel. Many other Christians do as well. This long predates Israel’s establishment. In fact, it begins with the early European settlers, who cherished the Hebrew Bible and the link between the Jews and the Promised Land. Indeed, John Adams, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson proposed an image of the Jewish exodus from Egypt as the national seal. And more recently, President Harry Truman drew from this wellspring of inspiration to recognize Israel eleven minutes after its creation.
Michael Beschloss, a leading historian, made the point in his recent book, Presidential Courage:
“Truman was happy to be a Baptist because he thought that it gave a common man the shortest route to God. He knew that many fellow Baptists hoped the Jews would one day return to their homeland Zion. Truman’s favorite Psalm was Number 137: ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.’”
And President Bill Clinton, who can hardly be called an exponent of the religious right, said frequently that his Baptist preacher, before his death, made the young Arkansas politician promise that he would never do anything to harm Israel.
Ninth, but what about Iraq and the “lobby’s” influence in driving America into an ill-begotten war that may serve Israel’s interests, but not America’s?, my European friends insist.
If there was a drumbeat among American Jews driving the country to war, I respond, I missed it. Yes, there were American Jews—in their capacity as officials, not Jews—who joined with others in the Bush Administration in making the case for war. And there were those outside government who did so as well. Perhaps residual benefits to Israel were part of their calculation, and perhaps to other countries in the region as well, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. And yes, there were Jewish groups that supported the war decision, but not all.
By the way, polls of American Jews taken both before and after the war began consistently revealed stronger opposition than among the American public at large. And many Jews were prominent in the ranks of the war’s opponents from the get-go.
Meanwhile, for years prior to the 2003 war, Israeli officials, beginning with the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, stressed that Iran, not Iraq, posed the gravest threat to Israel’s future. Subsequent events revealed that Israel was right in this regard.
And lastly, my European friends have too often bought the notion that Americans have been prevented from hearing other points of view on the Middle East. If only they did, they’d see the light. Nonsense! True, there are more pro-Israel voices in the American debate than in Europe, but that doesn’t prevent others from being heard. To the contrary, the discussion is nonstop.
From Professors Walt and Mearsheimer to President Jimmy Carter, from Tony Judt to Noam Chomsky, from the countless academic disciples of Edward Said to Norman Finkelstein, and from the many media outlets that broadcast or publish stories critical of Israel—in addition, of course, to the voices of the various lobby groups—Israel hardly lacks for those who challenge a specific policy or, for that matter, its very existence.
But, at the end of the day, they’ve failed to make their case compellingly. Perhaps, it’s because, as President Abraham Lincoln once said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” And that is to the great credit of the American people.