Israel Lobby authors face critics at HU

Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer say Israel and its lobby are pressuring the US to attack Iran.

Mearsheimer  argues 224. (photo credit: AP)
Mearsheimer argues 224.
(photo credit: AP)
After arguing in their book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy that Israel and its US supporters were instrumental in pushing the US to war in Iraq, authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer said in Israel on Thursday that Israel and its lobby were now pressuring the US to attack Iran. "There is only one country in the world that is putting any pressure on the US to attack Iran, and that is Israel," Mearsheimer said to a packed lecture hall of some 200 people at Hebrew University. "And it is putting enormous pressure on the US." "Inside the United States, it is pro-Israel individuals and groups who are almost wholly responsible for pressure being brought to bear on [US President George W.] Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney to use military force on Iran," he went on. "The idea that the lobby and Israel don't put huge amounts of pressure on the US, is contradictory to the evidence." Walt and Mearsheimer's lecture at Hebrew University was part of a regional lecture tour that included a speech Thursday night in Tel Aviv at a forum sponsored by the extreme left-wing group Gush Shalom, as well as lectures at universities and think tanks in east Jerusalem, Ramallah, Amman, Abu Dhabi and Qatar. This is the first time that Walt and Mearsheimer have been to Israel since the publication of a controversial article in 2006 in the London Review of Books, that was then extended into an even more controversial book, published last year, that led some critics to brand the two as tainted by anti-Semitism. "I would certainly prefer that people not call me an anti-Semite," Mearsheimer said in a phone interview with The Jerusalem Post as he and Walt were being driven from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. "But it doesn't bother me. because I know unequivocally I am not an anti-Semite, nor is Steve [Walt]. In fact we are both philo-Semites and we both think it is a wonderful thing there is a State of Israel, and we are not in any way shape or form trying to delegitimize Israel." As to whether he is concerned his book is being used as ammunition by dyed-in-the wool anti-Semites to bolster their Israel-bashing arguments, Mearsheimer said: "If there was a significant danger that anti-Semites would use our writing to raise the specter of anti-Semitism, we would not have written the article or the book. We just don't think that is a serious problem, and it was therefore appropriate to write both the article and the book." Among those who have praised and cited the book are Holocaust deniers and former Klu Klux Klan head David Duke. "We condemn unequivocally everything David Duke stands for and regret that he uses our article and now our book to support his agenda. But we have no control over who likes or dislikes what we write," Mearsheimer said. In the nine months since the book's release, Walt and Mearsheimer have been featured on numerous talks shows, have spoken at countless events, and also been subject to withering criticism about the scholarship and objectivity of their work. Despite the criticism, with some Middle East scholars calling their research "shoddy" and "tendentious," Mearsheimer said that had he been able to do it over again, there is almost nothing in the book - whose thesis is that an amorphous Israel lobby is leading the US to advocate and carry out polices detrimental to its own interests - that he would change. While obviously critical of the Israel lobby's pressure, Mearsheimer has no problem when the roles are reversed, and in fact welcomed US pressure on Israel. "I would have no problem in significantly reducing American economic and military aid [to Israel] for the purpose of getting Israel to allow the Palestinians to have a viable state," he said. "I would have no problem in joining in with other countries in the UN criticizing Israel." Regarding Iran, Mearsheimer said that Israel and the Israel lobby were acting legitimately in lobbying for military intervention. But, he said, just as it is legitimate for this to be done, so it is also equally legitimate to point out that it is Israel and the Israel lobby who is pushing the US to attack Iran. "As you know, if you said that in the US you would be called an anti-Semite. And that is what we are protesting against. And we think it would be bad for the US and for Israel if the US would attack Iran." In the interview, and through the nearly two-hour lecture and question and answer period at Hebrew University, Mearsheimer stressed that what the Israel lobby is doing is legitimate, and that it is an interest group just like the farm lobby or the National Rifle Association. "We happen not to agree to the polices the NRA, farm lobby and Israel lobby are pushing these days. But that does not mean we are claiming that they are acting in an illegal or illegitimate way," he said. "We are just arguing that the policies they are pushing don't make sense." According to Mearsheimer, Iran wants nuclear weapons to protect itself, the same reason he said both the US and Israel want nuclear weapons. He said that the best way to get a negotiated settlement with Teheran over the issue is to take the military threat off the table completely. "What I advocate is that we take away the military threat, and we try to deal with the problem diplomatically," he said. "You have to accept the fact that they are going to have significant nuclear enrichment capability, and that what you are going to try to do is reach a situation, or achieve a situation, where Iran has significant enrichment capability but doesn't take the final step in developing nuclear weapons. And if it decides to do that, you rely on deterrence, much as the US relied on deterrence during the Cold War." Describing Israel's concern about Iran's nuclear capacity as paranoid, Mearsheimer said that a close look at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's words will reveal that he has not threatened to use military force to eliminate Israel. As to the Iranian president's famous comment about wiping Israel off the map, Mearsheimer said, "What he was talking about was eliminating Israel from the face of time, and what he meant by that is that he was hoping, or he believes, that Israel would eventually go away, as the former Soviet Union did, or as the Shah did." Walt, meanwhile, said during the lecture, that he did not believe Ahmadinejad's statements constituted a call to genocide. "I don't believe that is what he is saying. I believe his statements are deeply offensive and I reject them completely, but they are not, in my view, incitement to genocide." The two were greeted politely at the university, receiving applause when they finished their presentation. However, a number of the questions from the audience were testy, with one student saying that their claim of a of moral equivalence between Israel and Palestinian behavior was not only incorrect but also fodder for anti-Semites, and another taking sharp issue with Mearsheimer's argument that the US relationship with Israel was one of the causes of the September 11 attacks. While the professors (Walt is a professor at Harvard University and Mearsheimer is at the University of Chicago) said that they believed in Israel's legitimacy and right to exist, one graduate student prefaced his question by saying that "with friends like these, who needs enemies?" An Israel advocacy group, StandWithUS, distributed an eight page pamphlet just prior to the lecture against Walt and Mearsheimer's arguments in their book. Arieh O'Sullivan, the Israel spokesman for the ADL who attended the lecture, said, "It is telling that the gentlemen came to Israel under the auspices of a fringe group [Gush Shalom], and had to solicit themselves to a university to speak. "The appearance here was less academic, and more like a walking propaganda routine, something like a traveling carnival." The ADL, cited by Walt and Mearsheimer as an integral part of the Israel Lobby, has been among the pair's fiercest critics. Walt said that when it became clear they were coming to Israel, he and Mearsheimer approached the Hebrew University and requested to speak.