Posts Tagged Israel lobby
Tablet asked “six prominent thinkers and activists” to answer the question: “Do we need a pro-Israel lobby?” Below is my answer. Read the five other responses here.
Back in 2006, in response to the “Israel Lobby” thesis of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, I wrote this: “Israel does not need the whole array of organizations that claim to work on its behalf. The rationale for keeping Israel strong is hardwired in the realities of the Middle East. The United States does not have an alternative ally of comparable power. And if the institutions of the lobby were to disappear tomorrow, it is quite likely that American and other Western support would continue unabated.”
Mearsheimer and Walt doubted that I believed this to be true: “If he is correct, then the people who bankroll AIPAC and The Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy and other like-minded organizations are wasting their money, and Kramer himself is wasting his time. Kramer claims that all this effort is unnecessary, but his own behavior suggests otherwise.”
I never responded: I didn’t want friends to think they were “wasting their money” by supporting organizations that do fulfill a role, but that role is vastly different from the one assigned to them by Mearsheimer and Walt. They believe the “lobby” is all that prevents Israel from being exposed as a liability. The opposite is true: The “lobby” is fueled by Israel’s value as a strategic asset in an unstable region. The professors confuse cause and effect.
But if Israel doesn’t depend on pro-Israel advocacy (from which I exclude the coolly analytical Washington Institute), what purpose do such organizations serve? They energize some substantial number of American Jews to stay affiliated with the Jewish people at a time when traditional forms of affiliation are waning. Israel’s batteries charge them. Businessmen and dentists come to Washington to advocate for Israel, and they feel like players on the world stage. Those who do are far more likely to visit Israel and embrace an Israeli cause. Younger ones might even make the decision made by myself (and many of my colleagues at Shalem College) to settle in Israel. Yes, I’m a classic Zionist, who believes that the ingathering of the Jews is their preferred destiny.
So, the measure of the “lobby” isn’t its ability to change U.S. policy on Iran or stop the nomination of Chuck Hagel. The State of Israel and its resilient people will decide how and when Iran will be stopped, and Hagel’s appointment won’t stand in their way. I measure pro-Israel advocacy by the degree to which it sustains Jewish peoplehood outside Israel and draws Jews into a deeper commitment to Israel than an annual visit to Capitol Hill.
And here is a revelation for Walt and Mearsheimer. I’m not so delusional as to believe that my writing and speaking on Israel’s behalf make a difference. If Israel is strong, the United States will value it. If it is weak, nothing anyone says will redeem it. So, why do we bother? It’s something the two “experts” can’t possibly fathom: Ahavat Yisrael, love for the people of Israel. And expressions of love are their own reward.
Martin Kramer is president of Shalem College in Jerusalem.
In the past, I’ve demolished Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s claim that Israel and its friends drove the United States to war with Iraq. I did it when they published their article, and did it again when they published their book, The Israel Lobby. It’s a conspiracy theory, pure and simple. And because Walt is a conspiracy theorist, he does what they all do: he rips evidence out of context. Here’s his latest grasp at a straw: his claim that Tony Blair has “revealed” that “Israel officials were involved in those discussions” on Iraq held between Blair and George Bush in Crawford, Texas in April 2002. Walt brings as evidence this quote from Blair’s testimony to the U.K. (Chilcot) inquiry investigating the Iraq war:
As I recall that discussion, it was less to do with specifics about what we were going to do on Iraq or, indeed, the Middle East, because the Israel issue was a big, big issue at the time. I think, in fact, I remember, actually, there may have been conversations that we had even with Israelis, the two of us, whilst we were there. So that was a major part of all this.
Walt’s conclusion: “Blair is acknowledging that concerns about Israel were part of the equation, and that the Israeli government was being actively consulted in the planning for the war.” Walt goes on to declare that “more evidence of their influence [of Israel and the Israel lobby] on the decision for war will leak out,” and that “Blair’s testimony is evidence of that process at work.”
When people who don’t know much about the Middle East, like Stephen Walt, pose as experts, they make basic mistakes of chronology. So let me remind him of exactly what coincided with the Crawford meeting of April 6-7, 2002.
Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank on March 29. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon ordered the operation in response to a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings. Its objective was the reoccupation of West Bank cities, dismantling the infrastructure of terror, and laying siege to Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah HQ. On April 2, Israeli forces battled their way into Bethlehem and secured Jenin city, and on April 3, they began to clear out the Jenin refugee camp. When Bush and Blair sat down in Crawford, Israel was laying siege to terrorists holed up in the Church of the Nativity, and the Battle of Jenin was in full swing. The Arab propaganda mills exploited the fog of war to make the operation seem like Sabra and Shatila redux, replete with massacres and mass graves. Arab leaders bombarded Bush and Blair with demands for action to stop Israel.
Bush succumbed to the mounting pressure, and on April 4 told Sharon to pull Israeli forces out of West Bank cities. On April 6, the first day of the Crawford meeting, Bush sharpened that message in a press conference with Blair, calling on Israel to withdraw “without delay.” He said the same in a 20-minute phone call to Sharon that very day. It was the lowest point in Israeli-American relations during the Bush years, and a crisis of massive proportions. Here is the chronology.
So Blair was right to recall that at Crawford, “the Israel issue was a big, big issue,” and that there were conversations with the Israelis. But these weren’t “active consulting” over plans for the Iraq war (and nothing in Blair’s testimony suggests they were). They were urgent negotiations about an ongoing war in the West Bank, and consisted of full-court pressure on Israel to end it. That Walt doesn’t say so—that “April 2002” doesn’t immediately trigger a mention of the historical context—is evidence either of ignorance or deception. Take your pick. (Illustration: New York Times front pages from April 6-8, 2002, the Crawford weekend.)
And while we’re on straws, Walt grasped at another one which left me smiling. Walt:
Consider that former President Bill Clinton told an audience at an Aspen Institute meeting in 2006 that “every Israeli politician I knew” (and he knows a lot of them) believed that Saddam Hussein was so great a threat that he should be removed even if he did not have WMD.
[Clinton] segued into a discussion of Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman’s position in favor of going to war, noting how it squared with the view of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others that Saddam Hussein was such a menace he should be removed regardless of whether he had WMD. Then, out of the blue, came this: “That was also the position of every Israeli politician I knew, by the way.”
So Clinton attributed the idea that Saddam should be removed regardless of WMD to Cheney, Rumsfeld, Lieberman, and “others”—all of the usual suspects—and only then to Israeli leaders, “by the way.” As far as Walt’s thesis, this proves… well, what does it prove, Professor Walt? The amusing sequel comes when Bennet notes that even “I knew some Israeli politicians with doubts about the war,” and then relays this explanation:
One longtime and acute observer of Clinton, whom I won’t name here, suggested to me that, as is his tendency, Clinton was looking to please people he spotted in the crowd before him—in this case, seated in the front rows, several representatives of Arab nations, including Queen Noor of Jordan.
So Clinton wasn’t just speaking to “an audience” in Aspen. He had Queen Noor in the front row! Could Bill Clinton have been pandering? Naw, couldn’t be.
Posted by Martin Kramer in on January 26, 2010
Martin Kramer, “The American Interest,” Azure, no. 26 (Fall 2006), pp. 21-33.
The question of whether Israel is or is not an asset to the United States is one we rarely bother to ask ourselves. Time and again, we see prominent Americans — presidents of the United States at the forefront — emphasizing their special relationship with Israel. In polls of American public opinion, Israel scores very high marks, while sympathy for the Palestinians, never very high, continues to drop. Why should we even ask ourselves whether Israel is an asset or a liability to the United States? Isn’t the answer obvious?
Most supporters of Israel, when pressed to go a bit deeper, will give two prime rationales for why the United States should back Israel. One is a moral obligation to the Jewish people, grounded in the history of Jewish persecution and culminating in the Holocaust. Israel, so this thinking goes, is something the civilized world owes to the Jewish people, having inflicted an unprecedented genocide upon it. This is a potent rationale, but it is not clear why that would make Israel an asset to the United States. If supporting Israel is an obligation, then it could be described as a liability — a burden to be borne. And of course, as time passes, that sense of obligation is bound to diminish.
Another powerful rationale is the fact that Israel is a democracy, even an outpost of democracy, in a benighted part of the world. But the fact is that there are many non-democratic states that have been allies of the United States, and important assets as well. Quite arguably, the Saudi monarchy is an asset to the United States, because it assures the flow of oil at reasonable prices, a key American interest. In contrast, the Palestinian Authority and Iran, which have many more democratic practices than Saudi Arabia, are headaches to the United States, for having empowered the likes of Hamas and Ahmadinejad through elections. So the fact that Israel is a democracy is not proof positive that it is an American asset.
Nevertheless, the Holocaust argument and the democracy argument are more than sufficient for the vast majority of Americans. On this basis alone, they would extend to Israel support, even unqualified support. And there is an important segment of opinion in America, comprising evangelical Christians, who probably do not even need these arguments. Israel is, for them, the manifestation of a divine plan, and they support it as a matter of faith.
But everywhere in the West, there is a sliver of elite opinion that is not satisfied with these rationales. It includes policymakers and analysts, journalists, and academics. By habit and by preference, they have a tendency to view any consensus with skepticism. In their opinion, the American people cannot possibly be wiser than them — after all, look whom they elect — and so they deliberately take a contrary position on issues around which there is broad agreement. In this spirit, many of them view U.S. support for Israel as a prime focal point for skepticism.
In March, two American professors subjected the U.S.-Israel relationship to a skeptic’s examination. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the former from the University of Chicago, the latter from Harvard, published a paper under the title “The Israel Lobby: Israel in U.S. Foreign Policy.” One version appeared in the London Review of Books; a longer, footnoted version was posted on the website of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The paper caused a firestorm.
Mearsheimer and Walt are academic oracles of the so-called realist school in international relations. Realism, in its policy application, is an approach that seeks to isolate the conduct of foreign affairs from sentimental moral considerations and special interests like ethnic and commercial lobbies, and to base it instead on a pure concept of the national interest. Realists are not interested in historical obligations, or in whether this or that potential ally respects human rights. They see themselves as coldly weighing U.S. interests, winnowing out extraneous considerations, and ending up with policies that look out solely for number one: The United States.
Realist thinkers are not isolationists, but they are extremely reluctant to see U.S. power expended on projects and allies that do not directly serve some U.S. interest as they define it — and they define these interests quite narrowly. Generally, they oppose visionary ideas of global transformation, which they see as American empire in disguise. And empire, they believe, is a drain on American resources. They are particularly reluctant to commit American troops, preferring that the United States follow a policy of “offshore balancing” wherever possible — that is, playing rivals off one another.
These were the principles that guided Mearsheimer and Walt when they examined the United States-Israel relationship. And this was their finding: By any “objective” measure, American support for Israel is a liability. It causes Arabs and Muslims to hate America, and that hate in turn generates terrorism. The prime interest of the United States in the Middle East is the cultivation of cooperation with Arabs and Muslims, many of whom detest Israel, its policies, or both. The less the United States is identified as a supporter and friend of Israel’s five million Jews, the easier it will be for it to find local proxies to keep order among the billion or so Muslims. And the only thing that has prevented the United States from seeing this clearly is the pro-Israel lobby, operating through fronts as diverse as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and so on.
This “Israel Lobby,” with a capital L, has effectively hijacked U.S. policy in the Middle East so that it serves Israel’s, not America’s, interests. In one of their most provocative claims, the authors argue that Israel spurred its neo-conservative allies in Washington to press for the Iraq war — a war that served no identifiable U.S. interest, but which was waged largely for Israeli security. And, they continue, the growing drumbeat for an attack on Iran also has its ultimate source in the Lobby. A nuclear Iran would not constitute a threat to the United States, they argue, and military action against Iran would not be in America’s interest, since it would inflame the Arab and Muslim worlds yet again, producing a wave of anti-American terror and damaging the American economy.
The Mearsheimer-Walt thesis is not a new one. What is new is the prestige that they lent to these ideas. Because their paper appeared on the Kennedy School website, it soon became know as the “Harvard study” on the Israel lobby. Harvard is one of the most recognizable names in the world, familiar to every American from high school on up. Their study could not be ignored, and the responses came fast and furious.
Many of them took the form of reiterating the two arguments I mentioned earlier: Israel as a moral obligation of the West, and Israel as a democracy. These arguments are compelling, or at least they are compelling when made well. But for argument’s sake, let us set aside the claim that Israel and the United States share democratic values, rooted in a common Judeo-Christian tradition. Let us set aside the fact that the American public has a deep regard for Israel, shown in poll after poll. Let us just ask a simple question: Is Israel a strategic asset or a strategic liability for the United States, in realist terms?
My answer, to anticipate my conclusion, is this: United States support for Israel is not primarily the result of Holocaust guilt or shared democratic values; nor is it produced by the machinations of the “Israel Lobby.” American support for Israel — indeed, the illusion of its unconditionality – underpins the pax Americana in the eastern Mediterranean. It has compelled Israel’s key Arab neighbors to reach peace with Israel and to enter the American orbit. The fact that there has not been a general Arab-Israeli war since 1973 is proof that this pax Americana, based on the United States-Israel alliance, has been a success. From a realist point of view, supporting Israel has been a low-cost way of keeping order in part of the Middle East, managed by the United States from offshore and without the commitment of any force. It is, simply, the ideal realist alliance.
In contrast, the problems the United States faces in the Persian Gulf stem from the fact that it does not have an Israel equivalent there, and so it must massively deploy its own force at tremendous cost. Since no one in the Gulf is sure that the United States has the staying power to maintain such a presence over time, the Gulf keeps producing defiers of America, from Khomeini to Saddam to Bin Laden to Ahmadinejad. The United States has to counter them, not in the interests of Israel, but to keep the world’s great reserves of oil out of the grip of the West’s sworn enemies.
Allow me to substantiate my conclusion with a brief dash through the history of Israel’s relationship with the United States. Between 1948 and 1967, the United States largely adhered to a zero-sum concept of Middle Eastern politics. The United States recognized Israel in 1948, but it did not do much to help it defend itself for fear of alienating Arab monarchs, oil sheikhs, and the “Arab street.” That was the heyday of the sentimental State Department Arabists and the profit-driven oil companies. It did not matter that the memory of the Holocaust was fresh: The United States remained cautious, and attempted to appear “evenhanded.” This meant that the United States embargoed arms both to Israel and to the Arabs.
So Israel went elsewhere. It bought guns from the Soviet bloc, and fighter aircraft and a nuclear reactor from France. It even cut a deal with its old adversary Britain at the time of the Suez adventure in 1956. Israel was not in the U.S. orbit, and it did not get significant American aid.
Nevertheless, the radical Arab states gravitated toward the Soviet Union for weapons and aid. Israel felt vulnerable, and the Arab countries still believed they could eliminate Israel by war. In every decade, this insecurity indeed produced war: 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. The United States was not invested heavily enough to prevent these wars; its diplomacy simply kicked in to stop them after the initial energy was spent.
Only in June 1967, with Israel’s lightning victory over three of its neighbors, did the United States begin to see Israel differently, as a military power in its own right. The Arab-Israeli war that erupted in October 1973 did even more to persuade the United States of Israel’s power. Although Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel, Israel bounded back to achieve what military analysts have called its greatest victory, repulsing an enemy that might have overwhelmed a less determined and resourceful people.
It was then that the United States began to look at Israel as a potential strategic ally. Israel appeared to be the strongest, most reliable, and most cost-effective bulwark against Soviet penetration of the Middle East. It could defeat any combination of Soviet clients on its own, and in so doing, humiliate the Soviet Union and drive thinking Arabs out of the Soviet camp.
The 1973 war had another impact on American thinking. Until then, Arab-Israeli wars did not threaten the oil flow, but that war led to an Arab oil embargo. Another Arab-Israeli war might have the same impact or worse, so the United States therefore resolved to prevent such wars by creating a security architecture — a pax Americana.
One way to build it would have been to squeeze Israel relentlessly. But the United States understood that making Israel feel less secure would only increase the likelihood of another war and encourage the Arab states to prepare for yet another round. Instead, the American solution was to show such strong support for Israel as to make Arab states despair of defeating it, and fearful of the cost of trying. To this purpose, the United States brought Israel entirely into its orbit, making of it a dependent client through arms and aid.
That strategy worked. Expanded American support for Israel persuaded Egypt to switch camps and abandon its Soviet alliance, winning the Cold War for the United States in the Middle East. Egypt thus became an American ally alongside Israel, and not instead of Israel. The zero-sum theory of the Arabists — Israel or the Arabs, but not both — collapsed. American Middle East policy underwent its Copernican revolution.
Before 1973, the Arab states thought they might defeat or destroy Israel by some stroke of luck, and they tried their hand at it repeatedly. Since 1973, the Arab states have understood not only that Israel is strong, but that the United States is fully behind it.
As a result, there have been no more general Arab-Israeli wars, and Israel’s Arab neighbors have either made peace with it (Egypt, Jordan), or kept their border quiet (Syria). The corner of the Middle East along the eastern Mediterranean has been free of crises requiring direct American military intervention. This is due to American support for Israel — a support that appears so unequivocal to the Arabs that they have despaired of overturning it.
United States support for Israel has also enhanced its standing in another way, as the only force, in Arab eyes, that can possibly persuade Israel to cede territory it has occupied since 1967. In a paradoxical way, the United States has been a major beneficiary of the Israeli occupation of Arab territories: Arab leaders who wish to regain lost territory must pass an American test. When they do, the United States rewards them, and the result has been a network of American-endorsed agreements based on American-mediated Israeli concessions.
It is this “peace process” that has turned even revolutionary Arab leaders into supplicants at the White House door. They would not be there if a strong Israel did not hold something they want, and if the United States was not in a position to deliver it.
Compare this to the situation in the Persian Gulf, where American allies are weak. There, the absence of a strong ally has bedeviled American policy and forced the United States to intervene repeatedly. The irresolute Iranian shah, once deemed a United States “pillar,” collapsed in the face of an anti-American upsurge, producing the humiliation of the embassy seizure and a hostile, entrenched, terror-sponsoring regime still bent on driving the United States out of the Gulf. Saddam Hussein, for some years America’s ally, launched a bloody eight-year war against Iran that produced waves of anti-American terror (think Lebanon), only to turn against the United States by occupying Kuwait and threatening the defenseless Saudi Arabia.
Absent a strong ally in the region, the United States has had to deploy, deploy, and deploy again. In the Kuwait and Iraq wars, it has put something like a million sets of boots on the ground in the Gulf, at a cost that surely exceeds a trillion dollars.
It is precisely because the Gulf does not have an Israel — a strong, capable local ally — that the United States cannot balance from offshore. If the United States is not perceived to be willing to send troops there — and it will only be perceived as such if it does sometimes send them — then big, nationalist states (formerly Iraq, today Iran) will attempt to muscle Saudi Arabia and the smaller Arab Gulf states, which have the larger reserves of oil. In the Gulf, the United States has no true allies. It has only dependencies, and their defense will continue to drain American resources until the day Americans give up their SUVs.
In Israel, by contrast, the United States is allied to a militarily adept, economically vibrant state that keeps its part of the Middle East in balance. The United States has to help maintain that balance with military aid, peace plans, and diplomatic initiatives. But this is at relatively low cost, and many of the costs flow back to the United States in the form of arms sales and useful Israeli technological innovations.
In the overall scheme of the pax Americana, then, American policy toward Israel and its neighbors over the past thirty years has been a tremendous success. Has the United States brought about a final lamb-lies-down-with-lion peace? No; the issues are too complex. Are the Arabs reconciled to American support for Israel? No; they are highly critical of it. But according to the realist model, a policy that upholds American interests without the dispatch of American troops is a success by definition. American support of Israel has achieved precisely that.
Then there is the argument that American support for Israel is the source of popular resentment, propelling recruits to al-Qaida. I do not know of any unbiased terrorism expert who subscribes to this notion. Israel has been around for almost sixty years, and it has always faced terrorism. Countless groups are devoted to it. But never has a terror group emerged that is devoted solely or even primarily to attacking the United States for its support of Israel. Terrorists devoted to killing Americans emerged only after the United States began to enlarge its own military footprint in the Gulf. Al-Qaida emerged from the American deployment in Saudi Arabia. And even when al-Qaida and its affiliates mention Palestine as a grievance, it is as one grievance among many, the other grievances being American support for authoritarian Arab regimes, and now the American presence in Iraq.
And speaking of Iraq, we are left with the argument that the United States went to war there at the impetus of Israel and the “Israel Lobby.” This is simply a falsehood, and has no foundation in fact. It is not difficult to show that in the year preceding the Iraq war, Israel time and again disagreed with the United States, arguing that Iran posed the greater threat. Israel shed no tears over Saddam’s demise, and it gave full support to the United States once the Bush administration made its choice. But the assertion that the Iraq war is being waged on behalf of Israel is pure fiction.
As for the suggestion that only Israel is threatened by an Iranian nuclear capability, no assumption could be more naive. True, Iran has threatened Israel, and it is a threat Israel cannot afford to ignore. But it is not the first threat of its kind. In the spring before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, he declared that “we will make fire eat up half of Israel if it tries to do anything against Iraq.” The threat was meant to win him Arab-Muslim support, but his real objective was to stand like a colossus astride the oil-soaked Gulf. And so while he threatened strong Israel, he actually attacked and invaded weak Kuwait.
This is unquestionably the first ambition of Iran: The wresting of the Persian Gulf from United States domination. A nuclear Iran — the nuclearization of the world’s great oil reservoir — could allow Iran to foment and manage crises almost at will. Iran, without invading any other country, or using a nuclear weapon, could fill its coffers to overflowing simply by rattling a nuclear sabre. Remember that Iran derives more than eighty percent of its export revenue from oil, and its intensified nuclear talk has already contributed to windfall revenues. This year Iran will make $55 billion from oil; it made only a little more than half that in 2004. Every rise of a dollar in price is a billion dollars in revenue for Iran. A nuclear Iran could rattle nerves even more convincingly, and drive the price to $100 a barrel.
So Iran has a structural interest in Gulf volatility; the rest of the developed and developing world, which depends on oil, has the opposite interest. The world wants the pax Americana perpetuated, not undermined. That is why the Europeans have worked so closely with the United States over Iran — not for Israel’s sake, but for their own.
A nuclear Iran would also be a realist’s nightmare, because it could push the Saudis and other Arabs in the nuclear direction. Israel has a nuclear deterrent, but Saudi Arabia does not. To prevent it from seeking one, the United States would have to put it under an American nuclear umbrella. Other Arab states might demand the same. And so the United States might be compelled to extend nato-like status to its Arab dependencies, promising to go to war to defend them. If it did not, the full nuclearization of the Gulf would be only a matter of time.
In summation, American support for Israel — again, the illusion of its unconditionality — has compelled Israel’s Arab neighbors to join the pax Americana or at least acquiesce in it. I would expect realists, of all people, to appreciate the success of this policy. After all, the United States manages the pax Americana in the eastern Mediterranean from offshore, out of the line of sight. Is this not precisely where realists think the United States should stand? A true realist, I would think, would recoil from any policy shift that might threaten to undermine this structure.
Among the many perplexing things in the Mearsheimer-Walt paper, certainly none is so perplexing as this. After all, if the United States were to adopt what they call a more “evenhanded” policy, Israeli insecurity would increase and Arab ambitions would be stoked. Were such a policy to overshoot its mark, it could raise the likelihood of an Arab-Israeli war that could endanger access to oil. Why would anyone tempt fate — and endanger an absolutely vital American interest — by embarking on such a policy?
That is why I see the Mearsheimer-Walt paper as a betrayal of the hard-nosed realism the authors supposedly represent. Sometimes I wonder whether they are realists after all. Mearsheimer and Walt urge “using American power to achieve a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians.” Is this realism, or romanticism? After all, “just peace” is purely subjective, and its definition is contested between and among Palestinians and Israelis. Its blind pursuit might be destabilizing in ways which damage American interests. This hardly seems like a cautious and prudent use of American power. The aim of American policy should be the construction of an American peace, one that serves American interests, not the unstable claims of “justice.”
The arguments for supporting Israel are many and varied, and no one argument is decisive. Morality- and values-based arguments are crucial, but a compelling realist argument can also be made for viewing Israel as an asset to the West. It does not take a “Lobby” to explain this to the hard-nosed strategic thinkers in the White House and the Pentagon. Of course, Israel always welcomes help from friends, but it does not need the whole array of organizations that claim to work on its behalf. The rationale for keeping Israel strong is hardwired in the realities of the Middle East. The United States does not have an alternative ally of comparable power. And if the institutions of the lobby were to disappear tomorrow, it is quite likely that American and other Western support would continue unabated.
That Israel looms so large as a valuable ally and asset, in a Middle East of failed and failing states, is an achievement in which Israel can rightly take pride. But it must never be taken for granted. Israel has come perilously close to doing so in recent years, by unilaterally evacuating occupied territory — first in Lebanon, but more importantly in Gaza. Whatever the merits of “disengagement” in its various forms, it effectively cuts out the United States as a broker, and has created the impression that Arabs can regain territory by force, outside the framework of the pax Americana.
The main beneficiaries of this Israeli strategy have been Hezbollah and Hamas, which are the strike forces of anti-Americanism in the region. It is true that American democracy promotion has also been responsible for the rising fortunes of such groups. But Israeli ceding of territory outside the framework of American mediation has marginalized U.S. diplomacy. Israel has made Hamas and Hezbollah, which claim to have seized territory through “resistance,” appear stronger than America’s Arab clients, who had to sign American-mediated peace deals to restore their territory. If Israel is to preserve its value as a client, its territorial concessions must appear to be made in Washington.
For Israel to remain a strategic asset, it must also win on the battlefield. If Israel’s power and prowess are ever cast into doubt, it will not only undercut Israel’s deterrence vis-à-vis its hostile neighbors. It will undermine Israel’s value to the United States as the dependable stabilizer of the Levant. Israel’s lackluster performance in its battle with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 left its many admirers in Washington shaking their heads in disappointment. The United States, which has seen faceless insurgents shred its own plans for Iraq, knows what it is to be surprised by the force of “resistance.” But Washington expected more of Israel, battling a familiar adversary in its own backyard.
If Walt and Mearsheimer were right, the disappointment would hardly matter, since the legendary Lobby would make up the difference between American expectations and Israeli performance. But since the professors are wrong, Israel needs to begin the work of repair. Preserving American support comes at a price: The highest possible degree of military preparedness and political resolve, leaving no doubt in Washington that Israel can keep its neighborhood in line. The United States-Israel relationship rests on Israel’s willingness to pay that price. No lobby, however effective, can mitigate the damage if the United States ever concludes that Israel suffers from a systemic, permanent weakness.
While many Arabs have rushed to that conclusion since the summer war, Americans have not. But a question hangs over Israel, and it will be posed to Israel again, probably sooner rather than later. When it is, Israel must replace the question mark with an exclamation point.
John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt appear at Princeton University tonight, to promote their book The Israel Lobby. I’ve held back while other critics have had their say, and many of them have done a splendid job. But I don’t think anyone has understood the neat sleight of hand the authors performed in moving from article to book. The innovation in The Israel Lobby is their “cold feet” thesis about the Israeli genesis of the Iraq war.
But first, remember why pinning the Iraq war on the “Israel lobby” is so important to Mearsheimer and Walt. Their main argument isn’t that the Palestinians are paying a terrible price for that support. In most quarters, that draws a simple shrug. Instead, the duo claim that Americans are paying the price for U.S. support for Israel. They paid it on 9/11, and they’re paying it now in Iraq. The killers of 9/11 set out on their mission because of their rage against unconditional U.S. backing for Israel; and the pro-Israel lobby got America into the Iraq war because it served Israel’s interests, not America’s. America is bleeding so that Israel can avoid doing what it should have done years ago: give the Palestinians their state. And it’s because Americans are dying that Israel shouldn’t be indulged anymore.
Of the two arguments made by Walt and Mearsheimer, the 9/11 argument is the less effective. That’s because very early on, Americans decided that Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, and the 15 of the 19 hijackers who were Saudis, weren’t out to kill Americans over Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Al-Qaeda hates us for everything we do and represent they’re 200-proof hatred of America. Americans understood that instinctively, and it was confirmed by the 9/11 Commission Report. The report’s narrative showed how the 9/11 plot developed precisely during the years when Bill Clinton fussed over Yasser Arafat. The report became a bestseller, and its impact has been profound.
So the Iraq argument is far more crucial to the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis, and it’s also dearer to them. It’s generally believed that their anger over the Iraq war drove them to write the book in the first place. They both opposed the war before it started, and they signed a prominent letter against it. Much to their chagrin, no one took much notice of their ironclad, realist arguments against going into Iraq. To the two professors, the United States had become an anomaly, a place where the national interest (as they saw it) wasn’t driving foreign policy. They explained that anomaly by the distorting influence of the “powerful Israel lobby.”
In their original article, Walt and Mearsheimer had a straightforward chain of causation for the Iraq war: Israel pushed the “Israel Lobby” (with a capital L), which pushed the neocons, which pushed the Bush administration into war. I immediately came back with a large body of evidence, proving that Israel wasn’t much worried about Saddam, and instead wanted the United States to take care of Iran. Israeli cabinet ministers and officials went to Washington to stress Iran over Iraq, and these efforts even surfaced in prominent stories in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times articles that Mearsheimer and Walt had missed entirely.
In the book, Mearsheimer and Walt admit that Israel was pushing for Iran over Iraq. And yes, they say, Israel only joined the Iraq bandwagon when the Bush administration seemed set on Iraq. But they haven’t dismantled their thesis—far from it. Instead they’ve come up with the new and improved Mearsheimer-Walt thesis, and it goes like this: the Iraq war must still be blamed on Israel, because in the lead-up to the war, Israel and its lobby worked overtime to ensure that Bush didn’t get “cold feet.”
Believe it or not, this is the new Mearsheimer-Walt twist: the “cold feet” thesis of Israel’s responsibility for the Iraq war. For example, page 234: “Israeli leaders worried constantly in the months before the war that President Bush might decide not to go to war after all, and they did what they could to ensure Bush did not get cold feet.” And this, page 261: “Top Israeli officials were doing everything in their power to make sure that the United States went after Saddam and did not get cold feet at the last moment.”
Mearsheimer and Walt bring not a single footnote, in their copiously footnoted book, to substantiate this new and bizarre claim. You have to be pretty credulous to imagine that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld would waver “at the last moment” when they had Saddam squarely in their sights. You can read Bob Woodward forward and backward and find no evidence of wobble. Nor is there any evidence of Israeli worries that the Bush administration would waver on Iraq. Mearsheimer and Walt just made it up.
In doing so, they miss (or conceal) the real story. Israel did worry in the lead-up to the war—not about “cold feet,” but about the “long pause.” A year before the Iraq war, Natan Sharansky, then an Israeli cabinet minister, went on the record with this quote (missed by Mearsheimer and Walt): “We and the Americans have different priorities. For us, Iran comes first and then Iraq. The Americans see Iraq, then a long pause, and only then Iran.” It never occurred to Israelis that Bush would get “cold feet” on Iraq, but they fretted endlessly over just how long the “long pause” would last, and they had good reason.
For example, four months before the war, Ariel Sharon told the London Times (November 5, 2002) that Iran should be put under pressure “the day after” action against Iraq. Mearsheimer and Walt bring the quote. But they incredibly omit what followed on the very same day: British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw shot back at Sharon on the BBC. “I profoundly disagree with him,” Straw said, “and I think it would be the gravest possible error to think in that way.” The London Times reported the spat the next day (“Straw and Sharon ‘Deeply Disagree'”), adding that both British and U.S. senior diplomats were “dismissive of Sharon’s call.” The paper went on to quote “a senior American” who spoke these words: “The President understands the nuances. You can’t paint Iran as totally black in the same way as you do Iraq.… I would have a hard time buying the idea that after victory in Iraq, the U.S. is going to turn its sights on Iran.”
So the Israelis had good cause to worry. Walt and Mearsheimer write (p. 261) that the Israelis “were convinced that Bush would deal with Iran after he finished with Iraq.” No they weren’t, because they knew Britain would oppose it, along with plenty of “senior Americans.” Precisely because they weren’t convinced, they kept coming back to it. And they were right to worry, because in the end, the United States accommodated the Brits. There would be no Iran follow-up. Why? Because Tony Blair did Bush an immense favor in Europe, and the British sent thousands of troops to Iraq. Bush’s feet were snug and warm—nailing Saddam had 80 percent public support in America—but Blair felt the chill at home. To keep him on board, Bush gave him to understand that there wouldn’t be an Iran sequel, at least not on Blair’s watch.
Not only wasn’t the Iraq war Israel’s first choice; the war’s aftermath was a defeat for Israel’s own openly declared priorities. Israel is now living with the consequences of that defeat. Here we are in the last days of 2007, and the United States is still in the midst of the “long pause.” Maybe it should be renamed: the latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has put a lame-duck administration into menopause. So much for the manipulative power of the “Israel lobby.” The Iraq war and its aftermath prove exactly the opposite of what Mearsheimer and Walt claim they prove. They’re evidence not of Israel’s influence, but of the limits of Israel’s leverage when it comes up against other major U.S. interests and alliances.
In sum, the Iraq war thesis of Mearsheimer and Walt is make-believe, and it doesn’t get better from the article to the book—in fact, it’s worse. Almost every reviewer has questioned it on some grounds, although not one has identified the “cold feet” thesis. But that’s what I propose to call it, and it deserves to be known for what it is: a conspiracy theory, pure and simple.
Frankly I’m astonished when even skeptical reviewers of the book preface their criticisms by saying that the authors have done us some sort of service by opening the discussion. Can you imagine them saying the same thing about a book on intelligent design? That the details are preposterous, but the basic proposition deserves to be discussed seriously by serious people? Yet here we have a thesis, insisting that U.S. foreign policy is run by Zionist intelligent design, and Mearsheimer and Walt have made it a perfectly legitimate subject for academic discussion and tony dinner party conversation. If you say otherwise, you’re accused of “stifling debate.”
In the real world, Mearsheimer and Walt, far from being stifled, have become media staples, and tonight they’ll have yet another podium, at Princeton. The respondent will be Princeton professor Robert O. Keohane, another much-ballyhooed theory-maker who’s already hailed the bravery of the duo. “It is bad for political science if some important forces and pressures are systematically concealed,” he’s said. I think it’s a lot worse for political science if some big-name theorists systematically ignore evidence and make it up. If I were a Princeton student thinking of entering a field led by this crowd, it might give me… well, cold feet.
Update, December 12: The Daily Princetonian gives an account of the evening’s proceedings. Robert Keohane, counted among the allies of Mearsheimer and Walt by the Chronicle of Higher Education, turned out to be something less than that. He called The Israel Lobby “a flawed work of political science,” marred by numerous “inconsistencies with realities,” and he particularly went after the book’s claims about the Iraq war. The Daily Prince:
A major point of contention during the discussion was the role of neoconservative policymakers in the Bush administration and their links with pro-Israel lobbyists. Mearsheimer and Walt said that neocons played a significant role in the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, a move the two argued was also seen at the time as being in Israel’s best interest.
“There’s no question that the neoconservatives were the main driving forces behind the war, supported by key organizations in the lobby like AIPAC,” Mearsheimer said.
Keohane disputed the link between AIPAC and the decision to go to war in Iraq. He cited nine other reasons for the invasion, including concerns over weapons of mass destruction and a desire to promote democracy.
The mention of AIPAC’s role in the lead up to the Iraq war set off a spirited exchange.
“It’s hard to find other organizations or institutions that were pushing the war,” Mearsheimer said. “If it wasn’t the neoconservatives, and it wasn’t the leaders of the lobby, and it wasn’t Israel, then who was it?”
“Two people: One is the president, and the other is the vice president,” Keohane said to applause.
Walt jumped in. “The problem,” he said, “is that neither the president nor the vice president was pushing for the war in the first eight months of the term.” More people applauded.
Keohane added that Sept. 11, 2001, changed the situation amid supportive shouts from the audience.
Mearsheimer responded that “Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.”
The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt includes a section entitled “Israel and the Iraq War” (pp. 30-31). There they seek to establish that Israel’s leaders, intelligence agencies, and public opinion enthusiastically supported a war to remove Saddam. Israel exerted “pressure” on the United States, fed Washington “alarming reports” on Iraq’s WMD capabilities, and beat the war drums in the media. Israelis were “so gung-ho for war that their allies in America told them to damp down their hawkish rhetoric, lest it look like the war was for Israel.” Israel thus became “a critical element” in pushing the United States to war.
Is this a full and accurate representation of what actually transpired? Let’s consider the full range of evidence—including that hidden away in such obscure sources as the Washington Post, the New York Times and page one of the Los Angeles Times.
In October 2002, analyst Barry Rubin wrote this in the Jerusalem Post: “If you told Israeli leaders and analysts two years ago that the U.S. would be on the verge of attacking Iraq today, they would have been astonished and confused. The dominant perception across the political spectrum was that Iraq was not a serious threat.” In fact, right through the 1990s, Israel showed little interest in the dossier some Americans busily compiled against Saddam. Laurie Mylroie, who argued that Saddam sponsored every act of terror everywhere, and possessed every kind of WMD, got little traction in Israel, and it frustrated her to no end:
Many Israelis [wrote Mylroie in 1998] refuse to accept and incorporate, even now, the information that suggests the US did not win the [1991 Kuwait] war and Saddam remains very dangerous. A few do—like Ehud Ya’ari/Ze’ev Schiff/Gerald Steinberg, Bar Ilan University/the editors of the Jerusalem Post. But most do not and their work is so systematically distorted that it is fit for little more than wrapping fish.
Mylroie thought Israel far too fixated on Iran, and called its unwillingness to prioritize Iraq “a strategic intelligence failure…not less than the strategic intelligence failure that preceded the Yom Kippur War.”
In November 2001, Seymour Hersh (in an article entitled “The Iran Game”) reported Israel’s concern that the post-9/11 “war on terror” had diverted U.S. attention from Iran, even as Iran accelerated its nuclear program. Hersh wrote that “even Israel’s most skeptical critics in the American intelligence community—and there are many—now acknowledge that there is a serious problem.” But the Bush administration put Israel off with assurances that it would get to Iran later. Hersh:
The Bush Administration continues to concentrate on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “It’s more important to deal with Iraq than with Iran, because there’s nothing going on in Iraq that’s going to get better,” a senior Administration strategist told me. “In Iran, the people are openly defying the government. There’s some hope that Iran will get better. But there’s nothing in Iraq that gives you any hope, because Saddam rules so ruthlessly. What will we do if he provides anthrax to four guys in Al Qaeda?” He said, “If Iraq is out of the picture, we will concentrate on Iran in an entirely different way.”
In February 2002, ahead of a visit by Ariel Sharon to Washington, the Washington Post carried a story by Alan Sipress under the headline: “Israel Emphasizes Iranian Threat.”
As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon arrives today for a White House visit, Israeli officials are redoubling efforts to warn the Bush administration that Iran poses a greater threat than the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.
A series of Israeli leaders have carried that message to Washington recently in the hope of influencing a debate that has centered not on Iran but on whether to pursue the overthrow of the Iraqi government.
The article went on to quote Israeli defense minister Fouad Ben-Eliezer: “Today, everybody is busy with Iraq. Iraq is a problem…. But you should understand, if you ask me, today Iran is more dangerous than Iraq.” The article added: “Though Israeli officials have few kind words for Saddam Hussein, they see him posing less of a threat than Iran after more than a decade of U.N. sanctions and international isolation.”
But the wheels of war in Washington continued to grind through spring and summer, and as they did, allies of the United States jumped on board. Even so, Israel still wasn’t entirely on the same page as the Bush administration. On October 6, 2002, James Bennet filed a story from Jerusalem that ran the next day under this headline: “Sharon Tells Cabinet to Keep Quiet on U.S. Plans” for Iraq. Bennet reported that Sharon had instructed his ministers to stop talking about Iraq, and then summarized the opinions of the military echelon:
Even as Mr. Bush has sought in recent days to play up the imminence and potency of the Iraqi threat, some of Israel’s top security officials have played both down.
Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s chief of staff, was quoted in the newspaper Maariv today as telling a trade group in a speech over the weekend, “I’m not losing any sleep over the Iraqi threat.” The reason, he said, was that the military strength of Israel and Iraq had diverged so sharply in the last decade.
Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Farkash, disputed contentions that Iraq was 18 months away from nuclear capability. In an interview on Saturday with Israeli television, he said army intelligence had concluded that Iraq’s time frame was more like four years, and he said Iran’s nuclear threat was as great as Iraq’s.
General Farkash also said Iraq had grown militarily weaker since the Persian Gulf war in 1991 and had not deployed any missiles that could strike Israel.
On October 16, 2002, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story by its Israel correspondent, Barbara Demick, under this headline: “Not All Israelis Welcome Prospect of War With Iraq.”
A muted debate is underway here over whether a U.S.-led war against Israel’s archenemy Saddam Hussein is, in fact, a good idea.
While it is widely assumed that Israelis are gloating over the prospect of Hussein getting his comeuppance after the Persian Gulf War, when 39 Iraqi Scud missiles rained down on Israel, the reality is far more complex and the reactions more ambivalent.
No doubt Israelis more than almost anyone would prefer a Middle East without Hussein, but some question whether the status quo of a weakened and contained Iraq isn’t better than a war that could further inflame anti-Israel sentiments in the Arab world.
Demick also quoted Generals Yaalon and Farkash, adding that “Israeli military specialists have been debating for several years whether Iraq or Iran poses more of a threat. Most specialists believe it is Iran, because it is richer and has been more directly implicated in international terrorism.” And she also had an explanation for the muted tone of the debate: “Those most enthusiastic about Washington’s campaign dread any suggestion that Israel is egging on the U.S. And those with misgivings are loath to say anything that might embarrass Israel’s most steadfast ally.”
Incredibly, Mearsheimer and Walt, in their section on “Israel and the Iraq War,” don’t cite Mylroie, or the articles in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. (The Washington Post piece is cited later, but in the wrong context. Mearsheimer and Walt chronologically misplace Ben-Eliezer’s remark, about Iran being more dangerous than Iraq. They date it to “one month before the Iraq war”—in other words, in the context of the debate over what should be done after Iraq. In fact, Ben-Eliezer made the statement one year and one month before the Iraq war, in the context of the debate about whether to do Iraq at all.)
In their analysis of Israeli public opinion, Mearsheimer and Walt also skip over evidence. They quote a September 2002 Wall Street Journal op-ed by Benjamin Netanyahu (then on the political sidelines) in which he made this assertion: “I believe I speak for the overwhelming majority of Israelis in supporting a pre-emptive strike against Saddam’s regime.” Mearsheimer and Walt:
As Netanyahu suggests, the desire for war was not confined to Israel’s leaders. Apart from Kuwait, which Saddam conquered in 1990, Israel was the only country in the world where both the politicians and the public enthusiastically favored war.
They then support this claim in a footnote, citing a February 2003 poll done by the Steinmatz Center at Tel Aviv University. It showed that 77.5 percent of Israeli Jews favored a U.S. campaign against Iraq.
But that wasn’t the only poll taken at the time. Mearsheimer and Walt could have consulted a more Iraq-specific poll cited by Gideon Levy, the far-left Haaretz columnist who opposed the war, and whom they quote as an authority on the hawkish mood of Israel’s leaders. In fact, Levy held that while Israel’s leaders favored a war, Israel’s public didn’t. Levy cited an opinion poll done by the Dialogue Institute for Haaretz and published in the paper on February 13, 2003:
It turns out that nearly half of Israelis are against an immediate war—20.4 percent think the U.S. should refrain completely from attacking, and another 23.4 percent are in favor of an attack only if all the inspection and mediation efforts fail. Figures in America are amazingly similar.
This hardly conforms to Mearsheimer and Walt’s assertion that “the [Israeli] public enthusiastically favored war.” Yet they fail to mention this major public opinion poll on the subject of their research, conducted for Haaretz—a newspaper cited almost ninety times in their footnotes. Instead they trot out a more convenient poll, and allow the argument to be clinched by Netanyahu. “I believe I speak for the overwhelming majority of Israelis,” he is quoted as claiming. Now when did he last do that?
What does the full evidence suggest? That the Israeli posture on the Iraq war was far more complex than Mearsheimer and Walt allow or even imagine. Did two former Israeli prime ministers, Barak and Netanyahu, write tough-guy op-eds in favor of striking Iraq? They did. Did ex-Mossad head Efraim Halevy give a starry-eyed speech on the new Middle East that would emerge after Saddam fell? He did. Did Israeli intelligence generate some overwrought assessments of Iraq? It did. But Israel also had a debate, one that’s gone missing in the Mearsheimer-Walt version.
Daniel Levy, an Israeli promoter of the so-called “Geneva Initiative,” grabbed some attention by welcoming the Mearsheimer-Walt paper. He can hardly be described as hostile to their enterprise. But in a radio interview, he said this:
I’ll give you an Israeli angle on this which may surprise some people and be interesting…. Many Israelis felt that engaging in a war with Iraq was the right thing to do and was good for Israeli security. However, there was a debate, it didn’t surface greatly but it was very much taking place within the Israeli security establishment and it said the following: the strategic threat is Iran, not Iraq. We may limit and actually undermine what we can do in Iran if we go for what some people have called the wrong war. Now those voices may not have been heard very publicly but they were heard inside the security establishment.
As we’ve seen, the Israelis also engaged the Americans in some measure of debate, and evidence for it even surfaced in the mainstream media. In a post-war analysis, Israeli analyst (and former general) Shlomo Brom described the disagreement—and what ended it (emphasis mine):
The ongoing dialogues between various levels of the Israeli and American governments over the last decade revealed disagreements between the two countries concerning the relative weight of the various threats in the Middle East. The United States was wont to emphasize the Iraqi threat, while Israel tended to express its understanding that the Iraqi threat was contained and under control, and it was the Iranian threat that loomed as far more serious. Once the Bush administration decided to take action against Iraq, it was more difficult for Israel to maintain its position that dealing with Iraq was not the highest priority, especially when it was obvious that the war would serve Israel’s interests. Considering the circumstances, it would therefore be difficult to expect the Israeli government to express its doubts—if any—about Iraq’s capabilities.
In fact, some doubts continued to leak into statements by Israel’s top generals. But once Israel’s leaders realized that the Bush administration was dead serious about ousting Saddam, they clambered onto the bandwagon. Israeli politicans joined the chorus, and the Israeli security establishment fell in line.
Mearsheimer and Walt thus would seem to have it exactly wrong. It wasn’t Israel that persuaded the Bush administration of the war’s necessity, but vice versa: the administration persuaded and then enlisted Israel. It did so, in considerable measure, by implying that the United States would be better positioned to deal with Iran once it had disposed of Saddam.
In the end, Israel acquiesced in the U.S. threat perception, which didn’t align with its own. Influential Israelis also publicly helped to bolster the arguments made by the Bush administration. As in 1990-91, Israel again prepared to do something totally foreign to it: to absorb an Iraqi strike, perhaps with non-conventional weapons, while forgoing retaliation. And during the war, Israel showed exceptional restraint toward the Palestinians. Not for a moment did it contemplate mass expulsion of Palestinians under the cover of war in Iraq—something Mearsheimer, in a display of true ignorance, thought quite possible at the time.
In short, Israel performed as an ideal ally and perfect client. Over the decades, this is precisely how Israel has built its credibility in Washington and across America—not through the machinations of the “Lobby.”