The Israel Lobby and its Discontents

Salim Muwakkil

A working paper by John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University, titled The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” has provoked a furious response from critics, and – in an eerie confirmation of the paper’s point – seems to have led to the demotion of one of its authors. 

An 83-page study, published by Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, forcefully argues that pro-Israel partisans within the U.S. government's policymaking apparatus, including think tanks, politicians, journalists, academics and professional lobbyists, are manipulating America's foreign policy.

Released on March 13, the 83-page study, published by Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, forcefully argues that pro-Israel partisans within the U.S. government’s policymaking apparatus, including think tanks, politicians, journalists, academics and professional lobbyists, are manipulating America’s foreign policy. It also maintains that this lobby extracts billions of taxpayer dollars for the Jewish state while vigorously suppressing criticism of its pro-Israel activities.

Perhaps predictably, in the wake of the controversy, both Harvard and the Kennedy School removed their logos from the heading of the report, and co-author Stephen Walt announced he would step down from his position of dean of the Kennedy School. According to the neoconservative daily, the New York Sun, Robert Belfer, the Jewish philanthropist who endowed Walt’s Kennedy School professorship, demanded that Walt not use his title as dean when promoting the paper. 

The authors specifically name the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy as part of the system exerting partisan pressure. The study also lists prominent Christian evangelists who believe that a robust, expansionist Israel is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, as part of the lobby.

The paper maintains that the pro-Israel lobby in this country has persuaded U.S. policymakers to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interest of another state.” The results, they write, have not been beneficial for the United States.

Mearsheimer and Walt argue that the Israeli lobby is the primary reason the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq and is considering hostilities in Syria and Iran, writing that the combination of unwavering U.S. support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized U.S. security.” While Israel is portrayed as an important ally in the war against terror, the authors instead contend it is a liability.

Saying that Israel and the U.S. are united by a shared terrorist threat has the causal relationship backwards: the U.S. has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel, not the other way around.” 

These costs are seldom discussed in U.S. political culture, they write, because Israel is virtually immune from Congressional criticism. And, they note, the lobby’s perspective also prevails in the mainstream media. When reporters reveal unflattering news about Israel, the Lobby organizes letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations and boycotts of news outlets whose content it considers anti-Israel.” 

A short version of the authors’ working paper appeared in the March 23 London Review of Books in which they note how hard is to imagine any mainstream media outlet in the United States publishing a piece like this one.”

Critics have responded to Mearsheimer and Walt with predictable overstatement. Several have blasted the two esteemed scholars as allies of David Duke, the notorious racist who frequently inveighs against Jewish influence. Others have compared their well-sourced piece to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic fabrication that originated in Czarist Russia.

Many of the rebuttals feature angry ad hominem attacks and threats of financial retaliation such as boycotts and withdrawal of research support. The authors expected and even predicted such attacks would follow publication of their study.

While the controversial study offers nothing dramatically new to the critique of the Israel lobby’s warp factor, the pedigree of the authors make it a noteworthy piece. But my problem with the study is that it attributes too much power to the Israeli lobby. Sure, the lobby is extremely influential in U.S. political circles. But it would not be if its interests weren’t already in agreement with U.S. foreign policy. If the lobby disappeared tomorrow, there’s little chance the administration would alter its policy toward Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, or even Palestinians.

American foreign policy opposed most national liberation groups long before the creation of Israel and its displacement of the Palestinians. The superimposition of the Jewish state into a region rich in resources but rife with political strife has served the United States’ imperial purposes even as it benefited Israel. 

As New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer notes in his new book, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq, the United States has acted to depose more foreign leaders than any other nation in modern times. Throughout the twentieth century, and into the beginning of the twenty-first,” Kinzer writes, the United States repeatedly used its military power, and that of its clandestine services, to overthrow governments that refused to protect American interests.” He adds that though the United States has often cloaked its interventions in the rhetoric of national security and liberation, in most cases, it acted mainly for economic reasons.” 

If those two purposes ever fail to coincide, the power of the Israel lobby will decline rapidly.

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Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and host of The Salim Muwakkil Show” on radio station WVON-AM in Chicago. Muwakkil was also contributing columnist for both the Chicago Sun-Times (1993 – 1997) and the Chicago Tribune (1998 – 2005). He is also a co-founder of Pacifica News’ network daily Democracy Now” program and served as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, University of Illinois, the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago’s Columbia College.

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