Academics expand Israel lobby case

My following review appears in the November Australian Literary Review:

The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy
By John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt
Allen Lane, 544pp, $49.95 (HB)

When “realist” academics John Mearsheimer of Chicago University and Stephen M. Walt of Harvard published their essay, The Israel Lobby, in the London Review of Books in March 2006, after US magazine The Atlantic Monthly refused to publish the piece it had commissioned, it caused a storm. They argued that the lobby, a loose collection of neo-conservatives, Christian fundamentalists, academics, commentators and politicians, had distorted US foreign policy to unconditional and unquestioning support of Israel. Moreover, it had become almost impossible to discuss Washington’s financial, diplomatic and political support for the Jewish state without incurring the charge of anti-Semitism.

The overwhelmingly hostile response to the essay seemed to prove Edward Said’s point that the Israeli-American relationship was the last great taboo in the US.

Mearsheimer and Walt have expanded their work into an equally controversial book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. Despite a few missteps, they have largely succeeded in articulating why, in their view, Israel is a “strategic liability” for the US:

Given Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, “moral considerations might suggest that the US pursue a more even-handed policy towards the two sides, and maybe even lean towards the Palestinians.”

As various conflicts in the Middle East threaten to intensify – a resurgent Taliban, emboldened Iran and Hamas, fractious Lebanon and chaotic Iraq – it is important to ask whether US foreign policy has been led astray as Walt and Mearsheimer suggest.

Their book methodically details the relationship between the US and Israel during the Cold War; the Jewish state was seen, especially after the quick victory of the Six Day War, as an invaluable ally to “help contain the Soviet bear”. After September 11, Israel and America were “partners against terror”, but the authors believe the “US has a terrorism problem in good part because it has long been so supportive of Israel”.

Their goal is not the dismantling of Israel or its international isolation, but a realisation that neither strategic nor moral considerations justify the US’s continued uncritical support.

Mearsheimer and Walt acknowledge the horror of the Holocaust but argue that “the past suffering of the Jewish people does not obligate the US to help Israel no matter what it does today”. Soon after the book was released in the US, Jewish journalist Ron Rosenbaum wrote in online magazine Slate that even talking about the existence of the Zionist lobby displayed a lack of “moral imagination” because a “second Holocaust’” against the Jews was imminent.

Rosenbaum displayed the archetypal Jewish victimisation at which Mearsheimer and Walt take aim. By debunking the numerous myths that have developed about the “virtuous” Israelis and the “evil’” Arabs, the authors present a convincing case that the established American Jewish leadership has used a canny combination of Holocaust guilt and financial and political pressure to convince the American political elite that the Jewish people are forever mired in Nazi Germany desperation.

A superpower with nuclear weapons, a thriving economy and unparalleled American support should be capable of sustaining criticism. Yet almost every politician, from all sides of the political divide, consistently try to outdo each other with greater expressions of affection towards Israel. Former US House of Representatives speaker Richard Armey said in September 2002 that “my No 1 priority in foreign policy is to protect Israel”. “One would think,” Walt and Mearsheimer write, “that the top priority for any US representative would be to protect America.”

Mearsheimer and Walt acknowledge the rising number of Jewish groups around the world, including one I co-founded, Independent Australian Jewish Voices, that can justifiably speak on behalf of some Jews and, like the Israel lobby, are equally deserving of being heard. The hardline Zionist position can no longer be claimed to represent the only Jewish perspective on Israel and Palestine.

The authors are on less solid ground when analysing the reasons behind the Iraq war. They minimise the profound failures of the mainstream media in not challenging the bogus claims of Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. They claim the invasion would not have happened without the pressure of the Israel lobby.

The pro-war faction believed that removing Saddam would improve America’s and Israel’s strategic position and launch a process of regional transformation that would benefit the US and Israel alike.

True, but this ignores the other key factors in the decision to invade Iraq, not least of which was hyper-militaristic posturing in a post-September 11 world.

Not everything can be blamed on the Israel lobby. To believe that some Americans’ loyalty to foreign interests is principally to blame for the Iraq debacle lets the Bush administration off too lightly. Interestingly, Noam Chomsky claimed that Mearsheimer and Walt’s original essay was flawed for this very reason. It was misguided, he wrote, and “leaves the US Government untouched on its high pinnacle of nobility … merely in the grip of an all-powerful force that it cannot escape”.

Mearsheimer and Walt also argue that the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah would not have been as devastating for both sides if the Israel lobby hadn’t “worked throughout the war to keep the US in Israel’s corner”. Although Israel undoubtedly relied on American political and diplomatic cover to continue its futile battle in Lebanon, the Bush administration agreed with its stated aims even without the push of the lobby.

The authors are hardly radical in calling for a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians. They argue that although Washington should reaffirm “its commitment to Israel’s security within its pre-1967 borders, the US should make it clear that it is dead-set against Israel’s expansionist settlements policy, including the land-grabbing ‘security fence’, and that it believes this policy is not in America’s or Israel’s long-term interests”.

This places Mearsheimer and Walt firmly in the moderate camp. They believe in the concept of a Jewish state, but believe the Palestinians should be given a state of their own.

The transformative importance of Mearsheimer and Walt’s work has been its ability to challenge the myth of Jewish powerlessness. The Israel lobby is a powerful coalition of individuals and groups that forcefully advocate pro-Israel positions. They have every right to do so, but the community has an equal right to ask whom they claim to represent and whether such policies are isolating the Jewish state and harming US interests.

“There is nothing pro-Israel,” writes Jewish analyst M.J. Rosenberg, “about supporting policies that promise only that Israeli mothers will continue to dread their sons’ 18th birthdays for another generation.”