A Review of Mearsheimer and Walt's "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy"

March 24, 2006

The article by John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, entitled "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" would not be taken seriously if not for the reputations and associations of the authors. They have each written respected scholarly works on government and international relations and occupy important positions at their universities.

The article itself, which was first posted in full on the Kennedy School Web site and then published in executive summary form by the London Review of Books, is a 41-page, amateurish and biased critique of Israel, American Jews, and American policy. It addresses in a perfunctory and all-knowing fashion some of the most important and complicated issues surrounding the Middle East conflict. Nowhere in evidence is a sense of complexity, balance, an examination of the variety of factors that cause an event, or of putting individual comments in perspective – all the appropriate tools for a serious piece of scholarship or journalism.

On every issue, the authors start with unproven, anti-Israel assumptions and then look for isolated examples to justify these assumptions. One does not have to take a pro-Israel position to recognize that the authors, despite their reputations, have no interest in producing a serious, balanced work. The result is a sloppy diatribe.

Here’s how it works. Mearsheimer and Walt start by blaming Israel for everything in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Once establishing Israel’s consistent guilt, from the creation of the state to present day, they then move to asserting that the “Israel lobby” (which is loosely and inconsistently defined) in the United States uses every device and method of pressure politics to stifle criticism of Israel and to ensure America’s pro-Israel policy, against America’s true interests and to serve the interests of the Jewish state.

On Israel’s founding, they cite as truth several of the most extreme anti-Israel perspectives. They write of Israel’s “crimes against the Palestinians” in the creation of the state. They select a single quotation from David Ben Gurion to “prove” that Israel did not accept the partition of Palestine. They present as the primary explanation of the refugee problem that grew out of the War of Independence the theory that Israel deliberately and calculatedly expelled Palestinians.

On all these matters, there is extensive historiographical work developed over decades presenting many perspectives. Criticism of Israeli policies is part of these perspectives. Thus, for example, on the refugee issue, scholars recognize that a certain number of Palestinians were forced from their homes. But, they also recognize that others left at the urging of Arab leaders and most left simply because warfare causes people to flee. The authors, however, are not interested in complex truths because they would undermine their goal to blame Israel for everything.

Similarly, with regard to the issue of peace, the authors “know” that Israel has never been serious about reconciliation with the Palestinians and therefore they must find a way to dismiss Israeli offers to the Palestinians. Most notable is their denigration of Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s (and President Bill Clinton’s) offer to Yasir Arafat at Camp David as not providing the Palestinians the possibility of a state but “Bantustans.” Not only is this selecting the most extreme negative depiction of what happened at Camp David, but it ignores the further concessions made by Israel in the negotiations at Taba several months after the violence of the second Intifada began.

On terrorism, they concede that the murder of civilians is a bad thing, but they rationalize it (read blame Israel) by saying it’s not surprising, “because the Palestinians believe they have no other way to force Israeli concessions.”

All of this sets up their main purpose: to demonize what they describe as the “Israel lobby.” Since Israel is now established as the bad guy, as not serving American interests, the activities of the lobby are by definition working against what is good for America.

The authors make sure to pay lip service to the notion that pro-Israel activists in America have every right in a democracy to lobby their government and that they are not suggesting any conspiracy resembling that offered by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But this is merely lip service because the nonstop one-sidedness of their presentation, their gross exaggeration of the power of the “lobby”, the disregard for the consistently broad-based American public support for Israel, the omission of the very many interests that the U.S. has in a strong and safe Israel, and their overriding theme that policymakers are controlled by the “lobby,” adds up to an effort to delegitimize the work of pro-Israel activists and has elements of classic anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. Characteristics of such conspiracies are ideas that Jews have excessive, overarching power; that they are more loyal to an outside party – Israel in this case – than to their own country, America; and that Jews don’t function as individual citizens, but as a cabal.

In order to justify their accusation, they deliberately distort basic realities. They try to make a case that the “lobby” stifles any discussions that might lead to criticism of Israel. That they would focus on the U.S. Congress is not surprising (though false), since there the overwhelming support for Israel at least might give the impression of such a reality. The game is given away, however, when they make the same point with regard to two other U.S. institutions, the media and campuses. To suggest that criticism of Israel in these two places is stifled is laughable, even to those who don’t see these institutions as threatening to Israel. The list of criticisms of Israel both in the media and on campus is encyclopedic.

Similarly, the authors’ claim that the “lobby” prevents appointments in the Executive branch of government of anyone critical of Israel is absurd. Naturally, friends of Israel look to have friends in every administration, but to conclude that they in any way control this process ignores a range of officials such as Brzezinski, Baker, Scowcroft and others who hardly fall into the "in Israel’s pocket" category.

Other examples of the paper’s outlandish distortions and simplemindedness include the “evidence” of the power of the lobby in the establishment of Jewish chairs and programs in universities around the country. Aside from the fact that the authors simply ignore the importance of such scholarship to society and the Jewish community, to speak to this as an indicator of Jewish power without a mention of the millions and millions of dollars being spent by Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf – regimes that themselves do not have a culture of democracy and free expression – to set up massive programs in major universities (including Harvard), is just one more example of how outlandish this work is.

As to anti-Semitism in Europe, which is depicted as another subject the lobby manipulates to gain power and influence, Measheimer and Walt do the expected – accuse the Jews of falsely screaming anti-Semitism at what they suggest is merely legitimate criticism of Israel. The fact that European leaders like Jacques Chirac, Silvio Berlusconi and Joschka Fischer have long ago made clear that there is a serious problem of anti-Semitism makes no impression. Nor that so many in the Jewish community clearly differentiate between legitimate criticism of the Jewish state and the demonization, delegitimization and double standard employed against Israel that is either inherently anti-Semitic or generates an environment of anti-Semitism.

Again, on the Bush Administration’s entry into Iraq there obviously is much room for criticism, including criticism of the neoconservatives. What is unacceptable in this paper is the charge that the neocons encouraged the war totally or primarily to serve Israel’s interests, not America’s. Neoconservatives going back to the Cold War days always had a very particular view of American interests in the world, which they argued strenuously. Whether one agreed with that view or not, there is no basis ever for suggesting then, or now, that Israel’s interests superseded those of the U.S. in their thinking.

And finally, there’s the issue of Iran developing nuclear capability. As in everything else that Mearsheimer and Walt speak to, it is Israel’s alleged interests that drive U.S. policy. The fact that not only the United States, but Europe and even the International Atomic Energy Agency see Iran’s nuclear aspirations as a threat to world peace is lost on them (maybe better so because it might lead them to conclude that the “Israel lobby” now controls the entire international community). The mantra is repeated: American is not in jeopardy, Israel is, and because of the power of the “Israel lobby,” America acts against its own interests.

All of these examples point to the authors’ relentless obsession to see the world through their own narrowly conceived and intentionally distorted prism. It makes for one of the most unprofessional works coming out of respectable quarters. Undoubtedly, the anti-Israel forces will be citing this study for a long time to come. Because of its extremism, however, we can hope that mainstream individuals and institutions will see it for what it is – a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control.