Commentary :: Right-wing politics

Letter: The Israel Lobby

London Review of Books
11 May 2006
We wrote 'The Israel([search]) Lobby' in order to begin a discussion
of a subject that had become difficult to address openly
in the United States (LRB, 23 March). We knew it was
likely to generate a strong reaction, and we are not
surprised that some of our critics have chosen to attack
our characters or misrepresent our arguments. We have also
been gratified by the many positive responses we have
received, and by the thoughtful commentary that has begun
to emerge in the media and the blogosphere. It is clear
that many people - including Jews and Israelis - believe
that it is time to have a candid discussion of the US
relationship with Israel. It is in that spirit that we
engage with the letters responding to our article. We
confine ourselves here to the most salient points of

One of the most prominent charges against us is that we
see the lobby as a well-organised Jewish conspiracy.
Jeffrey Herf and Andrei Markovits, for example, begin by
noting that 'accusations of powerful Jews behind the
scenes are part of the most dangerous traditions of modern
anti-semitism' (Letters, 6 April). It is a tradition we
deplore and that we explicitly rejected in our article.
Instead, we described the lobby as a loose coalition of
individuals and organisations without a central
headquarters. It includes gentiles as well as Jews, and
many Jewish-Americans do not endorse its positions on some
or all issues. Most important, the Israel lobby is not a
secret, clandestine cabal; on the contrary, it is openly
engaged in interest-group politics and there is nothing
conspiratorial or illicit about its behaviour. Thus, we
can easily believe that Daniel Pipes has never 'taken
orders' from the lobby, because the Leninist caricature of
the lobby depicted in his letter is one that we clearly
dismissed. Readers will also note that Pipes does not deny
that his organisation, Campus Watch, was created in order
to monitor what academics say, write and teach, so as to
discourage them from engaging in open discourse about the
Middle East.

Several writers chide us for making mono-causal arguments,
accusing us of saying that Israel alone is responsible for
anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic world (as one
letter puts it, anti-Americanism 'would exist if Israel
was not there') or suggesting that the lobby bears sole
responsibility for the Bush administration's decision to
invade Iraq. But that is not what we said. We emphasised
that US support for Israeli policy in the Occupied
Territories is a powerful source of anti-Americanism, the
conclusion reached in several scholarly studies and US
government commissions (including the 9/11 Commission).
But we also pointed out that support for Israel is hardly
the only reason America's standing in the Middle East is
so low. Similarly, we clearly stated that Osama bin Laden
had other grievances against the United States besides the
Palestinian issue, but as the 9/11 Commission documents,
this matter was a major concern for him. We also
explicitly stated that the lobby, by itself, could not
convince either the Clinton or the Bush administration to
invade Iraq. Nevertheless, there is abundant evidence that
the neo-conservatives and other groups within the lobby
played a central role in making the case for war.

At least two of the letters complain that we 'catalogue
Israel's moral flaws', while paying little attention to
the shortcomings of other states. We focused on Israeli
behaviour, not because we have any animus towards Israel,
but because the United States gives it such high levels of
material and diplomatic support. Our aim was to determine
whether Israel merits this special treatment either
because it is a unique strategic asset or because it
behaves better than other countries do. We argued that
neither argument is convincing: Israel's strategic value
has declined since the end of the Cold War and Israel does
not behave significantly better than most other states.

Herf and Markovits interpret us to be saying that Israel's
'continued survival' should be of little concern to the
United States. We made no such argument. In fact, we
emphasised that there is a powerful moral case for
Israel's existence, and we firmly believe that the United
States should take action to ensure its survival if it
were in danger. Our criticism was directed at Israeli
policy and America's special relationship with Israel, not
Israel's existence.

Another recurring theme in the letters is that the lobby
ultimately matters little because Israel's 'values command
genuine support among the American public'. Thus, Herf and
Markovits maintain that there is substantial support for
Israel in military and diplomatic circles within the
United States. We agree that there is strong public
support for Israel in America, in part because it is seen
as compatible with America's Judaeo-Christian culture. But
we believe this popularity is substantially due to the
lobby's success at portraying Israel in a favourable light
and effectively limiting public awareness and discussion
of Israel's less savoury actions. Diplomats and military
officers are also affected by this distorted public
discourse, but many of them can see through the rhetoric.
They keep silent, however, because they fear that groups
like AIPAC will damage their careers if they speak out.
The fact is that if there were no AIPAC, Americans would
have a more critical view of Israel and US policy in the
Middle East would look different.

On a related point, Michael Szanto contrasts the
US-Israeli relationship with the American military
commitments to Western Europe, Japan and South Korea, to
show that the United States has given substantial support
to other states besides Israel (6 April). He does not
mention, however, that these other relationships did not
depend on strong domestic lobbies. The reason is simple:
these countries did not need a lobby because close ties
with each of them were in America's strategic interest. By
contrast, as Israel has become a strategic burden for the
US, its American backers have had to work even harder to
preserve the 'special relationship'.

Other critics contend that we overstate the lobby's power
because we overlook countervailing forces, such as
'paleo-conservatives, Arab and Islamic advocacy groups
. . . and the diplomatic establishment'. Such
countervailing forces do exist, but they are no match -
either alone or in combination - for the lobby. There are
Arab-American political groups, for example, but they are
weak, divided, and wield far less influence than AIPAC and
other organisations that present a strong, consistent
message from the lobby.

Probably the most popular argument made about a
countervailing force is Herf and Markovits's claim that
the centrepiece of US Middle East policy is oil, not
Israel. There is no question that access to that region's
oil is a vital US strategic interest. Washington is also
deeply committed to supporting Israel. Thus, the relevant
question is, how does each of those interests affect US
policy? We maintain that US policy in the Middle East is
driven primarily by the commitment to Israel, not oil
interests. If the oil companies or the oil-producing
countries were driving policy, Washington would be tempted
to favour the Palestinians instead of Israel. Moreover,
the United States would almost certainly not have gone to
war against Iraq in March 2003, and the Bush
administration would not be threatening to use military
force against Iran. Although many claim that the Iraq war
was all about oil, there is hardly any evidence to support
that supposition, and much evidence of the lobby's
influence. Oil is clearly an important concern for US
policymakers, but with the exception of episodes like the
1973 Opec oil embargo, the US commitment to Israel has yet
to threaten access to oil. It does, however, contribute to
America's terrorism problem, complicates its efforts to
halt nuclear proliferation, and helped get the United
States involved in wars like Iraq.

Regrettably, some of our critics have tried to smear us by
linking us with overt racists, thereby suggesting that we
are racists or anti-semites ourselves. Michael Taylor, for
example, notes that our article has been 'hailed' by Ku
Klux Klan leader David Duke (6 April). Alan Dershowitz
implies that some of our material was taken from neo-Nazi
websites and other hate literature (20 April). We have no
control over who likes or dislikes our article, but we
regret that Duke used it to promote his racist agenda,
which we utterly reject. Furthermore, nothing in our piece
is drawn from racist sources of any kind, and Dershowitz
offers no evidence to support this false claim. We
provided a fully documented version of the paper so that
readers could see for themselves that we used reputable

Finally, a few critics claim that some of our facts,
references or quotations are mistaken. For example,
Dershowitz challenges our claim that Israel was
'explicitly founded as a Jewish state and citizenship is
based on the principle of blood kinship'. Israel was
founded as a Jewish state (a fact Dershowitz does not
challenge), and our reference to citizenship was obviously
to Israel's Jewish citizens, whose identity is ordinarily
based on ancestry. We stated that Israel has a sizeable
number of non-Jewish citizens (primarily Arabs), and our
main point was that many of them are relegated to a
second-class status in a predominantly Jewish society.

We also referred to Golda Meir's famous statement that
'there is no such thing as a Palestinian,' and Jeremy
Schreiber reads us as saying that Meir was denying the
existence of those people rather than simply denying
Palestinian nationhood (20 April). There is no
disagreement here; we agree with Schreiber's
interpretation and we quoted Meir in a discussion of
Israel's prolonged effort 'to deny the Palestinians'
national ambitions'.

Dershowitz challenges our claim that the Israelis did not
offer the Palestinians a contiguous state at Camp([search]) David in
July 2000. As support, he cites a statement by former
Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and the memoirs of
former US negotiator Dennis Ross. There are a number of
competing accounts of what happened at Camp David,
however, and many of them agree with our claim. Moreover,
Barak himself acknowledges that 'the Palestinians were
promised a continuous piece of sovereign territory except
for a razor-thin Israeli wedge running from Jerusalem
. . . to the Jordan River.' This wedge, which would bisect
the West Bank, was essential to Israel's plan to retain
control of the Jordan River Valley for another six to
twenty years. Finally, and contrary to Dershowitz's claim,
there was no 'second map' or map of a 'final proposal at
Camp David'. Indeed, it is explicitly stated in a note
beside the map published in Ross's memoirs that 'no map
was presented during the final rounds at Camp David.'
Given all this, it is not surprising that Barak's foreign
minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was a key participant at
Camp David, later admitted: 'If I were a Palestinian I
would have rejected Camp David as well.'

Dershowitz also claims that we quote David Ben-Gurion 'out
of context' and thus misrepresented his views on the need
to use force to build a Jewish state in all of Palestine([search]).
Dershowitz is wrong. As a number of Israeli historians
have shown, Ben-Gurion made numerous statements about the
need to use force (or the threat of overwhelming force) to
create a Jewish state in all of Palestine. In October
1937, for example, he wrote to his son Amos that the
future Jewish state would have an 'outstanding army . . .
so I am certain that we won't be constrained from settling
in the rest of the country, either by mutual agreement and
understanding with our Arab neighbours, or by some other
way' (emphasis added). Furthermore, common sense says that
there was no other way to achieve that goal, because the
Palestinians were hardly likely to give up their homeland
voluntarily. Ben-Gurion was a consummate strategist and he
understood that it would be unwise for the Zionists to
talk openly about the need for 'brutal compulsion'. We
quote a memorandum Ben-Gurion wrote prior to the
Extraordinary Zionist Conference at the Biltmore Hotel in
New York in May 1942. He wrote that 'it is impossible to
imagine general evacuation' of the Arab population of
Palestine 'without compulsion, and brutal compulsion'.
Dershowitz claims that Ben-Gurion's subsequent statement -
'we should in no way make it part of our programme' -
shows that he opposed the transfer of the Arab population
and the 'brutal compulsion' it would entail. But
Ben-Gurion was not rejecting this policy: he was simply
noting that the Zionists should not openly proclaim it.
Indeed, he said that they should not 'discourage other
people, British or American, who favour transfer from
advocating this course, but we should in no way make it
part of our programme'.

We close with a final comment about the controversy
surrounding our article. Although we are not surprised by
the hostility directed at us, we are still disappointed
that more attention has not been paid to the substance of
the piece. The fact remains that the United States is in
deep trouble in the Middle East, and it will not be able
to develop effective policies if it is impossible to have
a civilised discussion about the role of Israel in
American foreign policy.

John Mearsheimer & Stephen Walt

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An inglorious peace is better than a dishonorable war.
-- Mark Twain
Source: "Glances at History" (suppressed)

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