Liberal Israel lobby: Update I

Stephen Walt, co-author of “The Israel Lobby” complains that I misrepresented his views in a post on Tuesday. I wrote that “I reject the claims of Mearsheimer, Walt & groupies that a pro-Israel cabal controls American policy toward the Mideast.” He’s right that I should have avoided the word “cabal,” which implies a well-coordinated, secret group.

In fact, one of the infuriating aspect of the book is that the “the lobby” they attack is such a “loose coalition” that it changes shape from page to page. Is Tom Friedman part of “the lobby’s” media contigent, or a victim of “the lobby’s” efforts to silence critics? Is the dovish Israel Policy Forum part of the lobby, or opposed to it?

A serious work of scholarship would have chosen a specific organization or organizations, and closely followed their work – using primary documents and interviews with the people involved. Mearsheimer and Walt did not perform  that work of research. I fear that their book will make it more difficult for a scholar to do so in the future.

On the other hand, the entire thrust of the book is that “the Israel lobby” controls US policy – not just toward Israel but toward the entire Middle East. The claim that the Iraq war “would almost certainly not have occurred had [the lobby] been absent” (p. 230) is only the most extreme example. Leonard Fine has already done a fine job of demolishing this thesis; I won’t repeat his work.

Mearsheimer and Walt claim that the Israeli tail wags the American dog in policy toward Syria. Israeli experts say that the Bush administration, or a faction of it, vetoes Israeli talks with Syria.

As I’ve written in both the American Prospect and in the Prospect magazine in the UK (not corporate relations, despite the names), U.S. policy toward the Middle East operates under constraints more powerful than any lobby. Lobbyists can only bend foreign relations so far.

America’s basic interests constrain its policy towards the middle east, yet those interests are neither self-evident nor consistent with one another. The problem was stated over 40 years ago by McGeorge Bundy, who was President Johnson’s national security adviser until 1966. When the six-day war broke out in June 1967, Bundy was called back to the White House. A month later, he wrote a nine-page “framework of policy” for US relations with the middle east.

The Bundy doctrine’s bottom line is that US interests contradict each other: the US is committed to Israel’s survival, but also to good relations with pro-western Arab states that would like America to tilt against Israel. The war showed that US influence is limited; Washington could not even “dissuade some of our best friends among the Arabs from joining in the gang-up” against Israel. Even when Washington disagrees with Israeli policy, Bundy says, it should provide enough arms for Israel to defend itself. For if Israel faced defeat, the US “would confront the… painful and unattractive choices” of whether to send its own troops into battle.

Forty years on, much of Bundy’s description remains valid. It is easier, even cheaper, for America to keep Israel strong than to defend it directly. But Washington must also accommodate Arab allies. The Bundy doctrine implies that getting Arabs and Israelis to agree a peace deal would resolve the contradictions in US policy-and would be the best guarantee of Israeli security. The question then becomes one of how much the US should lean towards providing for Israel’s immediate security needs, and how much it should be pushing Israel towards a peace agreement as a strategic solution.

Within those constraints, specific groups such as AIPAC try to influence policy. Though not all-powerful, AIPAC pushes too hard toward short-term security, slighting Israel’s strategic interest in peace. A dovish lobby is needed to counter that influence.

1 thought on “Liberal Israel lobby: Update I”

  1. Gershom, the Mearsheimer and Walt book is clearly not perfect. Part of the problem is that boundaries are so confused that it is difficult to characterise what is going on. I saw it reported that Ann Lewis, a Clinton adviser said “The role of the president of the United States is to support the decisions that are made by the people of Israel. It is not up to us to pick and choose from among the political parties.” I believe these are technically treasonous proposals. The US president must represent the interests of Americans things aren’t to get hopelessly confused, but that is what is happening. (There is a similar-ish confusion in the UK between US and UK foreign policy, by the way).

    Obviously any American President must look after the interests of Israel–the American people demand it. But that certainly does not mean supporting the decisions of the people of Israel–the whole point of having friends is so that they can offer the perspective that comes with distance, and indeed tough love.

    More confusion comes in with the confluence of milinarian Christianity and Judaism, the military-industrial complexes vested interest in arming all sides in the M.E. (except the Iranisns), our needs to secure access to Oil.

    From what I can tell you do seem to somewaht underestimate the power of AIPAC. They by no means speak for American Jewry (who are much more sceptical of these neo-colonial adventures on average) but AIPAC have access to all of the pressure points and are tremendously skilled at playing the game. I think it is widely acknowledged that no politician in Congress will dare cross them without an extremely good reason to do so. This reputation alone probably does half of the job, but I think Ann Lewis’s comments are a testament to it. A fear of antisemitism may be a part (but only a part) of this.

    I agree with you that the US administration has been poisoning Israeli policy much more than the other way round. The right wing in the US are exploiting Israel to carry out their own right-wing agendas. (Similarly Europeans on the left exploit the Palestinian issue for their own ends.)

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