March 25, 2006

More on the Israel Lobby article

Here are a couple of useful antedotes to the hysteria that has greeted The Israel Lobby article by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt and published in the London Review of Books. One is by Daniel Levy in Ha'aretz. It's notable for disagreeing with aspects of the article whilst refraining from the intellectual dishonesty so beloved of its zionist detractors.
It sometimes takes AIPAC omnipotence too much at face value and disregards key moments - such as the Bush senior/Baker loan guarantees episode and Clinton's showdown with Netanyahu over the Wye River Agreement. The study largely ignores AIPAC run-ins with more dovish Israeli administrations, most notably when it undermined Yitzhak Rabin, and how excessive hawkishness is often out of step with mainstream American Jewish opinion, turning many, especially young American Jews, away from taking any interest in Israel.

Yet their case is a potent one: that identification of American with Israeli interests can be principally explained via the impact of the Lobby in Washington, and in limiting the parameters of public debate, rather than by virtue of Israel being a vital strategic asset or having a uniquely compelling moral case for support (beyond, as the authors point out, the right to exist, which is anyway not in jeopardy). The study is at its most devastating when it describes how the Lobby "stifles debate by intimidation" and at its most current when it details how America's interests (and ultimately Israel's, too) are ill-served by following the Lobby's agenda.
And the other is the Guardian hosted blog of Adam Shatz. This is a genuine critique of the article itself and a complaint of the way it has been received. Headed Dialogue of the Deaf and worth quoting at length.
However, Mearsheimer and Walt, in my view, bend the stick too far; they seem so in awe of the lobby's power that they have abandoned their realism for the fantasy that Washington is Israeli-occupied territory. It is true that the lobby has a lot of power - too much power, especially in suppressing debate terrifying and/or bribing members of Congress, shutting down artistic productions (see the cancellation of "My Name is Rachel Corrie"), and bullying public figures (witness the abject caving in of Sir Richard Rogers). It is also true that the lobby enjoys boasting of its power, when it is not minimizing it - throwing around one's power while at the same time maintaining the appearance of righteous victimhood is, after all, a delicate balancing act.

But I am not persuaded by the Mearsheimer/Walt argument that the lobby is so decisive a force in shaping American Middle East policy. Israel's record is an embarrassment to the United States, and an affront to its stated democratic ideals (but then so is American behavior in Iraq!), but the Jewish state also provides the United States with valuable services which it might be unable to obtain elsewhere, particularly Israel's intelligence services.

Israel's nuclear weapons have provoked an arms race in the region, leading Iran to develop comparable weapons, which is doubtless a concern to the Americans; but those same nuclear weapons (built with French support, it is often forgotten) create fear in the minds of Arabs and Muslims, something the United States government may well appreciate.

Israel has helped train paramilitaries to fight guerillas in Colombia and other Latin American countries; it provided arms to Somoza's Nicaragua when Jimmy Carter withdrew support from his crumbling regime; more recently, according to Seymour Hersh, it has worked closely with Kurdish groups plotting attacks on Iran's borders; and Israel has advised American troops in Iraq on counter-insurgency.

While the lobby helps to frame, or rather constrict discussion of Israel and its behaviour in America, and while it helps drum up support for Israel on Capitol Hill and to intensify the wave of hostility directed toward Israel's enemies, from Iran to Syria, I'm not convinced that it can be credited with determining American policy (the Iraq war was partly about creating a safe environment for Israel, but much more about control of oil); or that American policy today runs counter to American interests because of the lobby's influence.

There is more convergence than divergence between the interests of Israel and the United States, at least as they are presently constructed. Both Israel and the United States, for different reasons, prefer weak Arab and Muslim states. This is a dangerously short-sighted strategy, one that inevitably provokes hostility, and it is no accident that in such a climate radical paramilitary groups from Hizbollah to Al Qaeda have emerged. The lobby has much to answer for, and it would be a salutary development if groups like AIPAC, which do not represent the majority of American Jewish opinion, were obliged to register as lobbies of a foreign power.

But the vision of Mearsheimer and Walt of a lobby with the power to recast American foreign policy in its image strains credulity. Although the United States is certainly having a hard time of it in Iraq, it could face down the lobby if it decided that the lobby was undermining US interests to the breaking point.
Well done Mr Shatz. You have managed to critique the article without casting aspersions on the writers' integrity and without accusing them of antisemitism.

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