Ferment Over ‘The Israel Lobby’

Ferment Over ‘The Israel Lobby’

Criticisms of the Israel lobby have circulated for years, but it took two professors and the Iraq War to inject realist ideas into the debate.


Intellectuals can only dream of having the impact that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have had this spring. Within hours of their publishing a critique of the Israel lobby in The London Review of Books for March 23, the article was zinging around the world, soon to show up on the front pages of newspapers and stir heated discussion on cable-TV shows. Virtually overnight, two balding professors in their 50s had become public intellectuals, ducking hundreds of e-mails, phone messages and challenges to debate.

Titled “The Israel Lobby,” the piece argued that a wide-ranging coalition that includes neoconservatives, Christian Zionists, leading journalists and of course the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, exerts a “stranglehold” on Middle East policy and public debate on the issue. While supporting the moral cause for the existence of Israel, the authors said there was neither a strategic nor a moral interest in America’s siding so strongly with post-occupation Israel. Many Americans thought the Iraq War was about oil, but “the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure.”

The shock waves from the article continue to resonate. The initial response was outrage from Israel supporters, some likening the authors to neo-Nazis. The Anti-Defamation League called the paper “a classical conspiratorial anti-Semitic analysis invoking the canards of Jewish power and Jewish control.” University of Chicago Professor Daniel Drezner called it “piss-poor, monocausal social science.” Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz said the men had “destroyed their professional reputations.” Even left-leaning critics dismissed the piece as inflammatory and wrong. As time passed (and the Ku Klux Klan remained dormant), a more rational debate began. The New York Times, having first downplayed the article, printed a long op-ed by historian Tony Judt saying that out of fear, the mainstream media were failing to face important ideas the article had put forward. And Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, praised it at the Middle East Institute for conveying “blinding flashes of the obvious,” ideas “that were whispered in corners rather than said out loud at cocktail parties where someone else could hear you.”

While criticisms of the lobby have circulated widely for years and been published at the periphery, the Mearsheimer-Walt paper stands out because it was so frontal and pointed, and because it was published online by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where Walt is a professor and outgoing academic dean. “It was inevitably going to take someone from Harvard [to get this discussed],” says Phyllis Bennis, a writer on Middle East issues at the Institute for Policy Studies.

What’s more, the article appeared when public pessimism over the Iraq War was reaching new highs. “The paper was important as a political intervention because the authors are squarely in the mainstream of academic life,” says Norman Finkelstein, a professor of political science at DePaul University dedicated to bringing the issue of Palestinian suffering under the occupation to Americans’ attention. “The reason they’re getting a hearing now is because of the Iraq debacle.” Bennis and Finkelstein, both left-wing critics of Israel, have criticisms of the paper’s findings. Partly this reflects the paper’s origins: Though it was printed in a left-leaning English journal, it was written by theorists of a school associated with the center/right: realism, which holds that the world is a dangerous neighborhood, that good intentions don’t mean very much and that the key to order is a balance of power among armed states. For realists, issues like human rights and how states treat minorities are so much idealistic fluff.

Given the paper’s parentage, the ferment over it raises political questions. How did these ideas get to center stage? And what do they suggest about the character of the antiwar intelligentsia?

Let’s begin with the personalities. The more forceful member of the duo (and the one who would talk to me), Mearsheimer, 58, is by nature an outsider. Though he spent ten years of his youth in the military, graduating from West Point, he wasn’t much for tents and guns even as he latched on to David Halberstam’s book The Best and the Brightest because it explained a horrible war. Out of pure intellectual curiosity Mearsheimer, who had become an officer in the Air Force, enrolled in graduate school classes at the University of Southern California. Today he is a realist powerhouse at the University of Chicago, publishing such titles as Conventional Deterrence. Like Mearsheimer, Walt, 50, grew up in privilege, but he is a courtly and soft-spoken achiever. Stanford, Berkeley and Princeton figured in his progress to Harvard. “I think Steve enjoyed moving into institutional roles,” says one academic. “Steve likes a good argument, but unlike John he can be polite. John enjoys the image of the bomb thrower.”

Mearsheimer was hawkish about Israel until the 1990s, when he began to read Israel’s “New Historians,” a group of Israeli scholars and journalists (among them Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim and Tom Segev) who showed that Israel’s founders had been at times ruthless toward Palestinians. Mearsheimer’s former student Michael Desch, a professor at Texas A&M, recalls the epiphany: “For a lot of us, who didn’t know a lot about the Israel/Palestine conflict beyond the conventional wisdom and Leon Uris’s Exodus, we saw a cold war ally; and the moral issue and the common democracy reinforced a strong pro-Israel bent.” Then Desch rode to a conference with two left-wing Jewish academics familiar with the New Historians. “My initial reaction was the same as John’s: This is crazy. [They argued that] the Israelis weren’t the victims of the ’48 war to destroy the country. Ben-Gurion had real doubts about partition. Jordan and Israel talked about dividing up the West Bank together. All those things were heretical. They seemed to be coming from way, way out in left field. Then we started reading [them], and it completely changed the way we looked at these things.” Mearsheimer says he had been blinded by Uris’s novel. “The New Historians’ work was a great revelation to me. Not only do they provide an abundance of evidence to back up their stories about how Israel was really created, but their stories make perfect sense. There is no way that waves of European Jews moving into a land filled with Palestinians are going to create a Jewish state without breaking a lot of Palestinian heads…. It’s just not possible.”

September 11 was a catalytic event for the realists. Mearsheimer and Walt came to see the close US alliance with Israel as damaging American relations with other states. American policy toward the Palestinians was serving to foster terrorism, Walt wrote in a book called Taming American Power. And you weren’t allowed to discuss it. Walt spoke of the chilling effect of the Israel lobby (on a University of California, Berkeley, TV show called Conversations With History last fall): “Right now, this has become a subject that you can barely talk about without people immediately trying to silence you, immediately trying to discredit you in various ways, such that no American politicians will touch this, which is quite remarkable when you consider how much Americans argue about every other controversial political issue. To me, this is a national security priority for us, and we ought to be having an open debate on it, not one where only one side is being heard from.”

For his part, Mearsheimer saw the lobby’s power in an episode in the spring of 2002, when Bush called on Ariel Sharon to withdraw troops from Palestinian towns on the West Bank. Sharon shrugged him off, and Bush caved. Mearsheimer says by e-mail: “At the American Political Science Association convention in the late summer of 2002, I was talking to a friend about the US-Israel relationship. We shared similar views, and agreed that lots of others thought the same way. I said to him over the course of a dinner that I found it quite amazing that despite widespread recognition of the lobby’s influence, no one could write about it and get it published in the United States. He told me that he thought that was not the case, because he had a friend at The Atlantic who was looking for just such an article.”

The Atlantic had long hoped to assign a piece that would look systematically at where Israel and America shared interests and where those interests conflicted, so as to examine the lobby’s impact. The magazine duly commissioned an article in late 2002 by Mearsheimer and Walt, whom Mearsheimer had brought in. “No way I would have done it alone,” Mearsheimer says. “You needed two people of significant stature to withstand the firestorm that would invariably come with the publication of the piece.”

Mearsheimer and Walt had plenty of ideological company. After 9/11, many other realists were questioning American policy in the Mideast. Stephen Van Evera, an international relations professor at MIT, began writing papers showing that the American failure to deal fairly with the Israel/Palestine conflict was fostering support for Al Qaeda across the Muslim world. Robert Pape, a professor down the hall from Mearsheimer at Chicago, published a book, Dying to Win, showing that suicide bombers were not religiously motivated but were acting pragmatically against occupiers.

The writer Anatol Lieven says he reluctantly took on the issue after 9/11 as a matter of “duty”–when the Carnegie Endowment, where he was a senior associate, asked him to. “I knew bloody well it would bring horrible unpopularity…. All my personal loyalties are the other way. I’ve literally dozens of Jewish friends; I have no Palestinian friends.” Lieven says he was a regular at the Aspen Institute till he brought up the issue. “I got kicked out of Aspen…. In early 2002 they held a conference on relations with the Muslim world. For two days nobody mentioned Israel. Finally, I said, ‘Look, this is a Soviet-style debate. Whatever you think about this issue, the entire Muslim world is shouting about it.’ I have never been asked back.” In 2004 Lieven published a book, America Right or Wrong, in which he argued that the United States had subordinated its interests to a tiny militarized state, Israel. Attacked as an anti-Semite, Lieven says he became a pariah among many colleagues at the Carnegie Endowment, which he left for the fledgling New America Foundation.

Yet another on this path was the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama, a neoconservative-turned-realist. In 2004 he attended Charles Krauthammer’s speech at the American Enterprise Institute about spreading democracy and was shocked by the many positive effects Krauthammer saw in the Iraq War. Fukuyama attacked this militaristic thinking in an article in The National Interest. He wrote with sympathy of the Palestinians and said the neoconservatives confused American and Israeli interests. “Are we like Israel, locked in a remorseless struggle with a large part of the Arab and Muslim world, with few avenues open to us for dealing with them other than an iron fist?… I believe that there are real problems in transposing one situation to the other.” Krauthammer responded in personal terms, all but accusing Fukuyama of anti-Semitism. “The remarkable thing about the debate was how oblique Frank’s reference to the issue was and how batshit Krauthammer and the other neoconservatives went,” says Mike Desch. “It is important to them to keep this a third rail in American politics. They understood that even an elliptical reference would open the door, and they immediately all jumped on Frank to make the point, ‘Don’t go there.'” It seems to have worked. The soft-spoken Fukuyama left out the critique of the neocon identification with Israel in his recent book, America at the Crossroads.

“We understood there would be a significant price to pay,” Mearsheimer says. “We both went into this understanding full well that our chances of ever being appointed to a high-level administrative position at a university or policy-making position in Washington would be greatly damaged.” They turned their piece in to The Atlantic two years ago. The magazine sought revisions, and they submitted a new draft in early 2005, which was rejected. “[We] decided not to publish the article they wrote,” managing editor Cullen Murphy wrote to me, adding that The Atlantic‘s policy is not to discuss editorial decisions with people other than the authors.

“I believe they got cold feet,” Mearsheimer says. “They said they thought the piece was a terrible–they thought the piece was terribly written. That was their explanation. Beyond that I know nothing. I would be curious to know what really happened.” The writing as such can’t have been the issue for the magazine; editors are paid to rewrite pieces. The understanding I got from a source close to the magazine is that The Atlantic had wanted a piece of an analytical character. It got the analysis, topped off with a strong argument.

That might have been the end of it. The authors “nosed around,” Mearsheimer says, looking for another US publisher, then gave up, concluding that the piece could not be published as an article or book in “a mainstream outlet” in the United States. Half a year passed. Then a scholar Mearsheimer will not identify called to say that a staffer at The Atlantic had passed along the piece, which he found “magisterial.” The scholar put the authors in touch with Mary-Kay Wilmers, the London Review of Books editor, and last fall she contracted to publish the piece.

“John, who I think is a little bit more hardheaded politically and intellectually, expected what came,” Desch says. “Steve was more confident that facts and logic would carry the day, and from some conversations I’ve had he was clearly shellshocked. He was in an exposed position at Harvard.” Desch adds that when the New York Sun linked the authors to white supremacist David Duke, who praised the article, “it came as a real kick in the stomach.” Some measure of Walt’s exposure is financial. Bernard Steinberg, director of Harvard’s Hillel center, brought this issue up unprompted to me: “I talked to someone in Harvard development and asked what the fallout had been, and he said, ‘It’s been seismic.'”

Something in Mearsheimer’s spirit would seem to be fulfilled in upsetting people by expressing ideas that he deeply believes. “When you write about this subject and you’re critical of Israeli policy or critical of the US-Israel relationship, you are invariably going to be called an anti-Semite,” he says. When I said he had autonomy as a professor to enjoy “free discourse” in this country, he said, “What free discourse in the United States? What free discourse are you talking about?” Mearsheimer’s friend Van Evera criticizes him for allowing his legitimate anger over being shut out of the discourse to affect the tone of the article. But Mearsheimer was expressing his sharp personality; and doesn’t passion give life to an argument?

The authors have gotten support from hundreds of e-mails, three-quarters of which congratulate them, Mearsheimer says. Foreign-service officers in Washington who are frightened by the neoconservative program are said to be excitedly passing the article around. The European left has also welcomed the paper, saying that these issues must be discussed. And even in Israel the article has had a respectful reading, with a writer in Ha’aretz saying it was a “wake-up call” to Americans about the relationship.

Many liberals and leftists have signaled their discomfort with the paper. Daniel Fleshler, a longtime board member of Americans for Peace Now, says the issue of Jewish influence is “so incendiary and so complicated that I don’t know how anyone can talk about this in the public sphere. I know that’s a problem. But there’s not enough space in any article you write to do this in a way that doesn’t cause more rancor. And so much of this paper was glib and poorly researched.” In Salon Michelle Goldberg wrote that the authors had “blundered forth” into the argument in “clumsy and crude” ways, for instance failing to distinguish between Jewish Likudniks and Jewish support of Democrats in Congress. Noam Chomsky wrote that the authors had ignored the structural forces in the American economy pushing for war, what he calls “the tight state-corporate linkage.” Norman Finkelstein makes a similar distinction. “I’m glad they did it,” he says of the publication, but he argues that while the pro-Israel lobby controls public debate on the issue, and even Congress, the lobby can’t be shown to decide the “elite opinion” that creates policy in the Mideast.

One problem with this argument is that in insisting on the primacy of corporate decision-making, it diminishes the realm of political culture and shows a real dullness about how ideas percolate in Washington. Think tanks, the idea factories that help produce policy, used to have a firmly WASPish character. But as Walt and Mearsheimer show, hawkishly pro-Israel forces have established a “commanding presence” at such organizations over much of the spectrum, from the Brookings Institution in the center to the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation on the right. After Bush’s 2000 victory, Dick Cheney made sure that his neoconservative friends were posted throughout the Administration, and after 9/11 their militaristic ideas swept the government like a fever. In a fearful time, their utter distrust of Arab and Muslim culture seemed to the Bushies to explain the world. “You have an alliance between neocons and aggressive nationalists that goes back thirty years. Their ideas have bled into one another,” says Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service. “And neoconservatives put Israel at the absolute center of their worldview.” One of the tenets of neocon belief was that the road to peace in Israel/Palestine led through Baghdad: Give Israel a greater sense of security and you can solve the Palestinian issue later. That has been the government policy.

Lieven says, “It’s self-evidently true that other interests and ambitions are involved in the war with Iraq…. Oil is very much–imperial ambitions are very much there.” But, he adds, “it is crazy to suggest on the one hand that the neoconservatives had a great influence on the Bush Administration and to say that it didn’t play out in terms of a hard interest for Israel. If you think the neocons were not running the whole show but had a definite impact, then you can’t possibly suggest that Israeli interests were not involved.”

The liberal intelligentsia have failed in their responsibility on specifically this question. Because they maintain a nostalgic view of the Establishment as a Christian stronghold in which pro-Israel Jews have limited power, or because they like to make George Bush and the Christian end-timers and the oilmen the only bad guys in a debacle, or because they are afraid of pogroms resulting from talking about Jewish power, they have peeled away from addressing the neocons’ Israel-centered view of foreign relations. “It seems that the American left is also claimed by the Israel lobby,” Wilmers, LRB‘s (Jewish) editor, says with dismay. Certainly the old antiwar base of the Democratic Party has been fractured, with concerns about Israel’s security driving the wedge. In the 2004 primaries, Howard Dean was forced to correct himself after–horrors–calling for a more evenhanded policy in the Middle East. The New Yorker‘s courageous opposition to the Vietnam War was replaced this time around by muted support for the Iraq War. Tom Friedman spoke for many liberals when he said on Slate that bombs in Israeli pizza parlors made him support aggression in Iraq. Meantime, out of fear of Dershowitz, or respect for him, the liberal/mainstream media have declined to look into the lobby’s powers, leaving it to two brave professors. The extensive quibbling on the left over the Mearsheimer-Walt paper has often seemed defensive, mistrustful of Americans’ ability to listen to these ideas lest they cast Israel aside.

Mearsheimer and Walt at times were simplistic and shrill. But it may have required such rhetoric to break through the cinder block and get attention for their ideas. Democracy depends on free exchange, and free exchange means not always having to be careful. Lieven says we have seen in another system the phenomenon of intellectuals strenuously denouncing an article that could not even be published in their own country: the Soviet Union. “If somebody like me, an absolute down-the-line centrist on this issue–my position on Israel/Palestine is identical to that of the Blair government–has so much difficulty publishing, it’s a sign of how extremely limited and ethically rotten the media debate is in this country.”

Realist ideas are resonating now because the utopian ideas that drove the war are so frightening and demoralizing. Indeed, Fukuyama has moved toward what he calls Wilsonian realism. Lieven is about to come out with a book (co-edited with a right-winger from the Heritage Foundation) on ethical realism. These ideas are appealing because they offer a better way of explaining a dangerous world than the idea that our bombs are good bombs and that Muslims only respect force. Left-wingers and liberals who find themselves alienated from the country’s warmongering leadership have to acknowledge the potential in these ideas to forge a coalition of outs. But the price of effecting such a realignment is high: It means separating from the Israel lobby (or reforming it!) and trusting that a fairer American policy in the Middle East will not mean abandoning Israel.

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