The Lobby in Action

excerpted from the book

The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy

by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007, paperback

The United States has three main interests in the Middle East today: keeping Persian Gulf oil flowing to world markets, discouraging the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and reducing anti-American terrorism originating in the region. There are instances where the [Israel] lobby has supported policies that advanced these interests, but many of the policies that organizations in the lobby have promoted over time have ultimately left the United States worse off. That was not their intention, of course, and the groups and individuals who pushed for these policies undoubtedly believed that the actions they favored would be good for the United States. They were wrong. Indeed, although these policies were intended to benefit Israel, many of them have damaged Israel's interests as well.

ln addition to preserving U.S. aid to Israel, groups in the lobby have sought to ensure that American power is used to shape the Middle East environment in ways they believed would advance Israel's interests, especially in security. In practical terms, this meant backing Israel in its long struggle with the Palestinians and directing American power against other movements or states that might be at odds with Israel.

Most pro-Israel groups-and especially the central organizations in the lobby - want the United States to help Israel remain the dominant military power in the Middle East. In addition to maintaining generous aid to Israel's military establishment, these groups favor using American power to deal with Israel's main regional adversaries: Iran, Iraq under Saddam, and Syria. At the very least, the lobby wants America to contain these so-called rogue states and to make sure that they do not acquire nuclear weapons. Some of these groups have gone farther, advocating that the United States use its power to topple the regimes in Iran, Iraq, and Syria and replace them with leaders willing to live peacefully with Israel.

The [Israel] lobby has pushed American leaders to disarm Hezbollah and help create a Lebanon that is friendly to Israel. But these goals cannot be accomplished without radically changing the behavior of Iran and Syria, since those states support and arm Hezbollah, and Syria has a long history of involvement in Lebanese politics. Given these and other links among Israel's adversaries, the lobby tends to see all of them as part of a seamless web of evil that the United States must at least keep at bay if not destroy.

The [Israel] lobby would be less influential if it no longer enjoyed generous financial support, or if its ability to direct campaign contributions and to pressure media organizations declined. Neither of these developments is realistic, however, because it is not likely to lose wealthy and generous supporters anytime soon. Although the number of Americans who are unconditionally committed to Israel is declining, there will almost certainly be a sufficient number who feel strongly enough to give large sums to support the lobby's leading organizations. Banning such contributions is unlikely and would probably be illegal. Plus, trying to restrict support for pro-Israel groups would clearly be anti-Semitic, as all Americans are within their rights to contribute to any legitimate cause.

The obvious way to reduce the lobby's influence (along with other special interest groups) is campaign finance reform. Public financing of all elections would seriously weaken the link between the lobby and elected officials and make it easier for the latter to pressure Israel (or simply withdraw U.S. support) when doing so would be in America's interest. Such a step would not eliminate the lobby's influence, as politicians would still court Jewish and Christian Zionist voters, and groups and individuals within the lobby could still press their case with U.S. officials and work to shape public opinion. Campaign finance reform would almost certainly attenuate its influence, however, and would encourage more open deliberations within the corridors of power.

Unfortunately, the prospects for meaningful campaign finance reform are dim. Incumbents have too great a stake in the current system, and plenty of other special interest groups would join forces to resist any effort to revise the system that currently gives them disproportionate influence. It would probably take a bevy of Jack Abramoff-style scandals to convince Americans to purge private money from the electoral process. In the short term, trying to weaken the lobby directly is not going to work.

Creating a "counterlobby" to balance the Israel lobby is also likely to fail... Arab-American and Muslim groups are much weaker than the organizations in the Israel lobby, and the vaunted oil lobby exerts much less influence on foreign and national security policy than is commonly believed. Other countervailing organizations-such as the nonpartisan Council for the National interest or Americans for Middle East Understanding-are also significantly smaller and less well financed than the Israel lobby.

But even if these various groups were bigger and richer, they would still find it hard to overcome the collective action dynamics that lie at the heart of interest group politics. As noted earlier, pro-Israel groups succeed in part because their members place an especially high priority on backing Israel, which means that they tend to engage in single-issue politics-backing only candidates whose pro-Israel credentials are well established. Even if many Americans are aware that unconditional support for Israel is not in America's national interest, this issue is not the top priority for most of them, and there are significant differences among the various groups that are either skeptical of unconditional aid to Israel or strongly opposed to it. As a result, trying to balance the lobby's influence by pulling these disparate groups into a sufficiently cohesive coalition is not a promising strategy. We would also view attempts to form an explicitly "anti-Israel" lobby with grave misgivings, as this sort of group could easily foster a resurgence of genuine anti-Semitism.

The third option, which is much more promising than the first two, is to encourage a more open debate about these issues, in order to correct existing myths about the Middle East and to force groups in the lobby to defend their positions in the face of a well-informed opposition. In particular, Americans need to understand the real history of Israel's founding and the true story of its subsequent conduct. Instead of passively accepting the Leon Uris version of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Americans need to absorb and reflect on the findings of Israel's "new historians," whose courageous scholarship has shed much-needed light on what the Zionists' campaign to build a Jewish state in the midst of an indigenous Arab population entailed. Although the two situations are hardly identical, one cannot understand Zionism without understanding the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, and one cannot fathom contemporary Palestinian nationalism without being aware of the events surrounding the 1948 war, which Israelis call the War of Independence but Palestinians call al-Nakba, or "the Catastrophe".

Because most Americans are only dimly aware of the crimes committed against the Palestinians, they see their continued resistance as an irrational desire for vengeance, or as evidence of unwarranted hatred of Jews akin to the anti-Semitism that was endemic in old Europe. Ignorance about the past also encourages Americans to reject the Palestinians' demands for compensation - especially the right of return - as utterly unjustified. Although we deplore the Palestinians' reliance on terrorism and are well aware of their own contribution to prolonging the conflict, we believe their grievances are genuine and must be addressed, even if, as noted above, some of their aspirations (such as the unrestricted right of return) will have to go unmet or be resolved in other ways. We also believe most Americans would support a different approach to the conflict if they had a more accurate understanding of past events and present conditions.

As the primary source of independent thinking in democratic societies, scholars and journalists should be encouraged to resist the lobby's efforts to shape public discourse and to encourage more open discussion of these important issues. The objective is not to single out Israel for criticism or to challenge the legitimacy of the Jewish state, but rather to help Americans gain a more accurate picture of how past behavior casts a giant shadow over the present. Israel will still have plenty of vocal defenders - as it should - but America would be better served if its citizens were exposed to the range of views about Israel common to most of the world's democracies, including Israel itself.

Journalists have a particular responsibility to ask hard questions during political campaigns. As noted at the beginning of this book, virtually all the major presidential candidates began the 2008 campaign by expressing a strong personal commitment to Israel and by making it clear that they favor unconditional U.S. support for the Jewish state and a confrontational approach toward its adversaries. Politicians should not get a free pass when they utter the usual pro-Israel platitudes. Reporters and commentators

should insist that those who aspire to be president explain why they favor such strong support for Israel and ask if they support a two-state solution and will push hard for it once elected. The candidates should also be asked to consider whether a more conditional U.S. policy-for example, one that linked American military aid to genuine progress toward peace-might be good for the United States and Israel alike. And it should be fair game to ask those who aspire to the highest office in the land if their views have been influenced by campaign contributions from pro-Israel PACs or individuals, just as one might legitimately ask about the impact of contributions received from oil companies, labor unions, or drug manufacturers.

To foster a more open discussion, Americans of all backgrounds must reject the silencing tactics that some groups and individuals in the lobby continue to employ. Stifling debate and smearing opponents is inconsistent with the principles of vigorous and open dialogue on which democracy depends, and continued reliance on this undemocratic tactic runs the risk of generating a hostile backlash at some point in the future.

We condemn all attempts to silence legitimate forms of discussion and debate-including the occasional efforts to silence pro-Israel voices-and we hope that this book will contribute to a more open exchange of views on these difficult problems. Both the United States and Israel face vexing challenges in dealing with the many problems in the Middle East, and neither country will benefit by silencing those who support a new approach. This does not mean that critics are always right, of course, but their suggestions deserve at least as much consideration as the failed policies that key groups }the lobby have backed in recent years.

Israel's creation and subsequent development is a remarkable achievement. Had American Jews not organized on Israel's behalf and convinced important politicians to support their objectives, Israel might never have been established. U.S. and Israeli interests have never been identical, however, and Israel's current policies are at odds with America's own national interests and certain core U.S. values. Unfortunately, in recent years the lobby's political clout and public relations acumen have discouraged U.S. leaders from pursuing Middle East policies that would advance American interests and protect Israel from its worst mistakes. The lobby's influence, in short, has been bad for both countries.

There is, nonetheless, a silver lining in America's current plight. Because the costs of these failed policies are now so apparent, we have an opportunity for reflection and renewal. Although the lobby remains a powerful political force, its adverse impact is increasingly hard to overlook. A country as rich and powerful as the United States can sustain flawed policies for quite some time, but reality cannot be ignored forever.

What is needed, therefore, is a candid but civilized discussion of the lobby's influence and a more open debate about U.S. interests in this vital region. Israel's well-being is one of those interests-on moral grounds-but its continued presence in the Occupied Territories is not. Open debate and more wide-ranging media coverage will reveal the problems that the current "special relationship" creates and encourage the United States to pursue policies more in line with its own national interest, with the interests of other states in the region, and, we firmly believe, with Israel's interest as well.

The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy

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