How the Pro-Israel Lobby Guides US Policy

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“The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy” by John J. Mearsheimer & Steven M. Walt

Penguin Books, 2008 [2007], 484 pp.

Few books on politics and international relations have sparked as much controversy over the last ten years as The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. It directed a harsh criticism at one of the most powerful interest groups in the US and went against one of the most predominant principles of American foreign policy since World War II; steadfast support for the state of Israel.

lobby.jpgThe book was written by two of the most influential thinkers within the field of International Relations today. John J. Mearsheimer is a professor at the University of Chicago and author of the influential The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001). His co-author Stephen M. Walt is a professor at Harvard University and another central figure within the school of political Realism, especially due to his book The Origins of Alliances (1987).

Upon publication, The Israel Lobby and its authors became the targets of many a political and academic assault, which goes to prove the volatility of the subject. And while the book may be deserving of some criticism, it is nonetheless a sophisticated piece of academic work which has managed to both inform studies of the sources of US foreign policy and spark a political discussion of the influence of interest groups.

The great benefactor

Mearsheimer and Walt begin by demonstrating the vast support which the US provides Israel with. The US has channeled hundreds of billions of dollars to Israel, the bulk of which have been grants rather than loans or loans for which the repayment was afterwards waived. In 2005 (the book was published in 2007), the US donated more than a third of its total direct foreign assistance to Israel, equal to 2 percent of the Israeli gross domestic product. These large sums are donated under far more beneficial conditions than is the case with any other recipient of US assistance. For example, Israel is the only recipient of US aid that does not have to account for how the money is spent.

At the military level, Israel has access to some of America’s most advanced technology and is closely linked to the American defense and intelligence establishment. Again, these vast benefits, many of which are not shared by America’s other close allies, come with essentially no conditions attached. Why is Israel receiving this kind of support?

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When friends become liabilities

A common argument for continuing US support for Israel is that the latter is a strategic asset to US foreign policy. However, as the authors argue, that argument is false. While it may have been true during the Cold War when Israel played some part in limiting the spread of communism in the region, they have less to offer today.

On the contrary, America’s support for Israel is the cause of many problems for the US today. It alienates large parts of the Middle Eastern populations who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, breeding hostility among Muslim populations which may in time be directed toward the US in the form of terrorist attacks. Likewise, one of the central points of conflict between the US and Iran is Washington’s backing of Jerusalem.

Another interesting point raised by the authors is the fact that Israel’s actions by no means always match US interests. On multiple occasions, Israel has gone against the American agenda and made deals with opponents of the US, such as Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. Furthermore, Israel has been engaged in extensive espionage against the US to win market advantages and steal military secrets.

The argument here is not that America should cut all its ties with Israel. Rather, Mearsheimer and Walt argue that the US should continue to support Israel’s existence – but at the same level as it supports its other allies. Israel is already the strongest state in the Middle East militarily and it even has a nuclear deterrent of its own. What, then, is the reason for America’s continuing and generous economic and military support for Israel?

The role of the Israel lobby

As its title suggests, The Israel Lobby identifies the central cause of America’s generosity towards its ally as the domestic forces lobbying in favor of Israeli interests. Mearsheimer and Walt repeatedly stress that the Israel lobby “is not a single, unified movement with a central leadership, and [that] it is certainly not a cabal or conspiracy that ‘controls’ U.S. foreign policy. It is simply a powerful interest group” (p. 5). It includes numerous organizations consisting of both Jews and gentiles, many of which disagree on a number of issues. What binds them together is their fundamental backing of “steadfast U.S. support for Israel no matter what policies the Jewish state pursues” (p. 120).

The lobby is not different from the many other interest groups within the American foreign policy establishment. It is just more well-funded and well-connected and/or more effective at mobilizing its resources. Furthermore, its interests tend to align with those of the neoconservatives and of Christian Zionists who also have access to networks and resources in American society.

In practical terms, the lobby influences US policy by choosing which politicians to direct funding to and from, and by influencing the public discourse in a way that is favorable to Israel. The lobby channels money into the campaigns of politicians who have views favorable of Israel, and should a candidate with overtly critical views of Israel present itself, the lobby will make sure to fund his or her opponent. This is not limited to economic resources: the lobby may also direct its many constituents to vote for or against a specific politician. As a result, it is very difficult to run for office on an Israel-skeptical platform.

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At the level of public discourse, the lobby funds pro-Israel think tanks, pro-Israel student groups at campuses and efforts to influence the hiring practices of university faculties as well as the speakers lists of numerous public events and conferences, among other things. At a more precarious level, there has been a tendency to brand anyone with critical opinions of Israeli politics as anti-Semites in the media, which is an effective way of killing someone’s career. Yet, the authors note that this last tactic seems to be losing some of its power – fortunately (p. 195).

A strategic and domestic response

After going through several empirical examples of foreign policy issues that were influenced by the lobby, Mearsheimer and Walt provide their suggestions for what to do about it all. At the strategic level, the two realists echo their previous writings by advocating an “offshore balancing” strategy, similar to that of Barry R. Posen, where the US plays a more limited role internationally and starts treating Israel as any other ally.

On the domestic stage, the authors argue that great improvements would be made if the public were to become more informed; informed of Israel’s historical and contemporary conduct against the Palestinians, since that would make for more evenhanded moral assessments of the country’s situation, and informed of the disproportionate support Israel enjoys today, and the economic funding which the lobby directs towards elements in the American political establishment. Finally, they advocate the creation of a new Israel lobby with more moderate views of how America should behave towards its ally and a more balanced perspective on Israel’s own policies.

A political bomb

The Israel Lobby deserves the attention it got. Mearsheimer and Walt are convincing in their arguments, which are made with massive empirical evidence and sources to support them. They manage to address an important taboo without overemphasizing a single aspect such as the problematic elements of Israel’s conduct toward the Palestinians. And while critical of Israel, it never degenerates into the mindless Israel-bashing which is, unfortunately, prevalent in much contemporary discourse.

As Leslie H. Gelb notes, in his highly critical review of the book in The New York Times, the authors do sometimes succumb to one-liner arguments when depicting the influence of the lobby. They also neglect to account for how America has taken a critical line towards Israel and its actions on multiple occasions, or how the US has taken positions that run counter to the lobby several times. In short, Mearsheimer and Walt may be overstating the influence of the lobby.

At the strategic level, it is not difficult to problematize the authors’ quick assertion that anti-American sentiment in the Middle East stems from America’s support of Israel. Could it not be the case that this sentiment is a result of American support for multiple autocratic regimes in the region, as well as the recent war in Iraq? Finally, the solutions presented in The Israel Lobby remain rather vague and unsatisfying.

This criticism points out some important challenges for The Israel Lobby, and any reader would do well to go over one or two critical assessments of the book’s arguments before swallowing them whole. Nonetheless, Mearsheimer and Walt have managed to direct political discourse in a very positive direction by emphasizing an under-acknowledged factor in US policy-making. Their work sheds light on a group that wields enormous influence today; a group that might be the key to understanding American foreign policy.

Reviewed by Nikolaj K. Andersen

Photos c/o of Israel Defense Forces and Students Supporting Israel  

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