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Probing How Walt and Mearsheimer Misunderstand the Pro-israel Lobby

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Covering Israel, its relationship with the United States and the influential lobby that straddles the two often requires the basic skills and instincts of a cub reporter on the neighborhood beat.

With that in mind, I approached “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” the new book by scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, as I would a map of my neighborhood drawn up by an urban planning critic who has a known bias against gentrification. You know it will emphasize blight and ignore greenery to the point of unfairness, but you’re interested anyway because you might learn something, confront a discomfiting truth or two and get an idea of how to make things better.

Imagine the surprise, then, with the map laid out on the table, you see unrecognizable quadrants describing non-existent dungeons and moonscapes. Is this guy on drugs? you might wonder.

Sitting across from Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, and Walt, an international affairs professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, in the lobby of the Madison Hotel in Washington, it was obvious these guys were not on drugs. But why did they make up stuff?

Clearly this was not going to be a routine book tour interview, and I tried to make that known from the outset. I explained that I was not going to settle for the usual “How did you get your ideas?” sort of questions because their ideas seemed so strikingly wrong.

Others have called the Walt-Mearsheimer writings borderline anti-Semitic. I don’t think so, but their fantastic claims — particularly about Israel, the lobby’s role in the lead-up to the Iraq war and the creation of the Bush administration hostility to Syria — demand answers.

First let me emphasize that just as “The Israel Lobby” is severely flawed on many counts, the book has its strong points and weak points that merit less than a tidal wave of condemnation. For starters, the chapter outlining who and what constitutes the pro-Israel lobby and how these combined forces exercises their influence in Washington is a useful consolidation of reporting by others.

The chapters on what the authors describe as Israel’s dwindling moral standing and decreasing strategic values to the United States invite plenty of disagreement on several fronts, but the authors do ask some hard and helpful questions about how the lobby functions and whether more discussion on Middle East policy matters would be useful.

The chapter on Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians is certainly one-sided, omitting or downplaying crucial information that would provide the uninformed and unbiased readers with a balanced picture, but at least the arguments put forth by Mearsheimer and Walt are grounded in an existing Palestinian and pro-Palestinian narrative.

It is on the subject of the Iraq war — specifically the effort to assign blame to Jerusalem and Jewish organizations — that the authors go off the rails. On this question, I asked Mearsheimer and Walt particularly about their focus on Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy defense secretary who was an architect of the war.

Why, I wondered, no mention of Wolfowitz’s many writings on the general idea of pre-emptive action, his efforts as the lead U.S. official shepherding democracy into the Philippines and Indonesia in the 1980s?

And what about his 2003 endorsement of the Geneva agreements positing Israel’s return to pre-1967 lines, made explicitly because he believed the Israel-Palestinian issue had to be solved if Iraq was to succeed? (To say the lobby was less than enthusiastic about the Geneva agreements would be an understatement.) Were these not more germane to understanding his commitment to war with Iraq than rumors of his commitment to Israel?

Mearsheimer responded: “We’re not making the argument that they were monomaniacal, that the United States had to invade Iraq for Israeli benefits.”

Yet absent other evidence of the Bush administration’s commitment to invade Iraq, that is exactly how their book comes across. The writers assemble quotes from leaders in Jerusalem to show that while Israel “did not initiate the campaign for war against Iraq,” it “did join forces with the neoconservatives to help sell the war to the Bush administration and the American people.”

The idea that Israel joined with neoconservatives to “sell” Bush on Iraq posits an inversion of how Washington operates — especially under this administration. Bush’s proxies made it clear to Jewish leaders — and just about everyone else — in the first days of the administration that the tradition of joining forces on areas of agreement and agreeing to disagree on all else was null: You either signed on with the whole Bush agenda or you were frozen out.

And so, as 2002 wore into 2003, every interest group in this town that needed access to an immensely popular president — the media, the Democrats and, yes, Jewish and pro-Israel groups — signed on more or less to the White House policy that arched over all others: invading Iraq.

The authors weren’t buying.

“Never mind” also characterizes the authors’ response to my questions about the recent revelation by Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s planning chief at the State Department and a fierce critic of the Pentagon neoconservatives who pushed for war, that Israeli leaders prior to the invasion made it clear that they thought Iran was the real threat and Iraq was a distraction.

“Once it became clear that the United States intended to do Iran and Syria after it handled Iraq, the Israelis quickly bought into the enterprise and pushed us very hard,” Mearsheimer said.

But who was the “us” being pushed if the Israelis were being pushed by the Bush administration?

It is one thing for the authors to omit telling details that would undermine their theory. When it comes to America’s Syrian policy, however, they omit whole trends.

Mearsheimer and Walt ignore Israel’s panic — reported by JTA and othes — in late 2005 when it became clear that elements in the Bush administration were seeking regime change in Syria as “transformative.” Israeli officials strove to make clear that they had outlined all post-regime scenarios and none of them were good.

Bush’s fury with the Syrians for undermining the single Middle Eastern success of his pro-democracy policy, Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution” — repeated in dozens of White House statements — receives no mention in the Mearsheimer-Walt book. In fact, the only time the authors cite the successful ouster of Syrian occupation forces is when arguing that Israel’s policies are inviting their return.

The authors forcefully rejected complaints that their book suffers from a lack of original research.

“The critical issue is whether or not we would tell a different story or someone else would tell a different story if they did more extensive interviewing than we did,” Mearsheimer said. “And we’re confident that would not be the case. We regard the story as basically correct, and doing more interviewing would not alter the story line in any way.”

Yet such research would have led them to learn that it was not AIPAC but congressional Republicans who during last year’s Lebanon war undercut the efforts by Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), then the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, to include a line in a pro-Israel resolution urging “all sides to protect innocent civilian life.” It would have led them to report that it was White House pressure, in part, that pushed Israel this April to distance itself for a week or so from Pelosi’s efforts to assure Syria that Israel did not want war.

Questions about how Jews, Israel, the pro-Israel lobby and the U.S. government interact are critically important and beg for a little light. But “The Israel Lobby” is not the place to start. All Walt and Mearsheimer have achieved with their massive diversion based on unfounded accusations of overly broad Jewish influence is to help those who want to shut down that discussion.

Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief.

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