Two weeks after two prominent political science professors published a paper that they promised would expose the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, the collective reaction so far suggests they get a D for impact. “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” by John Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s John. F. Kennedy School of Government, has been the subject of numerous Op-Eds — which generally have discredited it — but has been all but ignored in the halls of Congress, its purported target.
Among other assertions, the paper suggests that the pro-Israel lobby — and particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — have helped make the United States more vulnerable to terrorist attacks, steered the country into the Iraq war, silenced debate on campuses and in the media, cost the United States friends throughout the world and corrupted U.S. moral standing.
The paper’s “disagreement is not with America’s pro-Israel lobby, but with the American people, who overwhelmingly support our relationship with Israel,” said an official with a pro-Israel lobbying organization in Washington.
The Anti-Defamation League called the paper “an amateurish and biased critique of Israel, American Jews, and American policy.”
Especially outrageous, some said, are the paper’s insinuations that Jewish officials in government are somehow suspect.
“Not only are these charges wildly at variance with what I have personally witnessed in the Oval Office, but they also impugn the unstinting service to America’s national security by public figures like Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk and many others,” David Gergen, Walt’s fellow academic at the Kennedy School and a veteran of four administrations, wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Daily News.
One of the few positive reviews came from white supremacist David Duke, who said the authors reiterate points he has been making for years.
The controversy passed almost unnoticed on Capitol Hill. A statement from Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) was typical of the few who bothered to pay attention to the paper, which Nadler called “little more than a repackaging of old conspiracy theories, historical revisionism, and a distorted understanding of U.S. strategic interest.”
U.S. support of Israel was no mystery, Nadler said: “Israel is our only democratic and reliable ally in an extremely volatile and strategically important region. It is in our nation’s best interests to maintain that alliance.”
The authors anticipated silence, arguing that the Israel lobby is “manipulating the media” because “an open debate might cause Americans to question the level of support that they currently provide.”
The problem with that theory is that some of the harshest criticism of the paper has come from individuals and groups who have long called for changes in how the United States deals with Israel. “It was a lot of warmed-over arguments that have been tossed about for years, brought together in a rather unscholarly fashion and presented as a Harvard document, clearly not deserving of the title,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, a group that has argued for increased U.S. pressure on Israel to achieve a peace agreement.
In fact, Mearsheimer and Walt have quietly removed the imprimatur of the Harvard and Kennedy schools that originally appeared on the paper. Walt holds the Robert and Renee Belfer professorship at the Kennedy School, and the paper appalled Robert Belfer, a major donor to Jewish causes, according to a report in the New York Sun. The chair is the equivalent of an academic dean at the Kennedy School, one of the most influential foreign policy centers in the United States.
“It read more like an opinion piece than serious research, and even as opinion it was so overreaching in some of its claims,” Roth said. “It didn’t have a lot of utility.”
One of the harshest critics of the paper was Noam Chomsky, the political theorist who routinely excoriates the U.S.-Israel relationship. He ridiculed the paper’s central “wag the dog” thesis, that the United States has “been willing to set aside its own security in order to advance the interests of another state.”
Walt and Mearsheimer “have a highly selective use of evidence (and much of the evidence is assertion),” Chomsky wrote in an e-mail to followers. One example, he says, is how the paper cites Israel’s arms sales to China as evidence that the Jewish state detracts from U.S. security interests.
“But they fail to mention that when the U.S. objected, Israel was compelled to back down: under Clinton in 2000, and again in 2005, in this case with the Washington neo-con regime going out of its way to humiliate Israel,” Chomsky notes.
Walt and Mearsheimer see as interchangeable the pro-Israel lobby and the neo-conservatives who have developed Bush’s foreign policy.
One of the paper’s more curious conclusions is that “what sets the Israel Lobby apart is its extraordinary effectiveness. But there is nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to sway U.S. policy towards Israel.”
If so, it begs the question of why Walt and Mearsheimer set out to write the paper. Mearsheimer did not return a call for comment.
In other areas, the paper gets facts wrong, for example when it says Israel wanted to sell its Lavie fighter aircraft to the United States, when it was strictly a domestic project.
According to the writers, “pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the U.S. decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was a critical element.”
Off the record, Jewish officials here reverse that equation, saying their support for the Iraq war was necessary in order to curry favor with a White House that was hell-bent on war. In fact, the adventure unsettled many Israeli and Jewish officials because of concerns that the principal beneficiary would be Iran.
“That really jumped out at me,” Roth said. “Among nasty neighbors, Iran was clearly the greater threat.”
Jewish groups and individuals at first were reluctant to react to a paper they saw as impugning their patriotism, but in time they could not resist. Detailed debunkings of Walt and Mearsheimer have proliferated.
Some of these, notably by fellow Harvard professors Ruth Wisse and Alan Dershowitz, have likened the writers to Duke — a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan — and other anti-Semites.
For some Jews, however, the criticism proved that despite the paper’s flaws, it correctly identified a symptom afflicting discussion of Israel: a tendency to dismiss all criticism as anti-Semitism.
“Even if the paper is as bad as its critics say, that does not obviate the need to respond to the points it makes,” said Eric Alterman, a media critic for The Nation. “So far, most of what I am seeing is mere character assassination of exactly the kind I, also, experience whenever I take up the issue. This leads me to conclude the point of most — but not all — of the criticism is to shut down debate because AIPAC partisans are wary of seeing their arguments and tactics subjected to scrutiny of any kind.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.