Milton Viorst on ‘The Israel Lobby’
Posted on Oct 4, 2007
That is not to say that Mearsheimer and Walt do not leave a great deal of room for disagreement: for example, their contention, presented in a discussion of Israel’s role in instigating the invasion of Iraq, that “absent the lobby’s influence, there almost certainly would not have been a war.” Surely the American decision to invade Iraq, like most of history’s grand events, arose out of a confluence of causes, no single one of which would have sufficed to bring it about. Here are just a few of those causes: oil, the rebound to 9/11, President Bush’s relations with his father, concern over free navigation in the Persian Gulf, a sense of Christian mission, the Pentagon’s hunger for Middle East bases to provide “forward thrust” for American power. Moreover, many in decision-making circles swallowed Bush’s claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and a few may even have believed that we had a moral duty to liberate Iraqis from Saddam’s heartless tyranny. Though we know now there were no WMD, much less plans to improve the life of the Iraqis, each of these considerations played a part in generating the momentum to invade.
As for the Israel lobby, no doubt it weighed in during the deliberations. Israel’s fears of Iraq, though exaggerated, were surely real. But the lobby’s power was only marginal on President Bush and his entourage of neocons who long before had made up their minds. On this matter, the authors overstate their case. The Israel lobby was a player in the discussion on going to war, but there is little evidence to regard its role as decisive.
Indeed, it is not clear whether Mearsheimer and Walt fully understand what the Israel lobby is. At its apex, of course, is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Washington-based organization whose power strikes fear in the executive branch and, even more so, in Congress. AIPAC is complemented by a constellation of satellites, among them the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Jewish Committee and Foxman’s own Anti-Defamation League. Their agenda seeks not only to assure Israel’s survival but to pursue particular partisan policies. They function, in effect, as the U.S. arm of Likud, serving Israel’s right wing in rejecting the exchange of land for peace with the Arabs, in standing up for the Jewish settlements that blanket the territories conquered in 1967, in condoning the mistreatment of the Palestinians of the occupied lands, whose life grows more onerous each day.
The Israel Lobby
By John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pages
The Deadliest Lies
By Abraham H. Foxman
Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages
But Mearsheimer and Walt go on to add to their taxonomic mix such groups as Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum and the Tikkun Community, on the grounds that they also support Israel. They do, of course, but their values are precisely the opposite of the AIPAC coalition’s. They argue for peace with the Arabs, while casting doubt on the hard-line position—encouraged by the Bush administration—that only military superiority will guarantee Israel’s security. Their point of departure, to be sure, is not so much America’s strategic interests as Zionism in the old-fashioned sense, i.e. the survival of a humane, secular and democratic Jewish state. But their politics lead them to conclusions about relations with Israel’s U.S. patron that are much like those of Mearsheimer and Walt.
These groups are much smaller than the AIPAC coalition, and have far more modest budgets, but most polls suggest their goals are consistent with the vision held by a majority of American Jews. Despite the ceaseless efforts of Foxman and his allies, many Jews who have thought hard about how best to assure Israel’s survival have rejected the call to march in lock step with Israel’s hard-liners. I would add that Mearsheimer and Walt, by calling the AIPAC alliance the “Israel lobby” or the “pro-Israel lobby,” perpetuate a misnomer in all but ignoring the peace groups. It would be more accurate to call AIPAC’s coalition the “right-wing Israel lobby,” which might at least provoke Israel’s friends, Jewish and non-Jewish, to examine whether AIPAC’s effort might not actually be harmful to Israel’s long-term well-being.
What is impossible to dispute is that the AIPAC coalition, by its own standards, has been hugely successful, starting with imposing a kind of political omerta in the consideration of Israeli policies. Its promotion of silence zeroes in heavily on Congress, whose members seem especially vulnerable to its muscle. A prominent senator once told me he long ago gave up arguing against AIPAC’s orthodoxy and now signs on to anything it puts on his desk. Over the decades, AIPAC has used the money at its disposal to influence electoral campaigns that have defeated more than a few senators and congressmen who have had the temerity to break the taboo. Their loss has served as a lesson that intimidates the rest.
But money is not AIPAC’s only weapon. Brilliantly organized, AIPAC counts on sympathizers nationwide to deluge Congress, as well as the media, with its messages. It is an adage of democratic politics that intensity of feeling trumps the sentiments of passive majorities, as revealed by polls. In this, AIPAC is not alone. The gun lobby is another example. The producer of an evening news program in which I made a critical remark about Israeli policy informed me that the next morning the station had received a record number of denunciatory e-mails. He has since stopped inviting me on the show.
Today, a campaign is being waged against Rep. James Moran, an anti-war Democrat from Virginia, who has occasionally questioned Israel’s course. Moran, said to hold a “safe” seat, dared in a recent interview on Iraq to say that “Jewish Americans as a voting bloc and as an influence on foreign policy are overwhelmingly opposed to the war. ... But AIPAC is the most powerful lobby and has pushed this war from the beginning. ... Their influence is dominant in the Congress.” Then, in a zinger, he added that AIPAC’s members were often “quite wealthy,” a characterization that makes Jews wince. Moran’s words elicited attacks by both Republicans and Democrats, demonstrating not that he had conveyed any falsehood but that neither political party, with an eye to the next election, is willing to provoke AIPAC’s ire.
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