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Breaking the Taboo: Why We Took On the Israel Lobby
Posted on Oct 4, 2007
What is the lobby’s impact on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East?
In Part II of the book, we show how the lobby has encouraged the United States to take Israel’s side in its long struggle with the Palestinians, and made it more difficult for the United States to help bring this conflict to a close. The lobby—and especially the neoconservatives within it—also played a key role in the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, although other factors (such as the September 11 attacks) were also critical in making the decision for war. The lobby has successfully pressed the Bush administration to adopt a more confrontational stance toward Syria and Iran, and encouraged it to back Israel to the hilt during the 2006 war in Lebanon.
Why are these policies not in America’s national interest?
Backing Israel’s harsh treatment of the Palestinians has reinforced anti-Americanism around the world and almost certainly helped terrorists recruit new followers. U.S. and Israeli policy also led directly to Hamas’ growing popularity and its victory in the Palestinian elections, which made a difficult situation worse and a long-term peace settlement even more elusive. The Iraq war is a strategic disaster that has damaged America’s standing and strengthened Iran’s regional position, and now provides other terrorists with an ideal training ground. The Lebanon war enhanced Hezbollah’s position, weakened the pro-American Siniora government in Beirut, and further tarnished America’s image throughout the region. A hard-line approach to Iran helped bring President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power but failed to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and threatening Syria led Damascus to stop helping the United States against al Qaeda. None of these developments has been good for the United States.
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U.S. aid has indirectly subsidized Israel’s attempt to colonize the Occupied Territories, a policy that many Israelis now see as a strategic and moral disaster. Yet the lobby has made it effectively impossible for Washington to convince the Israeli government to abandon this misguided policy. The lobby’s influence has also made it harder for the United States to persuade Israel to seize opportunities—such as a peace treaty with Syria, the 2002 Saudi peace initiative, or full and complete implementation of the Oslo agreements—that would have saved Israeli lives and shrunk the number of enemies it still faces. The invasion of Iraq—which Israel and the lobby both supported—turned out to be a major boon for Iran, the country many Israelis fear most. And by pressing Congress and the Bush administration to back Israel’s ill-conceived response to Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, the lobby unwittingly facilitated a policy that damaged Israel significantly.
Do you think the upcoming 2008 presidential campaign will provide a chance for the Israel lobby’s influence to be discussed?
Regrettably, no. The candidates will undoubtedly disagree on a wide array of domestic and foreign-policy issues: health care, education, taxes, the environment, what to do in Iraq, how to deal with a rising China, etc. But the one issue on which there will be virtually no debate is the question of whether the United States should continue to give Israel unconditional backing. Even though almost everyone recognizes that U.S Middle East policy is a disaster, no serious candidate is going to suggest anything other than steadfast and largely unconditional support for Israel. Indeed, all the major candidates (Clinton, Edwards, McCain, Obama, Romney, etc.) have already expressed their strong and uncritical backing for Israel, even though the campaign is just getting underway. Not only is this situation bad for the United States, it is also not good for Israel. The United States would be a better ally if its leaders could make support for Israel more conditional and if they could give their Israeli counterparts more candid and critical advice without facing a backlash from the Israel lobby.
What in your view should the U.S.-Israel relationship look like? What should the lobby’s role be?
The United States has three strategic interests in the Middle East: maintaining the flow of Persian Gulf oil to world markets, discouraging the spread of WMD, and reducing anti-American terrorism from this region. It is also committed to Israel’s survival, but on moral rather than strategic grounds. Instead of garrisoning the region with its own troops or attempting to transform the entire region, the United States should act as an “offshore balancer.” The United States does not need to control the Middle East itself; it merely needs to prevent any hostile power(s) from controlling the region. To do that, Washington should strive to maintain a balance of power in the region and intervene with its own forces only when local actors cannot uphold the balance themselves, as it did when it liberated Kuwait in 1991.
As part of this strategy, the United States would begin to treat Israel like a normal state, rather than as the 51st state. Israel is nearly 60 years old, increasingly prosperous, and now officially recognized by the vast majority of the world’s nations. The United States should deal with it as it does with other democracies: backing Israel when its policies are consistent with U.S. interests, but opposing it when they are not. And the United States should use its considerable leverage to fashion a durable two-state solution, as it is the only outcome that is consistent with U.S. values and with the long-term interests of both America and Israel.
Achieving this shift will require overcoming the opposition from the most powerful groups in the lobby, like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents. This goal can be achieved if there is a more open debate about the lobby’s role in shaping U.S. policy, more widespread awareness of Israel’s history and behavior, and a candid discussion within America’s pro-Israel community. Instead of trying to weaken or counter the lobby, one may hope that moderate pro-Israel organizations will become more influential, and that the leading organizations realize that the hard-line positions they have espoused in the past have been counterproductive. If these groups can bring their impressive influence to bear in more constructive ways, U.S. policy will be more in line with its national interests, and better for Israel too.
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