The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy

By John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt


The Israel Lobby is a controversial international relations book by renowned political scientists and occasionally ideologically divergent authors John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Stephen Walt (Harvard) whose essential thesis is that recent American foreign policy in the Middle East has been informed, guided, and sometimes written by a loose coalition of groups and individuals who frequently place the interests of the state of Israel above those of the United States, sometimes to detrimental effect. Much like another controversial book of the last decade, the Bell Curve, many detractors of the Israel Lobby have never even read it, much less comprehend the issues it brings up. Illinois Senator and 2008 Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama demanded that a paid ad on for his campaign website be removed from Amazon's page for the book, fully admitting that he'd never countenanced the notion of reading the book, but that the very idea behind it was abhorrent and in contradiction to his own beliefs on the subject. Mearsheimer and Walt have both been condemned as "anti-semites" by virtually all of the prominent groups mentioned in the book, including the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the pro-Israel Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). Ironically (or perhaps presciently), one of the first claims made by Mearsheimer and Walt in describing the tactics of members of the Israel lobby to effect a desired change in the behavior of a critic is to label him or her an "anti-semite." If no change is brought about, his credibility is simply ruined either way.

The salient point is that open discussion of the power and influence of the Israel lobby in the United States is scuttled by a combination of accusatory innuendo, political framing (that is to say, a process by which an interested party attempts to shape the context of a debate on its own terms and procedures), and high-level governmental/media connections (by all accounts, it is a much easier and indeed common matter to discuss the issue in Israel itself). In fact, the Israel Lobby was originally a long essay authored by Mearsheimer and Walt released under the auspices of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and then for the academic periodical the London Review of Books. Even in its incipient form, the essay attracted controversy and I myself even wrote a letter to Mearsheimer regarding it. I found the original essay pedantic on a superficial level but engaging in substance; the same can be said of the expanded book, released in September 2007 to account for various happenings in world affairs since the publication of the original article (i.e. the recent disastrous war in Lebanon).

Key Ideas

The lobby, as referred to by Mearsheimer and Walt, is a collection of tendentiously related groups in the United States that seeks to advance the interests of Israel within the realm of US foreign policy. Not all of these groups are by definition explicitly "Jewish" in nature, although most of them (such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations or the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs or JINSA) are. Other groups include the aforementioned AIPAC and CAMERA as well as groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Enterprise Institute, the neoconservative Project for a New American Century, and the Evangelical Christian movement, among many others. These groups use their money and connections to lobby (hence the name) American policy-makers to make, well, policy that is in their eyes beneficial to Israeli interests. In and of itself, the authors say, there is nothing wrong or nefarious about this process as indeed, lobbying has been a staple of the American political system for as long as there has been one. What is wrong, the authors contend, is that the Israel lobby frequently engages in behavior that could prove harmful to the national security interests of the United States (and even Israel) with very little payoff.

The reasons for this are myriad and are too detailed to fully examine here, but from the 1960s forward, the Israel lobby gained a great deal of prestige and influence on Capitol Hill through shrewd support of various candidates and the win/win scenarios presented to them for supporting Israel through Congressional votes. To paraphrase one lawmaker quoted in the book, to vote in favor of a piece of pro-Israel legislation generally does not harm a Representative or Senator on any political or personal level and doing so results in a degree of reliable support from the lobby.

On the other hand, there is a difference between giving a feel-good vote of confidence for friendship and cooperation between two nations here and there and unreserved, unqualified support for any action the other nation chooses to undertake. The main thrust of the book is that Israel enjoys such support from the United States but that none of the common arguments given by the lobby in defense of the close relationship pan out and the only logical conclusion to draw is that the reason for such high support for Israel is due mainly to the influence of a particular group of well-connected pro-Israel political insiders. First, there is little strategic value in it: in the Cold War, Israel (along with pre-revolutionary Iran and Saudi Arabia) was America's power center in the Middle East to counter Soviet influence. Indeed, as Soviet proxies such as Gamel Abdel Nasser's Egypt were defeated in combat by the Israelis, the latter could frequently supply the United States with captured Russian technology and arms for analysis. The Cold War is over, however, and America already knows all about the MiG fighter. Contemporary Israeli intelligence supplied to the United States about the climate in the Middle East is regarded by some off-the-record intelligence and diplomatic officers as amateurish and more appropriate for gossip tabloids than serious policy-making. And, if you consider it realistically, the Arab states outnumber Israel by a large degree and, of course, have lots and lots of oil: strategically, it would seem to make more sense to support the Arab states instead of Israel in terms of the economic benefits as well as the diminished likelihood of needlessly haranguing almost a billion people.

Second, there is also, as the authors put it, "a diminishing moral case" for total US support for Israel. The common formula goes this way: Israel is a small Jewish country besieged on all sides by hostile Arab states that have sworn to eliminate it at all costs and suffers from an interminable terrorism problem through no fault of its own; therefore, the United States has a moral obligation to support Israel's struggle for existence. Mearsheimer and Walt argue that while basically all states in the region are hostile toward Israel and that Israel does indeed have a problem with terrorism (more on this below) both issues have more to do with Israel's own bellicosity than with anything else. Israel has the most modern and arguably the most powerful military in the Middle East and is the only state there to possess nuclear weapons; it is more than capable, the authors say, of standing up for itself and most states in the region have avoided provoking it for fear of the asymmetrical responses for which Israel is famous (see the Yom Kippur War and the recent engagement in Lebanon). Mearsheimer and Walt also recount the frustration that successive Presidential administrations have felt in response to various Israeli actions. Although Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State for Richard Nixon, tacitly approved of Israel's abrogation of a ceasefire during the Yom Kippur War, he complained bitterly of being boxed into a corner earlier by the Israeli leadership who said first it would be impossible to negotiate a truce from a position of weakness and therefore needed more arms, only to turn around and say that now that Israel had the arms, it did not have to negotiate. President Bill Clinton was reportedly "furious" with Israel for in principle agreeing to one of his peace proposals with the Palestinians and then turning around and disregarding it. For Mearsheimer and Walt, Israel's existential threat is, to some degree, of its own making, and it makes little sense for the United States to support Israel in the manner that it does to the exclusion and detriment of its so-called enemies.

The final issue is the one about terrorism, which is certainly one of the most pressing issues in contemporary political discourse in the United States. Another argument that is presented is that Israel and the United States are engaged in the same struggle against terrorism and that it is both natural and proper that Israel and the United States should align for that reason. The difference is that the PLO and Hamas, the biggest internal threats to Israeli security, have never countenanced attacking the United States and indeed are basically single-issue groups: that single issue, of course, is Palestinian statehood. Hezbollah, the biggest external non-state threat to Israel, has attacked US interests in the past, but not any time in the last 20 years. Thus, Israel and the United States do not have the same terrorism issues and in this regard, should part ways on policy. The argument that even though Israel might have done bad things, it was only in response to the bad things done by the terrorists is irrelevant as the "terrorists" (Palestinians) do not receive unconditional support while Israel does, despite the fact that both sides have clearly been in the wrong about their methods to achieve their goals. Then, of course, there's the five million pound elephant in the room: much of the terrorism that the United States faces is due in part to its unreserved support for Israel and its actions in the Occupied Territories.

Bad Influences

Mearsheimer and Walt then move on to examples of the lobby's successful attempts to influence US policy in favor of Israel with arguably negative results for the former. The best and most obvious example of this, of course, is the current Iraq War. But for the Israel lobby, the authors argue, the United States most likely would never have gone to war with Iraq. Inside the Bush administration, the biggest voices for regime change in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks was Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, himself a prominent member of PNAC and hawkish Israel supporter. More moderate voices like Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice initially seemed to be carrying the day, and it was eventually determined that it would be much more prudent to go into Afghanistan than Iraq for the simple fact that Iraq had nothing demonstrable to do with the attacks. And yet, there was intense pressure on the Bush administration on the part of the Israel lobby and Israel itself to proceed immediately into Iraq as Saddam Hussein was a bigger regional threat (i.e., a perceived threat to Israel). Of course, the writing was on the wall by the time the infamous "Axis of Evil" speech was made in early 2002, and there was no going back from it. The Israel lobby placed its trust and support in Ahmed Chalabi, the corrupt and frankly criminal "leader" of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, and he was soon being hailed as the future leader of a tolerant, liberal, democratic Iraq. The dominoes in the Middle East haven't fallen as predicted, and if not for the Israel lobby, it is possible that United States and its allies would not have entered into the current mess it finds itself in Iraq.

Of course, to rewind a little bit, there was a brief time in mid 2003 when it seemed like things were going pretty great for the US in reference to Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States was again pressured to confront Iran and Syria, with prominent pro-Israel voices making the same arguements about Syria that they had made a year and a half earlier about Iraq. Mearsheimer and Walt point out how laughable this scenario would be if its consequences weren't so deadly serious: Syria under Bashar al Assad supplied the United States with much of its intelligence about al-Qaeda's capabilities and logistics in an effort to strengthen relations between Washington and Damascus and it abruptly stopped doing so after Bush was made to sign into law the Syria Accountability Act and ratchet up the pressure on Assad at the behest of the Israel lobby. As a result of this, the already damaged US intelligence operation in the Middle East was dealt another crushing blow, severely hampering its ability to predict and respond to potential al-Qaeda actions.

On a similar note, the reformist president of Iran at the time, Mohammad Khatami, repeatedly made overtures to Bush about improving relations between the US and Iran and specifically entering into negotiations regarding that country's controversial nuclear program. The Israel lobby was and remains specifically opposed to anything other than regime change in Iran and dissuaded Bush, already feeling high from the supposed successes in Iraq and Afghanistan, from taking Khatami seriously despite the fact that there was substantial support from the diplomatic and intelligence communities in the United States for this. Possibly as a backlash against this needless antagonism, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in the next Iranian presidential election rather than the reform-minded candidate that Khatami supported. Thanks to the pro-Israel lobby, then, the United States' policy of "dual containment" (i.e. of both Iraq and Iran, rather than balancing one against the other) has failed as Ahmadinejad is much less inclined to negotiate about the nuclear issue and has proven himself more interested in making outrageous statements in response to perhaps equally outrageous statements made in the United States than serious diplomacy (despite this, the authors cite a survey in which 75% of American respondents said they would favor a diplomatic opening with Iran to military action there). Nevermind the fact that Iran is now set to dominate Iraq in the same way that Syria dominated Lebanon for many years and thus set itself up as a regional hegemon (which is the ultimate undesirable endgame). The pointless needling of Assad represents a missed opportunity while the out of hand rejection of Khatami's ideas could potentially have massive military implications for the region and the world.

Finally, the book discusses the implications of the United States' almost singular support for Israel's campaign against Lebanon last year. A failure by every definition of the word (unless the goal was to kill more civilians than Hezbollah operatives) the authors argue that if the United States had not given such strong support to Israel, it is likely that they would have felt less emboldened to respond so disproportionately to the initial incident that precipitated the "war." The United States was privy to most of Israel's plans before the war and approved them all, despite the risk it posed to stability in the region. The Middle East did not erupt into an all out war, but Hezbollah's position was strengthened by Israel's incursion, meaning in turn that Iran's influence in Lebanon is on the ascent. This is one of the authors' prime examples of the lobby influencing United States policy makers in ways that are actually harmful to Israel (not to mention the United States' credibility on the world stage).

Conclusion and Critique

The Israel Lobby ends with a five-step suggestion for getting the United States back on the right track:

  1. Identifying U.S. interests in the Middle East (chiefly oil and stopping/limiting the spread of WMDs);
  2. A strategy to protect those interests (discarding the failed evangelizing theory of regional transformation in favor of offshore balancing, with a specific eye on improving relations with Syria);
  3. Create a new relationship with Israel (treat it like any other country rather than one that deserves unconditional and implicit support);
  4. End the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (two-state solution);
  5. Reshape the Lobby (give power to more representative groups in the lobby such as the Israel Policy Forum rather than "hardliners" like AIPAC that are out of step with both contemporary Jewish America and with large segments of the public in the country they claim to support).

All of this sounds really great, but it's the last one that everything hinges on, and given the political entrenchment of the more right-wing/hawkish groups in the lobby, it seems somewhat unlikely to occur anytime in the near future. For this to be successful, it would require every sitting Representative or Senator to suddenly stop listening to the lobby as it currently exists, and risk alienating Jewish supporters and being smeared by the lobby. I firmly believe that a two-state solution will happen, but whether it will happen primarily through negotiation or total war is up in the air.

On the whole, I found the Israel Lobby to be an interesting and informative read. It was not, however, without its problems. I reviewed another Mearsheimer book on here called the Tragedy of Great Power Politics. It's easy to see which parts Mearsheimer specifically wrote and while he's a generally sensible man, he makes some bizarre claims, especially the claims about the Israel lobby actually harming the interests of Israel. His rationale is as follows: Israel wants A, and the Lobby promotes this cause to the United States which accepts it; however, A comes at cost X and X > A, thus the Israel lobby has harmed Israel's interests. It makes sense in the same way that saying if I want to eat the crazy death fish at a Japanese restaurant, the waiter is the one harming my interests by bringing it to me does. Well, maybe in a semantic sense, sure, but responsibility for this ultimately lies with the person or entity making the initial decision, not the so-called enablers or middlemen. The Lebanon debacle is a particularly bad example of this as the Israeli government (much like the American government) has shown repeatedly that it really doesn't care what anyone else thinks about the way in which it conducts itself. In the event that the US had not supported the action, it blows my mind to think that the architects of the endeavor would have thought "whoa, let's back off a minute here." Plain and simple, the Ehud Olmert government was overconfident and it paid the price. To blame this on the lobby is absurd.

One criticism against this book that can't really be sustained, however, is the one that calls it "anti-semitic." Hell, the book isn't even anti-Israeli. At no point do the authors question the legitimacy of the existence of Israel nor do they say that it should not be allowed to defend itself. Mearsheimer and Walt dedicate a nauseating amount of space to writing variations of "everything the lobby does is perfectly legal and normal in a democratic society," "we are not anti-semites and we deplore people who are," "we realize that Jews have suffered historically," etc. In fact, at times, I grew rather confused about what section of the book I was in because these statements crop up so often in the first few parts of the book that I thought I lost my place and flipped back to a previous chapter. The repetition of various other facts and scenarios also bogged the book down, making parts of it redundant and uninteresting; 100 of its 450 pages are dedicated to the notes in the book and it probably could have been about 15% shorter and still have made the same essential points.

There's a lot that I skipped over in this review, but if you want to read the book and thoroughly analyze it yourself, I recommend it more than Mearsheimer's last book because this one is at least more grounded in reality and the issues it brings up are decidedly more relevant to today's political atmosphere.

UPDATE: There are a few things that, for reasons of brevity (as if it's possible for anything I write to have that quality), I hadn't adequately addressed here when the writeup was initially submitted. I would first like to reiterate the fact that it is ultimately the responsibility of any government or entity for the actions that it takes. My analogy about the fugu doesn't properly illustrate my real point, though: sure, the U.S. invaded Iraq, but it is less likely that it would have done so without the pressure of the Israel lobby and the fact that the lobby's influence caused the U.S. to give such strong support to Israel during its ill-fated attack on Lebanon has little or nothing to do with whether or not Israel was going to do it; it was already decided by Olmert and his advisers that this was the appropriate action and reflexive U.S. support of it didn't make it happen.

Next, I'd like to say again that neither I nor the authors believe that the Israel lobby is representative of overall American or Israeli Jewish opinion since the lobby itself is made up of both Jews and non-Jews (including people in the latter case who see the Jews as a means to an end for starting up Armageddon and the rapture and blah blah blah). The lobby has a certain worldview that it is able to get out into the open by virtue of its economic power and its political connections and it is often more hawkish than most Israelis would care for.

Finally, there is the contention that the war in Iraq is a war for oil. Well, if this is the case, I have distinctly failed to see the benefits of it. Of course, the Iraq war hasn't really benefited Israel in any discernible fashion either, so it's better to go back to the original intent rather than the results. Israeli politicians like Binyamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres actively campaigned for the war inside the United States by publishing op-ed pieces in prominent American newspapers, decrying Saddam Hussein as a threat to both the United States and Israel through his alleged support of international terrorism and his as yet uncomfirmed desire to possess Weapons of Mass Destruction. By contrast, no prominent members of what might be described as the oil lobby came out in support of the Iraq war because they have been happy for several decades to get along with oil producing states that might not always be on the U.S.A.'s Christmas card list. They bought Saddam's oil just as eagerly as he sold it to them and they would have been happy to get into bed with the Iranians (since Iran specifically picked the company Conoco to help develop its oil fields) had the administration not nixed the deal. Content with the status quo, it would not have benefited the oil lobby in any discernible fashion to have someone else in control of Iraq's oil while the Israel lobby and some Israeli politicians, on the other hand, defined Saddam as a mortal threat to Israel and called for his removal and the subsequent transformation of Iraq into a non-hostile democratic state. Still, a number of people believe that oil was a motivating factor in the war, and it's doubtful that anything I or the authors say will change that. In fact, this could be extended to the book on a general level: chances are pretty good that you either already believe some of the essential tenets put forth or you vigorously dispute them; nothing written here is going to change your mind.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.