We’re Still Right About the Israel Lobby
Ten years ago, John Mearsheimer and I published a controversial article and subsequent book examining the impact of the “Israel Lobby” — that is, a loose coalition of pro-Israel individuals and organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Christians United for Israel (CUFI), just to name a few. We argued that decades of unconditional U.S. support for Israel has done more harm than good to both the United States and Israel. For the United States, the “special relationship” undermines America’s standing in the Arab and Islamic worlds and has encouraged a more confrontational approach with Iran and Syria. For Israel, unquestioning U.S. support for almost all its actions has allowed the decades-long subjugation of Palestinians to continue unchecked, undermining the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and threatening Israel’s future as a democratic state.
As the article and book predicted, a firestorm of criticism followed their publication, including more than a few accusations that we are anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our aim was to elicit a debate to move America’s foreign policy in a wiser direction and increase Israel’s chances of achieving a durable, peaceful two-state solution.
Unfortunately, the past 10 years provide ample evidence that our core argument is still correct. Nevertheless, shifts inside the pro-Israel community and in Israel itself may yet lead to positive shifts in U.S. Middle East policy and to a healthier relationship between the two countries.
There is little question the lobby remains a potent political force. An increasingly prosperous Israel continues to receive billions of dollars in U.S. assistance, and it is still largely immune from criticism by top U.S. officials, members of Congress or contenders for public office. Being perceived as insufficiently “pro-Israel” can disqualify nominees for important government positions. Wealthy defenders of Israel such as Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban play outsize roles in American politics. A number of hardline individuals and groups in the lobby oppose the 2016 nuclear deal with Iran and may eventually help convince President Trump or the Congress to overturn it.
The clearest illustration of the lobby’s enduring power, however, is the Obama administration’s failure to make any progress on settling the Israel-Palestinian conflict. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were strong supporters of Israel, and both believe in a two-state solution. But even with backing from pro-peace, proIsrael organizations such as J Street, their efforts to achieve “two states for two peoples” were rebuffed by Israel, working hand in hand with AIPAC and other hard-line groups. So instead of seriously pursuing peace, Israel expanded its settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories, making it more difficult than ever to create a viable Palestinian state.
Given AIPAC’s enduring influence in Congress and its unyielding opposition to any meaningful compromise with the Palestinians, Obama and Kerry ultimately could offer Israel only additional carrots (such as increased military aid) to try to win their cooperation. They could not put pressure on Israel to compromise by threatening to reduce U.S. support significantly. As a result, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had little incentive to make a deal. The result is that the two-state solution is now further away than ever.
Despite the lobby’s continuing influence, however, there is a more open discussion of Israel-related issues today than there was before we wrote our article and book. And, the ability to speak more openly about Israel is likely to diminish the lobby’s impact on U.S. foreign policy in the future.
For starters, despite joining forces with Netanyahu to oppose the Iran deal, AIPAC could not convince Congress to reject the agreement. This failure signaled a rare defeat for AIPAC, and a triumph for J Street and others that had backed the deal.
Furthermore, the taboo of publicly criticizing Israel, the lobby or the special relationship has been broken. In recent years, such writers as Peter Beinart, John Judis and Dan Fleshler have produced important works examining the role of pro-Israel groups in American politics and criticizing their impact on U.S. foreign policy. More Americans have become aware of the complexities of life in Israel-Palestine and more sympathetic to the needs and desires of both populations.
There is also a growing divide within the American Jewish community over what is best for Israel itself. Scholars like Dov Waxman, Steven Simon and Dana Allin have documented that American Jews today are less reluctant to criticize Israel’s policies or the actions of the Israeli government. The creation of the pro-peace lobby J Street and the rapid growth of progressive groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, show that reflexive support for whatever Israel does is no longer the default condition for many American Jews.
The vast majority of American Jews remain deeply committed to liberal values, but Israel has been moving away from them for many years now. There is a certain inherent tension between liberalism and Zionism, because liberalism assumes that all humans possess
the same set of basic rights, while Zionism is a nationalist movement that in its current iteration privileges one people at the expense of another. Until 1967, however, that tension between liberal and Zionist values was muted because most Israelis were Jewish and the second-class status of Israel’s Arab minority did not receive much attention.
When Israel gained control of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the resulting subjugation of millions of Palestinians brought that tension to the fore. The occupation of the Palestinian territories has endured for half a century, and today, certain sections of Israel’s government are openly committed to retaining the West Bank in perpetuity and creating a “Greater Israel.” This policy not only involves denying the Palestinian subjects meaningful political rights, but also leads Israel to react harshly whenever the Palestinians respond with violence and terrorism, further tarnishing its image.
But as former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert each warned, in the long run, denying the Palestinians a viable state of their own will turn Israel into an apartheid state that will be increasingly difficult for Israel’s supporters to embrace and defend against the inevitable criticism. Furthermore, the steady rightward drift of Israeli politics also clashes with the political values of most American Jews.
Even more disturbing, the Israeli government has begun turning a blind eye to genuine anti-Semitism, when doing so is seen as safeguarding other priorities. Netanyahu was slow to condemn the anti-Jewish and neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, for example, and he declined to criticize Trump’s waffling response to these disturbing events. Netanyahu also remains on good terms with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban despite Orban’s anti-Semitic campaign against financier George Soros.
Past depictions of a weak Israeli David surrounded by a hostile Arab Goliath no longer ring true against the reality of a prosperous, nuclear-armed Israel that denies millions of Palestinian Arabs basic rights and uses its vast military power to keep those disenfranchised subjects powerless and afraid. Israel still faces security challenges, but, contrary to what used to be the conventional wisdom, it is not weak, isolated or vulnerable to conventional attack. Instead, it has become a fiercely nationalistic state pursuing increasingly illiberal policies, which makes it increasingly hard for liberals to defend.
These trends, however, have yet to affect Israel’s most ardent defenders here in the United States. If anything, their efforts to silence criticism of Israel have reached new heights. How else to explain the AIPAC-sponsored Senate bill that would make it a crime in the United States to participate in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, legislation that the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, and the Center for Constitutional Rights have rightly denounced as a direct threat to free speech?
Barring a major shift in Israel’s political trajectory, the fissures within the lobby — and in the American Jewish community more broadly — are likely to widen. If the balance of power in that community shifts in favor of more moderate and pro-peace groups, then there may be a glimmer of hope. “Two states for two peoples” will be harder to achieve today than it would have been under either President Clinton or President Obama, but political pressure from a powerful, pro-Israel and pro-peace lobby in the United States is probably the only development that would convince U.S. leaders to act as fair-minded mediators and persuade the Israeli government to grant the Palestinians a viable state of their own. Over the long term, that may also be the only way to preserve a secure Israel and the strong bonds of the U.S.- Israel relationship.
The taboo of publicly criticizing Israel, the lobby or the ‘special relationship’ has been broken.