We’re Still Right About the Is­rael Lobby

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Stephen M. Walt

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.


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