US policy and the pro-Israel lobby: A university in Jerusalem takes on the debate

The authors of 'The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy' said Thursday that the special-interest group is leading the charge for attacking Iran and damaging US interests.

With many eyes in Israel already turned toward the American presidential election this November, questions over what and who is good for the Middle East are fast becoming hot topics.

Warming things up that much more, two academics who have cast a critical light on the nature of US-Israel ties came here Thursday as part of a larger Middle East tour, during which they called on America to end its "special relationship with Israel and treat it as a normal country."

Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, professors at Harvard University and the University of Chicago, respectively, published "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy" last fall, raising a maelstrom of reactions: criticism from some corners and praise from others.

In pro-Israel circles, the book is viewed – along with former US President Carter's "Peace Not Apartheid" book – as an attack on a pillar of American foreign policy.

Critics of Profs. Walt and Mearsheimer say that the book and the arguments they make in it has anti-Semitic overtones and paints the pro-Israel lobby in the US as an all-powerful interest group doing damage to American and international interests.

But the two men, who were brought to Israel as guests of the left-wing group Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) and later invited by colleagues to speak at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said their words had often been misread and misinterpreted.

"Giving Israel unconditional support is not making America more popular around the world, and it is not making Americans more secure at home," said Walt. Israel's role as a democracy is also not a strong enough reason for such strong political and financial backing, he said. "There are a lot of other democracies around the world and none of them get this level of support, with no strings attached."

He said that anyone who questions that relationship is "playing with fire" and risks "being smeared" as anti-Semitic.

"These policies have been misguided. They're not good for the US, have not been good for Israel, and are not good for the Middle East overall," Walt said. "But we said at least a dozen times in the book: It's not a cabal and it's not a conspiracy. And we meant it."

In the talk, Mearsheimer charged that Israel and the Israel lobby – which he said also included many Christian Zionists and Evangelicals, and therefore was not synonymous with being a "Jewish lobby" – was trying to push America into military action against Iran.

"There is only one country that is putting pressure on the US to attack Iran, and that is Israel," Mearsheimer said. "AIPAC is pushing hard for an attack on Iran, and no other lobby in America is," he said, referring to the pro-Israeli lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

That the two men were invited to speak at all was the subject of some controversy, with several Israeli professors questioning whether the invitation was appropriate. The university did not widely advertise the lecture, which was held in a moderate-sized lecture hall unable to contain the number of students and faculty who had arrived. But most seemed to agree that, especially at the school that is viewed as Israel's leading university, diverse views should be aired.

"There is more criticism being heard here in Israel of the lobby," says Moshe Fox, a doctoral student, referring to AIPAC, "and of the US-Israel relationship in general than there is in the US."

Indeed, in recent weeks, Israeli politicians and pundits have been speaking more critically about the state of relations between the United States and the Jewish state.

Following President Bush's visit here last month, some commentators worried aloud that the unconditional support he expressed for Israel during its 60th birthday celebrations was blurring the boundaries of Israel's sovereignty and further diminishing Washington's ability to claim a role as a "fair broker" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Additional reservations about the US-Israel relationship have been voiced amid a deeply damaging scandal in which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is alleged to have taken more than $150,000 in unaccounted-for cash from a US supporter, raising deeper questions about the influence of American donors on Israeli politicians.

The Israeli government, says Uri Avnery, the head of Gush Shalom, is content with having a very pro-Israel American administration. Supporters of the peace camp, on the other hand, are hoping that November will bring a change in policy and are pinning their hopes on Democratic candidate Barack Obama. Peace advocates were dismayed, he said, to hear Senator Obama's comments to AIPAC last week.

"The first thing Barack Obama did after he secured the nomination was to go to AIPAC to make a speech which is scandalous as far as peace as concerned," Mr. Avnery said. "He said that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel and cannot be divided, but without this, there won't be peace with Palestinians.

"It shows us that without AIPAC, he feels he can't be elected, and that shows us how crucial AIPAC is."

There are fears in Israel, Avnery adds, that a President Obama would rock the US-Israel relationship. "The Israeli establishment is very cautious and they are very suspicious of Obama," he adds. "The Israeli government is quite satisfied with America as it is, and as far as they're concerned, there can't be a better American for Israel than George Bush. We would like American policy to be more even-handed so it will play a role in making peace."

Robert Wistrich, a historian at the Hebrew University who runs the school's center for the study of anti-Semitism, says Walt and Mearsheimer's arguments pander to old-fashioned stereotypes – ones that won't help Israel make moves toward peace.

"Whichever way you turn it around, they're saying that if only there wasn't so much Jewish or Israeli power, everything would be fine in the Middle East, which we know isn't true," Professor Wistrich says. Israelis, he adds, still can't figure out where Obama stands.

"I don't think Jews or Israelis want to go out on a limb and prejudge a man who might be president," he says. "The main worry here is more along the lines of appeasement, such as what he's said about meeting Iranian leaders, and we know where that's led so far."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.