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 US storm over book on Israel lobby

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MessageUS storm over book on Israel lobby

US storm over book on Israel lobby
By Henri Astier
BBC News

The power of America's "Jewish lobby" is said to be legendary.

Commentators the world over refer to it, as though it were a well-established fact that US Jews wield far more influence than their numbers (2% of the population) would suggest.

But this presumed influence is also a delicate issue in the US, and is rarely analysed.

How does the lobby work? Is its power truly legendary, or just a legend?

Two US academics, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard, have set out to answer those questions, and triggered a firestorm of controversy as a result.

Their book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, which builds on a 2006 article in the London Review of Books, says the reasons for US support for Israel need to be explained.

[Many critics] tried to smear us by either saying or hinting that we are anti-Semitic
Stephen Walt

America spends $3bn a year in largely military assistance - one-sixth of its direct aid budget - to help a prosperous, nuclear-armed country, and strongly backs Israel in negotiations on Middle East peace.

But according to Mearsheimer and Walt, the US gets remarkably little in return.

They reject the argument that Israel is a key ally in America's "war on terror".

On the contrary, they contend, US patronage of Israel fuels militant anger - as well as fostering resentment in Arab countries that control vital oil supplies.


The authors also reject the common view of Israel as a democratic outpost that needs protection from deadly enemies.

It is indeed a vibrant democracy, they say, but also a regional giant ready to use its considerable firepower against civilians.

If both these arguments are weak, they say, the real reason behind US support for Israel is domestic - the activities of the American Israel Political Action Committee (Aipac), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and like-minded groups and think tanks.

Mearsheimer and Walt do not talk of a "Jewish lobby", as these groups do not speak for all US Jews and include many non-Jews, but of an "Israel lobby", whose main aim, they say, is to convince America that its interests are aligned with those of the Israeli state.

The book analyses the lobby's sources of influence - notably its financial muscle and the reluctance of critics to speak out.

Pro-Israeli contributions to US campaigns dwarf those of Arab-Americans or Muslim groups.

Like other interest groups, the Israel lobby also influences debate by rounding on politicians and commentators who take positions it does not like - but it does it particularly effectively, according to Mearsheimer and Walt.

Those who might think of questioning US support for Israel know they are in for a fight, making it more trouble than it is worth.

The resulting lack of discussion, the book says, has skewed US policies across the Middle East.

Most controversially, it argues that the lobby played an important role in the Iraq war.

No conspiracy

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mearsheimer and Walt have unleashed a torrent of criticism - though not from Aipac, which has made no comment.

For any anecdote they come up with, you can come up with an anecdote that demonstrates the opposite
Robert Lieberman
Columbia University

"Their conclusions are classic anti-Semitic canards - such as control of foreign policy against the interest of the US, the Jews controlling the media and getting America into war," ADL director Abraham Foxman told the BBC News website.

After reading the original article, Mr Foxman wrote a book-length rebuttal entitled The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and The Myth of Jewish Control.

Many attacks have been highly personal.

In a fierce critique of their scholarship, Israeli historian Benny Morris wrote in the New Republic of the original article: "Were 'The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy' an actual person, I would have to say that he did not have a single honest bone in his body."

Virtually all reviews of the book in the mainstream US press have been negative.

"They have often misrepresented our arguments badly or tried to smear us by either saying or hinting that we are anti-Semitic," Mr Walt told the BBC News website.

He and Mr Mearsheimer deny recycling old fantasies of Jewish conspiracies ? their book repeatedly states that pro-Israeli lobbying is not secretive, but conforms to the open rules of America's democratic system.

The authors regard their excoriation in the US press as a sign of the lobby's effectiveness, and point out that reviews abroad have been much more favourable.

"This in some way confirms our basic argument that it's much easier to talk about this subject outside the United States than we do inside the US," he says.

Cause and effect

However some of Mearsheimer and Walt's US critics have been less vitriolic and harder to dismiss as angry polemic."

Robert Lieberman, a Columbia University political scientist, argues that they overstate the lobby's financial power.

I have written articles in Haaretz that no American newspapers would touch
Tony Judt
Mearsheimer and Walt cite cases of members of Congress losing their seats after running afoul of pro-Israeli groups which then bankrolled their opponents.

But Mr Lieberman says the contributions involved are unlikely to make a difference and the book fails to establish a clear link between lobby money and victory.

Senate Minority leader Tom Daschle lost his seat in 2004 despite the fact that he got more pro-Israel funding than any candidate that year.

"For any anecdote they come up with, you can come up with an anecdote that demonstrates the opposite," Mr Lieberman says.

Perhaps the most contentious argument in the book is the direct causal link it tries to establish between lobby activity and US Middle East policies.

But political preferences can be influenced by any number of factors, such as popular pressure, party politics or heartfelt conviction.

Although Mearsheimer and Walt do their best to discard those alternative explanations for the US pro-Israeli stance, many are unconvinced.

"Is this the manipulation of a tiny group, or is this politicians not wanting to take a stand that is unpopular with the broader public?" Walter Russell Mead, of the Council on Foreign Relations, told the BBC News website.

Mr Mead - who wrote a lengthy critique of the book in the journal Foreign Affairs - also says Mearsheimer and Walt give too vague a definition of the lobby to make any credible conclusion about its impact.

Opening up

The fact that the book invites criticism, however, is also a strength. Its scholarly, dispassionate tone is meant to encourage a debate.

"Reasonable people can disagree and one of the reasons we want to have a discussion is to get issues out in the open so people can talk about them," Mr Walt says.

Tony Judt - a prominent historian and critic of Israel - does not accept every point made by Mearsheimer and Walt, but he credits them with lifting a taboo.

The main effect of the lobby, he says, has been self-censorship. "There are people out there who are anti-Semitic obviously, and you don't want to find yourself in their company, so you end up saying nothing," he says.

Mr Judt himself is not afraid to speak out, but he has to tread more carefully when he criticises Israeli policies in the US than he does in Israel itself.

"I have written articles in Haaretz that no American newspapers would touch," he says.

In this context, he adds, Mearsheimer and Walt's book is an "enormous act of intellectual courage".

"They gained nothing from it, but the community has really gained something because with each little step like that, the conversation opens up a bit more."
Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2007/11/22 10:59:58 GMT


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US storm over book on Israel lobby :: Commentaires

Text: Mearsheimer and Walt interview
Message le Jeu 22 Nov - 9:21 par mihou
Text: Mearsheimer and Walt interview
US academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt speak to the BBC News Website about their controversial new book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.

What do you think of the way your book was received in the US?

Stephen Walt : It is striking and it is probably something one would predict, having read our book, that virtually all of the mainstream reviews in the United States have been either somewhat negative or harshly negative.

And many have included many personal attacks on us - not all but the vast majority. For example, the Washington Post has run four separate pieces on our book and three of the four are harshly negative, and a couple of them raise the anti-Semitism charge quite explicitly - that's just the Washington Post.

But you would also predict from the book that the reviews outside the United States would be much better. There have been, I think, about eight or nine reviews now in the United Kingdom and virtually all of them are very positive...

Again, this in some way confirms our basic argument that it's much easier to talk about this subject, and that we get a much fairer hearing outside the United States than we do inside the US - which does not surprise us at all.

John Mearsheimer : There is no question that the book has been savaged in the mainstream media in the United States, which is to be expected. But one should also recognize that we have travelled widely in the United States to talk about the book, and everywhere we go, we find that the audiences are clearly on our side, although there are always a few people at each event who harshly criticise us.

Moreover, we have received a huge number of e-mails, letters, and phone calls since the original article appeared in March 2006 and I would estimate that 80% of them are supportive. There is even widespread support for our views in policy-making circles in Washington...

It is worth noting that we have received lots of excellent reviews from readers on I believe we now have 97 reviews and 63 of them are 5-star reviews, which is the best review a book can get. The bottom line is that I think a huge number of Americans agree with what we have to say.

Were you not surprised by the accusations of anti-Semitism? In the book - knowing perhaps that you were on thin ice - you strongly condemn anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

John Mearsheimer : We went out of our way to make our arguments perfectly clear, so that they would not be misunderstood. Nevertheless they have been misrepresented time after time in the United States.

But that is not because we are on thin ice, it's because the arguments of the other side are so weak. They can't beat us with facts and logic, so they misrepresent our arguments and then attack the arguments that we did not make.

Do you not play down the determination of Israel's enemies in the book? You portray them as people who can be reasoned with. Isn't that a rosy view?

John Mearsheimer : We made it clear in the book that Israel has enemies. But there are ways that Israel can deal with most of those enemies and significantly improve its security situation.

Syria would be a good example. In 2000, the Israelis and the Syrians came very close to cutting a deal where Syria would get back the Golan Heights and in return it would make peace with Israel, which would include a Syrian agreement to end its support of Hezbollah and Hamas.

However, it was the Israelis who foolishly walked away from the deal, not the Syrians. Israel certainly has some enemies, but most of those enemies could be effectively dealt with if the Israelis pursued different policies than the ones they're now pursuing.

Stephen Walt : I would add that none of those enemies poses an existential threat to Israel at present. Israel has the strongest military in the region, and it has several hundred nuclear weapons of its own. Israel is not going out of business, and we think that's a wonderful thing.

To the extent that Israel does face threats, like from say Hamas or Hezbollah, those are threats that do not jeopardise Israel's existence. They don't have the capabilities to threaten Israel in that way.

And even if a country like Iran were some day down the road to have nuclear weapons, it could not threaten Israel's existence without committing national suicide. So yes, Israel has security problems but they are manageable ones."

What about Iran? Many argue that it has lied about its nuclear program, and the only way to deal with it is to play hardball. Not all of those who hold this view are susceptible to the US Israel lobby.

John Mearsheimer : First of all, we do not deny that the possibility Iran might acquire nuclear weapons is a problem. The question is: how best to address that problem? With regard to the point that Iran has lied to the US and the international community, as you know states sometimes lie.

And in fact, the Israelis lied to the United States about their nuclear program in the 1960s. So it is not altogether surprising that there is evidence that Iran has lied, and the United States and this international community should take that into account when they deal with Iran.

With regard to your point that the United States and other countries should play hardball with Iran, that strategy effectively means keeping the military option on the table. However, as long as that option remains on the table, you are in effect giving the Iranians powerful incentives to acquire nuclear weapons of their own...

The best way, we argue, to deal with Iran's leaders is to try to negotiate with them and try to work out a modus vivendi where they develop a nuclear capability but not a nuclear weapons capability. And to be more specific, the best way to achieve that outcome is to take the military threat off the table.

Many would agree that the Bush administration has made mistakes in Iraq. But why attribute those mistakes to the influence of a lobby? They could have been honest mistakes, or the result of incompetent planning.

Stephen Walt : There have obviously been many mistakes made and some elements could be attributed to incompetence. We do not let the Bush administration off the hook at all. We point out that the final decision to go to war in Iraq was made by President Bush, and he obviously deserves his share of the blame.

But Bush did not think this idea up by himself. In fact, the entire idea of toppling Saddam was originally conceived by the neoconservatives, who are a key component of the Israel lobby.

The lobby has also pushed the United States to adopt a confrontational policy towards Syria, Iran, and Israel's other enemies. Instead of focusing on defeating Al Qaeda and working in an even-handed way to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -which would make Bin Laden's message less attractive - the United States went after Iraq instead and gave Israel a free hand towards the Palestinians.

And the results have been a complete failure, and a disaster for the United States and Israel alike.
Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2007/11/22 10:31:15 GMT


US storm over book on Israel lobby

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