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Tuesday, October 30, 2007
The Israel Lobby

I rarely venture into books on contemporary politics, but I enjoyed Mearsheimer's Tragedy of Great Power Politics (even if I disagreed with a lot of it) , had some time on my hands, and decided that the furore surrounding the original article and book was too great to ignore.

Well, I have just finished the book, and am pleased to report that I learned much from it, including the extent of America's economic and military support for Israel, stuff about Israel's founding and wars against its neighbours that I didn't know about (but which historians like Benny Morris have re-examined), and the peculiar phenomenon that is Christian Zionism (whose origins I had begun to read about in Michael Oren's Power, Faith, and Fantasy -- alas, I've never gotten around to completing it). The core of the book, of course, is that the eponymous lobby's influence on US attitudes towards Israel is 1) bad for America, 2) bad for Israel, and 3) bad for the Palestinians. The authors are clear, concise, and thoroughly reasonable: they anticipate and tackle objections (including accusations of anti-Semitism), clarify important points, and avoid ideological and rhetorical extremes without compromising the overall force of their argument. I especially like how they implicate the lobby by using its own words against it (cue accusations of Dowdifying the evidence or relying excessively on secondary sources, which, given the nature of the topic, are pretty much all that's available). Attempts to silence the authors' arguments about the lobby and free speech ought simply to strengthen these arguments.

The one criticism I have is obviously from the perspective of a non-specialist: I'd like a longer and more prescriptive conclusion. Historians aren't supposed to be prescriptive, but political scientists can and should be. Unfortunately, Mearsheimer and Walt, while agreeing that the lobby's influence needs to be mitigated, are rather vague on how this might come about. For instance, they write that:
To foster a more open discussion, Americans of all backgrounds must reject the silencing tactics that some groups and individuals in the lobby continue to employ. Stifling debate and smearing opponents is [sic] inconsistent with the principles of vigorous and open dialogue on which democracy depends, and continued reliance on this undemocratic tactic runs the risk of generating a hostile backlash at some point in the future.
America needs a more open debate on its support for Israel, and a more even-handed relationship with the country, but given the strength of the lobby, what concrete steps are needed to make this happen? The authors urge the government to use its "considerable leverage" to sway Israeli policy-makers, apparently forgetting the lobby has its own "considerable leverage."

Legitimate criticisms of their book, like this one by Martin Kramer (whom the authors identify as part of the lobby but not a neoconservative) should focus on the extent to which Israel is a strategic asset or liability and offer more than the usual talking points on Israel's moral and democratic credentials. Bad criticism leans towards accusing the authors of anti-Semitism, which the right uses to bash the left in pretty much the same way that the left uses "racism" to bash the right. Consider this laughably simplistic piece by George Shultz. It's not quite as vicious as something by Alan Dershowitz or Marty Peretz, but it's still utterly unencumbered by knowledge of the book. It's always a good idea to read a book before "reviewing" it; every single accusation or veiled accusation the former Secretary of State makes is demolished in the book. Let me cite just a few examples:
  • "Jewish groups are influential. They also largely agree that the United States should support Israel. But the notion that they have anything like a uniform agenda and that U.S. policy in Israel and the Middle East is the result of this influence is simply wrong."Quite so, and this is in fact exactly what the authors write: the Israel lobby is not exclusively a Jewish lobby.
  • "Anyone who thinks that Jewish groups constitute a homogeneous "lobby" ought to spend some time dealing with them." Again, the authors make this point very clear in their book: left-leaning Jewish groups critical of Israel's policies and the extent of US support for Israel exist, but their influence isn't quite as great as the more right-wing groups.
  • "The United States supports Israel not because of favoritism based on political pressure or influence but because the American people, and their leaders, say that supporting Israel is politically sound and morally just." For goodness sake George, have you even read the book that you're criticising? And I really don't see how someone who supported the Nicaraguan contras can talk about morality as a justification for foreign policy. It is "morally just" to support Israel's right to exist, but this isn't what the authors are interested in.
Thank you, that's all for now.