Who’s Telling the Truth About the Israel Lobby and Anti-Semitism?

Pro Israel Rally in Los Angeles, California
Israeli-American Council Tzav 8 pro-Israel rally in Los Angeles during Operation Protective Edge Against Hamas, July 13, 2014. Photo credit: Israeli American Council / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The recent charges of “anti-Semitism” leveled against Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) have reignited the debate about the power and influence of AIPAC and the Israel lobby.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we talk with Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and John Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. They have been looking at this issue for years and co-authored the book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.  

In this week’s conversation, Mearsheimer and Walt examine the efforts of AIPAC, one of the most powerful political lobbies in the United States, and those of other Israeli interest groups. The duo note that even though these groups claim their advocacy is based not on religion but rather on what they characterize as a shared “strategic interest,” any disagreement with them is immediately met with accusations of anti-Semitism.

Mearsheimer and Walt talk about the difference between US interests and those promoted by right-wing Israeli elements and their backers.

It’s an unfiltered look into one of today’s most controversial issues.

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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted from Israeli American Council / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0), b0red / Pixabay, Kurious / Pixabay, and Kaz / Pixabay.

Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

The recent attacks on Congresswoman Ilan Omar over just mentioning the power of AIPAC and the Israeli lobby bring into bold relief an issue that has been quiet for some time. While the dynamics of Israel, its relationship to its neighbors, and the meaning of the Zionist project remain one of the most vexing and truly complex issues of our time, its relationship with the U.S. and its impact on our own politics are issues that exist not in the abstract world of policy, but is constantly reinforced here in the U.S., feeding our own device of politics by perhaps the most powerful political lobby in the United States. My guest for this week’s WhoWhatWhypodcast, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, have been looking at this issue for many, many years.

  Stephen Walt is Professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and John Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. Years ago, they wrote the book The Israeli Lobby in U.S. Foreign Policy. And it is my pleasure to welcome John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt to Radio

WhoWhatWhy. John, Stephen, welcome to the program.

John Mearsheimer: Glad to be here.
Stephen Walt: Nice to be here!
Jeff Schechtman: John, let’s start with you. Why has it become such a taboo, such a difficult issue to talk about this special relationship between the U.S. and Israel?
John Mearsheimer: Well, we argue that the Israel lobby, this loose group of individuals and organizations that tries to shape U.S. foreign policy in a way that supports Israel, has a vested interest in making sure that no one questions the relationship that now exists between the United States and Israel. Basically, the United States now gives Israel unconditional aid. And it gives Israel a great deal of both economic and diplomatic support. And what the lobby wants, not surprisingly, is to make sure that that situation continues for the foreseeable future. And anyone who comes along and raises serious questions about Israeli policy against the Palestinians, for example, or raises the question of whether or not American support for Israel, at least unconditional support, is a good idea, threatens to undermine that special relationship. And of course, the lobby, therefore, goes to great lengths to make sure that critics like us don’t surface and become numerous and raise doubts in the minds of the American people about the present relationship between the United States and Israel.
Jeff Schechtman: Stephen, talk a little bit about the evolution of this lobby. Because on the one hand, you can look at it and see that there have been economic imperatives all along. And certainly those have been outgrown by the economic success of Israel. And there have been strategic imperatives. Talk about the way this lobby has evolved, and the arguments that it has used to justify its position over time.
Stephen Walt: Well, the two main arguments, of course, the groups in the lobby use are that first, Israel is a vital strategic ally, and second of all, that there’s a strong moral taste for giving Israel unconditional support. Because it’s a democracy, shares our values, and things like that. And the lobby, which we ought to emphasize, is a set of groups that are engaged in interest group politics much like other interest groups in the United States. The farm lobby, the NRA, groups like that. What it’s doing is not unusual or illegitimate at all. But these groups have become larger, more influential. Better funded over time. Relatively small and rather personal operation in the 1950s. But groups like AIPAC, for example, the real powerhouse in Washington, widely recognized by politicians in both parties. And many of the most influential groups in the lobby have also become more conservative, more hard-line, tending to support more hard-line Israeli positions.
  And that’s been necessary because over time the strategic case for backing Israel to the hilt has diminished, particularly with the end of the Cold War. It’s no longer a strategic ally for defeating the Soviet Union because there’s no Soviet Union to defeat. But also because Israeli policy, particularly in the occupied territories, its treatment of the Palestinians over the last 40 years is not consistent with American values. So over time, the strategic and moral case for unconditional support has gotten weaker. But at the same time, the lobby has gotten more powerful and active. So American policy doesn’t really change.
Jeff Schechtman: Is the lobby, at this point, so large that it is sort of automatically self-perpetuating? Or are there new cases that are being made and new reasons why, that are being put forth it is so essential for America to have this relationship with Israel. John?
John Mearsheimer: Well, first of all, I think, Jeff, that the lobby is not that large. Steve was talking about interest group politics before. In the United States, our political system is based on interest group politics. And we have all sorts of reasonably small interest groups that punch above their weight. They’re much more powerful than in numbers would indicate. The National Rifle Association is a good example of this. The NRA has a profound influence on gun policy in this country, but the number of individuals in the NRA is not very great. And the same thing is true with regards to the Israel lobby. There

are not that many people involved here but those who are involved are deeply dedicated. And they work very hard and very smartly to influence American policy in the Middle East.

  Now the reason that they’re so successful is largely because they’re good at playing the political game. They do come up with different rationales to explain why the United States should support Israel. And to some people those rationales are convincing. But the real key to their success is their ability to operate effectively in the American political system. Again, much like the farm lobby, like the NRA, like the Cuban lobby. And so forth and so on.
Stephen Walt: If I could add just one other point to that, you’ll note that we’ve been using the phrase Israel lobby throughout. And it’s important to recognize that the Israel lobby is comprised both of Jewish Americans and non-Jewish Americans. And it’s not necessarily even representative of most Jewish Americans. There are some people who like to refer to a Jewish lobby and think that’s what we’re talking about. But it’s not. For example, one of the key elements in the pro-Israel community are the so called Christian Zionists, sort of hardcore set of Christian evangelicals who believe that Biblical prophecy dictates a very hard-line support for Israel. The lobby is defined by its political agenda, by what it’s pushing the government to do, not by religion or ethnicity. And again, there are many people, say, who are Jewish, who don’t support the lobby’s positions. So it’s important to think of it as the Israel lobby and nothing else.
Jeff Schechtman: How is this lobby and its influence perceived in Israel?
John Mearsheimer: I think that most Israeli leaders understand that the lobby is very important for keeping the United States backing Israel, almost no matter what Israel does. So if you look at any Israeli leader, you can find examples of where they say publicly that AIPAC, which of course is the most important organization in the lobby, is in many ways Israel’s greatest friend in the world. So almost all Israeli leaders are deeply appreciative of the efforts of the lobby. And that’s hardly surprising. But the argument that we make, Jeff, is that the policies that the lobby is pushing in the United States are not only not good from the perspective of the American national interest, they’re also not good for Israel.
  And the case we like to point to is the settlements. We believe that the United States should have told the Israelis in no uncertain terms decades ago that building settlements in the occupied territories was not good for Israel or good for the United States. But even though it’s been official American policy since 1967 when the Israelis first acquired the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, it’s been official American policy to argue against settlements. To say that they’re illegal. No president has been able to put any pressure on any Israeli government to stop them from building settlements. And this is not in Israel’s interest, or in America’s interest, despite the best efforts of the lobby.
Jeff Schechtman: John, give us a sense of who are the groups and individuals that really have been at the center of this lobby.
John Mearsheimer: Well, if you want to start with the organizations. It’s quite clear. As I said before that AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is certainly the most powerful organization. But there are other organizations that matter too. Like the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which is an important think tank in Washington. There are many organizations that work very hard to push American foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. Then there are a number of important media outlets. CertainlyCommentary Magazine, The New Republic. The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. These are all important media outlets that are part of the core of the lobby.
  And then there are a number of prominent individuals in the United States who are associated, for the most part, with those institutions who qualify. Martin Indyk, who was a former American ambassador to Israel. Worked for AIPAC for quite a while and helped set up The Washington Institute, would be one example. Dennis Ross would be another example. He was an important Middle East negotiator and ambassador in the Clinton administration. So there are a panoply of organizations and media outlets and individuals that are effectively committed to pushing U.S. policy in a pro-Israel direction, and they work actively towards that end. And as we emphasize time after time, there is nothing illegitimate about this. Their behavior is American as apple pie. We just happen to think that the consequences of the policies that they’re pushing are good for neither the United States nor Israel.
Jeff Schechtman: And of course a big portion of that push came from the neoconservatives. Talk a little bit about them. The nexus between that group and these other groups we’ve been talking about.
John Mearsheimer: Well, many of the neoconservatives were associated with key organizations that are part of the pro-Israel movement or the Israel lobby. Many of them were affiliated with The Project for the New American Century in Washington. The American Enterprise Institute. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and others. So there are various connections to organizations, part of whose agenda, of course, is to encourage strong, if not unconditional American support for Israel. And of course, the neoconservatives were on the hawkish end of that spectrum. Which, by the way, reminds us that the groups that make up the Israel lobby don’t agree on every single issue. But some of them favor a two state-solution. Although they don’t favor cutting American aid if Israel doesn’t cooperate in creating a two-state solution. Other groups are much more hard-line, think Israel should control the occupied territories in perpetuity. So not a uniformity of view on all questions.
  Neoconservatives, of course, are openly very committed to Israel, and believe that pretty much what’s good for the United States is good for Israel and vice versa. They again are not doing things they think are good for Israel but bad for the United States. They think they’re pushing an agenda that’s good for both countries.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about these groups, and how they have dealt with clear situations that have come up from time to time where there has been, or seemed there was, a clear divergence between Israel’s interest and America’s interests.
John Mearsheimer: Well, it would be hard for me. Maybe Steve can help here. But it would be hard for me to think of a case where the organizations in the lobbies saw any sort of divergence between American interests and Israeli interests. And you realize, Jeff, if we were to say they did see a clear divergence, and they pushed for Israel’s interest over America’s interest, that would in effect be accusing these individuals or organizations of treasonous, or semi- treasonous behavior. And we’re not doing that at all. I think that what’s happened here is that almost all the people and organizations in the lobby axiomatically see the world in ways that identify problems as the same for Israel and the same for the United States. And they see the solutions that are necessary to deal with those problems as being good for both countries. So there is, best I can tell, Steve can correct me if I’m wrong, no cases that we could point to where people in the lobby see differences of any meaningful sort between Israel’s interest and America’s interest.
Jeff Schechtman: Stephen?
Stephen Walt: Let me offer one possible illustration of that, and suggest again that there is a diversity of views within these organizations. As I said a moment ago, there are some groups in the lobby, the Zionist Organization for America would be a good example. And most of the Christian Zionists, Christian evangelical groups, for different reasons believe Israel should maintain control of the occupied territories and eventually just incorporate them into Israel proper. A very hard-line expansionist view. There are other groups in the lobby, and here I would think of Americans for Peace Now, The Israel Policy Forum, that strongly favor a two-state solution. Believe that, in fact, the United States should be working much harder to get the Palestinians a viable state. So these groups are opposed to one another on that issue. Right? They have a different perception of what’s in Israel’s interest and what’s in America’s interest. In both cases, they think the position they happen to favor is good for both countries.
John Mearsheimer: That’s the key point.
Stephen Walt: Although they differ on what that policy ought to be. But again, none of these groups have ever, to my knowledge, said the United States should make its support conditional on a change in American policy. Even Americans for Peace Now don’t say that the United States should use its leverage, say by threatening to reduce its economic and military aid, in order to cause a two-state solution to happen.
Jeff Schechtman: What is the nexus then that you’ve seen between those individuals and organizations that would lobby on behalf on the interests of American Jewry for example and those that lobby on behalf of Israel and a more Zionist approach.
Stephen Walt: I think there are many, obviously, Jewish American organizations and much of their agenda is organized around various domestic issues. Jewish Americans have always been very active in American politics, which is a wonderful thing. And have tended to favor liberal causes. And certainly they’ve been very energetic against the danger of anti-Semitism. Groups like the Anti-Defamation League, particularly, in earlier decades, did wonderful work to try and drive anti-Semitism out of American society, which is a very good thing. So many of the major organizations have domestic agendas that we would have no problem with, no objection to. It’s in the foreign policy. And this again has become more and more evident since the founding of the State of Israel. Many of these organizations also have been strongly committed to backing Israel. And as we argue in the book, the most powerful and influential of them have become more hard-line over time. This, we believe, has been bad for the United States and bad for Israel because it has encouraged a set of policies that have not helped either country.
John Mearsheimer: Our argument, Jeff, is that United States should treat Israel like a normal country. We’re not arguing that the United States should abandon Israel. We argue that the United States should treat Israel the way it treats Britain, Germany, India, France. Other major democracies. Which is to say, if Israel is acting in ways that are consistent with the American national interest, we should back Israel. No questions asked. But when Israel is pursuing foolish policies, the United States should distance itself from Israel and use its considerable leverage to get Israel to change its behavior. Much the way it would do with any other democracy that was acting in ways that American leaders thought was not in our best national interest. But the problem we face here is that the lobby, and this includes almost all of the organizations and almost all of the individuals in the lobby, favor giving Israel unconditional support. In other words, no matter what Israel does, the lobby wants us to back Israel.
  And this is a very foolish way of doing business. In large part because any country, whether you’re talking about the United States or Israel or Britain or France, sometimes does foolish things. States sometimes pursue foolish policies. It’s just a fact of life in international politics. And we have a situation here where it is, well, not even possible for the United States to lean on Israel for Israel’s own good or for America’s good, because lobby pushes us so hard to give Israel unconditional support.
Jeff Schechtman: Are you surprised, as you’ve looked at this, that there hasn’t been more of a domestic political backlash as a result of this?
John Mearsheimer: Not really. First of all, most Americans don’t have a good feel for the extent to which the United States backs Israel. And they don’t have a good feel for the consequences of this backing. For example, most Americans don’t understand that the people who attacked us on 9/11 were driven in good part, not largely, but were driven in good part by their rage at America’s support for Israel’s policy in the occupied territories, or Israel’s policy against the Palestinians. This is a subject that is basically taboo in the body politic at this point in time. So most Americans just don’t have a good feel for what the backlash really is.
  And one of the reasons that the lobby has gone to such great lengths to try to marginalize us by accusing us of producing sloppy scholarship and accusing us of being anti-Semitic is that they don’t want us to get on the radio like this or to go before large audiences in cities like San Francisco and actually point out to people the extent to which the lobby influences American foreign policy and also make the case that this is not good for the United States and good for Israel. They want to make exactly the opposite message. And they have been largely successful at accomplishing that end up to this point. And they of course are going to great lengths to make sure that we don’t change that situation.
Stephen Walt: I want to add something. We’ve said all along that of course this conduct is perfectly legitimate. It’s interest group politics, the way many of these groups operate. There’s one exception to that, which is the tendency to smear anyone who questions Israel’s policy or questions unconditional American support for Israel. And to smear them primarily by accusing them of being anti-Semite. We’re now seeing the same thing happen to one congressman, who in the last several weeks has pointed out that AIPAC is very powerful. And this is terrible for the United States because it makes it impossible for us to have a civil and open discussion of our interests in the Middle East at a period where everybody understands that American policy in the Middle East is in big trouble. We ought to be able to have an open and civil and candid conversation. But most groups in the lobby really don’t want that to happen.
  And also Jeff, contrary to what the lobby thinks, it’s not good for Israel either. Because again, as I pointed out before, states sometimes pursue foolish policies, including the Israelis, as we saw in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. And it makes much better sense if you can have an open debate about what Israel is doing, as well as what the United States is doing.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that we are hearing from this lobby now from the neoconservatives that still have some influence, and more and more in various publications and from various organizations that you’ve delineated that are part of this lobby, is a drumbeat with respect to Iran right now. Talk a little bit about that, Stephen.
Stephen Walt: Well, it’s true that if you look now in the United States, the principal groups and individuals who are pushing a hard-line policy towards Iran, a confrontational policy, and in fact openly advocating for the use of force against Iran’s nuclear program, are essentially the same groups and individuals who led the charge for war with Iraq. Not probably entirely the same cast of characters, but a very similar group. The confrontational approach we’ve taken is the wrong way to go because it merely increases Iran’s desire to have a nuclear deterrent of some kind. It strengthens the hand of hard-liners in Iran who use the threat from America to sort of rally nationalist support. But I think it’s not surprising, given that Israel is deeply worried about an Iran nuclear program. It’s not surprising that the organizations that backed them most strongly in the United States have been again leading the charge for a confrontational policy.
Jeff Schechtman: Given where we are now, what if anything do you see stemming the tide of it going forward?
John Mearsheimer: Well, I think that the most important development that could happen is for an open discussion of this issue to be put out on the table. A more open debate about Israel policy and about the U.S. Israeli relationship. And our view is that if we had a more open debate, if people were allowed to talk in a rational manner about these issues that it would have positive effects here in the United States because people would then begin to put pressure on politicians to change our policy. And it’s also possible that you could end up having significant changes within the lobby itself. It’s very important to understand that we’re not arguing that the lobby is an entity that should go away, that there’s something wrong with it. It’s part of the warp and woof of American politics. It’s an interest group. And interest groups are legitimate. And the lobby is legitimate. What we’d like to see happen is the lobby to change the policies that it’s pushing, and to allow a more open debate.
Jeff Schechtman: How do the Europeans view the power of this lobby and America’s actions as a result?
Stephen Walt: Well there’s a range of opinion in Europe as well. I mean, Europe is not homogeneous on any of these issues. But clearly over the last 30 or 40 years, most European democracies have been much more critical of Israeli policy. More supportive, not of everything the Palestinians have done, but much more supportive of their plight. Which is really quite beleaguered and unfortunate one. And most importantly, the coverage of Middle East issues is just much more wide ranging. Obviously ranging from very strongly pro-Israel views to very critical of Israel. But in the mainstream media throughout Europe, you’ll find all opinions represented. Europeans just have a very different understanding of that issue, and it’s mostly because they’ve had a much more open conversation for a good long time about what’s going on in that part of the world.
John Mearsheimer: Jeff, if I can add a few words to what Steve said. There’s a fundamental difference between politics in Europe, especially in England, and the United States that explains the difference. The fact is that there’s no tradition of interest group politics in European countries like there is in the United States. Interest groups lie at the heart of our political system. That’s not the case in Europe. So it would be hard for any lobby, whether it’s an Israel lobby or a gun lobby in Britain to have the impact on the political system that you find in the United States. Furthermore, in Europe, money matters much less in elections.
  In the American political system, campaign contributions matter a great deal. And American Jews have a rich philanthropic tradition. They have historically been deeply involved in politics. And they give lots of money to political candidates. This is perfectly legitimate. It is commendable. We’re not criticizing it. But the fact is, that allows lobby to have an influence in the political process that you don’t find in Europe. And then finally, the American Jewish community is just much bigger, much larger, and much more vibrant than the equivalent Jewish communities in Europe.
Stephen Walt: Therefore, some elements in that community, because again, I want to underscore, we don’t define the lobby in religious or ethnic terms. That means that some elements of that will be ardently pro-Israel and very engaged in trying to shape the political process in ways they think are desirable.
Jeff Schechtman: John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt. John, Stephen, I thank you very much for spending time with us today here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Stephen Walt: Thank you for hosting us, Jeff.
John Mearsheimer: Very nice talking to you, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio

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