Along with about 150 other people, I checked out the Berkeley stop of the Stephen Walt/John Mearshimer book tour last week. For the rabid anti-Zionists, their book "The Israel Lobby" gives Israel-bashing the mainstream academic pseudo-legitimacy that they have desperately sought for years. It was not only correct, but also easy, to dismiss fringe figures such as Noam Chomsky (who somehow parlayed his expertise in linguistics into extreme leftist politics) and Norman Finkelstein (who somehow parlayed professional failure at 3 different universities into becoming the Jew most beloved by anti-Semites). Walt and Mearshimer bring much more gravitas to the debate. However, they bring very little else that is new, and their analysis of history and politics in the Middle East conveniently leaves out much that undermines their thesis. Nonetheless, those of us who stand up for Israel (or, in Walt/Mearshimer terms, are part of "The Lobby") need to know what they say and where they have gone wrong; their work, like Jimmy Carter's recent screed, will be a staple of the other side's repertoire for quite a while.
The first thing I noticed at the Berkeley event, despite the fact that it was co-sponsored by Tikkun and moderated by Michael Lerner, was the presence of several well-known local anti-Zionist activists, one of whom was busy handing out postcards advertising the now-annual protest at the December AIPAC dinner in Oakland. (For those unsure of the nomenclature, "anti-Zionist" describes those opposed to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state-- whether they be virulent Jew-haters, pie-in-the-sky "one state solution" idealists, or Neturei Karta ultra-Orthodox extremists). The table at the event held only copies of the W&M book and a flyer from Gush Shalom describing "millions starving in Gaza" (which, if it were actually occurring, would of course be accompanied by extensive video on the same Hamas TV station that airs the wonderful children's show featuring Farfur the Martyr Mouse and Nahool the Jihad Bee). Lerner introduced the speakers as being "on the cutting edge of a central issue facing our country" and of course touted the new issue of Tikkun magazine which apparently will laud M&W's book and promote the same thesis.
So, what is their thesis anyway? Stephen Walt began by describing two main questions:
1. Is there a powerful pro-Israel lobby and how does it work?
2. Is that lobby good for the US and is it even good for Israel?
Walt comes across as a friendly, articulate academic, someone you'd enjoy having as a professor. He doesn't get mean and he doesn't use words carelessly. He specifically acknowledges the sensitivity of writing and talking about this issue because of the history of anti-Semitism and in particular "bizarre conspiracy theories such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion", and goes on to specifically reject such theories. Yet without batting an eye he then immediately claims that any critic of Israel is labeled an anti-Semite.
He makes several specific points. One is that the dollar amount of US aid to Israel comes to $500 for each Israeli citizen, and that Israel has the 29th largest economy in the world so doesn't need that level of assistance. The other is that the level of US diplomatic support for Israel, and lack of criticism from US politicians, is without parallel. He then attacks the two most commonly cited reasons for these: that Israel is a vital strategic ally and that Israel shares American values of freedom and democracy. Walt admits that Israel might indeed have been a strategic ally during the Cold War , but that not only is this in the past, but also that Israel is one of the reasons that we have a terrorism problem. Again, he is very careful to say "one of the reasons", not "the only" or even "the main" reason. He then goes on to say that no other democracies get the same level of support and that Israel's treatment of its own Arab population (much less its treatment of the West Bank Arabs who are not citizens) doesn't measure up to American values. He does go as far as to say that Israel, in its actions to defend itself, "doesn't act any better" than its adversaries, striking a moral equivalence between the IDF that attempts to avoid civilian casualties and the mass murderers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad who celebrate the deaths of women, children and senior citizens in buses and restaurants. Not a word about the fact that Israel has terrorist gangs on its borders armed with rockets, not a word about the terror war launched by Arafat in 2000, not a word about 60 years of genocidal threats against the Jewish state. Listening to Walt, one would think Israel is located in central Europe surrounded by friendly neighbors but just can't manage to get along with them.
Walt then describes "The Lobby" (somehow, one feels the capitalization even when he is speaking) as a loose coalition of organizations specifically including AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and unnamed Christian Evangelical groups. He talks about AIPAC's work in building support for Israel within Congress and in trying to shape the public discourse about Israel. While he concedes that this is entirely legal and open activity, he also refers to a number of members of the House and the Senate who were "driven from office" by AIPAC; he specifically cites recent elections (Cynthia McKinney, Lincoln Chaffee) as well as more distant ones (Paul Findlay, Charles Percy and Roger Jepson, the latter two targeted because of their vote for Ronald Reagan's sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia in the 1980's-- a sale which went forward despite strong objections from AIPAC.). He returns to the charge that AIPAC's efforts to stifle debate "almost always" include labeling critics of Israel as anti-Semites, without any supporting references. Apparently, AIPAC's power extends to the opinion pages of America's newspapers, and is the reason why there are no "dissenting voices" such as Robert Fisk in the UK, or Akiva Eldar and Amira Hass from Ha'aretz. Walt must not read the San Francisco Chronicle, where George Bisharat appears so frequently he might as well have his own byline. Walt does acknowlege that most Americans have a favorable view of Israel, but that this doesn't mean that they support it unconditionally.
For those of us who are card carrying members of "The Lobby", the recitation of AIPAC's successes is nothing new; we hear it at the annual membership meetings and we hear it when we talk to our local AIPAC leaders. Whether such open self-celebration of success is helpful or counter-productive should now be a matter of some serious discussion within AIPAC.
Interestingly, Walt explicitly endorsed Israel's existence as a Jewish state and said that the US should come to its aid if its existence is threatened; he didn't see any current existential threat to Israel, however.
Mearshimer took on the second question with a very different style from Walt; he's much more aggressive and attacking. He also is the one to present the arguments that are staples of the far left and the extreme right, that the influence of "The Lobby" is so pervasive that it was one of the main driving forces for the US invasion of Iraq, and that the policies it promotes are a major source of terrorism. He spent a lot of his time tying the 9/11 attacks to US support for Israel as well. Mearshimer acknowledged that the neocons who pushed for the war with Iraq did believe that this would be good for the US, and denies claims that this was a "Jewish" war, citing opinion polls showing that the American Jewish community had less support for the war in 2003 than the public in general. By the same standard, he assigns causality for the war to the Israel lobby because opinion polls showed that most Israelis supported an attack on Saddam Hussein. He got a lot of mileage out of an editorial in the Forward from 2004 which quoted AIPAC's executive director, Howard Kohr, as having taken credit for pushing the use of force against Saddam.
Mearshimer echoed Walt's support of Israel as a Jewish state within the 1967 borders "with minor territorial adjustments" and also stated that the US should come to its aid if its existence is threatened. It wasn't clear what would constitute an existential threat to M&W, since they are very concerned about being drawn into military action against Iran, which is frantically pursuing nuclear weapons and has made no secret of its desire to destroy Israel. His prescription for peace between Israel and the Arabs was simply telling Israel that they "must make peace" with their neighbors and withdraw from most of the West Bank. Not a single mention of Palestinian terror. Not a word about Palestinian refusal to give up on the so-called "right of return". Not any hint that Israel completely withdrew from Gaza and was rewarded with a Hamas terror entity. In Mearshimer's world, the responsibility lies solely with Israel. Interesting how he then, with such a shallow approach to the complexities of the conflict, claims to know that The Lobby has been bad for Israel.
During the question period (and the only challenges to W&M were from those who disagreed with their support for the existence of a Jewish state within any borders at all) they also made note of a detailed response to critics of their original 2006 paper posted on their website. Indeed, this is a 30 page document, half of which is devoted to rebutting Benny Morris's refutation of their misuse of Morris' work in their paper.
Supporters of Israel need to take them seriously. W&M are well-spoken, and they try to pre-empt any charges of anti-Semitism both by their claim that any opponents of The Lobby are tarred with that brush, and by making very clear statements of support for the Jewish state. The fact remains, though, that many of their arguments echo the old canard of "Jews control the media" and "Jews control Congress", just with the more genteel substitution of "Israel Lobby" for "Jews". The argument that Osama bin Laden is motivated by the Palestinian issue falls flat on its face when his "messages" to the American people have barely even paid lip service to the Palestinian cause--but if the argument is repeated enough, imagine the backlash should there be another terror attack on American soil. And despite their credentials, their scholarship IS sloppy. One of many important critical reviews of their work is by Leslie Gelb in this past Sunday's New York Times, which points out that Israel did indeed offer, at Camp David in 2000, exactly the prescription offered by Mearshimer-- and of course Ehud Olmert ran for office on virtually the same platform.
Lerner closed the event by calling upon the audience to join organizations that apparently pass his criteria for acceptability mentioning not only Tikkun of course, but also Americans for Peace Now, B'rit Tzedek v'Shalom, and Jewish Voice for Peace. The irony that JVP stands at anti-Israel demonstrations along with jihadist wannabes flying the Hamas and Hezbollah flags, and features anti-Zionist speakers at their events, is lost on Lerner. And I left the event wondering what W&M really think about the much bigger irony: that while they themselves insist that they are neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic, many of their biggest fans are. Stand outside the Oakland AIPAC dinner in December, see the rally which was being promoted at this talk, and look for yourself.