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Harvard Takes On the Israel Lobby

How a seemingly noncontroversial academic paper set off a political firestorm within the foreign policy establishment.
 
 
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A few weeks ago two scholars published a study that might have languished in the obscurity of academia.

But the paper was about the impact that the "Israel Lobby" -- which the authors characterized as a loose confederation of like-minded individuals and groups -- has on U.S. policy in the Middle East. So, predictably, it set off a nice little firestorm with accusations of anti-Semitism flying around our most hallowed Ivy League colleges and members of Congress discussing how to respond to the study's "charges."

"The Israel Lobby," by political scientists Stephen Walt of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, offered nothing new to the debate about U.S. policy toward the Middle East. The authors established no groundbreaking facts and unearthed no shocking original documents that could change the course of historical understanding.

As Walt and Mearsheimer noted, only their conclusion -- that the Israel Lobby's unprecedented success has shifted U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East away from a narrow focus on America's national interests -- is controversial, and then only by a matter of degree. The data from which they drew that conclusion came largely from Israeli academics and journalists and, as the authors point out, "are not in serious dispute among scholars."

What was interesting about the paper was its authorship and the reaction it elicited from Israel's many U.S. supporters. Those supporters inadvertently proved Walt and Mearsheimer correct on at least one point: the Israel Lobby doesn't tolerate debate about the relationship between the United States and its favorite client state, and it's quick to accuse dissenters of having the vilest of intent.

The New York Sun -- known as a mouthpiece for neoconservatism -- ran six articles about the paper the week it was released. Two were on the front page, above the fold. The first was headlined "David Duke Claims to Be Vindicated by a Harvard Dean" (Walt is the academic dean at the Kennedy School). According to the Sun, "Duke, a former Louisiana state legislator and one-time Ku Klux Klan leader, called the paper 'a great step forward.'" Later in the article -- below the fold -- Duke admits that he hadn't actually read the study.

The guilt-by-association didn't end with Duke -- although he made appearances in a number of other articles about the study, including one in the Washington Post . Terrorists, apparently, also endorsed it: "The Palestine Liberation Organization mission to Washington is distributing the paper, which also is being hailed by a senior member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization," according to the Sun.

The Sun's second hit piece quoted two Harvard professors who are "publicly supportive of Israel" and Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who conceded that the "'dishonest so-called intellectuals' who wrote the paper are 'entitled to their stupidity'" but insisted that it was a matter of common decency "to expose them for being the anti-Semites they are."

That statement alone illustrates one of Walt and Mearsheimer's main points beautifully: "No discussion of how the Lobby operates," they wrote, "would be complete without examining one of its most powerful weapons: the charge of anti-Semitism In fact, anyone who says that there is an Israel Lobby runs the risk of being charged with anti-Semitism, even though the Israeli media themselves refer to America's 'Jewish Lobby.'"

Alan Dershowitz, who fought to get the University of California Press to kill an academic critique of his book "The Case for Israel" (in which he's accused of shoddy research and plagiarism), said the paper was "simply a compilation of hateful paragraphs lifted from other sources and given academic imprimatur." His evidence? Apparently Walt and Mearsheimer used a quote -- from former Time editor Max Frankel's memoir -- that also appeared on some white supremacist website. Dershowitz, without evidence, dismissed the idea that the scholars could have gotten the quote from anywhere but the white power hate sites, bloviating: "[Walt] quotes Max Frankel, as if he read the whole 500 pages of Max Frankel? I promise you they did not read Max Frankel's whole book."

An editorial suggested that Walt should be replaced as academic dean, and another urged wealthy Jewish backers of the Kennedy School to pull their support. It got so hot that the professors removed Harvard's logo from the paper (which critics said "proved" that it was filled with errors, a claim Harvard's administration denies).

There was much more in that vein from the New Republic, from Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes and from many others.

The backdrop to all of this, of course, is the ongoing campus wars, where the Israel-Palestine conflict is always Ground Zero. Walt and Mearsheimer touch on the Lobby's efforts to constrain discussion of our relationship with Israel by imposing a narrow political correctness. In addition to funding the think tanks and academic chairs, that strategy rests on relentless attacks against academics who criticize Israeli policy:

The Lobby moved aggressively to "take back the campuses." New groups sprang up, like the Caravan for Democracy, which brought Israeli speakers to U.S. colleges. Established groups like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Hillel jumped into the fray, and a new group -- the Israel on Campus Coalition -- was formed to coordinate the many groups that now sought to make Israel's case on campus. Finally, AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) more than tripled its spending for programs to monitor university activities and to train young advocates for Israel

Ultimately, most of the criticism of the study amounted to little more than knocking down straw men.

Walt and Mearsheimer were accused of furthering anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jews "whispering in the ears of kings," but the authors never suggest there's an organized conspiracy afoot, nor do they claim that the Lobby is the only factor influencing U.S. policy in the Middle East.

The scholars went out of their way to say that the "Lobby" is not some shady cabal, and in fact is not even Jewish; many in the Lobby -- they give Dick Armey as an example -- are in fact Christian Zionists.

They add that there's nothing wrong with citizens lobbying in a democracy. Their point is simply that the Lobby's success has redirected U.S. policy in the Middle East away from America's interests, narrowly defined. Arguing that the relationship between the United States and Israel "has no equal in American political history," the authors wrote:

The U.S. national interest should be the primary object of American foreign policy. For the past several decades, however, and especially since the Six Day War in 1967, the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy has been its relationship with Israel.

Walt and Mearsheimer are not household names around America's kitchen tables, but they are giants in the field of international relations. They represent foreign policy "realism," the dominant paradigm in international relations for over a century. At its heart, realism's focus is on how countries best use their power to advance their own narrowly defined interests. Realists tend not to get caught up in the kind of moral questions and historical debates that characterize so much of the controversy around the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Walt and Mearsheimer's argument is powerful coming not from the right or the left, but from smack in the center of the foreign policy establishment. Forget about the immorality of occupation -- the only time they reference the burden the Palestinian population bears or Israel's poor human rights record is to counter the Lobby's claim that the United States has a moral duty to support Israel.

Walt and Mearsheimer's case is that, on balance, the United States' (almost) unconditional support for Israel doesn't serve the interest of American power. Israel -- once a valuable counter to Soviet influence in Syria and Egypt -- is, in the post Cold-war era, a strategic liability.

Their argument on this point is hard to dispute. While the United States' support for Israel is not the only source of anti-American terror, it is certainly a driving factor and always a good recruiting tool for extremists. The relationship, the authors argue, is so inflammatory in both the Arab world and among our European allies that Israel has become a highly militarized partner that has to sit on the sidelines during American-led military actions in the Middle East, including both Gulf Wars, in order to build and maintain international support.

The authors' analysis of Israeli power in relation to that of its regional neighbors was the strongest rebuttal to the case usually made by Israel's supporters. The Israel Lobby claims that it is fighting for a small, weak country surrounded by belligerents who are bent on her destruction. But Walt and Mearsheimer argue that Israel -- with military spending higher than all of its neighbors combined, access to the latest U.S. weapons technology and the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East is not exactly fighting for its existence.

The scholars add that despite all the largesse, Israel "does not act like a loyal ally." They cite a GAO report that found that Israel "conducts the most aggressive espionage operations against the U.S. of any ally" and concludes that "its willingness to spy on its principal patron casts further doubt on its strategic value."

Walt and Mearsheimer ask why, given all of that, do we spend a fifth of our foreign aid budget on a country with a per capita economic output similar to Spain's? Why do we provide that support with fewer strings than we place on other aid recipients? Why do we continue that support even when Israel often ignores our wishes on issues like selling weapons to the Chinese or continuing to build settlements when it's the policy of the United States that such construction is illegal?

Those questions are getting tougher to answer as we get mired deeper in conflict in the Middle East. Walt and Mearsheimer's study comes at an interesting time: Support for the Gulf War is in the basement, and a growing number of voices are looking at the role Israel's supporters -- inside the government and out -- played in making the case for the war.

American support of Israel appears as strong as ever, and fundamentally it is. But the recent espionage case against AIPAC staffers and Pentagon officials (with Israeli embassy personnel named as unindicted co-conspirators) and tensions over Israeli weapons sales to third-party nations have weakened the once impregnable Lobby. At the same time, there are growing divisions within the American foreign policy elite between the neocons who want to shape the world in America's image and the realists who counter that such hubris has been the undoing of other leading powers.

Perhaps a crack is appearing in the monolith, and perhaps that crack might widen into a real debate about our policies in the Middle East. For some, that's a dangerous prospect. Small wonder that the study was attacked with such rhetorical savagery.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.