Israel Lobby Authors Walt, Mearsheimer Travel to Tel Aviv

News & Politics

Tel Aviv -- like all of Israel -- is a stridently nationalist place. Israeli flags hang everywhere: over buildings, roads, city parks and beaches. They're mounted on cars and motorcycles. In residential areas, on the city's narrow tree-lined streets, you see flags draped over balconies, painted on ledges, growing in the bougainvillea. Some of the flags are festooned with lights. A fruit vendor may have so many flags bunched around his stand that you might not know if he is selling fruit or flags.

Like Cape Town in the 1980s, Tel Aviv is a classic apartheid city. Both Cape Town and Tel Aviv are wealthy port cities with vibrant art scenes and large gay communities. Relatively free of the right-wing fervor that marks Jerusalem, Tel Aviv has the feel of openness -- just as Cape Town, under apartheid, seemed more liberal than its inland counterpart Johannesburg/Pretoria. At early stages of development, unwanted populations were cleansed from both cities, making them appear less stratified. But nothing obscures the fact that Palestinians are prohibited from living in Tel Aviv. And Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are an invisible community, although somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 live in the neighboring ancient town of Jaffa, where they once numbered 100,000. (An additional 500 Palestinian families are currently in the process of being evicted from Jaffa). Even Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship are rarely able to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv. If you stand within city limits, you can't see the enclosure wall that Israel built to separate Palestinians in nearby Qalqiliya, but Tel Aviv activists know it looms only 12 miles east of their city. They call it the apartheid wall.

I was in Tel Aviv in the middle of June when John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," spoke at a forum organized by the peace group Gush Shalom. The forum was held at the Bet Sokolov Press Club, a few blocks south of Rabin Square in the heart of the city. Just on the other side of Rabin Square, billionaire Uzbek oligarch and settlement builder Lev Leviev's Africa Israel Group is putting up a new mixed-use development with 970 residential units and 220,000 square feet of office space. The project will be called Sumayil, to "honor" the Arab village that was there until 1948, though many Palestinians refer to the village by the name Al Mas'udiyya.

Tel Aviv is considered the most liberal city in Israel, which might explain why Mearsheimer and Walt were greeted by a standing-room-only crowd. Many in the audience were middle-aged, bespectacled locals curious about the lobby that claims to represent them. But not everyone welcomed the American professors. There were a handful of protesters stationed in front of the building, passing out English-language booklets, eight pages long, to "counter the misinformation." Except for one young man, the protesters were not Israeli. They were Americans from StandWithUs, a U.S.-based organization which, according to its website, "ensures that Israel's side of the story is told in communities, campuses, libraries, the media and churches." The group's mission even extends to educating Israelis themselves.

The forum lasted for more than two hours. Mearsheimer and Walt spoke for an hour and spent the rest of the time answering questions. There were no interruptions, only a series of coughs and friendly laughter that cued up every few minutes. After the talk, there was an avalanche of questions like the following:

Question: What part does the Christian evangelical lobby play in Israel?

Walt: Some organizations like AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby) have remained in a tactical alliance with Christian Zionists because they have been losing support in the mainstream churches. They (the Christian Zionists) are part of the lobby but not the most important part. Their importance will decline.

Question: Do you know how AIPAC is financed? Are they only representing a few millionaires?

Mearsheimer: I don't know exactly, but the financing is legitimate. A handful of very rich individuals gives money and wield influence.

Question: Is there evidence that the AIPAC leadership in the U.S. undermined peace negotiations and the Oslo Accords during the Rabin era?

Walt: There is no evidence that they undermined negotiations, but they have not been helpful.

Question: Don't you think that your book helps to perpetuate the hatred already existing in the world against Israel and the Jews?

Walt: If you read our book, you'll find nothing anti-Semitic in it. When you can't defeat someone on the basis of facts, you call them names. We do not think that our book will fuel anti-Semitism. We do believe that not being able to talk about these issues will fuel anti-Semitism.

Uri Avnery, founder of Gush Shalom, wasn't surprised by the interest in Mearsheimer and Walt. "Tel Aviv is the capital of the good Israel," he said. If there were any Palestinians at the event, they didn't stay to comment.

On the way out, I overheard a number of people saying that the arguments put forth in "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" were "mainstream" and "obvious." In the foyer, a StandWithUs activist was appealing to an older Israeli man, saying, "Mearsheimer and Walt can't just sugarcoat anti-Semitism." The man, Shmuel Darel, who looked to be in his late 60s, turned away from the young man and said, "The 'Israel Lobby' book won't convince me. He won't convince me (pointing to the activist and his StandWithUs pamphlets). And you won't convince me (his forefinger an inch from my face). I believe only what I see with my own eyes. So much money the Israel lobby has. So much money, still they can't make peace. They are playing with us like little fools."

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