How US Public Opinion Has Shifted on Israel, Five Years After the Publishing of 'The Israel Lobby'

A popular book on US-Israel relations started a serious debate about why the US should adopt more even-handed approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Five years ago this month the political scientists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer published their ultra-controversial article on "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" in the London Review of Books. There is little doubt that the public conversation about Israel has changed as a result. Criticism of Israel is more frequent and forceful, and references to the pro-Israel lobby are far more common in the media. Their critics concede that Walt and Mearsheimer had impact, but only in poisoning the discourse. "They lowered the bar on sober analysis in the discussion, regrettably," says Robert Satloff, Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a center-right think tank.

The article's impact on actual Middle East policy is less clear. Conservatives frequently charge that President Obama is hostile to the Jewish state, but the much-publicized spats between the administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have remained mostly at the rhetorical level. In December 2009, Obama approved $30 billion in military aid to Israel to be distributed over the next decade, and earlier the administration helped nix the UN's Goldstone Report that was severely critical of Israel's conduct in the 2008-09 war in the Gaza Strip. In January, the Obama administration declared that Israel's investigation into the 2010 Turkish Flotilla incident was "impartial and transparent." Israeli settlement-building in the occupied territories has also continued unabated.

Just below the level of policy, however, it is evident that something has changed. The past several years have witnessed a series of events that cumulatively suggest there are "tectonic shifts" underway in U.S.-Israel relations, as Israeli ambassador Michael Oren said in June of 2010. J Street, a liberal lobbying organization committed to pressuring Israel as much as the Palestinians in pursuit of peace, has emerged as a very public force. Journalist Peter Beinart initiated a controversy decrying "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment" in alienating young Jews from Zionism. "Simply stated, the instinctive solidarity that American liberals, many of them Jews, have long felt with Israel is in decline," Slate editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg declared last year.

Most recently, Obama was urged in an open letter signed by 50 prominent diplomats, journalists and scholars not to veto a U.N. Security Council Resolution condemning Israeli settlement-building. The bipartisan list of signatories includes Ambassador Thomas Pickering, former Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci and former Assistant Secretary of State James Dobbins. Also on the letter, organized by Steve Clemons of the New American Foundation, a centrist Washington think tank, are the names John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. "I thought Walt and Mearsheimer's book was extremely important," enthuses Jack Matlock, Ambassador to the Soviet Union during the Reagan administration, who signed the letter. Matlock believes the authors erred only in their analysis in not calling their book "The Likud Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," referring to the right-wing Israeli party. "They've done a great job in starting a movement." Vice-President Joe Biden, Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have all reportedly suggested in various ways that Israel's policies are undercutting American security.

Seeing Walt and Mearsheimer's fingerprints on the letter and other developments seems sensible, but only in the broadest sense. "They opened up a discussion, and J Street is part of the answer to the questions they raised," says Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street. Ben-Ami believes Walt and Mearsheimer went further in their arguments than they should have, but that they were outlining a problem J Street was designed to solve. "I don't think they made our job harder or easier, but they helped crystallize, prior to our launch, the question we were trying to answer, so it was perhaps a little easier for people to understand what we were trying to do."

The question Ben-Ami refers to is: what happens if the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict collapses? With Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank increasing every day, the opportunities for a viable Palestinian state are commensurately declining. The Jewish and Arab populations between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea are at near-parity, and demographic trends make Israel's control over all of the historical land of Palestine an impossibility if it is to remain both a democratic and a Jewish state. At a point in the not-so-distant future, there will be more Arabs than Jews under Israeli control. In that case, "Israel as we know it will cease to exist," Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantichas explained. If Israelis avoid making peace with the Palestinians, Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times in February, "they will be talking themselves into becoming an apartheid state."

Indeed, it is easy to hear analysts say that Walt and Mearsheimer were not in fact especially radical in most of their ideas, but merely were the first to articulate what many had felt to be true but difficult to say. "Much of what they said was fairly standard conventional wisdom," says William Quandt, a National Security Council member working on the Middle East during the Carter administration. Colin Powell's former Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson declared that "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" article contained "blinding flashes of the obvious." When asked if the analysis by Walt and Mearsheimer was correct, former deputy chief of the CIA's counterterrorism center Paul Pillar says simply, "Yes." Robert Danin, who worked at the State Department for 20 years, contests virtually of all of Walt and Mearsheimer's ideas about the Middle East, but agrees that they merely put forward a traditional 'realist' foreign-policy perspective of the world. "That view can still be found in the State Department," Danin says.

Yet if nothing they said was particularly revolutionary, by being the first mainstream experts to go on the record and absorb much of the opprobrium that came their way, the Harvard and University of Chicago professors may have cleared room for others to be similarly critical of the current U.S.-Israeli "Special Relationship." "They made it a little easier for people getting into this business to know they don't have to toe the line," says Quandt. Quandt believes Walt and Mearsheimer opened space for groups like J Street by legitimizing the idea that being reflexively hawkish on Israel isn't the only serious position. Some policymakers have needed the room. In mid-2009, Virginia Congressman Tom Perriello told Quandt that J Street's contributions to his campaign enabled him to be supportive of President Obama's peacemaking efforts and risk alienating the formidable traditional powerhouse pro-Israel group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). "Of course, Perriello went on to lose [the 2010 mid-term election], but I don't think it had anything to do with Israel," says Quandt. Indeed, 45 of the 61 candidates backed by J Street in the 2010 mid-term elections were victorious.

It is also true that President Obama did make a serious effort in his first two years in office to reignite the Middle East Peace Process. "The mere fact that Obama came into office declaring that he wanted to solve this problem, and the fact that he has taken on the Israelis on several occasions, is a sign that within policy circles people understand we've got a problem here," argues Walt. Obama's instincts and outlook differ from his predecessors,' but he has had a hard time translating those differences into a different policy, says Robert Malley, former Special Assistant to President Clinton on Arab-Israeli Affairs. "In part, this is because of missteps early in the administration in managing the peace process; in part, it is because today the US simply has less margin of manoeuvre." Paul Pillar has a more succinct explanation for the breakdown of the administration's Middle East peace initiatives: "Obama caved to Netanyahu." Indeed, the administration ended up vetoing the February U.N. resolution condemning settlements.

Of course, to their critics, U.S. foreign policy has failed to change because Walt and Mearsheimer's analysis is simply flawed. "The vast majority of Americans and people in government who know the details of American foreign policy reject their analysis," says Satloff. "It is simply a mistake to believe the Israel lobby is the most powerful force influencing our policy in the Middle East," agrees Danin, who now works at the Council on Foreign Relations. Obama and Netanyahu have experienced tensions, but those tensions come on a foundation of common values and security interests that is solid, he says. Whatever Walt and Mearsheimer's effect on the public debate, polls show that Americans still overwhelmingly sympathize with the Israelis over the Palestinians.

Walt and Mearsheimer believe U.S. foreign policy will continue over time to tilt in a more even-handed approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The logic of the American national interest in doing so is so overwhelming that it is largely inevitable. "It takes many years to turn a policy around, and furthermore you're dealing with an especially powerful lobby that is not going to give up easily," says Mearsheimer. "So it's not surprising that policy has not changed very much yet." On this point, J Street is in agreement. "The dynamics around Israel in American politics have taken decades and decades to develop to the point where they're at," says Ben-Ami. "The institutions who have cornered the market on speaking for American Jewry on Israel have got an enormous head start." It's going to take a long time for an organization created in 2006 to get to the point where it's holding its own on an even basis, Ben-Ami says about J Street. "But we're making inroads."

Jordan Michael Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C. He has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe, The Atlantic and many other publications.
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