Israel Lobby: The Reviews Are In

Four reviewers take on John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's controversial book on the "Israel Lobby."

Unfortunately, the book does not include any interviews with current or former government officials about the lobby's influence on foreign policy. (The one interview cited in the endnotes refers to the departure of Flynt Leverett from the Brookings Institution. Leverett, who served on the National Security Council staff during the Bush Administration's first term and has been an ardent critic of its policies since, is not quoted about his views on the lobby's influence or the Bush Administration and the Middle East). Earlier this year, Mearsheimer and Walt argued that they did not need interviews since "we felt we already had sufficient information about the lobby's operations" and additional research "would not have altered our conclusions." In fact, what Mearsheimer and Walt would have discovered, as I did, is that their interpretation of events does not accord with how Bush officials characterize the reasons for policy decisions and their interactions with the Israel lobby.

Before addressing the flaws in Mearsheimer and Walt's claims and the specific cases they misinterpret, it is first essential to understand their core argument: The Israel lobby acts not just as one important voice informing government officials, but consistently shapes American foreign policy decisions. Originally, they asserted, "the overall thrust of U.S. policy in the region is due almost entirely to U.S. domestic politics, and especially to the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby.'" That sentence has disappeared from the book, but its essence remains in a series of claims about particular areas in which the lobby played a central if not determinative role. They write, the lobby "was the principal driving force behind the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq in 2003." Similarly, the Bush administration has failed to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict, "because there has been little change in the balance of power between Bush and the lobby." And on Syria, they state, "absent the lobby, there might already be a peace treaty between Israel and Syria."

At a minimum, Mearsheimer and Walt depict the Israel lobby as guiding American policy decisions toward Israel and throughout the Middle East. Maximally, the professors portray presidents and secretaries of state as subservient to the executive director of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and neoconservative sub-cabinet officials.

Responding to each of these charges, and the five chapters in which they present their evidence, would require significant space. However, a close examination of the critical period of U.S.-Israel relations from 2001-2002-the period that motivated Mearsheimer and Walt's work on this subject-reveals that events on the ground in the Middle East drove the administration's policies, not the activities of the Israel lobby.

In the months following the September 11 attacks, Mearsheimer and Walt claim, "American policy makers believed that shutting down the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or at least making an attempt to do so, would undermine support for terrorist groups like al Qaeda." To achieve this, "President Bush began pushing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to show restraint in the Occupied Territories," and soon Bush "said publicly for the first time that he supported a Palestinian state." However, this version of events reverses the impact of 9/11 on the Bush Administration and ignores the role played by Saudi Arabia during this period.

In the weeks preceding September 11, the Bush Administration faced a growing crisis in its relations with Saudi Arabia because it had not placed enough emphasis on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah refused to meet Bush until the administration changed course. According to a Washington Post report, Saudi Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan delivered a message to the President from Crown Prince Abdullah, stating that since American "national interest in the Middle East is 100-percent based on Sharon . . . we will protect our national interests, regardless of where America's interests lie in the region." Because of this potential rift with the kingdom, President Bush wrote to the Saudi crown prince pledging to work toward alleviating Palestinian suffering. As Bruce Riedel, the senior National Security Council official for the Middle East at the time, later told me, "the driving force" of American policy toward the Middle East during this period was Saudi Arabia and "policy was set under pressure from the Saudi lobby."

While Mearsheimer and Walt claim that the United States was busy trying to appease Arab opinion after 9/11 by pressuring Israel, administration officials explain the opposite was taking place. One senior State Department official told me, "9/11 tended to transform the administration's view of the conflict, and frame it more in terms of a wider ideological struggle between forces of extremism and democratic modernization in the region. Arafat's continuing flirtation with terrorism solidified the view that he was on the wrong side of the emerging divide in the region." Finally, the president's first official announcement in support of a Palestinian state was not pressure at all, since Ariel Sharon had already accepted the concept of Palestinian statehood. Riedel explained, "We weren't going to get in trouble for supporting something Sharon already supported."

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