Israel Lobby: The Reviews Are In

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

The second case Mearsheimer and Walt cite as evidence for the effectiveness of the Israel lobby occurred just four months later, at the time of Israel's reentry into West Bank cities in response to a massive suicide bombing that killed thirty Israelis celebrating Passover. Mearsheimer and Walt note that President Bush and senior officials initially urged Israel to withdraw from the West Bank but later ceased such calls and ultimately sided with Sharon, calling him a "man of peace." The lobby, of course, was responsible for this switch.

Yet Mearsheimer and Walt fail to describe the events leading up to Israel's Operation Defensive Shield. They completely ignore the mission of General Anthony Zinni to renew security cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians during this period-and the envoy's conclusion that Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat was the impediment to progress on the peace process. Zinni made his first trip as envoy in December and returned in January the very day Israel intercepted the ship Karine-A on its way to delivering fifty tons of weaponry purchased by Arafat. (Mearsheimer and Walt write "there was no definitive evidence that directly implicated Arafat" in the weapons purchase, but captured Israeli documents establish that Fouad Shubaki, the director of finances for the Palestinian Authority's security forces, provided the funds for the cargo and the operation.) Zinni believed that the capture of the Karine-A would end the security negotiations he was pursuing, but found the Israelis continued to be amenable to compromise. When he offered his own "bridging plan" to resolve differences between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators on the parameters for an agreement, Zinni found that the Israelis accepted the plan without reservations. However, Zinni could not get a final answer from Arafat and ultimately concluded, "Arafat was the stumbling block . . . No matter what he told anyone, he would not make compromises." Consequently, Zinni recognized that the Passover bombing had a "9/11 effect" on Israelis, even among the security professionals who had been most forthcoming during his negotiations.

By not even referencing Zinni's mission or the level of terror that provoked Israel's Operation Defensive Shield (63 Israelis had been killed and hundreds injured in suicide bombings since Zinni's first trip as envoy), Mearsheimer and Walt present a particularly one-dimensional view of the president's reaction. Indeed, had they read further into President Bush's remarks when he called for Israel to withdraw from its incursions into the West Bank, they would have discovered the real reason why the administration soon withdrew its demands for a pull-back. The president said,

I speak as a committed friend of Israel. I speak out of a concern for its long-term security, a security that will come with a genuine peace. As Israel steps back, responsible Palestinian leaders and Israel's Arab neighbors must step forward and show the world that they are truly on the side of peace. The choice and the burden will be theirs.

Predictably, no one stepped forward and by June the administration called for new Palestinian leadership and would no longer deal with Arafat. The new policy emerged as a result of Arafat's own failings, his unwillingness to halt terror attacks and the frustrations of the administration in dealing with him. According to Bush officials, the Israel lobby played no role in this policy shift.

These examples highlight how the lobby is not the driving force behind U.S. policy toward the Middle East. And if it does not determine U.S. decisions toward Israel specifically, the lobby is highly unlikely to exert greater influence over policy toward other Middle Eastern countries, such as Syria, Iran or Iraq.

Perhaps the most pernicious claim that appears in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is that the lobby "was the principal driving force" behind the decision to invade Iraq. The origin of the Iraq War will likely be debated by historians for generations to come, but it is pretty clear that Mearsheimer and Walt greatly simplify a complex story by arguing that "a small band of neoconservatives" led the march toward war, which Israeli officials helped sell to the American public.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded best to the charge that Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith from the Pentagon and other neoconservatives from the vice president's office were the "driving force behind the Iraq war", in Mearsheimer and Walt's words. Rumsfeld told the New Yorker's Jeffrey Goldberg, "I suppose the implication of that is that the President and the Vice-President and myself and Colin Powell just fell off a turnip truck to take these jobs." Interestingly, Rumsfeld barely appears as a principal actor in Mearsheimer and Walt's treatment of the events shaping the Iraq War. Similarly, Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, called Mearsheimer and Walt's description of the lobby's role in the Iraq War "ludicrous." Instead, Wehner explained, "The principal driving forces behind the decision to invade Iraq were (a) Saddam Hussein and his aggressive and malevolent regime; and (b) the lesson the Administration took away from the attacks on September 11, which were that you do not wait on events while dangers gather." Once again, by failing to consult officials, Mearsheimer and Walt attribute influence to the lobby when other factors dominated the administration's thinking and actions.