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.
Although The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy appears to contain much clearly documented research, its authors fail to capture the realities of policy formation and present a series of letters, statements and rallies by supporters of Israel as evidence of the lobby's manipulation of Washington. Mearsheimer and Walt would have benefited from conversations with foreign policy officials or representatives of the lobby itself to get a more precise portrayal of the events they describe. Had they done so, they would have found that their description of American foreign policy is often inaccurate or misleading, and their overall thesis is contradicted by central figures in their story.
Ben Fishman is a researcher and special assistant to former Ambassador Dennis Ross at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.