The Israel Lobby


Posted to on March 24, 2006


The latest London Review of Books has an article by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt titled "The Israel Lobby." It and the longer paper that is based on has generated some controversy. The London Review article argues:


"[T]he thrust of US policy in the region derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby’. Other special-interest groups have managed to skew foreign policy, but no lobby has managed to divert it as far from what the national interest would suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US interests and those of the other country – in this case, Israel – are essentially identical."




This argument has been heard before. Although it superficially sounds "radical", it is most often heard from paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan who also sparked controversy in the 1980s for making similar arguments.


In the most recent development, Alan Dershowitz has become the main antagonist of Mearsheimer and Walt (who is on the faculty at Harvard with Dershowitz) in terms depressingly similar to the Norman Finkelstein controversy:


A prominent Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz, is alleging that the authors of a Harvard Kennedy School paper about the "Israel lobby," one of which is the Kennedy School's academic dean, culled sections of the paper from neo-Nazi and other anti-Israel hate Web sites.


"What we're discovering first of all is that the quotes that they use are not only wrenched out of context, but they are the common quotes that appear on hate sites," Mr. Dershowitz, who is identified in the paper as part of the "lobby," told The New York Sun yesterday.


"The wrenching out of context is done by the hate sites, and then [the authors] cite them to the original sources, in order to disguise the fact that they've gotten them from hate sites."




It is understandable why somebody like Dershowitz might become so upset. When professors from prestigious universities publish a lengthy attack on Israel in a prestigious London journal, a hardened Zionist apologist like Dershowitz will go into battle.


Before examining Mearsheimer and Walt's arguments, it might be worthwhile to put them into context ideologically. Both men subscribe to "realist" theory, which falls within the international relations (IR) branch of political science. This term is related to "realpolitik," the word coined by Bismark that obviously described the way that another realist Henry Kissinger conducted foreign policy.


"States are assumed at a minimum to want to ensure their own survival. This driving force of survival is the primary factor influencing their behaviour and in turn ensures states develop offensive military capabilities, as a mean to increase their relative power. Neorealists bring attention to a persistent lack of trust between states which requires states to be on guard and act in an overtly aggressive manner."




To some extent, it is difficult to predict how realist scholars will apply their theories to the world of practical politics. One realist, E.H. Carr, had a career that defied conventional anti-Communist expectations while another, George Kennan, exemplified professional anti-Communism.


Mearsheimer was opposed to the invasion of Iraq and signed an ad in the NY Times with other realists like Kenneth Waltz under a heading that is quintessentially realist: "War with Iraq is not in America's national interest". And what if it was? Bombs away?


The London Review article is filled with "realist" reasoning, such as the following:


"One might argue that Israel was an asset during the Cold War. By serving as America’s proxy after 1967, it helped contain Soviet expansion in the region and inflicted humiliating defeats on Soviet clients like Egypt and Syria. It occasionally helped protect other US allies (like King Hussein of Jordan) and its military prowess forced Moscow to spend more on backing its own client states. It also provided useful intelligence about Soviet capabilities."


I am not sure what kind of argument this is, at least in terms of accepted progressive thinking. Soviet "expansion" in the region amounted to support for half-hearted nationalist regimes such as Nasser's. The post-Nasser regime that resulted from Israeli military victories in a series of wars has been "strategically" useful to the U.S. but a plague on the Egyptian people. It has tortured its citizens while squandering their money, all the while providing virtually no resistance to Israeli expansionism. But this hardly matters if the most important criterion is "strategic value" to the U.S.


Mearsheimer and Walt are very much into quantitative analysis, seeing the strategic value of a state in terms of dollars and cents:


"Backing Israel was not cheap, however, and it complicated America’s relations with the Arab world. For example, the decision to give $2.2 billion in emergency military aid during the October War triggered an Opec oil embargo that inflicted considerable damage on Western economies. For all that, Israel’s armed forces were not in a position to protect US interests in the region. The US could not, for example, rely on Israel when the Iranian Revolution in 1979 raised concerns about the security of oil supplies, and had to create its own Rapid Deployment Force instead."


However, it is difficult to quantify the impact of Israel's intervention in the area in terms of dollars and cents in other respects. For example, if Israel had not kept the Arab revolution on the defensive, wouldn't the U.S. face an even larger exposure on the oil front? A revolutionary front of Arab states might have been able to dislodge the Saudi feudal bourgeoisie and thus made Opec an even bigger threat to U.S. strategic interests. The authors assume that a "pro-Arab" tilt might ensure a more favorable business climate for American oil companies, but who can say that an Arab Hugo Chavez might arise? With Israel, basically a land-based aircraft carrier, acting on behalf of U.S. interests, that possibility is lessened.


In other respects, the article helps to expose Israeli pretensions. By quoting from the Zionist leaders themselves, the authors allow them to hoist themselves on their own petard. For example, they quote David Ben-Gurion's words to Nahum Goldmann, the president of the World Jewish Congress:


"If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country . . . We come from Israel, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?"


Apparently, Dershowitz did a little bit of detective work and came to the conclusion that the authors were prowling around neo-Nazi websites. Quoting from the NY Sun article once again:


Under the section "Manipulating the Media," on pages 19 and 20 of the paper [a reference to the longer paper the article is based on, which is at:$File/rwp_06_011_walt.pdf], Messrs. Walt and Mearsheimer write: "In his memoirs, for example, former Times executive editor Max Frankel acknowledged the impact his own pro-Israel attitude had on his editorial choices. In his words: 'I was much more deeply devoted to Israel than I dared to assert.' He goes on: 'Fortified by my knowledge of Israel and my friendships there, I myself wrote most of our Middle East commentaries. As more Arab than Jewish readers recognized, I wrote them from a pro-Israel perspective.'" The footnote cites Mr. Frankel's 560-page book, "The Times of My Life and My Life with the Times," published in 1999.


Yet the Frankel quote used by Messrs. Mearsheimer and Walt, Mr. Dershowitz said, is nearly identical to the quote used by a neo-Nazi Web site in its own take on Jewish press influence, "Jewish Influence in the Mass Media." The document, posted on, quotes more extensively from the same section in Mr. Frankel's memoir.


In terms of the detective work, Dershowitz neglects to mention that Frankel's quote can be found in Canadian Dimension, a socialist magazine that I have written for over the past 10 years or so, as well as Indymedia outlets. This is a rather pointless exercise. Neo-Nazi websites will quote practically anybody who has been critical of Israel, including the late Israel Shahak, who spent time in a Nazi concentration camp. Some of you might be familiar with this methodology if you have had the misfortune to be subscribed to the same mailing lists as the amateur redbaiter Michael Pugliese. Rather than dealing with the arguments of somebody who was opposed to NATO intervention in the Balkans, Pugliese will go sniffing around in the neo-Nazi garbage pails to see if he can find a link to something written by a Michael Parenti or a Ramsey Clark. It is called guilt by association and it is dealt with in the very fine movie "Goodnight and Good Luck."


The more interesting question for Marxists and radicals such as us is how to weigh the role of the Israeli lobby or any other factor for that matter in analyzing U.S. foreign policy.


To begin with, it is important to make a distinction between Marxism and economic determinism which are really two different things. For example, Charles A. Beard's "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution" is a classic in this vein. It examines the constitution as a kind of compromise between conflicting economic interests. Sometimes Marxist literature, especially vulgar Marxist literature, reads this way.


However, Marxism has always understood that ideas can become part of the objective conditions of society--as much as the mode of production--through the heavy weight of tradition. For example, there is no economic basis for homophobia in the same narrow sense as racism, but that does not mean that the U.S. will allow gay marriage any time in the near future no matter how many gay conservatives argue for how it makes sense economically.


You also have to reckon with the element of irrationality which seeps into any capitalist system in decline, like Nazi Germany or the U.S. today. Hitler's invasion of the USSR did not make a lot of sense in strategic or economic terms, but after 10 years of ritualized incantations against Bolshevism conducted at all levels of society, it should not come as a surprise that Hitler invaded. Nor should it surprise anybody that they tried to exterminate the Jews, even though a live Jew slaving in a factory made more sense than killing him or her.


Until we have access to the secret files of the national security state, it will be impossible to "prove" why the U.S. supports Israel or invaded Iraq. Furthermore, even if such files existed, they might not reveal the real reason since this is a bourgeoisie that is obviously adept at lying to itself. If we found a secret memo, for example, written by Paul Wolfowitz calling for action against Saddam Hussein because he was threatening to violate our precious bodily fluids through the spread of fluoride, what would that prove? We are ultimately dealing with madmen on a certain level. Keep in mind that at Bush's last "town hall" meeting, he couldn't give a straight answer to the question whether the Book of Apocalypse in the New Testament was shaping U.S. policy in the region.