The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

About that lobby

Unsurprisingly, the study published a few days ago on the influence of the Jewish/pro-Israeli lobby on US policy in the Middle East has caused quite a stir. Most of the response seems to have been criticism. I finally got around to reading the full-length version and am pretty non-plussed. It does not contain anything very new, but I do think it's important that it is published by mainstream academics in a mainstream publication because, even if the details are not always right, the general point is. I think it is obvious and indisputable that the pro-Israel lobby is powerful and that its influence has been negative on Middle East policy, particularly when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the US has tacitly collaborated with the colonization of the West Bank, among other crimes.

I've highlighted a few of the more interesting factoids one might pick up from the study (some have been disputed in the articles cited below):
  • Total direct U.S. aid to Israel amounts to well over $140 billion in 2003 dollars. Israel receives about $3 billion in direct foreign assistance each year, which is roughly one-fifth of America’s foreign aid budget. In per capita terms, the United States gives each Israeli a direct subsidy worth about $500 per year. This largesse is especially striking when one realizes that Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income roughly equal to South Korea or Spain.
  • Most recipients of American military assistance are required to spend all of it in the United States, but Israel can use roughly twenty-five percent of its aid allotment to subsidize its own defense industry. Israel is the only recipient that does not have to account for how the aid is spent, an exemption that makes it virtually impossible to prevent the money from being used for purposes the United States opposes, like building settlements in the West Bank.
  • Moreover, the United States has provided Israel with nearly $3 billion to develop weapons systems like the Lavi aircraft that the Pentagon did not want or need, while giving Israel access to top-drawer U.S. weaponry like Blackhawk helicopters and F-16 jets. Finally, the United States gives Israel access to intelligence that it denies its NATO allies and has turned a blind eye towards Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.
  • Since 1982, the United States has vetoed 32 United Nations Security Council resolutions that were critical of Israel, a number greater than the combined total of vetoes cast by all the other Security Council members. It also blocks Arab states’ efforts to put Israel’s nuclear arsenal on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s agenda.
  • U.S. support for Israel is not the only source of anti- American terrorism, but it is an important one, and it makes winning the war on terror more difficult. There is no question, for example, that many al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, are motivated by Israel’s presence in Jerusalem and the plight of the Palestinians. According to the U.S. 9/11 Commission, bin Laden explicitly sought to punish the United States for its policies in the Middle East, including its support for Israel, and he even tried to time the attacks to highlight this issue.
  • But not all Jewish-Americans are part of the Lobby, because Israel is not a salient issue for many of them. In a 2004 survey, for example, roughly 36 percent of Jewish?Americans said they were either “not very” or “not at all” emotionally attached to Israel.
Most of these come from the first half of the study. The last-two thirds, while interesting, establish how powerful the lobby is (unfortunately without much detail and omitting electoral tactics) and make the problematic argument that the Iraq war was waged on behalf of Israel (on behalf of the lobby would be one thing, Israel another.) It also does not emphasize enough that lobby members are often more right-wing and nationalist than mainstream Israeli politicians. There are problems with some arguments, even if in general the main point -- pro-Israeli institutions and individuals wield considerable power in Washington -- is certainly valid.

I think the study, as a policy advocacy piece, would have been much more effective if it had more narrowly focused on the power accumulated by the pro-Israeli lobby (notably in think tanks) and the need to declare AIPAC a foreign agent. It could have also highlighted the fact that American politicians and policymakers have at numerous occasions said they put Israel interests ahead of American ones (e.g. Dick Armey), the recent cheerleading for dangerous policies such as a war with Iran by top officials we saw at AIPAC's latest conference, and the fact that these organizations defend people who have committed treason, such as Jonathan Pollard, not to mention the recent FBI-AIPAC case. In other words, that we should be as suspicious of pro-Israel lobbies as we are of pro-China lobbies (indeed, there are striking similarities in the way the two countries carry out industrial espionage in the US.) But it also needs to look at how Israel's pariah status in the region (from an Arab perspective) serves wider American interests that have to do with dividing Arab states, sustaining docile authoritarian regimes, guaranteeing the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf and expanding US military control over the region.

Still, the study is seeing a reaction we would not be seeing, I suspect, if it was about Arab influence in Congress.

The Crimson, the Harvard student newspaper, reports that the university has removed its logo from the paper. The New York Sun reports that the university is facing pressure.

Perhaps most troubling, the Forward is using the anti-Semitism slur to tarnish Walt and Mearsheimer's reputation. In its editorial, In Dark Times, Blame the Jews, it criticizes at length the tone and factuality of the report (fair enough) to finally conclude:

Mearsheimer and Walt join a long line of critics who dislike Israel so deeply that they cannot fathom the support it enjoys in America, and so they search for some malign power capable of perverting America's good sense. They find it, as others have before, in the Jews.
Elsewhere in the magazine, the Forward highlights in an insinuation-filled report that Mearsheimer had been turned down by an American publisher. It also reports that US Jewish organizations have decided not to respond to the report to avoid generating publicity for critics of Israel.

The noted Israel "New Historian" Tom Segev, titled "The protocols of Harvard and Chicago," is a rather strange take. The title makes you think it's an attempt to call the study anti-Semitic, but while very critical -- he calls it "very arrogant" -- he says:

Now there is great excitement there in America on account of this essay, but maybe not really. Israel's influence is based on an ancient anti-Semitic myth about the Jews who rule the world. This is a myth that is self-fulfilling as long as the world believes in it: If you shatter it, you have eliminated Israel's influence. From that point of view, Walt and Mearsheimer are doing the Israel lobby a good service.
I'm not sure what to make of that.

So pro-Israel it hurts, by former Barak aide David Levy in Haaretz, makes the argument that Walt and Mearsheimer get one thing fundamentally right: that the US pro-Israel lobby is bad for Israel.

The Angry Arab provides a critique of the piece from a pro-Palestinian perspective. He writes:

I guess I am in the minority in the pro-Palestinian camp on this one; I am not thrilled to read the piece. Not that I do not subscribe to criticisms of US foreign policy, but that is not what the authors do. The authors seem intent on blaming all the ills in US foreign policy on the Israeli lobby. There are obvious problems with that approach: it seems to ignore or deny the ills of US foreign policy in regions outside the Middle East. It also absolves the US administration, any US administration, from any responsibility because they (the administrations) become portrayed as helpless victims of an all-powerful lobby. Thirdly, the approach does not take into consideration the interests that certain elements of the US establishment see in maintaining US foreign policy toward Israel. Fourthly, the approach does not situate US foreign policy in the Middle East into the context of the global role of the US, especially in the ear of Bush--and Clinton. And the piece, while significant because it comes from two mainstream academics, does not offer anything new or original. But for enthusiasts it is important to read those words in mainstream publications.
There is a lot more there (reprinted in this Daily Kos post in a more easy-to-read format, as well as Martin Kramer's take), and it fits rather nicely with an argument Joseph Massad makes in this column in Al Ahram Weekly that the US hasn't exactly been a supporter of national self-determination elsewhere, so why should it be in the Middle East? He concludes:

What then would have been different in US policy in the Middle East absent Israel and its powerful lobby? The answer in short is: the details and intensity but not the direction, content, or impact of such policies. Is the pro- Israel lobby extremely powerful in the United States? As someone who has been facing the full brunt of their power for the last three years through their formidable influence on my own university and their attempts to get me fired, I answer with a resounding yes. Are they primarily responsible for US policies towards the Palestinians and the Arab world? Absolutely not. The United States is opposed in the Arab world as elsewhere because it has pursued and continues to pursue policies that are inimical to the interests of most people in these countries and are only beneficial to its own interests and to the minority regimes in the region that serve those interests, including Israel.
Finally, the Christian Science Monitor has an overview of the debate, with many more links.