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The "Israel Lobby": Old hat that calls out for open debate

The Daily Star Middle East | Rami G. Khouri

Beirut, April 1, 2006

Why do so few prominent people in the United States publicly criticize Israel or its American supporters? Because - modern history suggests - this is a sure, speedy route to political and professional oblivion, especially for politicians, academics, writers and others who work in the public realm. An example before our eyes today is worth considering, both for the issues and the personalities involved.

Two respected American scholars at leading universities published earlier this month a controversial paper about what they see as the excessive and detrimental impact of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States. John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs and academic dean at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, published a working paper on the Kennedy School Web site entitled simply: "The Israel Lobby," and a shorter version in the London Review of Books.

This is not an original or path-breaking piece of scholarship, to be sure. It is not based on new research, interviews, insights or fieldwork, but rather largely compiles into a single text, and provides supporting examples of, the many ways the authors believe the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. drives and distorts American policy in the Middle East, to the long-term detriment of both Israel and the U.S. Many of Mearsheimer and Walt's points about the lobby are obviously correct; others can be challenged or debated; a few may be flat wrong. Their article reads more like a long opinion essay than a work of empirical social science research. It has been criticized on these and other grounds.

The pro-Israel lobby is intriguing and important, but foreign policy and its impact is what matters in the end, especially whether recent Israeli and American policies truly serve Israeli and American national interests, not to mention the well-being of the rest of the Middle East and the world. That's where discussion of this matter should focus. The essay and its copious criticisms are worthy of more serious, sincere public debate, for the two questions at the heart of the issue they raise remain profoundly valid: "Why has the U.S. been willing to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in order to advance the interests of another state?" Why is there no serious public discussion in the U.S. of the thrust of American foreign policy in the Middle East or the activities of pro-Israel partisans in the U.S.?

Israel alone among foreign policy issues occupies sacred space in the American psyche and political system, for many historical and contemporary reasons, including many legitimate ones. This same Israel is also among the most widely and routinely censured countries in the world, because of its brutal, often colonial, policy toward the Palestinians and other Arabs. Why the United States government celebrates Israel's heroism but largely ignores its controversial, criminal and inhuman deeds is a question that simply is not seriously discussed in public in the U.S. Why not? What explains Israeli exceptionalism in America?

Perhaps the pro-Israel lobby is the main reason, as the authors suggest. Perhaps other important forces are at play, and the lobby is less dominant. Perhaps Israelis are simply good at lobbying in a democratic society while the Arabs are mostly incompetent. Maybe it's our tough luck in much of the Arab world to have joined the wrong side of the Cold War.

Or Americans and Israelis simply may share a powerful, identical moral and political tradition, which translates into a common policy. Perhaps the collective Western commitment to the security of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, in the wake of the Holocaust, is so compelling that it momentarily overrides the rights of others in our Middle Eastern neighborhood.

The author-scholars will digest the criticisms they have generated, and I hope they come back with a revised article that allows them to achieve their important goal of prompting a public debate on this issue.

They wrote: "Powerful states can maintain flawed policies for quite some time, but reality cannot be ignored for ever. What is needed is a candid discussion of the lobby's influence and a more open debate about U.S. interests in this vital region. Israel's well-being is one of those interests, but its continued occupation of the West Bank and its broader regional agenda are not. Open debate will expose the limits of the strategic and moral case for one-sided U.S. support and could move the U.S. to a position more consistent with its own national interest, with the interests of the other states in the region, and with Israel's long-term interests as well."

It's hard to oppose a call for open, democratic debate that aims simultaneously to promote the national interests of the U.S., Israel and the Arabs. So why is this question so rarely asked - let along answered - in the American public realm? Mearsheimer and Walt have suggested one answer - the lobby - which may or may not be the full story. More importantly, they have put the issue before the public, inviting an honest conversation. That's what good scholars, and good citizens, do in a democracy.

Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for The Daily star.
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