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In all the controversy over a recent Kennedy School paper on 'the Israel lobby,' perhaps the most interesting question has gone largely unasked: Has the closeness of the US-Israel alliance been good for Israel?

BEFORE LONG, A NEW coalition government will be formed in Israel, after the wrangling that always follows an election there. In Tel Aviv a few years ago, Shimon Peres said to me with great vehemence that the elaborately proportional electoral system ''is the worst thing that ever happened to our country," and that he would much prefer the Westminster or Capitol Hill model. But that's another story.

In America over the past week, a different story again has very nearly overshadowed that election, though it is related, as it concerns the question of Israeli political influence in Washington. ''The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy," a working paper by professors John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, first posted on the Kennedy School's website and then published in abbreviated form in The London Review of Books, has detonated an explosion all its own.

In The New York Sun, where it was a front-page story over several days, and elsewhere, numerous commentators have joined in attacking the authors with a vociferousness that reminded me of Peres's phrase: They seemed to regard this academic paper as the worst thing that ever happened to Israel. Faulted for defective methodology and inaccuracy, Mearsheimer and Walt have been criticized more-in-sorrow by David Gergen in US News and World Report, and more-in-anger by Jeff Jacoby in the Globe (twice over). In Slate, Christopher Hitchens says the paper is ''smelly," Max Boot in The Los Angeles Times calls it McCarthyite, and Alan Dershowitz-never one to be outdone in lurid language-compares it with ''The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." In The New Republic, Martin Peretz calls the paper ''the labor of obsessives with dark and conspiratorial minds."

One of Mearsheimer and Walt's claims is that a pro-Israel lobby-with the formidable AIPAC (America Israel Public Affairs Committee) to the forefront-has powerfully influenced American policy in the Mideast. But that in itself is not really controversial: After all, AIPAC likes to boast of its own influence.

What makes the paper more stinging is the fact that Mearsheimer and Walt write not from the doctrinaire left or the crackpot right but from the ''realist" foreign-policy establishment, and that they are on the faculty of highly respectable institutions. That, and their suggestion that America's ''unwavering support" for Israel, notably the $3 billion a year in direct aid, has no strategic or moral rationale anymore, if it ever had, and has among other things made America more, not less, vulnerable to terrorism. The clear implication is that loosening those ties with Israel would be in the American national interest.

If Mearsheimer and Walt had wanted to show that they were saying the unsayable, then they appear to have made their point-the ferocious response suggests a taboo being broken. And yet the American reaction is puzzling to Europeans: This question is yet another illustration of the great transatlantic rift. On the eastern side of the Atlantic, it has long been recognized that there is an intimate connection between the United States and Israel, in which AIPAC clearly plays a major role. The degree to which this has affected American policy, up to and including the war in Iraq, has been discussed calmly by sane British commentators-though also, to be sure, played up maliciously by bigots.

In America, by contrast, there has been an unmistakable tendency to shy away from this subject. As Michael Kinsley wrote in Slate in the autumn of 2002, both supporters and opponents of the coming war did not want to invoke classic anti-Semitic images of cabals, arcane conspiracies, and malign courtiers whispering into the prince's ear. Such motives are honorable, and yet there is always a danger when something is wilfully ignored. As Kinsley said, the connection between the invasion of Iraq and Israeli interests had become ''the proverbial elephant in the room. Everybody sees it, no one mentions it." Until now, at any rate.

It has been plausibly argued that no ''Israel lobby" is needed to sway the American people, who are bound to Israel by deeper ties of sentiment. That may be so, but it may also be that the really sensitive nerve that Mearsheimer and Walt have touched isn't ''the lobby" as such. They have raised a graver question: Is unconditional American support for Israel-whatever its motives or origins-actually in the truest interests of both countries?

Maybe the first lobbyist on behalf of the land of Israel was Theodor Herzl. He published his book ''The Jewish State" in 1896, and organized the first Zionist Congress in Basel the following year, but he believed, as was characteristic of his age, that a political cause could best be advanced through the influence of the mighty. He duly lobbied in person the kaiser, the pope, British Cabinet ministers, and just about anyone else who would see him.

A generation later, Chaim Weizmann, who his friend Sir Isaiah Berlin called ''an irresistible political seducer," exercised his considerable charm on a number of important men in London. In 1917 he persuaded the British government to issue what became the Balfour Declaration, which favored ''the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."

Not all of those people approved of either these methods or their ends. One reason Mearsheimer and Walt have caused such anger is surely because to discuss the ''Israel lobby" is to raise the age-old question of ''dual loyalty": Does an intense attachment to the cause of Israel compromise an American citizen's first national allegiance? And although Mearsheimer and Walt do not claim that many American Jews have a higher loyalty to Israel, undisguised anti-Semites like David Duke-who has praised the paper-do just that.

In Herzl's time, although dual loyalty was a very live issue, it was one raised by Jews, not their enemies. For thorough-going anti-Semites, the problem didn't exist, since they believed no Jew could have any true allegiance to France, England, or Austria in the first place. When the French army officer Alfred Dreyfus was accused of treason, the proto-fascist Charles Maurras said derisively that ''in order to betray one's country it is first necessary to have one." The same thing was said, only more sardonically, by a fictional character. Dreyfus ''would have committed a crime if he had betrayed Judaea, but what has that to do with France?" asks Proust's monstrous Charlus. ''Dreyfus might rather be convicted of a breach of the laws of hospitality."

That sneer was just what appalled so many Jews, who felt their national allegiance impugned. When Herzl first tried to float his Zionist idea to an elite Jewish dining club in London, its members strongly objected, as he recorded, on the ground of ''English patriotism." Their loyalty was owed to the country of which they were citizens; they were ''Englishmen of Hebrew faith," in the phrase of the age.

It should not be forgotten (though it often is) that most Jews in Herzl's day were either indifferent to Zionism or bitterly hostile to it, on religious or political grounds or because they saw it as a threat to their own position. That was true not least in the United States, where very many would have agreed with the rabbi who said that ''America is our Zion."

When Weizmann secured his goal in 1917, some of the eminences of British Jewry were horrified. David Alexander and Claude Montefiore, presidents respectively of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and of the Anglo-Jewish Association, thought the Balfour Declaration ''a veritable calamity for the whole Jewish people," which must ''have the effect throughout the world of stamping the Jews as strangers in their native lands, and of undermining their hard-won position as citizens and nationals of those lands."

No one needed Mearsheimer and Walt to expose the work of lobbyists on behalf of Israel today. So far from hiding itself away in dark corners, AIPAC glories in its power and influence. Its own website proudly quotes Bill Clinton's description of AIPAC as ''stunningly effective" and John McCain's praise of its ''instrumental and absolutely vital role" in protecting the interest of Israel. Perhaps Mearsheimer and Walt would have done better to confine themselves to that website as their source.

Just as Herzl and Weizmann angered many of their Jewish contemporaries, so there are doubtless a good many Jewish Americans who (even if they resent the charges made by Mearsheimer and Walt) are at the least uneasy about the work of AIPAC and its associates. Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times is understandably dismayed when an apparently civilized and educated Arab tells him ''that the Jews control the US government." But then elsewhere, Friedman admits that only the White House could ever have restrained Israel from what he calls its ''insane" settlement policies, but that President Bush will never do so since that ''would inevitably force a clash with US Jews, whose votes and donations he needs to protect his GOP majority in the House." When is a distinction a difference?

For that matter, the respected foreign policy analyst Anatol Lieven of the New America Foundation in Washington has been writing about this for some time (and without igniting a media firestorm). In his view, the alliance with Israel, so far from being a source of strength, is a grave source of weakness for the United States, in dealing with the Muslim world and in combatting terrorism.

Mearsheimer and Walt are far from alone in looking at the relationship between America and Israel, even if some of what they say about the lobby is clumsy. But their paper, and the angry response to it, have generated more heat than light. AIPAC and those ''votes and donations" have without doubt influenced American policy in the Middle East, and supposedly done so in Israel's interests. A much more interesting question is what the ultimate objective effect has been.

Whether the American-Israeli alliance stems from sentiment, political realism, or the machinations of the lobby, has it been a success-in its own terms? When Mearsheimer and Walt ask if there are really strategic imperatives on the American side for ''unwavering support" of Israel, that is at least worth discussing as a hypothesis. But it's scarcely more fascinating than the question of whether such support has been to the long-term benefit of Israel.

Bolstered by American aid, successive Israeli governments tried to strengthen their settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza, the policy Friedman calls insane. Ariel Sharon at last gave up the dream of a Greater Israel, including his promise to remain in Gaza ''for Zionist reasons." And now Ehud Olmert, when he has formed his new government, will withdraw from most of the West Bank. Might not much blood and treasure have been saved if Israel had been obliged to make those choices years ago?

In one of their most contentious passages, Mearsheimer and Walt suggest that ''Israel was becoming a strategic burden" by the time of the first Gulf War. Then in 2003, history repeated itself, they say, as ''Israel was eager for the US to attack Iraq. ...The Israeli government and pro-Israel groups in the United States have worked together to shape the administration's policy towards Iraq, Syria, and Iran, as well as its grand scheme for reordering the Middle East."

Whatever view is taken of that analysis, it is no secret that prominent members of the Bush administration who were ardent supporters of Israel were also strong advocates of invading Iraq to destroy Saddam Hussein. Supposing, then, for the purest sake of argument, that the war was fought in some manner to help Israel, did it do so? Ask an Israeli.

Not long ago, Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet security service, spoke to a group of army draftees. The meeting was in private, but he was recorded and his words broadcast on television. (As is often said, Israel is a free an open society!) It could be that they would come to regret the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Diskin said. Horrible as his rule was, it might have been less dangerous for Israel than the chaos which had succeeded him. Said Diskin: ''I'm not sure we won't miss Saddam."

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English journalist and author. His books include ''The Controversy of Zion," which won a National Jewish Book Award, and, most recently, ''The Strange Death of Tory England." 

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