by “If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms withIsrael. 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?”
John J. Mearsheimer, Department of Political Science
University of Chicago
Stephen M. Walt, John F. Kennedy School of Government
HARVARD UNIVERSITY, John F. Kennedy School of Government
Faculty Research Working Papers Series, March 2006
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An edited version of this paper was published in the London Review of Books Vol. 28, No. 6 (March 23, 2006), and is available online at www.lrb.co.uk
U.S. foreign policy shapes events in every corner of the globe. Nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East, a region of recurring instability and enormous strategic importance.
Most recently, the Bush Administration’s attempt to transform the region into a community of democracies has helped produce a resilient insurgency in Iraq, a sharp rise in world oil prices, and terrorist bombings in Madrid, London, and Amman.
With so much at stake for so many, all countries need to understand the forces that drive U.S. Middle East policy.
The U.S. national interest should be the primary object of American foreign policy.
For the past several decades, however, and especially since the Six Day War in 1967, the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy has been its relationship with Israel.
The combination of unwavering U.S. support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracythroughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardized U.S. security.
This situation has NO equal inAmerican political history.
Why has the United States been willing to set aside its own securityin order to advance the interests of another state?
One might assume that the bond between the two countries is based on shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives.
As we show below, however, neither of those explanations can account for the remarkable level of material and diplomatic support that the United States provides to Israel.
Instead, the overall thrust of U.S. policy inthe region is due almost entirely to U.S. domestic politics, and especially to the activities of the “Israel Lobby."
Other special interest groups have managed to skew U.S. foreign policy in directions they favored, but NO lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that U.S. and Israeli interests are essentially identical.1
In the pages that follow, we describe HOW the (Israel) Lobby has accomplished this feat, and how its activities have shaped America’s actions in this critical region.
Given the strategic importance of the Middle East and its potential impact on others, both Americans and non-Americans need to understand and address the Lobby’s influence on U.S. policy.
Some readers will find this analysis disturbing, but the facts recounted here are not in serious dispute among scholars.
Indeed, our account relies heavily on the work of Israeli scholars and journalists, who deserve great credit for shedding light on these issues.
We also rely on evidence provided by respected Israeli and international human rights organizations.
Similarly, our claims about the Lobby’s impact rely on testimony from the Lobby’s own members, as well as testimony from politicians who have worked with them.
Readers may reject our conclusions, of course, but the evidence on which they rest is NOT controversial.
It has been the largest annual recipient of direct U.S. economic and military assistance since 1976 and the largest total recipient since World War II.
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~fifthof 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 Israelis now a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income roughly equal to South Korea or Spain.
Moreover, the United States has provided Israel withnearly $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.
In addition, Washington provides Israel with consistent diplomatic support.
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.
The United States also comes to Israel’s rescue in wartime and takes its side when negotiating peace.
The Nixon Administration re~supplied Israel during the October War and protected Israel from the threat of Soviet intervention.
Washington was deeply involved in the negotiations that ended that war as well as the lengthy “step-by-step”process that followed, just as it played a key role in the negotiations that preceded and followed the 1993 Oslo Accords.
There were occasional frictions between U.S. and Israeli officials in both cases, but the United States coordinated its positions closely with Israel and consistently backed the Israeli approach to the negotiations.
Indeed, one American participant at Camp David (2000) later said, “far too often, we functioned. . . as Israel’s lawyer.”
As discussed below, Washington has given Israel wide latitude in dealing with the occupied territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), even when its actions were at odds withstated U.S. policy.
Moreover, the Bush Administration’s ambitious strategy to transform the Middle East—beginning withthe invasion of Iraq—is at least partly intended to improve Israel’s strategic situation.
Apart from wartime alliances, it is hard to think of another instance where one country has provided another with a similar level of material and diplomatic support for such an extended period.
America’s support for Israelis, in short, unique.
This extraordinary generosity might be understandable if Israel were a vital strategic asset or if there were a compelling moral case for sustained U.S. backing.
But neither rationale is convincing.
More importantly, saying that Israel and the United States are united by a shared terrorist threat has the causal relationship backwards: rather, the United States has a terrorism problem in good part because it is so closely allied with Israel, NOT the other way around.
U.S. support for Israelis 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, binLaden explicitly sought to punish the United States for its policies inthe Middle East, including its support for Israel, and he even tried to time the attacks to highlight this issue.
The U.S. relationship with Israel actually makes it harder to deal with these states.
Israel’s nuclear arsenal is one reason why some of its neighbors want nuclear weapons, and threatening these states withregime change merely increases that desire.
Yet Israelis NOT much of an asset when the United States contemplates using force against these regimes, because it cannot participate in the fight.
In short, treating Israel as America’s most important ally in the campaign against terrorism and assorted Middle East dictatorships bothexaggerates Israel’s ability to help on these issues and ignores the ways that Israel’s policies make U.S. efforts more difficult.
Unquestioned support for Israel also weakens the U.S. position outside the Middle East.
Foreign elites consistently view the United States as too supportive of Israel, and think its tolerance of Israeli repression in the occupied territories is morally obtuse and a handicap in the war on terrorism.
In April 2004, for example, 52 former British diplomats sent Prime Minister Tony Blair a letter saying that the Israel~Palestine conflict had “poisoned relations between the West and the Arab and Islamic worlds,”and warning that the policies of Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were “one~sided and illegal.”
A final reason to question Israel’s strategic value is that it does not act like a loyal ally. Israeli officials frequently ignore U.S. requests and renege on promises made to top U.S. leaders (including past pledges to halt settlement construction and to refrain from “targeted assassinations”of Palestinian leaders).
Moreover, Israel has provided sensitive U.S. military technology to potential U.S. rivals like China, in what the U.S. State Department Inspector~General called “a systematic and growing pattern of unauthorized transfers.”
There is a strong moral case for supporting Israel’s existence, but that is not in jeopardy.
Viewed objectively, Israel’s past and present conduct offers NO moral basis for privileging it over the Palestinians.
Today, Israel is the strongest military power inthe Middle East. Its conventional forces are far superior to its neighbors and it is the only state in the region with nuclear weapons.
Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties with Israel and Saudi Arabia has offered to do so as well.
Syria has lost its Soviet patron, Iraq has been decimated by three disastrous wars, and Iran is hundreds of miles away.
The Palestinians barely have effective police, let alone a military that could threaten Israel.
According to a 2005 assessment by Tel Aviv University’s prestigious Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, “the strategic balance decidedly favors Israel, which has continued to widen the qualitative gap between its own military capability and deterrence powers and those of its neighbors.”
If backing the underdog were a compelling rationale, the United States would be supporting Israel’s opponents.
American backing is often justified by the claim that Israelis a fellow~democracy surrounded by hostile dictatorships.
This rationale sounds convincing, but it CANNOT account for the current level of U.S. support.
Israel’s democratic status is also undermined by its refusal to grant the Palestinians a viable state of their own.
Israel controls the lives of about 3.8 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, while colonizing lands on which the Palestinians have long dwelt.
Israel is formally democratic, but the millions of Palestinians that it controls are denied full political rights and the “shared democracy”rationale is correspondingly weakened.
The mainstream Zionist leadership was not interested in establishing a bi-national state or accepting a permanent partition of Palestine.
The Zionist leadership was sometimes willing to accept partition as a first step, but this was a tactical maneuver and not their real objective.
As David Ben~Gurion put it in the late 1930s, “After the formation of a large army inthe wake of the establishment of the state, we shall abolish partition and expand to the whole of Palestine.”
The fact that the creation of Israel entailed a moral crime against the Palestinian people was well understood by Israel’s leaders.
As Ben~Gurion told Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress,
The final moral argument portrays Israel as a country that has sought peace at every turn and showed great restraint even when provoked.
The Arabs, by contrast, are said to have acted withgreat wickedness.
This narrative—which is endlessly repeated by Israeli leaders and American apologists such as Alan Dershowitz—is yet another myth.
In terms of actual behavior, Israel’s conduct is NOT morally distinguishable from the actions of its opponents.
The core of the Lobby is comprised of American Jews who make a significant effort in their daily lives to bend U.S. foreign policy so that it advances Israel’s interests.
Their activities go beyond merely voting for candidates who are pro-Israel to include letter~writing, financial contributions, and supporting pro-Israel organizations.
But not all Jewish~Americans are part of the Lobby, because Israel is not a salient issue for many of them.
The Lobby also includes prominent Christian evangelicals like Gary Bauer, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, and Pat Robertson, as well as Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, former majority leaders inthe House of Representatives.
The Israel Lobby’s power flows from its unmatched ability to play this game of interest group politics. In its basic operations, it is no different from interest groups like the Farm Lobby, steel and textile workers, and other ethnic lobbies. What sets the Israel Lobby apart is its extraordinary effectiveness.
But there is nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to sway U.S. policytowards Israel.
The Lobby pursues two broad strategies to promote U.S. support for Israel.
First, it wields significant influence inWashington, pressuring both Congress and the Executive branch to support Israel down the line.
Whatever an individual lawmaker or policymaker’s own views, the Lobby tries to make supporting Israel the “smart”political choice.
Second, the Lobby strives to ensure that public discourse about Israel portrays it in a positive light, by repeating myths about Israel and its founding and by publicizing Israel’s side in the policydebates of the day.
The goal is to prevent critical commentary about Israel from getting a fair hearing inthe political arena.
Controlling the debate is essential to guaranteeing U.S. support, because a candid discussion of U.S.~Israeli relations might lead Americans to favor a different policy.
A key pillar of the Lobby’s effectiveness is its influence in the U.S. Congress, where Israelis virtually immune from criticism.
This is in itself a remarkable situation, because Congress almost never shies away from contentious issues.
One reason for the Lobby’s success with Congress is that some key members are Christian Zionists like Dick Armey, who said in September 2002 that:
"My No. 1 priority in foreign policy is to protect Israel.”
One would think that the number 1 priority for any congressman would be to “protect America,”but that is not what Armey said.
There are also Jewish senators and congressmen who work to make U.S. foreign policy support Israel’s interests.
As Morris Amitay, a former head of AIPAC, once admitted,
“There are a lot of guys at the working level up here [on Capitol Hill] …who happen to be Jewish, who are willing …to look at certain issues in terms of their Jewishness …. These are all guys who are ina position to make the decision in these areas for those senators …. You can get an awful lot done just at the staff level.”
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“If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms withIsrael. 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?”