A recent article by two prominent political science professors has touched off heated debate. “The Israel Lobby,” by John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard, outlines what it calls “the unmatched power” of pro-Israeli-government lobbying groups in influencing U.S. foreign policy and in controlling debate on U.S.-Israeli relations.

The authors, known as “realists” in international relations circles, have been subjected to vituperative attacks by U.S. promoters of right-wing Israeli policy such as Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, who likened the article to the viciously anti-Semitic “Protocols of Zion” forgeries. Such attacks confirm one of the main points of the authors and many others: that powerful, well-financed right-wing Jewish groups work to stifle any debate, even among Jewish Americans, over the Israeli government’s militarist, chauvinist policies with regard to the Palestinian people, and over U.S. support for such policies.

The power these groups exercise in U.S. political life, including electing or defeating candidates, has been written about and documented in progressive publications. In addition to big campaign contributions and aggressive lobbying, they apply pressure and intimidation to institutions and individuals that shape public opinion including the media and, especially recently, academia.

The Mearsheimer/Walt article itself, originally commissioned by The Atlantic, was turned down by that and other U.S. publications, and was finally published in England by the London Review of Books.

At the same time, a number of Jewish progressives have taken exception to the authors’ pinning the primary blame on Jewish people, to put it bluntly, for destructive U.S. foreign policy.

What has drawn much of the heat from all sides is the authors’ assertion that this lobby, and Israel itself, is the main driver of U.S. policy in the greater Middle East, including in such actions as the Iraq war.

“Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the decision to attack Iraq,” they say, “but it was critical.” But then they dismiss other factors widely seen as major components of the Bush policy, even by its own architects, and they do not mention the enormous oil, gas and military industry lobbies. “Some Americans believe that this was a war for oil, but there is hardly any direct evidence to support this claim,” they say. “Instead, the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure.”

They write: “The Bush administration’s ambition to transform the Middle East is at least partly aimed at improving Israel’s strategic situation.” But they don’t say what the other, perhaps more fundamental, aims might be. They make no mention of any global geopolitical goals, such as entrenching U.S. (transnational corporate) domination through the Middle East and Central Asia to the borders of Russia and China and to the Pacific.

Mearsheimer/Walt note that Christian far-right evangelicals and ultra-rightists like Tom DeLay and Trent Lott are key members of the “Israel Lobby.” The authors also caution that Jewish Americans differ in their identification with Israel and their views on Israeli politics. They note that “the bulk of U.S. Jewry” is “more inclined to make concessions to the Palestinians, and a few groups — such as Jewish Voice for Peace — strongly advocate such steps.” However, such disclaimers get overshadowed when they go on to make generalizations like “American Jewish leaders often consult Israeli officials” and “Jewish Americans have set up an impressive array of organizations to influence American foreign policy.” Their loose characterizations, which have an unpleasant ring for many Jewish readers, make it easier for them to be attacked as echoing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

It is true, however, that right-wing Jewish supporters of Israeli militarism and aggression like Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol play a prominent role in the ideological grouping known as the neoconservatives, which gained unprecedented political influence in the current administration. In their view, undoubtedly, the ultra-nationalist interests of the Israeli right are conflated with the interests of the U.S. ruling class which these ideologues serve. This view meshes with long-standing efforts of right-wing Jewish lobbying groups such as AIPAC — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — that seek to ensure U.S. support for Israeli expansionist, chauvinist forces.

It is also true, as the authors note, that prominent non-Jewish neoconservatives such as John Bolton, William Bennett and others are strong backers of the “Israel Lobby.”

But overlooked by much of the debate thus far is, in my view, the most significant aspect of the Mearsheimer/Walt article: its declaration that Israel has lost its strategic importance for the U.S. ruling class.

While Israel was useful to the U.S. during the Cold War, it has become a liability, they argue. Of course, this suggests that Israel has been a tool of U.S. foreign policy, contradicting the authors’ emphasis on Israel and the “Israel Lobby” as the chief drivers of U.S. policy.

“One might argue that Israel was an asset during the Cold War,” they write. “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 U.S. allies (like King Hussein of Jordan) and its military prowess forced Moscow to spend more on backing its own client states.”

In other words, though of course these anti-communist academics don’t say this, Israel helped the U.S. install and support anti-communist regimes in the Middle East who stamped out communist, working-class and secular democratic movements — thereby promoting the rise of reactionary political Islamic movements that, ironically, now pose a problem for the U.S.

“Backing Israel was not cheap, however,” the authors continue, “and it complicated America’s relations with the Arab world.”

Following the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, they write, “Israel’s armed forces were not in a position to protect U.S. interests in the region,” specifically U.S. oil supplies from places like Iran. By the 1990s “Israel was becoming a strategic burden.”

So-called rogue states in the Middle East “are not a dire threat to vital U.S. interests,” they argue, and “the relationship with Israel actually makes it harder for the U.S. to deal with these states.”

“In fact,” they say, “Israel is a liability in the war on terror.”

Mearsheimer/Walt argue that the “Israel Lobby” has diverted U.S. foreign policy from “what the national interest would suggest.” On Iraq, Syria and Iran, if the neoconservatives and the Israel Lobby had not pushed an aggressive militaristic policy, they say, U.S. policy “would have been more in line with the national interest.” The authors never define that “national interest.” They appear to argue for a “more temperate” policy in the region, in which “preventive war would not be a serious option.”

They note differences within the Bush administration on Mideast policy, centered around former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Interestingly, their article drew praise from former Powell chief of staff Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, widely considered to be expressing views of Powell and others espousing the “realist” approach.

This article is an indication of significant disquiet in ruling-class circles. Perhaps it is even a trial balloon for establishment advocates of a significant shift in policy on Israel and Palestine. Differences are going increasingly public as the Bush administration’s Iraq war debacle deepens, with potential long-term destabilizing consequences throughout the greater Middle East and beyond. Some are no doubt concerned that the festering Palestinian statehood issue endangers U.S. capitalist class interests in the region. There are indications that some see advancing the interests of U.S. imperialism by building relationships with bourgeois political Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

If a U.S. policy shift helps lead to establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel, that would be a momentous positive development. But the national interest as defined by the U.S. ruling class, whether of the neocon or “realist” variety, has little to do with the national interests of the overwhelming majority of the American people, Jewish and non-Jewish. It has little to do with the interests of the majority of Israeli and Palestinian people. Those interests revolve around the aspirations and struggles of the working class and its allies in all these countries.

Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings, if “The Israel Lobby” helps open up mainstream discussion on the above issues, it will have made a useful contribution. I hope it stimulates thinking among the left on the importance of encouraging and expanding Jewish participation in movements for peace and social justice. It should also lead to more attention to the role of anti-Semitism and new assessments of the class and political orientation of Jewish people in the U.S.

Susan Webb (suewebb@pww.org) is a member of the People’s Weekly World editorial board.


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.