The only conversation

For months or even years a conversation has been boiling just beneath the surface in political circles, in dinner parties or offices, and finally it’s come up for air. That’s the discussion of the pro-Israel lobby, and how large a role it plays in a, our Middle Eastern foreign policy and b, the (disastrous) decision to invade Iraq. The worst thing about this discussion is that it has essentially been suppressed. It’s not in the newspapers, not on television. Imagine talking about the politics of social security and not talking about the elderly bloc– that’s the kind of omission our media have had when it comes to the pro-Israel lobby, whatever its strength.
Happily, the seal may lately have been broken by two leading American professors in an article in the London Review of Books.
http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n06/mear01_.html
As the professors point out, their article would likely not have been published in the United States, though the shockwaves of the explosive article are being felt here more than abroad. Indeed, their standing– John Mearsheimer is at the university of Chicago, Stephen Walt is a dean at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government– has granted their argument an audience that other analyses of this question has never gotten.
In other words, everyone I know is talking about it.
I’m going to be writing about this article off and on in days to come– it’s that important, I think historic. It makes two controversial assertions. One is the argument that the pro-Israel lobby has exerted a “stranglehold” on American policy in the Middle East– that our actions have reflected Israel’s interests, often damaging our own. The second is the idea that the Iraqi war came out of a pro-Israel agenda within the Bush administration, fostered of course by the neconservatives.
I tend to agree with Mearsheimer and Walt on both points. Our politicians’ passive acceptance of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, an ongoing neocolonial tragedy that is doing no one any good, can be laid to some greater or lesser degree at the feet of the lobby. And second, the Iraqi war-planning party in the Bush Administration included as an important and even necessary component a Likudnik faction that often confused American interests with Israeli interests. Making the Middle East safe for democracy has turned out to mean mirroring and thereby validating Israel’s experience– occupying Arab lands, suffering grisly terrorist attacks, rationalizing indiscriminate attacks on locals as a justifiable response to amorphous “terror.” Oh, and demonizing Arabs.
The paper has drawn sharp attacks from the usual suspects. Alan Dershowitz has said that its argument draws on neo-Nazism, the New York Sun would like to see its professors defunded, Christopher Hitchens has said (on Slate) that the paper is a “vapid” effort to escape the truth: that we’re in a clash of civilizations.
The most interesting thing about the response so far is the resistance to it among the Jewish left. Daniel Fleshler, a longtime activist in the Peace Now crowd, reluctantly put himself behind AIPAC in a piece in the Forward http://www.forward.com/articles/7511 And here is Adam Shatz, the literary editor of the Nation, demurring on the paper in the Guardian. http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/adam_shatz/2006/03/post_9.html
“The vision of Mearsheimer and Walt of a lobby with the power to recast American foreign policy in its image strains credulity,” Shatz says, arguing that Israel’s location and ideology and militarism make it an appealing ally any way you cut it.
I’m not convinced. If the lobby doesn’t sway politicians, then a lot of rich shrewd people are spending a lot of money that they could better spend on other things. If it didn’t exert a stranglehold, why is it that only retired politicians, like Fritz Hollings and Jimmy Carter, dare to criticize Israel openly? That John Edwards interrupts his vice-presidential debate with Dick Cheney to pander to the lobby? Or, tragically, that the 9/11 Commission Report, the official word on why they hate us, says not one word about our Israel policy as a motivation for Osama bin Laden when bin Laden has said that the Palestinian cause was high on his list of grievances against the west?
I’m not sure what the lobby’s true dimensions are. The one thing I’m sure about is that there is fear about examining it. Many friends of mine in the media seem to think that crediting the lobby with any power at all publicly amounts to trading in antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jewish influence. I know where the fear comes from, but it doesn’t show any faith on their part in the democratic process. The issue has become simply too important to keep ignoring, and meantime the prohibition against discussing it raises real issues about how free our speech is.
That’s the great thing about the Walt and Mearsheimer paper. It’s torn down a wall. Let the discussion begin openly.

The only conversation