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Rationalizing Israel Out of Existence

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A strange thing happened to me while reading "The Israel Lobby" by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. I went from nodding at the obviousness of it all -- of course there's an Israel lobby, and of course it's effective -- to a mounting irritation at the supposed unrelenting mendacity of Israel and the unrelenting assurance of the authors that they supported its existence. By the time I put down the book, occasional critic of Israel though I am, I was ready to burst into "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem.

The book, which almost instantly made Amazon's list of bestsellers (right below the Harry Potter paperback boxed set, when I last checked), has produced the sort of intellectual and emotional storm you don't have to be Jewish to understand -- but it sure helps. Mearsheimer and Walt have been called anti-Semitic by the New York Sun (among others), and they have been praised as gutsy truth-tellers by elements of the British press (among others), an irony we shall return to in a moment. My own reading of the book found no evidence of anti-Semitism but also no evidence that either man has an ounce of sympathy for Israel. They swear they support its existence, but if Israel were to disappear tomorrow, I doubt they would reach for the hankies.

That's okay. No one has an obligation to love or admire Israel, and it is undoubtedly true, as Mearsheimer and Walt argue, that the Jewish state is no longer a strategic asset to the United States, if it ever was. It is, after all, a tiny country with no oil that is loathed by neighboring countries that have lots of oil. Not only that, but these neighboring countries also produce many of the world's terrorists, and while it is debatable whether Israel is always their No. 1 concern, it's certainly way up there. For the United States to remain Israel's wingman can hardly be characterized as being in our self-interest.

The argument can be made also that America's policy of supporting almost anything the Israeli government does -- from permitting West Bank settlements to launching disastrous wars such as last summer's in Lebanon -- is no good for Israel, either. Certainly, the so-called Israel lobby, mostly funded and controlled by conservative elements in the American Jewish community, has done Israel no favor by not criticizing West Bank settlements or the harsh treatment of Palestinians. Friends don't allow friends to build settlements.

All these points are made by Mearsheimer and Walt -- and bully for them. Where Israel is wrong, they say so. But where Israel is right, they are somehow silent. By the time you finish the book, you almost have to wonder why anyone in his right mind could find any reason to admire or like Israel. It is always doing the most dastardly things and then looking to Uncle Sam either for money or muscle. It is, no doubt about it, a brat among nations.

Mearsheimer and Walt are prominent foreign policy realists. Realists bring out the scales for every problem, weighing every element. They are forbiddingly rational -- all mind, no heart. To their credit, they were right about opposing the invasion of Iraq, arguing that Saddam Hussein was no threat to America's national security and that his purported link to al-Qaeda was concocted. And in their fashion they are right, too, about Israel; it is a strategic liability.

But so, in a way, is Britain. Who needs that soggy isle, scepter'd or not? In a fight, it would be of little consequence. In 2006, Britain spent about $60 billion on its military. The United States spent $529 billion. You could argue, therefore, that Britain is a strategic burden -- and some made precisely that argument in the run-up to World War II.

There are factors, though, that move the scale not at all but have an incalculable weight nonetheless. Who and what are we as a nation if we measure everything by self-interest? Who and what are we as a nation if we abandon our friends, blowing empty kisses to them as we cut them loose? Who and what are we as a nation if we don't calculate the incalculable: Values? Principles? For me, the answer is plain. This would be an emotionally arid place. I don't know the national anthem for oil.

In the end, Mearsheimer and Walt disappoint. They had an observation worth making and a position worth debating. But their argument is so dry, so one-sided -- an Israel lobby that leads America around by the nose -- they suggest that not only do they not know Israel, they don't know America, either.

cohenr@washpost.com


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