Conspiracy Theory
Who really drives America's policy toward the Middle East?

Reviewed by Samuel G. Freedman
Sunday, October 7, 2007


By John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt

Farrar Straus Giroux. 484 pp. $26


The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control

By Abraham H. Foxman

Palgrave Macmillan. 256 pp. $24.95

In the fifth chapter of the New Testament's Book of Romans, there appears the single verse that established the concept of original sin. "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin," the passage in the King James version reads, "and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned." From Adam onward, in other words, sin is hereditary, ancestral, inescapable except through the acceptance of Jesus Christ.

Original sin over the millennia has become more than a religious belief, and a contested one at that. It has entered our collective vocabulary as a powerful metaphor for ineradicable guilt, guilt based on the condition of merely existing. As such, original sin serves very well, if unintentionally, as the framework for The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, the broadside by political scientists John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt of Harvard.

For all its attention to American foreign policy and domestic lawmaking, The Israel Lobby operates more deeply as a theology, a belief system. The original sin, in the Mearsheimer-Walt cosmology, is the United States' support for Israel, which they view as the root cause of global instability, Islamist terrorism and American insecurity. To enter into this faith is to accept the premise that a shifting, stealthy, protoplasmic group of Zionists, most of them Jews but some evangelical Christians, have for decades manipulated the puppet strings of Congress and the White House.

The Israel lobby's "loose coalition of individuals and organizations" has not simply steered the United States into a self-destructive and staggeringly expensive bond with Israel, a "strategic liability." It has pushed America into the Iraq war, alienated us from Western European allies, ruined rapprochement with Syria and begun greasing the way for a military strike against Iran.

Like some other critics of the American-Israeli relationship -- the historian Tony Judt, former President Jimmy Carter -- Mearsheimer and Walt perceive themselves as speaking a previously unutterable truth, a truth so shattering in its clarity that powerful forces seek to muzzle it. The more voices are raised against them, the more convinced they are of their own rightness and persecution.

But, of course, there is nothing very new in what these two scholars say about the pervasive, hidden power of Jews, that convenient euphemism. Mearsheimer and Walt assure readers that the Israel lobby is not a cabal or conspiracy, that it is perfectly acceptable for special-interest groups to advocate for their causes and that they categorically reject such anti-Semitic evergreens as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." It may not be fair to hold any writer responsible for his or her audience. But it is impossible to plow through this book without feeling certain that Mearsheimer and Walt have provided required reading for Jew-haters worldwide. Their credentials in the academic establishment -- and, indeed, the imprimatur of their publisher -- supply intellectual legitimacy to a blatantly slanted, inherently biased worldview.

I would have no such problems with Mearsheimer and Walt had they openly written the prescriptive book that hides within this putatively dispassionate one. They want the United States to tilt toward the Palestinians in the Middle East conflict and to impose a geopolitical compromise on the Israelis. To achieve this, they want Washington to reduce military and economic aid to Jerusalem and possibly to invoke sanctions of the sort deployed against the former apartheid regime in South Africa. That is a policy recommendation worthy of sustained, serious debate.

Yet one learns this agenda only at the end of The Israel Lobby. For most of the preceding 300-odd pages, Mearsheimer and Walt use a measured tone and copious footnotes to evoke the sense that they are bloodlessly parsing the facts. In the 18 months since Mearsheimer and Walt published the articles that anticipated this book -- initially on a Harvard Web site and then in the London Review of Books -- their thesis has become widely known and vigorously debated. They believe that Israel's supporters in the United States, led by the potent American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), have used campaign donations and media clout to drive America into blind endorsement of everything Israel does, including its settlement of conquered Palestinian land. A great deal of international terrorism against the United States, including al-Qaeda's, has come in response to America's complicity in Israeli aggression. Finally, the United States has adopted its confrontational policies toward Syria, Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq primarily to serve Israeli interests.

Such a synopsis, however, fails to convey what Mearsheimer and Walt have omitted, which is as important as what they have said. In their original-sin perspective, there has been no tangled spiral of causes and effects; only Israel's actions and policies have destabilized the Middle East. Palestinian terrorism is the response of an occupied, outgunned people; from the Munich Olympics massacre to the suicide bombing in 2002 at a seder in Netanya, the attacks that traumatized Israel's populace and many moderate-to-liberal American Jews and drove their politics to the right are barely mentioned. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's vow to "wipe Israel off the map" was mistranslated, according to Mearsheimer and Walt. The Israeli offer of land for peace at Camp David was only "purportedly generous."

The logical outgrowth of such dismissiveness appears in this rather chilling section toward the book's end: "Although we believe that America should support Israel's existence, Israel's security is ultimately not of critical strategic importance to the United States. In the event that Israel was conquered . . . neither America's territorial integrity, its military power, its economic prestige, nor its core political values would be jeopardized. By contrast, if oil exports from the Persian Gulf were significantly reduced, the effects on America's well-being would be profound."

It is certainly the right of Mearsheimer and Walt to advance these arguments, and their analysis of Camp David in particular echoes that of Robert Malley, one of the American mediators there. There is no lack of Israeli culpability in the Middle East morass, most obviously for the settlement enterprise. Still, one can leave this book with only the faintest realization that the political majority in Israel had been prepared to withdraw from most of the occupied territories to conclude a peace agreement with a Palestinian state -- until the Al-Aksa intifada brought terrorism as deeply into sovereign, pre-1967 Israel as the Tel Aviv beachfront. Having withdrawn from all of Gaza in 2005, Israel received a steady barrage of rocket attacks, which undermined public support for further disengagement from portions, at least, of the West Bank. The authors do not have to concur with the Israeli reaction to those events, but they prove their intellectual dishonesty in barely even mentioning them.

Thus, while Mearsheimer and Walt endorse a two-state solution, they still lump into the nefarious Israel lobby some of the very diplomats -- Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross, to name two -- who tried to negotiate precisely such a peace agreement. The authors make a point of quoting Jews and Israelis such as the historian Benny Morris and the journalist J.J. Goldberg to buttress The Israel Lobby's premise; the uninformed reader would never guess that Morris in the New Republic and Goldberg in his editorials in the Forward have delivered two of the most persuasive demolitions of the Mearsheimer-Walt theory. (Full disclosure: The book refers to one of my own op-ed columns in USA Today and misrepresents its contention that Jews were not to blame for the Iraq war.)

The latest full-length rejoinder to Mearsheimer and Walt is Abraham H. Foxman's The Deadliest Lies. As national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Foxman has often led his organization away from its core concern with various forms of discrimination and made it more of an agency for Israel advocacy. Indeed, he is one of the usual suspects whom Mearsheimer and Walt round up. So it comes as no surprise that Foxman would want to reply in kind. But The Deadliest Lies reads like a collection of talking points and historical factoids rather than a lucid essay, much less a book. It took a lot of white space to stretch this thin volume out to a respectable 256 pages.

While Foxman contributes some valuable material to the ongoing debate -- quotations from Charles Lindbergh blaming the Jews for pushing America into World War II, for example -- he sacrifices credibility in presenting AIPAC as just any old lobbying group. The answer to conspiracy theories about Jewish influence is not to pretend Jews don't have it. It's to say, as J.J. Goldberg has done in his book Jewish Power, that playing the interest-group game within the law requires no apologies. And it's to say something that Mearsheimer and Walt simply refuse to believe: All the lobbying in the world on Israel's behalf couldn't have succeeded had there not also been enough voters, the vast number of them non-Jews, who genuinely do believe in the moral and strategic foundations of the unique, and uniquely controversial, U.S.-Israeli relationship. *

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia, is the author of several books, including "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry."

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