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Book World Live

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt
Authors, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy"
Tuesday, October 9, 2007 3:00 PM

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. Review: The Deadliest Lies (Post, Oct. 7)

Authors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt fielded questions and comments about their book, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy."

The transcript follows.

John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and the co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago. He is the author of three other books on international politics and security. Stephen Walt is a professor of international affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.

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Stephen Walt: This is Stephen Walt. John and I are both online, and we are looking forward to answering as many questions as time permits.

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Takoma Park, MD: I have noted with dismay the Washington Post pieces (Richard Cohen, Michael Gerson, and Samuel Freedman) vilifying you both. And, of course, last year there was the entirely unfair piece by Eliot Cohen. I commend you for having the moral courage to note the subjugation of the Palestinians and for not caving in the face of the frequent misrepresentations of your work. I'm sure accusations of anti-Semitism are painful, even if it's clear that such false allegations are intended to intimidate others from speaking out regarding Israel's domination of the Palestinians.

Last week it was reported (www.muzzlewatch.com and www.tonykaron.com) that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had a speech canceled at the University of St. Thomas (MN) as a result of misquotations of a 2002 speech he delivered. The right-wing Zionist Organization of America is responsible for the false quotes.

Please comment on the false allegations of anti-Semitism now being directed at Nobel Peace Prize winners Tutu and Jimmy Carter. These are noxious allegations against two of the finest humanitarians of our time and with scarcely a peep of protest from liberal or conservative op-ed writers. Where are the media voices defending them? How many more years before op-ed columnists employed by major newspapers begin to make the case that Palestinians are discriminated against and face apartheid-like conditions?

Stephen Walt: Regrettably, a common tactic employed by some groups in the lobby is to smear critics of Israel (or critics of the lobby itself) by accusing them of being anti-semites. Such groups also try to discourage critics from getting a fair hearing in U.S. discourse. Although such efforts are not 100% successful, they do make it harder for the American people to have a free and open discussion on these issues. Obviously, calling someone like Jimmy Carter or Desmond Tutu an "anti-semite" is a ludicrous charge. It is also contrary to the tradition of free speech and open discussion on which democracy depends.

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Derwood, MD: Why do you guys hate Israel so much? Is it so unreasonable that Jews have a state of their own?

Stephen Walt: We have no animus whatsoever towards the Jewish state. In our book, we explicitly state that "we do not question Israel's legitimacy or its right to exist," and we argue that the United States should come to Israel's aid if its survival is in jeopardy. We are critical of some israeli policies, but we admire many features of Israeli society and we strongly support the existence of a Jewish state. But we also think the United States should treat Israel like a normal country, and act towards it the same way we act towards other democracies. In other words, we should back Israel when it is acting in ways consistent with US interests, and we should oppose Israeli policies that are not in our interest.

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Boston, Mass: Wasn't our support of Saudi Arabia (including having U.S. troops in that country) what pushed Osama Bin Laden to decide the strike the U.S.? I agree that we should be objective about our national interests in all our foreign policy relations, including Israel, but wouldn't those who want to counter our power in the world just find another justification to undermine our interests (not just our support of Israel)?

Stephen Walt: American support for Saudi Arabia (and the presence of US troops there) was certainly one of bin Laden's grievances against the United States. But it is clear from his various writings and speeches that he had also been angered by US support for Israel and especially Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. In our book, we make it clear that a more normal relationship with Israel would not solve all our problems in the Middle East (or elsewhere), but it would make it easier to address a number of them. In particular, using U.S. influence to achieve a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would clearly be good for the United States and Israel alike.

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Boston, Mass: What other countries besides Israel have strong lobbying on their behalf in Washington?

Stephen Walt: Lobbying of all kinds is prevalent in Washington, and a number of other countries can count on political help from sympathetic people in the United States. Greek-Americans, Indian-Americans, Armenian-Americans, Cuban-Americans, etc. have all formed various groups designed to influence US foreign policy in ways that they think are desirable. There is nothing wrong with lobbying on behalf of a country to which one is strongly committed, and the Israel lobby is no different in its basic operations than these other groups, or special interest groups like the AARP, the farm lobby, or the NRA.

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Anonymous: Could I ask each of you to describe your reaction to the review of your book in Sunday's Washington Post?

I barely recognized your book in Samuel Freedman's review, which was entitled "Conspiracy Theory." Freedman suggested you had provided "required reading for Jew-haters." He also accused you of misrepresenting his USA Today op-ed of April 2003, even though your mention of his op-ed was limited to a single sentence that merely cited certain polls referred to by Freedman in his op-ed. Freedman did not offer any basis for this claim of misrepresentation.

If you haven't guessed, I found the review in the Post an outrageous distortion of your book. Your reaction?

John Mearsheimer: We were disappointed that the Washington Post asked Samuel Freedman to review our book, as he had attacked the original article in an April 25, 2006 piece in the Jerusalem Post. In that piece, he referred to our article as a "chronicle of perfidy" and a "screed," and he compared it with Nation of Islam's anti-Semitic tract -- "The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews." He was almost certain to treat our book the same way he treated our article, and he did not disappoint. Of course, we were not surprised that the Post went to Freedman, as we expected that almost all of the mainstream newspapers in the US would choose reviewers who would be predisposed not to like our book. And that has been largely true. We also expected that the reviews would be much better in Europe and in Israel itself. That too has proven to be the case. Indeed, one of the most positive reviews we have received was published in Ha'aretz by Daniel Levy. In fact, that paper has run a few other pieces that have said nice things about about our book. We have received about seven reviews in Britain and almost all of them have had good things to say about the book. The bottom line is that it is more difficult to talk critically about Israel and the US-Israeli relationship in the United States than it is in almost any other country in the world. The reason, of course, is because of the power of the lobby here in America.

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Bethlehem, PA: What is one crucial point that you think the majority of your critics have overlooked or disregarded as significant?

John Mearsheimer: I cannot think of any point in our book that the critics have overlooked. What impresses me most about the criticism directed at us is how often the critics misrepresent what we wrote. Indeed, in some cases they accuse of saying things that not only did we not say, but we said the opposite.

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New York, NY: Drs. Mearsheimer and Walt,

Neither of you are experts on the Middle East or on U.S. Politics. Yet you did not interview one member of Congress, nor did you delve deeply into the complexities of the history of the Middle East, relying mostly on your readings of secondary sources. How do you answer critics who have been skeptical of the broad nature of your critique despite the shallowness of your research?

Stephen Walt: In fact, both of us had written on Middle East topics in the past, and as professional political scientists, we were familiar with the basic literature on American politics and interest groups. We did in fact interview some members of Congress, former staffers, and former individuals in the lobby itself, and we vetted our work with scholars who had done more extensive work along these lines. Scholars write books to add to our collective knowledge, so there is obviously nothing wrong with our using secondary sources. We supplemented those accounts with numerous newspapers, journals, and other sources--published in both the United States and Israel, and anyone who reads our book will see that we did extensive research. Accordingly, the charge that our research is "shallow" is simply not accurate.

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Tenafly, NJ: First of all, let me say that as a student of IR, I have tremendous respect for both of you and consider you two of the foremost scholars in the discipline.

I have two questions I've seen your critics mount that I have not yet heard you address. First, the charge regarding the publication your article first appeared in, The London Review of Books. I believe some critics have alleged that no other, peer-reviewed journals would publish the paper. Is this true?

Second, I've heard some criticism alleging that as two pronounced realists who argue that domestic politics has little effect on the structure of the international system, you have, in this case, found a domestic institution (the Lobby)that breaks this paradigm. Is this criticism significant?

Ok, and one last easy one: why is Lobby capitalized in the article but lower case in your book?

Thank you, both!

Stephen Walt: The original article was too long for most (if not all) peer-reviewed journals, and we wanted to reach as large an audience as possible. We could not identify a mainstream journal that would publish it in the US, and eventually chose to publish it in the London Review of Books.
John and I both think realism is a powerful theory, but no theory explains everything. The influence of the lobby is obviously an exception to basic realist logic. But realism would suggest that the United States will pay a price if it allows its foreign policy to be too-heavily influenced by any special interest group.
We frankly cannot remember how the decision to capitalize the "L" was made. But we think it was a mistake to do so, as it was contrary to our basic point that the lobby is a "loose coalition" of different groups and not a single organization. So we do not capitalize it in our book.

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Ottawa, Canada: I'm a little confused about your thesis. Is it your opinion that the U.S. supports Israel even when it is against the interest of the U.S. because of a "lobby" of supporters of Israel who, one would assume, are mostly Jewish?

John Mearsheimer: The US does sometimes support Israeli policies that are not in the American national interest. Consider that it has been the official policy of every American president since Lyndon Johnson to oppose the building of settlements in the Occupied Territories. Yet no president has been able to put any significant pressure on Israel to halt the building of settlements. Instead, the United States has provided Israel with remarkable levels of economic and diplomatic support, which has allowed it to continue building settlements. The reason is the lobby. Although the lobby is principally comprised of Jews, it also contains a large body of non-Jews, including the Christian Zionists, who have been enthusiastic supporters of the settlement enterprise. Of course, many American Jews do not support the settlements or particular policies favored by groups in the lobby.

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Washington DC: "I'm sure accusations of anti-Semitism are painful, even if it's clear that such false allegations are intended to intimidate others from speaking out regarding Israel's domination of the Palestinians. "

If you are not anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel, does it bother you that your most ardent supporters are those who preach the kind of rhetoric above, i.e., "Israel's -domination- of the Palestinians"? What kind of academic can be taken seriously when these are his only supporters? What's the old saying: a man can be judged by the company he keeps....

Stephen Walt: We both reject anti-semitism in all its various forms. But it is not the case that our "most ardent supporters" are extremists or bigots. Indeed, some of our strongest supporters have been Israelis who are sincerely interested in peace--such as Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom--or progressive Jewish Americans like Rabbi Michael Lerner of TIKKUN.

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New Haven, Conn: Did you expect the amount of criticism your book has received? Do you think it will hurt your careers?

John Mearsheimer: We did expect the amount of criticism that we have received, but we obviously did not anticipate many of the particulars. For example, we did not anticipate that the New York Sun and others would link us to a discredited extremist like David Duke. The effect of all of this on our careers is impossible to predict at this early point.

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Gros Islet, St. Lucia: Would either of you have ventured to publish "The Israel

Lobby" if you did not hold academic tenure? Do you view

your experiences as evidence of the importance of academic

tenure in ensuring an open discussion of contentious issues?

John Mearsheimer: Obviously the fact that we have tenure made it much easier to countenance writing the original article and then the book. Of course, this is why tenure exists; it allows scholars to address controversial subjects and challenge taboos, which is ultimately healthy for the American body politic.

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Falls Church, Va: Dear Sirs:

I applaud you for your honesty and courage. What is the single most important thing you think we could do as individuals to help create US Mid-East policy that is balanced? Also, do you think any of the current candidates for President (in either party) are free from undue influence by AIPAC?

Stephen Walt: Individual Americans can do a lot to help produce a more effective Middle East policy. First, they should learn more about the history of the region, and especially the so-called "new history" as written by Israeli historians like Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev, or Benny Morris. Second,they should ask politicians to explain why nearly-unconditional support for Israel is in the U.S. national interest. As far as Presidential candidates go, it is impossible to know what any of them might do once elected. But as our book explains, it is not surprising that all of the major candidates are currently competing to show how strongly pro-Israel they are. Why? Because they all believe that questioning the "special relationship" is not going help them get elected.

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Washington, DC: What is the difference between the "special" relationship between the U.S. and the U.K, and the U.S. and Israel? Do the British have such a powerful military that it warrants our strong partership? The answer is no. Quite simply, our history dictates our relationships with nations sometimes, and just as our history justifies our alliance with the U.K, so do our Judeo-Christian values, which this nation was founded upon, justify our alliance with Israel.

John Mearsheimer: The key difference between our relationships with Israel and Britain is that the United states gives Israel a remarkable amount of foreign aid and diplomatic support, and it gives it unconditionally. The United States does not do that with Britain or any other country, and never has in its long history. We believe that the United States should end its special relationship with Israel and treat it the same way it treats Britain and other democracies around the globe.

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Fort Worth, Tex: According to the Borgen Project much of US aid tends to go to wealthy nations such as Israel and Russia, instead of poor countries that really need it. What's your take on this?

Stephen Walt: In fact, the top three aid recipients are Israel ($3-4 billion per year), Egypt and Jordan. Egypt and Jordan get lots of aid as a reward for making peace with Israel, so all this money is closely linked. Aid to Israel amounts to about $500 per year for each Israeli citizen, even though Israel is not a poor country (its per capita income now ranks 29th in the world). As even some of our critics concede, the size of this aid package and its largely unconditional nature (i.e., Israel gets its aid even when it does things that the US government officially opposes), is due mostly if not entirely to the political clout of the various groups in the Israel lobby.

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Washington, DC: I guess one way of looking at the pro-Israeli effort to demonize you is that they are in fact proving your thesis for you.

Stephen Walt: Yes, and it is important to understand why groups in the lobby try to smear or demonizer critics. . First, it shifts attention from the real issue, which is US policy, and people end up debating whether someone like Jimmy Carter is a bigot. Second, it deters people from voicing their own doubts, because no thoughtful person would want to be accused of anti-semitism. Third, it helps marginalize critics in the public arena, becaused media outlets and politicians will be less likely to listen to anyone who has been smeared in this way, even if the allegations are wholly false. By inhibiting public discussion, however, such critics are undermining US policy and in our opinion, are also encouraging policies that are not good for Israel either.

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Rockville, MD: Would you contend that the world would be a more stable place had there been no Israel and simply an Arab Palestine instead?

Stephen Walt: Three points. First, it is impossible to know if the world would be more or less stable if Israel had never been created. Second, we believe there is a strong moral case for Israel's existence, and we think the US should continue to back Israel if its survival is ever in danger. Third, the world will be more stable once the Palestinians have a viable state of their own. This will discredit and marginalize the more extreme elements in the Palestinian community, and remove the main grievance between Israel and its various Arab neighbors. A Palestinian state would not solve all the problems that currently afflict the Middle East, but it would be a very helpful step forward.

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Norwich, Conn: Jimmy Carter has also been very critical of the State of Israel and American support for Israel. He characterized some Israeli policies (or the consequences of them)as "Apartheid." Jimmy Carter has also been on the receiving end of the charge of anti-semitism. Do you agree that Carter's use of the racially charged word, "Apartheid," is appropriate?

If you believe that such language is inappropriate, is using it anti-semitic?

John Mearsheimer: It is important to emphasize that President Carter was talking about Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories, not inside Israel itself, when he used the word apartheid. It is also important to emphasize that South Africans and some Israelis use the term apartheid to describe what is going on in Gaza and the West Bank. There are obviously differences between what the white government did in South Africa and what the Israeli are doing in the Occupied Territories, but there are also a number of important similarities. Whether or not one uses the term apartheid like President Carter did is ultimately not a terribly important matter. The key point is that Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories is morally bankrupt and can lead to no good. This is why Israel should abandon almost all of the West Bank and allow for the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

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New York, NY: Are you aware that there is growing disenchantment with AIPAC on the left, primarily due to AIPAC's lobbying for two congressional measures this year that effectively endorsed the view that Bush need not obtain congressional authorization before striking Iran? For many liberals, these were unconscionable and reckless acts by AIPAC. Accordingly, I would expect you've received some support from liberal quarters. But have you received any support from conservative constituencies?

Stephen Walt: We hope that more moderate groups within the broad pro-Israel communitybecome more influential, and that hardline groups like AIPAC begin to realize that the policies they have advocated have been bad for the US and Israel alike. A strong pro-Israel lobby would not be a bad thing if it used its influence to press for more sensible policies.

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Los Angeles, Calif: Have you considered setting up focus groups on US university campuses to discuss this issue of the Israeli lobby?

John Mearsheimer: No, but it is a fascinating idea.

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Washington DC: Why are your criticisms of the "Big Bad Jewish Lobby" legitimate but attempts to criticize your book are merely smear campaigns? Is your thesis simply not open to the same kind of criticism you dish out?

Stephen Walt: First, we never use the term "Jewish lobby" because the lobby is defined by its political agenda, not by religion or ethnicity. Second, We welcome serious, substantive criticism of our work--criticism that focuses on our specific arguments and the evidence we present. We object to those who either misrepresent what we wrote--often quite dramatically--or who attempt to discredit us by claiming we are bigots, hostile to Israel, or anti-Semitic. That sort of smearing has no place in a civil discussion of key foreign policy issues.

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washingtonpost.com: This concludes our discussion and we thank our guests and readers for joining.

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