The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy

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An outgrowth of an essay originally published in the London Review of Books by academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is one of the most provocative and controversial foreign policy books of recent times. The authors' basic premise is that the United States' level of commitment to the State of Israel cannot be justified either on strategic or moral terms, and is damaging both to American interests and Israel's long-term security. Their work developed over several years, after they were commissioned to write a feature by the The Atlantic.

The essay and book engendered great criticism, as well as support. In this article, counters to specific points will be with the discussion of content from the book, with overall reviews at the end.

The nature of the lobby

They regard the Israel Lobby as not a rigidly structured organization, but a collection of individuals and interest groups, both in the US and Israel. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is the most politically influential group in the US, but it is not alone. "A lobbyist for AIPAC [is] part of the core...while a individuals who occasionally write letters supporting Israel to their local newspaper or send checks to a pro-Israel political action committee should be seen as part of the broader network...this definition does not mean that every American with favorable attitudes toward Israel is a member of the lobby. To offer a personal illustration, the authors of this book are 'pro-Israel', in that we support its right to exist, admire its many achievements...and believe the United States should come to Israel's aid if its survival is in danger."[1]

"We use 'Israel lobby' as a convenient shorthand term for the loose coalition of individuals and organizations that actively work to shape US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. Some organization, such as the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), and especially the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), are clearly part of it. Even among those groups, there are variations, such as individuals, such as Morton Klein of ZOA and John Hagee of Christians United For Israel, who oppose a two-state solution, versus two-state supporters such as Dennis Ross (now in the Obama Administration; at the time, in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) or Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution and formerly at WINEP.

As a result of the Six Days' War, the lobby grew stronger, but the situation became more conflicted as the military situation moved to attrition, and then the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.[2]

They say the majority of groups in the lobby favor steadfast support, but differ on the peace process and on conditions for aid. AIPAC is "opposed to linking Israel's aid under any circumstances because once it starts, it never stops." Americans for Peace Now wants only to restrict aid for being used to support settlements in the Occupied Territories. Israel Policy Forum speaks less of conditional aid and more on increasing the effectiveness of U.S. diplomacy. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) is the main group that has called for suspension of military aid until Israel leaves the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem; "given this position, one might argue that JVP is not part of the lobby at all."[3]

It is by no means a Jewish phenomenon; Christian Zionism is an influential movement in the United States, and there are Jews both in Israel and the US that do not see the current bilateral relationship as ideal. There are other aspects throughout the Middle East, especially with respect to Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine.


Leslie Gelb, who had previously regarded the authors as serious scholars, was surprised "by their puzzlingly shoddy scholarship, by what they emphasize and de-emphasize, by what they leave out and by writing on this sensitive topic without doing extensive interviews with the lobbyists and the lobbied." He agrees the aid package to Israel is politically untouchable, but points out that the comparable package to Egypt also is sacrosanct, and regarded by many as a cheap safeguard against a war between the two. Gelb also points out that the American government has chastised Israel in private, and that there are two major ares, "arms sales to Arab states and the question of a Palestinian state" where US policy differs from that of the "all-powerful lobby".[4]

Strategic relationship

The level of US support for Israel could be justified if it filled a key strategic role. During the Cold War, there was a fairly strong case, but less so at other times.

Period of independence

In 1948, Israel was seen as too weak to be an effective ally; while Harry S. Truman and many American Jews felt a moral obligation, George C. Marshall and George Kennan saw political Zionism as a liability to relations with the Arab world.

Judith Apter Klinghoffer gives a different version of the meeting involving Marshall and Kennan. Drawing from Clark Clifford's Counsel to the President, Marshall did not believe the Israelis could defend themselves. Marshall said that if the "Jews got into trouble and 'came running to us for help . . . .They were clearly on notice that there was no warrant to expect help from the United States" (Clifford, p.10). He thought the Jews were wrong to believe they can handle the Arabs by themselves.[5]

Soviet expansion

By the early 1960s, however, Soviet aid to Arab nations was sufficient that John F. Kennedy saw a reason to balance it. Israel's performance in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War put a new light on the situation: Israel was seen as a proxy against Soviet expansion, and was a source of intelligence on Soviet capabilities. While the authors call this "factually correct", they suggest it was not as clear as was thought:[6]

  1. American support pushed Arab states toward the Soviets
  2. Israel's military dominance, and Arab resentment, did not contribute to a solution to the Arab-Israeli problem
  3. Arab recognition of US support engendered anti-Americanism.
  4. The Arab oil embargo was a direct response to Nixon's major support in 1973, and the relationship hurt US access to Persian Gulf oil; Israel could not deter a direct Soviet attack on oilfield

After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, there was no need for an anti-Soviet asset.


Mearsheimer and Walt spend only 2.5 pages on the period between 9/11 and the end of the Cold War. Many agree that Israel was a much less valuable strategic asset.

During the Gulf War, they argue, there was evidence that Israel was, as put by Bernard Lewis, historian and strong Israel supporter, "when what the United States most desired from Israel was to keep out of the conflict — to be silent, inactive, and, as far as possible, invisible...Israel was not an asset, but an irrelevance — some even said a nuisance."[7]

They point out attacks from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to the attack on the USS Cole, but terrorism was not yet perceived as a major threat although the U.S. was taking steps, perhaps ineffective, to address it. The U.S., oriented to state-sponsored terrorism, did adopt a dual containment strategy against both Iran and Iraq, was negotiating with Libya, and tried to broker a deal between Israel and Syria. Negotiations with Iran were difficult due to its relationship with Hezbollah and thus to Israel, as well as WMD threat to Israel.


al-Qaeda and the Palestinians

They indicate that Lobby members, after 9/11 insist that Osama bin Laden only recently linked his cause to that of Palestinians. They quote Dennis Ross as suggesting that bin Laden was, in their words, "trying to gain legitimacy by implying his attack was about the plight of the Palestinians".[8] The authors are correct that Ross quoted bin Laden, after 9/11, as saying "America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine" .[9] Further, Ross wrote that Arafat "cannot afford for Osama bin Laden to become the champion of the Palestinian movement. The consequences for him internationally and domestically would be devastating. ... He understands that. ...In the past, when Arafat moved against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, it was not because of what they did to Israel, but because of what he feared they might do to him. That is the reason he is cracking down seriously on the pro-bin Laden demonstrations now."

This is not as simple as either side claims. Part of the reason for targeting the United States, which started in the 1990s, was psychological. In February 1998, bin Laden, along with al-Zawahiri of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and leaders of the Egyptian Islamic Group, Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan, and the Jihad Movement of Bangladesh, issued a fatwa [10] calling for jihad against "Crusaders and Jews", and, specifically, Americans. The primary reason given is to evict "Crusaders and Jews" from the Muslim holy lands,

The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.

In that sense, Ross was correct that the attack was not principally about the Palestinians. It also, however, mentioned "the aim is also to serve the Jews' petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there." In context, those Muslims are clearly Palestinians.

WMD issues

The book says that Philip Zelikow said, in a speech at the University of Virginia on September 10, 2002, that Saddam was not a direct threat to the United States. "The real threat is the threat against Israel...and this is the threat that dare not speak its name, because the Europeans don't care deeply about that threat...and the American government doesn't want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell." These remarks are separated from the next section on the Iraq War, because it is not completely clear, from the book, if Zelikow was discussing the 1991 or 2003 situation.

Zelikow responded

Readers may find it interesting to know what I actually said and how Mearsheimer and Walt appear to have misused my comments....I argued that possession of nuclear (or biological) weapons by Saddam Hussein would be very dangerous. Reflecting on my White House work during the Gulf War in 1990-91, I did point out that I believed then, and later, that the most likely direct target of an Iraqi WMD attack would be Israel, but that policymakers had no wish to emphasise this. That said, any US or European government, in 1991 or later, would rightly have regarded an Iraqi nuclear attack on Israel or on any other country as a horrific prospect they would do much to prevent...Neither of these conclusions, that Saddam's possession of nuclear weapons would be dangerous, or that Israel might be most directly threatened by such weapons, was especially remarkable. These things were understood in 1991. Iraq tried very hard to pull Israel into that war and its politics, ultimately even bombarding Israel with ballistic missiles. The coalition laboured successfully to thwart Saddam and keep Israel out of that war. None of this, though, bore on the question of what to do about a possible Iraqi WMD programme in 2002. On that issue , whether or when the US ought to go to war with Iraq, I expressed no view in my September 2002 talk, or on any other public occasion during those years."[11]

Zelikow published a rebuttal from Mearsheimer and Walt. They said, "Emad Mekay, who wrote the Asia Times Online article we referenced, is a well-regarded journalist who worked for Reuters and the New York Times before moving to Inter Press Service, a legitimate news agency. He did not rely on "local reports" in writing his story, but had access to a complete and unimpeachable record of Zelikow' talk. He repeatedly tried to contact Zelikow while writing his story, but his inquiries were not returned..."

They said Zelikow had said

  1. he was focusing on the possibility of war with Iraq in 2002-03, not the 1990-91 Gulf War
  2. he supported a new war with Iraq
  3. he believed Iraq was an imminent threat to Israel, but not to the United States.

Iraq War

The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, which the book calls part of the lobby, argues that while the book suggests the Iraq War was waged to increase Israeli security, he had said, in a 2004 interview, that he believed US decisionmakers went to war with Iraq primarily because they expected to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD).[12] In the book, it is mentioned that Israel was the source of some of the intelligence leading US policymakers to believe Iraq was a WMD threat. [13] Further, GEN Wesley Clark was quoted that the fear was that Iraq might use a nuclear weapon against Israel. Ruth Wedwood, an academic and member of the Defense Policy Board, said Iraq was an existential threat against Israel; she did not mention such a threat against the US.


Jeffrey Goldberg, The New Republic:

Most significantly, and by their own admission, Mearsheimer and Walt did no reporting. They did not interview a single member of Congress for their book about Congress. Perhaps it is beneath them as scholars to behave like journalists. But their methodological arrogance, their failure to meet any serious standard of empirical inquiry, their slavish reliance on second- and third-hand works, is astonishing. The truth of what they say is just completely obvious to them...After baldly declaring, in the manner of conspiracy theorists, and over and over again, also in the manner of conspiracy theorists, that AIPAC dominates Congress (at the same time claiming, risibly, that "we do not believe the lobby ... controls important institutions in the United States"), Mearsheimer and Walt then proceed to catalog all the mistakes and the crimes for which AIPAC and the many other groups that make up the pro-Israel lobby are, in their omnipotence, responsible. Mearsheimer and Walt are not alleging the existence of a secret Jewish plot to control American foreign policy; they are alleging the existence of an open Jewish plot to control American foreign policy. The most remarkable of their allegations--this one is actually quite breathtaking-- is that the pro-Israel lobby is causally related to the attacks of September 11.[14]

Tony Judt, op-ed, New York Times: (note: the book mentions Judt's negative experience with the Anti-Defamation League when attempting to give a speech on the lobby[15]. This review deals with the paper, not the book.)

In spite of its provocative title, the essay draws on a wide variety of standard sources and is mostly uncontentious. But it makes two distinct and important claims. The first is that uncritical support for Israel across the decades has not served America's best interests. This is an assertion that can be debated on its merits. The authors' second claim is more controversial: American foreign policy choices, they write, have for years been distorted by one domestic pressure group, the "Israel Lobby."...The damage that is done by America's fear of anti-Semitism when discussing Israel is threefold. It is bad for Jews: anti-Semitism is real enough (I know something about it, growing up Jewish in 1950's Britain), but for just that reason it should not be confused with political criticisms of Israel or its American supporters. It is bad for Israel: by guaranteeing it unconditional support, Americans encourage Israel to act heedless of consequences. The Israeli journalist Tom Segev described the Mearsheimer-Walt essay as "arrogant" but also acknowledged ruefully: "They are right. Had the United States saved Israel from itself, life today would be better ...the Israel Lobby in the United States harms Israel's true interests."[16]

Ron Rosenbaum, Slate:

Forgive me if I forgo the argument over whether The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, the controversial new polemic from John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, should be called anti-Semitic. ... As the editor of an anthology of essays on the subject (Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism), I've devoted considerable thought to this issue, and in this case I believe the debate about the use of the word anti-Semitism has become a distraction, a red herring. One that devolves into semantics rather than substance. And so, in this instance, I'm anti-semantic. ... I'd like to take up what I regard as an emblematic error in the book that involves its allusion to me and my views on the second Holocaust question, an error that I believe is a window into that failure of the moral imagination.

In fairness, I should say that when I called the error to the attention of the publishers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and editors of the book, they brought it to the attention of the authors, who responded by examining the evidence, swiftly acknowledging my "legitimate concerns," and agreeing to correct the error in all future printings of the book.

While it doesn't undo the damage of their initial inattentiveness, preserved in the first printing, and it doesn't obviate the many disagreements I still have with the authors, I must say that correcting the error does reflect an ethos of responsibility in scholars and publishers that is all too rare, I've found. ... There was no doubt, however, in my essay on the possibility of a second Holocaust, that I was writing about a second Holocaust in the state of Israel. But in the initial edition of The Israel Lobby, Mearsheimer and Walt distort my quote, truncating it and using a misleading context to make it seem as though I believe there is about to be a second Holocaust in America!

They use this gross misrepresentation to make a case that the insidious Israel lobby has whipped up an irrational climate of fear—for themselves—on the part of American Jews. They quote several American Jews talking about a rise in anti-Semitism here in America and then quote me saying, "There is likely to be a second Holocaust." Period. End quote.[17]


  1. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (2007), The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, ISBN 13978037417720, pp. 113-114
  2. pp. 118-119
  3. pp. 120-121
  4. Leslie Gelb (September 23, 2007), "Dual Loyalties", New York Times
  5. Judith Apter Klinghoffer (1 May 2006), "Was the Recognition of Israel Contrary to U.S. National Interests?", History News Network, George Mason University
  6. pp. 51-58
  7. Bernard Lewis (Fall 1992), "Rethinking the Middle East", Foreign Affairs, pp. 110-111
  8. p. 64
  9. Dennis Ross (October 12, 2001), "Bin Laden's Terrorism Isn't About the Palestinians", New York Times
  10. Shaykh Usamah Bin-Muhammad Bin-Ladin; Ayman al-Zawahiri, amir of the Jihad Group in Egypt Abu-Yasir Rifa'i Ahmad Taha, Egyptian Islamic Group; Shaykh Mir Hamzah, secretary of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP); Fazlur Rahman, amir of the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh (23 February 1998), Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders; World Islamic Front Statement
  11. Philip Zelikow (25 May 2006), "The Israel Lobby: Mearsheimer & Walt vs. Phillip Zelikow", Spinwatch
  12. Alex Safian (30 March 2006), "Will the real John Mearsheimer please stand up?", CAMERA
  13. pp. 231-236
  14. Jeffrey Goldberg (8 October 2007), "The Usual Suspect", The New Republic
  15. pp. 185-186
  16. Tony Judt (19 April 2006), "Op-Ed Contributor: A Lobby, Not a Conspiracy", New York Times
  17. Ron Rosenbaum (19 September 2007), "The Israel Lobby and the Second Holocaust Debate: An emblematic error in a controversial book.", Slate,