Milton Viorst on ‘The Israel Lobby’

 By Milton Viorst | Truthdig | Posted on Oct 4, 2007

Longtime journalist and Middle East expert Milton Viorst examines John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s controversial new book about the Israel lobby and its influence on American foreign policy.

About 30 or so years ago, when I first began to write of my concern that Israel was embarked on a course that would lead only to recurring wars, or perhaps worse, I received a letter from Abraham H. Foxman, then as now the voice of the Anti-Defamation League, admonishing me as a Jew not to wash our people’s dirty linen in public.  I still have it in my files.  His point, of course, was not whether the washing should be public or private; he did not offer an alternative laundry.  His objective was—and remains—to squelch anyone who is critical of Israel’s policies. 

In the ensuing years, Foxman and a legion of like-minded leaders, most but not all of them Jewish, have been remarkably successful in suppressing an open and frank debate on Israel’s course.  In view of Israel’s impact on America’s place in the world, it is astonishing how little discussion its role has generated.  As a practical matter, the subject has been taboo.  John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, professors of political science at the University of Chicago and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, respectively, have challenged this taboo in their new book, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” Foxman, in an effort to discredit them, has written a rejoinder in his book “The Deadliest Lies: The Jewish Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.”

RELATED LINKS The original article that inspired the book can be found on the London Review’s Web site.  The letters it provoked along with Mearsheimer and Walt’s reply are well worth reading.  The essay also prompted a response by, among others, Christopher Hitchens on Slate.  Some months later, the London Review of Books sponsored a debate at Cooper Union in New York City, which can be viewed here. Also, be sure to read this interview with the authors.

The controversy over Mearsheimer and Walt’s views has been going on since March of last year, when they first presented their argument in the London Review of Books.  In their essay, they contended that support of the magnitude that the United States gives Israel might have been justified during the Cold War but is not defensible, “on either strategic or moral grounds,” under the conditions that currently prevail in the Middle East.  America’s unconditional backing, they argued, is harmful to its own interests and possibly even to Israel’s, and it is made possible only by the influence of the Israel lobby over U.S. foreign policy.  The article touched a sensitive chord among many of Israel’s defenders, generating a furor.  Now Mearsheimer and Walt have written a book which, while more comprehensive at nearly 500 pages, recapitulates the original themes.  Foxman acknowledges basing his book-length reply on the article, so impatient was he to proclaim its authors guilty of “distortions, omissions and errors.”

The late social critic Irving Howe, deeply committed to Israel himself, used to argue that Jewish leaders like Foxman depend for their status on ceaselessly trumpeting the dangers faced by the Jewish people, and particularly by Israel, from a hostile world.  These leaders, Howe insisted, exploit the scars which inquisitions, pogroms and the Holocaust have left on the collective Jewish psyche, scars which distort Jewish political judgment.  Foxman is no doubt sincere in agonizing over the dangers that Jews have historically faced.  But Howe argued that these dangers had become a vested interest for the leaders of Jewish organizations, making an open and honest debate all but impossible in American Jewish circles and in America’s political culture generally. 

Foxman does not quite accuse Mearsheimer and Walt—though other disapproving critics do—of being anti-Semitic.  But he uses intimidating language nonetheless, pointing to a “level of quiet, subtle bigotry—an attitude that may not run to the actual hatred of Jews but that assumes that Jews are somehow different, less respectable, less honorable, more treacherous, more devious than other people. … [I]t’s only natural that people who exhibit this kind of bias against Jews should look a little askance at the special relationship that exists between American Jews and the nation of Israel.”

One can admit the legitimacy of Foxman’s warnings on anti-Semitism and still ask for the evidence of “subtle bigotry” in the Mearsheimer-Walt text.  I found none, unless the reader accepts the premise that anti-Semitism is present in any scrutiny of relations between the U.S. government and American Jews, or the Israel lobby.  Foxman says the authors’ objective is to make Israel into a “pariah” state, though nothing that they write reveals such a goal.  On the contrary, Mearsheimer and Walt recognize lobbies—all lobbies—as a legitimate part of the American political system, existing to shape or shift policy in the interest of the various causes they serve.  Foxman, backed by quotes from such dubious authorities as Dennis Ross, an ex-U.S. ambassador and a vigorous defender of official Israeli views, seeks to attribute something sinister to their motives.

Without question, Mearsheimer and Walt have written less a work of political science than a brief for their position.  There is nothing wrong with that, as long as they maintain the standards of scholarship incumbent on their craft, which exhaustive footnotes of more than a hundred pages suggest strongly that they do.  Some of their critics, ill at ease with the charge of anti-Semitism or “subtle bigotry,” have accused them of being “unbalanced,” in omitting the sins of “the other side.” By their nature, briefs are not balanced, but in this case the accusation seems doubly contrived.  Assuming that the Palestinians or radical Muslims are “the other side,” the critics can scarcely claim that the literature is not already overflowing with negative evaluations, readily at hand in any library or bookstore.  The objective of Mearsheimer and Walt is to break new scholarly ground, which is what academics are supposed to do.  Their findings will come as no surprise to those familiar with American political institutions, but, judging by the reverberations of the Foxman line, they have ignited panic by daring to put so much of the available material on the public record.

That is not to say that Mearsheimer and Walt do not leave a great deal of room for disagreement: for example, their contention, presented in a discussion of Israel’s role in instigating the invasion of Iraq, that “absent the lobby’s influence, there almost certainly would not have been a war.” Surely the American decision to invade Iraq, like most of history’s grand events, arose out of a confluence of causes, no single one of which would have sufficed to bring it about.  Here are just a few of those causes: oil, the rebound to 9/11, President Bush’s relations with his father, concern over free navigation in the Persian Gulf, a sense of Christian mission, the Pentagon’s hunger for Middle East bases to provide “forward thrust” for American power.  Moreover, many in decision-making circles swallowed Bush’s claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and a few may even have believed that we had a moral duty to liberate Iraqis from Saddam’s heartless tyranny.  Though we know now there were no WMD, much less plans to improve the life of the Iraqis, each of these considerations played a part in generating the momentum to invade. 
As for the Israel lobby, no doubt it weighed in during the deliberations.  Israel’s fears of Iraq, though exaggerated, were surely real.  But the lobby’s power was only marginal on President Bush and his entourage of neocons who long before had made up their minds.  On this matter, the authors overstate their case.  The Israel lobby was a player in the discussion on going to war, but there is little evidence to regard its role as decisive.

Indeed, it is not clear whether Mearsheimer and Walt fully understand what the Israel lobby is.  At its apex, of course, is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Washington-based organization whose power strikes fear in the executive branch and, even more so, in Congress.  AIPAC is complemented by a constellation of satellites, among them the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Jewish Committee and Foxman’s own Anti-Defamation League.  Their agenda seeks not only to assure Israel’s survival but to pursue particular partisan policies.  They function, in effect, as the U.S. arm of Likud, serving Israel’s right wing in rejecting the exchange of land for peace with the Arabs, in standing up for the Jewish settlements that blanket the territories conquered in 1967, in condoning the mistreatment of the Palestinians of the occupied lands, whose life grows more onerous each day. 

But Mearsheimer and Walt go on to add to their taxonomic mix such groups as Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum and the Tikkun Community, on the grounds that they also support Israel.  They do, of course, but their values are precisely the opposite of the AIPAC coalition’s.  They argue for peace with the Arabs, while casting doubt on the hard-line position—encouraged by the Bush administration—that only military superiority will guarantee Israel’s security.  Their point of departure, to be sure, is not so much America’s strategic interests as Zionism in the old-fashioned sense, i.e. the survival of a humane, secular and democratic Jewish state.  But their politics lead them to conclusions about relations with Israel’s U.S. patron that are much like those of Mearsheimer and Walt. 

These groups are much smaller than the AIPAC coalition, and have far more modest budgets, but most polls suggest their goals are consistent with the vision held by a majority of American Jews.  Despite the ceaseless efforts of Foxman and his allies, many Jews who have thought hard about how best to assure Israel’s survival have rejected the call to march in lock step with Israel’s hard-liners.  I would add that Mearsheimer and Walt, by calling the AIPAC alliance the “Israel lobby” or the “pro-Israel lobby,” perpetuate a misnomer in all but ignoring the peace groups.  It would be more accurate to call AIPAC’s coalition the “right-wing Israel lobby,” which might at least provoke Israel’s friends, Jewish and non-Jewish, to examine whether AIPAC’s effort might not actually be harmful to Israel’s long-term well-being.

What is impossible to dispute is that the AIPAC coalition, by its own standards, has been hugely successful, starting with imposing a kind of political omerta in the consideration of Israeli policies.  Its promotion of silence zeroes in heavily on Congress, whose members seem especially vulnerable to its muscle.  A prominent senator once told me he long ago gave up arguing against AIPAC’s orthodoxy and now signs on to anything it puts on his desk.  Over the decades, AIPAC has used the money at its disposal to influence electoral campaigns that have defeated more than a few senators and congressmen who have had the temerity to break the taboo.  Their loss has served as a lesson that intimidates the rest. 

But money is not AIPAC’s only weapon.  Brilliantly organized, AIPAC counts on sympathizers nationwide to deluge Congress, as well as the media, with its messages.  It is an adage of democratic politics that intensity of feeling trumps the sentiments of passive majorities, as revealed by polls.  In this, AIPAC is not alone.  The gun lobby is another example.  The producer of an evening news program in which I made a critical remark about Israeli policy informed me that the next morning the station had received a record number of denunciatory e-mails.  He has since stopped inviting me on the show. 

Today, a campaign is being waged against Rep. James Moran, an anti-war Democrat from Virginia, who has occasionally questioned Israel’s course.  Moran, said to hold a “safe” seat, dared in a recent interview on Iraq to say that “Jewish Americans as a voting bloc and as an influence on foreign policy are overwhelmingly opposed to the war. …  But AIPAC is the most powerful lobby and has pushed this war from the beginning. … Their influence is dominant in the Congress.” Then, in a zinger, he added that AIPAC’s members were often “quite wealthy,” a characterization that makes Jews wince.  Moran’s words elicited attacks by both Republicans and Democrats, demonstrating not that he had conveyed any falsehood but that neither political party, with an eye to the next election, is willing to provoke AIPAC’s ire.

Yet, even taking money and organization into account, there remains something of a mystery about the influence that AIPAC and its allies wield.  In contrast to AIPAC, the gun lobby is routinely called upon to defend itself.  But AIPAC’s task, it seems, is easier, because non-Jews, no less than Jews, unquestioningly accept its marching orders.  Why, when it comes to AIPAC, do so many Americans abandon the skepticism they apply to other interests within the political spectrum?  Europe is much less accommodating to Israel.  AIPAC, naturally, blames the difference on Europe’s anti-Semitism, though—apart from Europe’s Muslims, who start with political grievances against Israel—there is little evidence to support its theory.  Mearsheimer and Walt credit AIPAC’s skillful manipulation of the system, but the search for an answer needs more. 

Perhaps the answer has something to do with America’s being the most religious, the most Christian, the most church-going society in the Western world.  Once upon a time, deeply held Christian faith could be taken as a measure of hostility to Jews; that certainly is the case no longer.  If anything, American Christianity—led by but not exclusive to evangelicals—seems to take the biblical promise of a homeland for the Jews as a test of its beliefs and a commitment of its own.  This commitment goes beyond guaranteeing Israel’s existence.  It provides a body of sympathy for Israel’s hard line, and for the economic aid and weaponry that the United States dispatches to support it.

Unfortunately, the pro-peace segment of the American Jewish community does not have a parallel lobby.  It has a few organizations, with dedicated adherents.  Its members try to persuade the American Jewish community that reaching out to the Arab world, and particularly to the Palestinians, is better for Israel than perpetual war.  AIPAC does its best to de-legitimize them, but they hang in stubbornly, though they are barely a whisper in the debate over Israel’s course.  Despite the polls suggesting that many Jews agree with them, the influence of the peace groups is no threat to AIPAC’s pre-eminence.  It is ironic that without Foxman and the like-minded critics who echo him, the Mearsheimer-Walt book might well have vanished with barely a ripple.  Instead, their shrill voices have propelled it onto best-seller lists.  Whether the book’s success means, however, that the American people and the politicians who lead them are readier than before to seriously consider the issues that it raises is still far from clear. 

Milton Viorst, a former correspondent for The New Yorker, has written six books on the Middle East.  His most recent is “Storm from the East: The Struggle between the Arab World and the Christian West.”

Breaking the Taboo: Why We Took On the Israel Lobby

Posted on Oct 4, 2007

John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt.
israellobbybook.com
“The Israel Lobby” authors John J. Mearsheimer (left) and Stephen M. Walt.

Eric Chinski, the editor of John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s provocative new bestseller, asks the authors whether their book is good for the Jews and good for America.  This interview originally appeared on the Web site of the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Why did your article “The Israel Lobby,” which was published in the London Review of Books in 2006, provoke such heated discussion around the world? James Traub wrote in The New York Times Magazine: “ ’The Israel Lobby’ slammed into the opinion-making world with a Category 5 force.” How would you describe the reaction?

The article received enormous attention because it challenged what had become a taboo issue in mainstream foreign policy circles, namely the impact of the Israel lobby on U.S. Middle East policy. We did not question Israel’s legitimacy and explicitly stated that the United States should come to Israel’s aid if its survival is at risk, but we did argue that pro-Israel groups in the United States were encouraging policies that were ultimately not in America’s national interest. Although the views we expressed are often discussed openly in other democracies—including Israel itself—they have rarely been set forth in detail by mainstream figures in the United States. The article was also of great interest to many readers because it has become increasingly obvious that U.S. Middle East policy has gone badly awry. Although a number of groups and individuals either mischaracterized our views or attacked us personally, many other readers agreed that such an examination of the lobby’s role was long overdue.

Why did you feel the need to follow up the article with your book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy”? What more is there to say?

Writing a book provided an opportunity to present a more nuanced and complete statement of our views, and also allowed us to address some of the responses to the original article. Although the article was long by magazine standards, space limitations forced us to omit several key issues and to deal with other topics more briefly than we would have liked. Events like the 2006 Lebanon war had not occurred when the article was published, and additional information about other episodes—such as the U.S. decision to invade Iraq—had since come to light. Thus, writing a book allowed us to refine our analysis and bring it up to date. 

In particular, the book presents a more detailed definition of the lobby, an extended discussion of its development and rightward drift over time, an examination of the role of the so-called Christian Zionists, and an analysis of the controversial issue of “dual loyalty.” We also offer a more detailed description of the various strategies that groups in the lobby use to advance their goals within the U.S. political system. The book also addresses the widespread belief—as illustrated by Michael Moore’s documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11”—that oil companies are the real driving force behind America’s Middle East policy, and explains why this view is incorrect.

Finally, our original article did not offer much in the way of positive prescriptions, but the book outlines a new approach to U.S. Middle East policy that would better serve U.S. interests and, in our view, be better for Israel as well. To that end, it also identifies how the influence of the lobby might become more constructive, for the good of both countries.

What is the extent of American financial, diplomatic, and military aid to Israel, and how does it compare with other states’?

Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. economic and military assistance, having received more than $154 billion in U.S. aid since its creation in 1948, and it currently receives roughly $3 billion in direct U.S. assistance every year, even though it is now a prosperous country. The United States also consistently gives Israel diplomatic support, and consistently comes to its aid in wartime, as it did during the 2006 war in Lebanon. Most important, U.S. support for Israel is largely unconditional: Israel receives generous American assistance even when it takes actions that the U.S. government believes are wrong, such as building settlements in the Occupied Territories. As former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin once remarked, U.S. backing for Israel is “beyond compare in modern history.”

Isn’t America’s special relationship with Israel based on strong strategic and moral arguments? Isn’t it important for the United States to have an ally that shares our values in a region dominated by extremism and enemies of America?

Israel is not the strategic asset to the United States that many claim. Israel may have been a strategic asset during the Cold War, but it has become a growing liability now that the Cold War is over. Unconditional support for Israel has reinforced anti-Americanism around the world, helped fuel America’s terrorism problem, and strained relations with other key allies in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The United States derives some tangible strategic benefits from its close security partnership with Israel, but it pays a high price for them. On balance, it is more of a liability than an asset.

Similarly, the moral case for unconditional U.S. support is not compelling. Israel is a democracy, but no other democracy gets the same level of support that Israel does—and so unconditionally. There is a strong moral case for Israel’s existence, which is why we support a Jewish state in Palestine and believe the U.S. should come to its aid if its survival is jeopardized. But many of Israel’s policies—especially the continued occupation of the West Bank and its refusal to allow the Palestinians a viable state of their own—are at odds with key U.S. values. Viewed objectively, the early Zionists’ behavior during the founding of the Jewish state and Israel’s later behavior toward the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors undermine the myth of Israel as victim and the Arabs as aggressors. 

The strategic and moral rationales for unconditional U.S. support have grown weaker since the end of the Cold War, yet U.S. support has continued to increase. This anomaly suggests that some other factor is at work.

Why do you focus on Israel and not on other U.S. allies?

We focus on Israel’s policies in this book not because we have any animus toward Israel or because we regard its behavior as worse than other states’. Rather, we focus on it because the United States has long focused so much of its financial, diplomatic, and military attention on Israel. Israel is often said to deserve this support because it supposedly acts better than other states do, but we show that this is not the case. It has not acted worse than other states, but neither has it acted significantly better. Regrettably, uncritical U.S. support has led to policies that are harmful to the United States and Israel alike.

If the strategic and moral rationales don’t account for the exceptional backing of Israel, what does?

The pro-Israel lobby. The lobby is a loose coalition of individuals and groups that actively works to push American policy in ways that will benefit Israel. It is not a cabal or conspiracy, or a single, hierarchical organization with a central leadership and total unanimity of views. Rather, it is a set of groups and individuals who all favor steadfast U.S. support for Israel but sometimes disagree on certain policy issues. Prominent groups in the lobby include the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL); Christians United for Israel (CUFI), and pro-Israel think tanks like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Leading individuals in the lobby include the heads of these various organizations, as well as neoconservatives who served in the Bush administration like Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, and David Wurmser, some of whom are closely associated with hard-line pro-Israel think tanks and conservative politicians in Israel, or Christian Zionists like John Hagee of CUFI and … Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Religious and ethnic identity does not define who is part of the lobby, as it includes gentiles as well as Jewish-Americans. It is the political agenda of an individual or a group, not ethnicity or religion, that determines whether they are part of the lobby. Thus, the Israel lobby is not synonymous with American Jewry, and “Jewish lobby” is not an appropriate term for describing the various groups and individuals that work to foster U.S. support for Israel. These groups and individuals sometimes disagree on particular issues but they are united in their belief that the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel should not be substantively questioned. They are not all-powerful and they do not “control” U.S. foreign policy. Rather, they form a powerful special interest group, which over time has acquired considerable influence over U.S. policy in the Middle East. 

What are the strategies the lobby uses to influence the policymaking process and public discourse about Israel and its relationship with the United States?

The Israel lobby uses the same basic strategies that other interest groups employ. It pushes its agenda in Congress by supporting friendly candidates and legislators with votes and campaign money and by helping to frame legislation; by getting sympathetic individuals appointed to key policy positions in the executive branch; by monitoring the media and pressuring news organizations to offer favorable coverage; and by writing articles, books, and op-eds designed to move public opinion in directions they favor. These various strategies are as American as apple pie, and there is nothing illegitimate about them. Yet it ought to be equally legitimate to examine and discuss how the Israel lobby works to push its agenda in government, and to debate whether its influence is beneficial, the same way that one might examine other interest groups like the gun lobby, the farm lobby, the pharmaceutical lobby, the energy lobby, and other ethnic lobbies (e.g., Cuban-Americans, Indian-Americans, Armenian-Americans, etc.).

Do you think the Israel lobby’s tactics sometimes go beyond acceptable interest-group politics?

Unfortunately, yes. Although most of the lobby’s tactics are legitimate forms of political participation, some groups and individuals in the lobby also try to silence or marginalize opponents and critics by smearing them as anti-Semites or self-hating Jews. This sort of response was evident in the personal attacks directed at Jimmy Carter for writing a controversial book about Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories, and in the efforts of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League to prevent the historian Tony Judt from giving a lecture on the Israel lobby to a group in New York City. True anti-Semitism is loathsome and should be firmly opposed, but using this sort of accusation to silence or marginalize critics is antithetical to the principles of free speech and open debate on which democracy depends.

Why is it so difficult to talk about the role of the Israel lobby?

Primarily because of the many centuries of anti-Semitism in the Christian West, which culminated in the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. Given this long history of sometimes violent persecution, Jewish Americans (and many gentiles) are understandably sensitive to any argument that is critical of Israel or of the political influence of groups in which Jews are central participants. This sensitivity is compounded by the memory of bizarre conspiracy theories of the sort laid out in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a notorious anti-Semitic tract that was discredited long ago. Such paranoid views remain a staple of neo-Nazis and other fringe groups, however, which reinforces Jewish sensitivities even more. Given this history, some people are likely to suspect that anyone who criticizes Israel is in fact questioning its right to exist, or that anyone who examines the political influence of the Israel lobby is questioning the loyalty of pro-Israel individuals or accusing them of some sort of illegitimate activity. We explicitly reject these anti-Semitic notions, but given past experience, we understand why it is easier to talk about the influence of other special interest groups than it is to talk about the Israel lobby. 

What is the lobby’s impact on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East?

In Part II of the book, we show how the lobby has encouraged the United States to take Israel’s side in its long struggle with the Palestinians, and made it more difficult for the United States to help bring this conflict to a close. The lobby—and especially the neoconservatives within it—also played a key role in the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, although other factors (such as the September 11 attacks) were also critical in making the decision for war. The lobby has successfully pressed the Bush administration to adopt a more confrontational stance toward Syria and Iran, and encouraged it to back Israel to the hilt during the 2006 war in Lebanon. 

Why are these policies not in America’s national interest?

Backing Israel’s harsh treatment of the Palestinians has reinforced anti-Americanism around the world and almost certainly helped terrorists recruit new followers. U.S. and Israeli policy also led directly to Hamas’ growing popularity and its victory in the Palestinian elections, which made a difficult situation worse and a long-term peace settlement even more elusive. The Iraq war is a strategic disaster that has damaged America’s standing and strengthened Iran’s regional position, and now provides other terrorists with an ideal training ground. The Lebanon war enhanced Hezbollah’s position, weakened the pro-American Siniora government in Beirut, and further tarnished America’s image throughout the region. A hard-line approach to Iran helped bring President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power but failed to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and threatening Syria led Damascus to stop helping the United States against al Qaeda. None of these developments has been good for the United States.

What is the impact on Israel’s long-term interests?

U.S. aid has indirectly subsidized Israel’s attempt to colonize the Occupied Territories, a policy that many Israelis now see as a strategic and moral disaster. Yet the lobby has made it effectively impossible for Washington to convince the Israeli government to abandon this misguided policy. The lobby’s influence has also made it harder for the United States to persuade Israel to seize opportunities—such as a peace treaty with Syria, the 2002 Saudi peace initiative, or full and complete implementation of the Oslo agreements—that would have saved Israeli lives and shrunk the number of enemies it still faces. The invasion of Iraq—which Israel and the lobby both supported—turned out to be a major boon for Iran, the country many Israelis fear most. And by pressing Congress and the Bush administration to back Israel’s ill-conceived response to Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, the lobby unwittingly facilitated a policy that damaged Israel significantly.

Do you think the upcoming 2008 presidential campaign will provide a chance for the Israel lobby’s influence to be discussed?

Regrettably, no. The candidates will undoubtedly disagree on a wide array of domestic and foreign-policy issues: health care, education, taxes, the environment, what to do in Iraq, how to deal with a rising China, etc. But the one issue on which there will be virtually no debate is the question of whether the United States should continue to give Israel unconditional backing. Even though almost everyone recognizes that U.S Middle East policy is a disaster, no serious candidate is going to suggest anything other than steadfast and largely unconditional support for Israel. Indeed, all the major candidates (Clinton, Edwards, McCain, Obama, Romney, etc.) have already expressed their strong and uncritical backing for Israel, even though the campaign is just getting underway. Not only is this situation bad for the United States, it is also not good for Israel. The United States would be a better ally if its leaders could make support for Israel more conditional and if they could give their Israeli counterparts more candid and critical advice without facing a backlash from the Israel lobby.

What in your view should the U.S.-Israel relationship look like? What should the lobby’s role be?

The United States has three strategic interests in the Middle East: maintaining the flow of Persian Gulf oil to world markets, discouraging the spread of WMD, and reducing anti-American terrorism from this region. It is also committed to Israel’s survival, but on moral rather than strategic grounds. Instead of garrisoning the region with its own troops or attempting to transform the entire region, the United States should act as an “offshore balancer.” The United States does not need to control the Middle East itself; it merely needs to prevent any hostile power(s) from controlling the region. To do that, Washington should strive to maintain a balance of power in the region and intervene with its own forces only when local actors cannot uphold the balance themselves, as it did when it liberated Kuwait in 1991.

As part of this strategy, the United States would begin to treat Israel like a normal state, rather than as the 51st state. Israel is nearly 60 years old, increasingly prosperous, and now officially recognized by the vast majority of the world’s nations. The United States should deal with it as it does with other democracies: backing Israel when its policies are consistent with U.S. interests, but opposing it when they are not. And the United States should use its considerable leverage to fashion a durable two-state solution, as it is the only outcome that is consistent with U.S. values and with the long-term interests of both America and Israel.

Achieving this shift will require overcoming the opposition from the most powerful groups in the lobby, like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents. This goal can be achieved if there is a more open debate about the lobby’s role in shaping U.S. policy, more widespread awareness of Israel’s history and behavior, and a candid discussion within America’s pro-Israel community. Instead of trying to weaken or counter the lobby, one may hope that moderate pro-Israel organizations will become more influential, and that the leading organizations realize that the hard-line positions they have espoused in the past have been counterproductive. If these groups can bring their impressive influence to bear in more constructive ways, U.S. policy will be more in line with its national interests, and better for Israel too.

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