A harsh light on America's Israel lobby

A research paper questioning the Israeli-US relationship has triggered intense intellectual ferment in American Jewish political and academic circles.

    US Vice President Dick Cheney at an AIPAC conference

    Written by two US scholars, the paper says a network of journalists, think-tanks, lobbyists and largely Jewish officials are responsible for the Iraq war, the negative Muslim views of the US, and Israel's status as the top recipient of US aid.

    The authors, professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Harvard professor Stephen Walt, labelled American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) "a de facto agent for a foreign government", and part of an alliance with evangelical Christian groups.

    Their thesis, The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy, provoked a torrent of criticism where claims of anti-Semitism and academic intimidation have been exchanged.

    As a result, both Harvard and its John F Kennedy School of Government removed their logos from the heading of the report, and Walt announced he would step down as dean of the Kennedy School.

    AIPAC declined to comment on the 81-page study.

    Scholarship questioned

    "For the most part," the paper says, "the individuals and groups that complete the Lobby are doing what other special interest groups do, just much better."

    The authors say the lobby's perspective prevails in the mainstream media. When reporters reveal unflattering news about Israel, "the Lobby organises letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations and boycotts of news outlets whose content it considers anti-Israel".

    But Dennis Ross, special Middle East envoy under the presidency of Bill Clinton and cited by the authors as having "close ties" to AIPAC, told Aljazeera.net the paper could not be considered serious scholarship.

    "The authors don't talk of the times when they [AIPAC] did not want the administration to sell arms to some countries but the administration did it anyway," he said.

    Ross: The research paper cannot
    be considered serious scholarship

    Described in the paper as an "apologist" for Israel, Alan Dershowitz, professor of Law at Harvard and former OJ Simpson's defence lawyer, told Aljazeera.net he found much of the paper to be "trash".

    "I've been critical of many aspects of Israeli policies. I have never apologised for what Israel has done wrong. I am a Zionist and I support Israel's right to exist as a Jewish democratic state, but I am certainly not an apologist."

    He also said the paper's argument that "Israel was explicitly founded as a Jewish state and citizenship is based on the principle of blood kinship", had conflated Israel's law of return with its criteria for citizenship.

    "Israel has the highest rate of minority religious people of any country in the world, of any Western democracy. And to say that Israeli citizenship is based on blood is just false. They never mention that a Jew cannot be a citizen in Jordan and Saudi Arabia," Dershowitz adds.

    Dershowitz said he would be happy to challenge the professors to a debate on Aljazeera International.

    Mearsheimer and Walt declined to comment.

    Noam Chomsky

    Several other prominent authors have disagreed with the paper's premise, including the acclaimed linguist Noam Chomsky, regarded as vocal critic of Israel.

    "Many of the arguments made in the paper are quite unconvincing," he told Aljazeera.net.

    "Frankly, I would like to believe that Mearsheimer and Walt are right. In that case, it should be very easy to change US government policies to which both they and I are opposed.

    "It would only be necessary to explain to the energy corporations, arms producers and other centres of concentrated domestic power that their interests are being harmed by a lobby that they can easily overwhelm in economic power and political influence."

    He adds: "Can anyone argue that the energy corporations lack influence in the Bush-Cheney administration?"

    Coverage of the controversy over the paper has been, mostly, absent from the mainstream US media, but has generated vigorous debate in British and international media.

    Findings defended

    Mearsheimer and Walt had originally been commissioned to write the study for The Atlantic Monthly magazine, but it was rejected upon completion.

    Instead, a shorter version was published in the British non-academic publication London Review of Books (LRB).

    LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, who is Jewish, defended her decision to carry the report and denied that it promoted anti-Semitism.

    "We don't see it that way. There's a very big distinction between US government policy and Israeli government policy and anti-Semitism has no connection," she said.

    "Government policy is government policy. Almost no one in Britain considers [the report] anti- Semitic."

    She also found American reaction to the report very puzzling and believes that one can speak more freely in Israel than in the US.

    "I think the controversy vindicates the argument. It proved the author's right that one cannot talk about American policy in the Middle East without being accused of anti-Semitism," she told Aljazeera.net.

    Walt and Mearsheimer argue that ''the Lobby'' is not interested in a discussion on issues involving Israel because "an open debate might cause Americans to question the level of support that they currently provide".

    "Why," they ask "has the United States been willing to set aside its own security in order to advance the interests of another state?" The results, they write, have not been beneficial for the US.

    Middle East fray

    Claire Spencer, fellow at the London based Royal Institute of International Affairs, believes close US-Israel ties have frequently been cited as a handicap to the US's broader Middle East objectives.

    "The backlash in the States has also not been – nor is likely to be - extensively shared in Europe. One reason may be the closer proximity of European debates on the Middle East to a wide range of Arab and Muslim opinion," she said.

    The co-authors says the "combination of unwavering US support for Israel and the related effort to spread democracy throughout the region has inflamed Arab and Islamic opinion and jeopardised US security".

    While argument over the paper's findings are likely to continue, the authors may have inadvertently succeeded in opening the debate about the power of the Jewish lobby in the US and its effect on foreign policy.

    Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, says the study succeeded as a "wake-up call" in the discourse on America's role in the Middle East.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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