Exploring Real History November 23, 2018
By John J . Mearsheimer And Stephen M. Walt
In the fall of 2002, the Atlantic Monthly invited us to write a feature article on the Israel lobby and its effects on U.S. foreign policy. We accepted the commission with some reservations, because we knew this was a controversial subject and that any article that scrutinized the lobby, U.S. support for Israel, or Israeli policy itself was likely to provoke a harsh reaction. Nonetheless, we felt this was an issue that could no longer be ignored, especially in light of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the looming war with Iraq. If U.S. support for Israel was a significant source of anti-Americanism in the Middle East and a source of tension with key strategic allies, and if pro Israel groups and individuals were a major influence on U.S. foreign policy in this vital region, then it was important to raise the issue openly and encourage public discussion of the lobby's actions and impact.
We worked on the article off and on over the next two years, in close collaboration with the Atlantic?, editors, and we sent them a manuscript conforming to our prior agreements and incorporating virtually all of their suggestions in January 2005. A few weeks later, to our surprise, the editor informed us that the Atlantic had decided not to run the piece and that he was not interested in our attempting to revise it.
Yet on one subject, we can be equally confident that the candidates will speak with one voice. In 2008, as in previous election years, serious candidates for the highest office in the land will go to considerable lengths to express their deep personal commitment to one foreign country—Israel—as well as their determination to maintain unyielding U.S. support for the Jewish state. Each candidate will emphasize that he or she fully appreciates the multitude of threats facing Israel and make it clear that, if elected, the United States will remain firmly committed to defending Israel's interests under any and all circumstances. None of the candidates is likely to criticize Israel in any significant way or suggest that the United States ought to pursue a more even handed policy in the region. Any who do will probably fall by the wayside.
This observation is hardly a bold prediction, because presidential aspirants were already proclaiming their support for Israel in early 2007. The process began in January, when four potential candidates spoke to Israel's annual Herzliya Conference on security issues. As Joshua Mitnick reported in Jewish Week, they were "seemingly competing to see who can be most strident in defense of the Jewish State." Appearing via satellite link, John Edwards, the Democratic party's 2004 vice presidential candidate, told his Israeli listeners that "your future is our future" and said that the bond between the United States and Israel "will never be broken." Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney spoke of being "in a country I love with people I love" and, aware of Israel's deep concern about a possible nuclear Iran, proclaimed that "it is time for the world to speak three truths: (1) Iran must be stopped; (2) Iran can be stopped; (3) Iran will be stopped!" Senator John McCain (R-AZ) declared that "when it comes to the defense of Israel, we simply cannot compromise," while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) told the audience that "Israel is facing the greatest danger for [sic] its survival since the 1967 victory." 1
Shortly thereafter, in early February, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) spoke in New York before the local chapter of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where she said that in this "moment of great difficulty for Israel and great peril for Israel . . . what is vital is that we stand by our friend and our ally and we stand by our own values. Israel is a beacon of what's right in a neighborhood overshadowed by the wrongs of radicalism, extremism, despotism and terrorism." 2
One of her rivals for the Democratic nomination, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), spoke a month later before an AIPAC audience in Chicago. Obama, who has expressed some sympathy for the Palestinians' plight in the past and made a brief reference to Palestinian "suffering" at a campaign appearance in March 2007, was unequivocal in his praise for Israel and made it manifestly clear that he would do nothing to change the U.S.-Israeli relationship. 3 Other presidential hopefuls, including Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, have expressed pro-Israel sentiments with equal or greater ardor.4
What explains this behavior? Why is there so little disagreement among these presidential hopefuls regarding Israel, when there are profound disagreements among them on almost every other important issue facing the United States and when it is apparent that America's Middle East policy has gone badly awry? Why does Israel get a free pass from presidential candidates, when its own citizens are often deeply critical of its present policies and when these same presidential candidates are all too willing to criticize many of the things that other countries do? Why does Israel, and no other country in the world, receive such consistent deference from America's leading politicians?
Some might say that it is because Israel is a vital strategic asset for the United States. Indeed, it is said to be an indispensable partner in the "war on terror." Others will answer that there is a powerful moral case for providing Israel with unqualified support, because it is the only country in the region that "shares our values." But neither of these arguments stands up to fair-minded scrutiny. Washington's close relationship with Jerusalem makes it harder, not easier, to defeat the terrorists who are now targeting the United States, and it simultaneously undermines America's standing with important allies around the world. Now that the Cold War is over, Israel has become a strategic liability for the United States. Yet no aspiring politician is going to say so in public, or even raise the possibility.
There is also no compelling moral rationale for America's uncritical and uncompromising relationship with Israel. There is a strong moral case for Israel's existence and there are good reasons for the United States to be committed to helping Israel if its survival is in jeopardy. But given Israel's brutal treatment of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, moral considerations might suggest that the United States pursue a more evenhanded policy toward the two sides, and maybe even lean toward the Palestinians. Yet we are unlikely to hear that sentiment expressed by anyone who wants to be president, or anyone who would like to occupy a position in Congress.
The real reason why American politicians are so deferential is the political power of the Israel lobby. The lobby is a loose coalition of individuals and organizations that actively works to move U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction. As we will describe in detail, it is not a single, unified movement with a central leadership, and it is certainly not a cabal or conspiracy that "controls" U.S. foreign policy. It is simply a powerful interest group, made up of both Jews and gentiles, whose acknowledged purpose is to press Israel's case within the United States and influence American foreign policy in ways that its members believe will benefit the Jewish state. The various groups that make up the lobby do not agree on every issue, although they share the desire to promote a special relationship between the United States and Israel. Like the efforts of other ethnic lobbies and interest groups, the activities of the Israel lobby's various elements are legitimate forms of democratic political participation, and they are for the most part consistent with America's long tradition of interest group activity.
Because the Israel lobby has gradually become one of the most powerful interest groups in the United States, candidates for high office pay close attention to its wishes. The individuals and groups in the United States that make up the lobby care deeply about Israel, and they do not want American politicians to criticize it, even when criticism might be warranted and might even be in Israel's own interest. Instead, these groups want U.S. leaders to treat Israel as if it were the fifty-first state. Democrats and Republicans alike fear the lobby's clout. They all know that any politician who challenges its policies stands little chance of becoming president.
THE LOBBY AND U.S. MIDDLE EAST POLICY