Saturday, 21 July 2012

Book review: The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt

This book by John J. Mearsheimer - Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago - and Stephen M. Walt - Professor of International Relations at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University - is excellent for anyone interested in reading about the powerful and highly influential Israel Lobby in the United States. Despite the fierce criticism any critical discussion of Israel tends to attract, I think the authors have done a creditable job researching the subject and presenting their views as objectively as possible. They state from the beginning that they do not question Israel’s right to exist, but argue that the Lobby’s influence has grown over time and is now largely responsible for the unconditional nature of America’s support for Israel. Indeed, there is no other country that receives the huge amount of aid – financial, military and diplomatic – that Israel gets from America. Yet the policies pursued by the Lobby and supported by successive American governments have not always had a positive influence on US foreign policy (or Israel for that matter).

After detailing the various forms of aid the United States gives to Israel, the authors question whether Israel today is more of a liability to America rather than a strategic asset. Certainly Israel was an asset during the Cold War, but that no longer seems to be the case with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Disproportionate support for Israel is "undermining relations with other US allies, casting doubt on America’s wisdom and moral vision, helping inspire a generation of anti-American extremists, and complicating US efforts to deal with a volatile region." Israel also looks first and foremost to its own interests, and it has done things contrary to American interests. The various moral arguments supporters employ to justify America’s special relationship with Israel are examined and undermined.

A spot light is shone on the different components that make up the Lobby. It is not a single unified movement with a central leadership but a "loose coalition of individuals and organisations that actively work to shape US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction." The majority of the Lobby’s constituents are Jewish, but there are also some important non-Jewish individuals and groups such as the Christian Zionists. The Lobby generally promotes a very hawkish Israeli position – more extreme than most Jewish Americans – yet this has become more pronounced over time.

What makes the Lobby so effective? There are various reasons say the authors: it is well financed and resourced; American Jews are politically very active and give generously to political parties; dissent is mainly a private affair; and the Lobby has the support of the neoconservatives and Christian Zionists. But the main reason, according to the authors, is that there is no effective opposition to it. Arab Americans are neither as wealthy, well organised, numerous or politically active as Jewish Americans.

The peculiarities of the American political system are what make the Lobby such an influential force. Since elections in America are expensive affairs, the Lobby’s main way of influencing politics is by way of donations. The Lobby, in particular AIPAC, screens candidates based on their views of Israel. Then it donates money to candidates that are pro-Israel. Candidates who aren’t pro-Israel can expect funds channelled to their opponents. The Lobby has also had success in turning round politicians who have been critical of Israel into steadfast supporters. An example is Hillary Clinton. Sometimes a bit of threatening behaviour is used by AIPAC toward politicians who fail to follow its lead. Such is AIPAC’s hold on Congress today that to be invited to speak at its annual Policy Conference has become a coveted affair among prominent politicians.

A chapter is devoted to how the Lobby influences the media and think tanks, policies academia and uses the charge of anti-Semitism to silence critics of Israel. There are individual chapters on the role of the Lobby behind various modern day phenomena such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the invasion of Iraq, the Second Lebanon War, Israel’s tense relationship with Syria and the Iranian nuclear programme. In all these cases the Lobby has played a prominent role – more prominent than I had hitherto thought. America’s increasingly confrontational approach to Iran is partly as a result of pressure from the lobby, which views a nuclear armed Iran as a mortal threat to Israel’s existence; the authors say this is despite the fact that Iran did try to reach out to the US and normalise relations, notably in 1997 and 2003, and helped America topple the Taliban in 2001.

The book ends with the authors suggesting ways in which the US could have a more balanced foreign policy less influenced by the Israel Lobby. These include: maintaining a regional balance of power (‘offshore balancing’) by supporting local allies instead of unilateral transformation, ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by supporting a two-state solution, treating Israel as a normal state, and a more open discussion about US interests and Israel. These are good suggestions, but it is difficult to see most of them happening any time soon.

On the whole this a very interesting book, which I enjoyed reading. I agree with Mearsheimer and Walt that US foreign policy is tilted heavily in favour of Israel and the Lobby has a large part to play in this. Given America’s dependence on oil from Arab states, its strong support for Israel can only be adequately explained by such a powerful force, small though it is. The book is not a diatribe, but a sensible and intelligent piece of work. It’s clear the authors have researched their subject thoroughly; their arguments are backed up well and presented logically. It will not please the diehard Israeli supporters, but for others this is a valuable addition to the discussion about the power of the Israel Lobby and its influence on US foreign policy. I certainly learnt a lot from reading it and I recommend it to others.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

India's "impossible" miracles

By Marco Tosatti

Strange things are going on in the diocese of Itangar, Arunachal Pradesh in north-east India, and Bishop John Kattrukudiyil spoke about them during a visit to Germany for the periodic meeting organised by Aid to the Church in Need, the international organisation that deals with churches and Christians in countries where they face the greatest difficulties.

According to the prelate, the numerous unexplained healings which preceded and resulted from prayer, are the main reason for this extraordinary increase in Catholics - 40% over 35 years - in this remote corner of India. The bishop is informed of things like this on a regular basis; and the stories “baffle me. I have a theological mindset and it is easy to become sceptical about this kind of thing. But the interested parties are absolutely convinced that what happened to them was real.”

The prelate mentioned the case of a man who stopped persecuting the Catholic Church after he married a Catholic girl. “After converting to Catholicism he was asked to pray for a paralytic. He did it even though he did not want to; the next day, the paralytic rose and walked towards the church.”  The newly converted man was so shocked by this miraculous experience that he started attending mass and “is now a very active member of the parish.”

Bishop Kattrukudiyil is well aware of the scepticism with which most of these miracles are met; when he describes miracles that have taken place people in Europe sometimes say: “Hey, bishop, you’re telling tales.” But despite the incredulity “I am told about many cases of healing which we cannot ignore.”

One possible historical- theological explanation is the relative freshness of the local church. “It is the experience of a very young Church that feels the grace of the Catholic Church in the times of the apostles,” when healing miracles were frequent, as the Scriptures tell us.

According to the prelate, the faithful of his diocese witnessed these miraculous healings after gathering in the home of a sick person whom they had been praying for. “People who had been sick for a very long time were healed. These people got a real experience of the primitive Church.” During the early Church period “healing with God’s prayer attracted many people to the Church. Belonging to the Church they felt a kind of spiritual peace.” The bishop revealed that the number of Catholic faithful has grown by 40% over the past 35 years. The situation in the Church has improved a great deal; now, not only is it tolerated, but it is praised for its philanthropic work. “Politicians never miss an opportunity to praise the Church for its humanitarian work.”

Source: Vatican Insider