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.