Opinion: Mearsheimer and Walt: More on what real Americans think


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My old colleague Ron Bailey gives a hip hip to this column by Michael Gerson that takes Israel Lobby authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer to task for crypto-anti-Semitism. FWIW, I have some severe reservations with their argument and their book, which departs from an interesting study of special-interest politics in D.C. to drag out such tired accusations as the supposed ‘second-class citizen’ status of Israeli Arabs. (I have no doubt that Israeli Arabs get picked on as does any minority in any society, but if I were an Arab from whatever you want to call the former British Mandate territory, I’d rather live in Israel than in any Arab country with the possible exception of Jordan.)

Gerson also makes the valid point that Walt and Mearsheimer’s case for the Israel lobby’s having helped promote the invasion of Iraq is apparently complicated by the hesitation many actual Israeli leaders felt about the invasion — though to be fair they do not argue that the lobby gets orders directly from Jerusalem but that it is its own extreme player, largely unmoored from Israeli governance and in fact frequently counterproductive to the best interests of Israel. (One argument they make, which in other contexts I think both Ron and I would find compelling, is the moral hazard claim: that unconditional support from the U.S. encourages the Israeli leadership to make stupid decisions without feeling the consequences.)


Beyond that, Gerson’s piece is pretty heavy on Godwin’s-law fouls, caricatures of the argument under review and slopes so slippery you’d need a greased pole just to climb up to them...or something like that. But I was interested in this bit:

Perhaps many Americans actually prefer Israel’s flawed democracy to the aging autocrats and corrupt monarchies of the region.

I didn’t include this part of the discussion in our original Primary Source from Mearsheimer and Walt’s visit, but their failure to appreciate how fond the American people really are of Israel is a central weakness in their argument. So I asked them about, and you get to read the response at no additional charge:

Tim: There’s another side to this, though, and I appreciate your question earlier about, if you wanted a political future would you strongly criticize Israel. I wasn’t aware of the Brezinksi episode you mentioned, and certainly we all live in 24-hour horror of Alan Dershowitz... Stephen Walt: Jimmy Carter is another example. Tim: Yeah, but you know, the American people support Israel, in their hearts, and how convinced are we that they had to be argued into that position? Susan Brenneman: That’s my question too, and does this book look at the kind of grassroots culture, that we all grew up believing Israel was our brother, sister, you know? Stephen Walt: Well [to Mearsheimer], I’ll, I’ll add anything that you leave out. John Mearsheimer: There’s no doubt that if you look at American public opinion, Americans support the existence of Israel and think that Israel is a net plus. No question about that. But it’s largely a myth that there is broad and deep support for Israel in the American body politic. Stephen: It’s, it’s I think a myth that the American people want the United States to give it unconditional support. John: Well let me unpack the argument. Uh, I mean, I believe that one of the reasons that the lobby works so hard to, to shape the discourse in a pro-Israel direction, and is so concerned about people like me and Steve is in large part because they understand that the support is not that broad and not that deep. As Steve pointed out, we’re talking about support for the present policy — we’re not talking about support for the existence of Israel. And as Steve pointed out, we’re talking about support for the existing policy. Let me say a few words about that. The Pew Foundation has done polling between 1993 and the present, asking people whether they favor the Palestinians or the Israelis. And although it’s clear that most Americans favor the Israelis over the Palestinians, only once in that entire period have more than 50% of Americans said that they favor the Israelis over the Palestinians. In most cases you find a huge chunk of people favor neither side. It’s also clear from some polls of the Pew Foundation that a large number of Americans, over 70% of foreign policy people understand that one of the principle causes of global discontent with the United States is Israel. So American elites are well aware that this has gotten us into a lot of trouble. Unconditional support. And again, the American people are not as kneejerk as one might think, in their support for this, uh, present relationship. With regard to the depth of the commitment, it’s quite clear if you look at poll data that most Americans don’t support the existing policy of unconditional aid and our one-sided policy in favor of Israel over the Palestinians. In fact polls show that roughly three-quarters of Americans believe that the United States should favor neither side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Including an Anti-Defamation League study from 2005; that’s three-quarters of the American people who believe that the United States should favor neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis in settling that conflict. And this runs contrary to what the actual policy is. And one final point on this: 60% of Americans, according to a Pew survey, favor withholding aid from Israel if it resists U.S. pressure to settle the conflict with the Palestinians. So again, the point here is not that the American people want to jettison Israel, or that Americans don’t have respect for Israel, or that Americans don’t believe the United States should work to ensure the survival of Israel. That’s not in doubt, and it’s certainly not in doubt with regard to me and Steve. The point is that the idea that the American people are demanding that we give Israel unconditional aid because they’re so deeply attached to it does not mesh with the available poll data.

Mearsheimer and Walt are currently in heavy We’re-not-anti-Semites mode, which is pretty much the definition of a no-win situation: Nothing sounds more anti-Semitic than telling people ‘I’m not an anti-Semite...’ You could say that they have only themselves to blame for that, and their broadly distributed claim about how critics of Israel are silenced is self-refuting. Still, attacks like Gerson’s fail even to do any damage to the target.