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Israel’s lobby as scapegoat

Times Staff Writer

About a year ago, two distinguished scholars of American foreign policy ignited a rhetorical firestorm with a long article published in, of all places, the London Review of Books.

Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and John J. Mearsheimer, a political science professor and codirector of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago, argued that an all-powerful domestic lobby -- indifferent to real American interests -- has maneuvered, cajoled and threatened successive U.S. governments into an uncritical and unwholesome support of Israel. That support, according to Mearsheimer and Walt, has undermined U.S. interests in the Middle East, subverted American values and dangerously destabilized large parts of the Muslim world.

Now they have expanded and heavily footnoted their argument in “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.”

As delineated by Mearsheimer and Walt, the Israel lobby consists of Jewish organizations (notably the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League), of American Jews generally, Christian Zionists, neoconservatives and of influential journalists and columnists at major U.S. news organizations. Together, Mersheimer and Walt allege, they not only conspire to advance Israeli interests heedless of their impact on the United States but also to stifle any substantive domestic discussion of the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. (The authors assail the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post for employing only pro-Israel columnists.)

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It’s interesting that the authors chose to first float their arguments in the London Review rather than, say, in Foreign Affairs or some other American journal. While I subscribe to the review -- and, in fact, have been invited several times to contribute to it -- it’s a melancholy fact that, in recent years, like so much of the European intellectual press, it has become objectively anti-Semitic in its treatment of Israel. And while it’s true that the authors have had several invitations to speak about their book in the United States withdrawn, it’s also true that this volume arrives under the imprint of what is arguably America’s most prestigious publishing house.

Odd that the all-powerful Israel lobby let that happen.

To get a flavor of the professors’ argument, here’s how they described the lobby’s operations inside the U.S. Congress: “Another source of the Lobby’s power is its use of pro-Israel congressional staffers. As Morris Amitay, a former head of [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], once admitted, ‘there are a lot of guys at the working level up here’ -- on Capitol Hill -- ‘who happen to be Jewish, who are willing. . . to look at certain issues in terms of their Jewishness. . . . These are all guys who are in a position to make the decision in these areas for those senators. . . . “

The quotation from an AIPAC staff member is an ingenious twist on the old dual-loyalty argument, but at the end of the day, you’ve still got sour old wine in new skins.

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Anyone familiar with the tortured history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have a hard time recognizing the history Mearsheimer and Walt rehearse. Every hoary old Israeli atrocity tale is trotted out, and the long story of Palestinian terrorism is rendered entirely as a reaction to Israeli oppression. The failure of every peace negotiation is attributed to Israeli deviousness under the shield of the American Israel lobby. There is nothing here of Palestinian corruption, division and duplicity or even of this unhappy people’s inability to provide a reliable secular partner with whom peace can be negotiated.

At times, the authors simply contradict themselves, asserting -- rather remarkably -- at one point that the United States has nothing to fear from a nuclear-armed Iran and, at another, that the dangerous prospect of a nuke-equipped Tehran is the Israel lobby’s fault. Similarly, they write, Al Qaeda would hammer its swords into ploughshares and Osama bin Laden would lay down with the lamb if only the United States would come out from under Israel’s thrall and create by coercion a Palestinian state.

Baloney. If -- as was long ago proposed -- the Jewish state had been established in Uganda, the Twin Towers still would be rubble.

Perhaps most malicious of all, Mearsheimer and Walt go to great lengths in the book to make what they clearly believe is the most immediate case in point -- which is their assertion that the Israel lobby, acting at the Likud’s behest, drove the United States into attacking Saddam Hussein. Thus, readers are treated to an explication on the religious affiliations of various Bush administration officials that reads like it was inspired by the Nuremberg Laws. The fact of the matter is, however, that the figure most responsible for pushing the attack on Iraq -- Vice President Dick Cheney -- is not Jewish, nor even ideologically neoconservative. He is a card-carrying member of the petroleum industry elite, however, and names like Halliburton and ExxonMobil never seem to make their way onto these pages. The United States attacked Iraq because the American public -- panicked and disconsolate over the Sept. 11 atrocities -- was misled by the administration’s bad and manipulated intelligence into thinking that Hussein was preparing another attack with weapons of mass destruction.

To grasp the underlying malice running through “The Israel Lobby,” it’s helpful to consider the domestic precipice on which the United States now teeters. The Bush administration’s Iraq debacle has made it all but inevitable that the early years of the next presidency will be marked by a vicious debate over what went wrong in the Middle East, a controversy -- typical of this unhappy period in our history -- in which the parties won’t even agree on what it is that’s being fought over.

The left will demand to know how the country was tricked into war with Saddam Hussein. We had a taste of how that inquiry might go this week, when the loony fringe of MoveOn.org published ads denouncing Army Gen. David Petraeus, the able and honorable U.S. commander in Iraq, for “betrayal.” The right is already honing its own who-lost-Iraq rhetoric. You can sample that in neoconservative patriarch Norman Podhoretz’s new book -- “World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism” -- in which he describes the war’s critics as a “domestic insurgency” with a “life-and-death stake” in making sure America is defeated. In other words, to be against the war is to enlist in a Fifth Column.

New Yorker editor David Remnick was the first to note that Mearsheimer and Walt have subtly pushed Israel’s American admirers and supporters into this rhetorical cesspool. (You’d never guess from the Mearsheimer-Walt analysis that many people in this country support Israel precisely because they admire it as a brave, dynamic and democratic society.) In a comment published this month, Remnick shrewdly observed that the Mearsheimer and Walt book “is a phenomenon of its moment. The duplicitous and manipulative arguments for invading Iraq put forward by the Bush Administration, the general inability of the press to upend those duplicities, the triumphalist illusions, the miserable performance of the military strategists, the arrogance of the Pentagon, the stifling of dissent within the military and the government, the moral disaster of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, the rise of an intractable civil war, and now an incapacity to deal with the singular winner of the war, Iran -- all of this has left Americans furious and demanding explanations. Mearsheimer and Walt provide one: the Israel lobby.”

In fact, if you accept the analysis put forward in this book, it’s impossible not to conclude that the United States was, in fact, tricked into a disastrous war in Iraq by a domestic Fifth Column and that the ranks of that subversive formation are filled with Jews, their friends and willing dupes.

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Mearsheimer and Walt go to great pains to proclaim their disinterested benevolence toward all and to attach the word “realist” to their argument. The only adjective that comes to this reader’s mind is “sinister.”

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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