United States of Israel?
When two of America's most distinguished academics dared to
suggest that US foreign policy was being driven by a powerful
'Israel Lobby' whose influence was incompatible with their
nation's own interests, they knew they would face allegations of
anti-Semitism. But the episode has prompted America's Jewish
liberals to confront their own complacency. Might the tide be
By Robert Fisk
-- - Stephen Walt towers over me as
we walk in the Harvard sunshine past Eliot Street, a big man who
needs to be big right now (he's one of two authors of an
academic paper on the influence of America's Jewish lobby) but
whose fame, or notoriety, depending on your point of view, is of
no interest to him. "John and I have deliberately avoided the
television shows because we don't think we can discuss these
important issues in 10 minutes. It would become 'J' and 'S', the
personalities who wrote about the lobby - and we want to open
the way to serious discussion about this, to encourage a broader
discussion of the forces shaping US foreign policy in the Middle
"John" is John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the
University of Chicago. Walt is a 50-year-old tenured professor
at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The two
men have caused one of the most extraordinary political storms
over the Middle East in recent American history by stating what
to many non-Americans is obvious: that the US has been willing
to set aside its own security and that of many of its allies in
order to advance the interests of Israel, that Israel is a
liability in the "war on terror", that the biggest Israeli lobby
group, Aipac (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), is
in fact the agent of a foreign government and has a stranglehold
on Congress - so much so that US policy towards Israel is not
debated there - and that the lobby monitors and condemns
academics who are critical of Israel.
"Anyone who criticises Israel's actions or argues that
pro-Israel groups have significant influence over US Middle East
policy," the authors have written, "...stands a good chance of
being labelled an anti-Semite. Indeed, anyone who merely claims
that there is an Israeli lobby runs the risk of being charged
with anti-Semitism ... Anti-Semitism is something no-one wants
to be accused of." This is strong stuff in a country where - to
quote the late Edward Said - the "last taboo" (now that anyone
can talk about blacks, gays and lesbians) is any serious
discussion of America's relationship with Israel.
Walt is already the author of an elegantly written account of
the resistance to US world political dominance, a work that
includes more than 50 pages of references. Indeed, those who
have read his Taming Political Power: The Global Response to US
Primacy will note that the Israeli lobby gets a thumping in this
earlier volume because Aipac "has repeatedly targeted members of
Congress whom it deemed insufficiently friendly to Israel and
helped drive them from office, often by channelling money to
But how many people in America are putting their own heads above
the parapet, now that Mearsheimer and Walt have launched a
missile that would fall to the ground unexploded in any other
country but which is detonating here at high speed? Not a lot.
For a while, the mainstream US press and television - as
pro-Israeli, biased and gutless as the two academics infer them
to be - did not know whether to report on their conclusions
(originally written for The Atlantic Monthly, whose editors
apparently took fright, and subsequently reprinted in the London
Review of Books in slightly truncated form) or to remain
submissively silent. The New York Times, for example, only got
round to covering the affair in depth well over two weeks after
the report's publication, and then buried its article in the
education section on page 19. The academic essay, according to
the paper's headline, had created a "debate" about the lobby's
They can say that again. Dore Gold, a former ambassador to the
UN, who now heads an Israeli lobby group, kicked off by
unwittingly proving that the Mearsheimer-Walt theory of
"anti-Semitism" abuse is correct. "I believe," he said, "that
anti-Semitism may be partly defined as asserting a Jewish
conspiracy for doing the same thing non-Jews engage in."
Congressman Eliot Engel of New York said that the study itself
was "anti-Semitic" and deserved the American public's contempt.
Walt has no time for this argument. "We are not saying there is
a conspiracy, or a cabal. The Israeli lobby has every right to
carry on its work - all Americans like to lobby. What we are
saying is that this lobby has a negative influence on US
national interests and that this should be discussed. There are
vexing problems out in the Middle East and we need to be able to
discuss them openly. The Hamas government, for example - how do
we deal with this? There may not be complete solutions, but we
have to try and have all the information available."
Walt doesn't exactly admit to being shocked by some of the
responses to his work - it's all part of his desire to keep
"discourse" in the academic arena, I suspect, though it probably
won't work. But no-one could be anything but angered by his
Harvard colleague, Alan Dershowitz, who announced that the two
scholars recycled accusations that "would be seized on by bigots
to promote their anti-Semitic agendas". The two are preparing a
reply to Dershowitz's 45-page attack, but could probably have
done without praise from the white supremacist and ex-Ku Klux
Klan head David Duke - adulation which allowed newspapers to
lump the name of Duke with the names of Mearsheimer and Walt.
"Of Israel, Harvard and David Duke," ran the Washington Post's
The Wall Street Journal, ever Israel's friend in the American
press, took an even weirder line on the case. "As Ex-Lobbyists
of Pro-Israel Group Face Court, Article Queries Sway on Mideast
Policy" its headline proclaimed to astonished readers. Neither
Mearsheimer nor Walt had mentioned the trial of two Aipac
lobbyists - due to begin next month - who are charged under the
Espionage Act with receiving and disseminating classified
information provided by a former Pentagon Middle East analyst.
The defence team for Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman has
indicated that it may call Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley to the stand.
Almost a third of the Journal's report is taken up with the
Rosen-Weissman trial, adding that the indictment details how the
two men "allegedly sought to promote a hawkish US policy toward
Iran by trading favours with a number of senior US officials.
Lawrence Franklin, the former Pentagon official, has pleaded
guilty to misusing classified information. Mr Franklin was
charged with orally passing on information about a draft
National Security Council paper on Iran to the two lobbyists...
as well as other classified information. Mr Franklin was
sentenced in December to nearly 13 years in prison..."
The Wall Street Journal report goes on to say that lawyers and
"many Jewish leaders" - who are not identified - "say the
actions of the former Aipac employees were no different from how
thousands of Washington lobbyists work. They say the indictment
marks the first time in US history that American citizens...
have been charged with receiving and disseminating state secrets
in conversations." The paper goes on to say that "several
members of Congress have expressed concern about the case since
it broke in 2004, fearing that the Justice Department may be
targeting pro-Israel lobbying groups, such as Aipac. These
officials (sic) say they're eager to see the legal process run
its course, but are concerned about the lack of transparency in
As far as Dershowitz is concerned, it isn't hard for me to
sympathise with the terrible pair. He it was who shouted abuse
at me during an Irish radio interview when I said that we had to
ask the question "Why?" after the 11 September 2001
international crimes against humanity. I was a "dangerous man",
Dershowitz shouted over the air, adding that to be
"anti-American" - my thought-crime for asking the "Why?"
question - was the same as being anti-Semitic. I must, however,
also acknowledge another interest. Twelve years ago, one of the
Israeli lobby groups that Mearsheimer and Walt fingers prevented
any second showing of a film series on Muslims in which I
participated for Channel 4 and the Discovery Channel - by
stating that my "claim" that Israel was building large Jewish
settlements on Arab land was "an egregious falsehood". I was,
according to another Israeli support group, "a Henry Higgins
with fangs", who was "drooling venom into the living rooms of
Such nonsense continues to this day. In Australia to launch my
new book on the Middle East, for instance, I repeatedly stated
that Israel - contrary to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists
- was not responsible for the crimes of 11 September 2001. Yet
the Australian Jewish News claimed that I "stopped just
millimetres short of suggesting that Israel was the cause of the
9/11 attacks. The audience reportedly (and predictably) showered
him in accolades."
This was untrue. There was no applause and no accolades and I
never stopped "millimetres" short of accusing Israel of these
crimes against humanity. The story in the Australian Jewish News
is a lie.
So I have to say that - from my own humble experience -
Mearsheimer and Walt have a point. And for a man who says he has
not been to Israel for 20 years - or Egypt, though he says he
had a "great time" in both countries - Walt rightly doesn't
claim any on-the-ground expertise. "I've never flown into
Afghanistan on a rickety plane, or stood at a checkpoint and
seen a bus coming and not known if there is a suicide bomber
aboard," he says.
Noam Chomsky, America's foremost moral philosopher and
linguistics academic - so critical of Israel that he does not
even have a regular newspaper column - does travel widely in the
region and acknowledges the ruthlessness of the Israeli lobby.
But he suggests that American corporate business has more to do
with US policy in the Middle East than Israel's supporters -
proving, I suppose, that the Left in the United States has an
infinite capacity for fratricide. Walt doesn't say he's on the
left, but he and Mearsheimer objected to the invasion of Iraq, a
once lonely stand that now appears to be as politically
acceptable as they hope - rather forlornly - that discussion of
the Israeli lobby will become.
Walt sits in a Malaysian restaurant with me, patiently (though I
can hear the irritation in his voice) explaining that the
conspiracy theories about him are nonsense. His stepping down as
dean of the Kennedy School was a decision taken before the
publication of his report, he says. No one is throwing him out.
The much-publicised Harvard disclaimer of ownership to the essay
- far from being a gesture of fear and criticism by the
university as his would-be supporters have claimed - was mainly
drafted by Walt himself, since Mearsheimer, a friend as well as
colleague, was a Chicago scholar, not a Harvard don.
But something surely has to give.
Across the United States, there is growing evidence that the
Israeli and neo-conservative lobbies are acquiring ever greater
power. The cancellation by a New York theatre company of My Name
is Rachel Corrie - a play based on the writings of the young
American girl crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza
in 2003 - has deeply shocked liberal Jewish Americans, not least
because it was Jewish American complaints that got the
"How can the West condemn the Islamic world for not accepting
Mohamed cartoons," Philip Weiss asked in The Nation, "when a
Western writer who speaks out on behalf of Palestinians is
silenced? And why is it that Europe and Israel itself have a
healthier debate over Palestinian human rights than we can have
here?" Corrie died trying to prevent the destruction of a
Palestinian home. Enemies of the play falsely claim that she was
trying to stop the Israelis from collapsing a tunnel used to
smuggle weapons. Hateful e-mails were written about Corrie.
Weiss quotes one that reads: "Rachel Corrie won't get 72 virgins
but she got what she wanted."
Saree Makdisi - a close relative of the late Edward Said - has
revealed how a right-wing website is offering cash for
University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) students who
report on the political leanings of their professors, especially
their views on the Middle East. Those in need of dirty money at
UCLA should be aware that class notes, handouts and illicit
recordings of lectures will now receive a bounty of $100. "I
earned my own inaccurate and defamatory 'profile'," Makdisi
says, "...not for what I have said in my classes on English
poets such as Wordsworth and Blake - my academic speciality,
which the website avoids mentioning - but rather for what I have
written in newspapers about Middle Eastern politics."
Mearsheimer and Walt include a study of such tactics in their
report. "In September 2002," they write, "Martin Kramer and
Daniel Pipes, two passionately pro-Israel neo-conservatives,
established a website (www.campus-watch.org) that posted
dossiers on suspect academics and encouraged students to report
behaviour that might be considered hostile to Israel... the
website still invites students to report 'anti-Israel'
Perhaps the most incendiary paragraph in the essay - albeit one
whose contents have been confirmed in the Israeli press -
discusses Israel's pressure on the United States to invade Iraq.
"Israeli intelligence officials had given Washington a variety
of alarming reports about Iraq's WMD programmes," the two
academics write, quoting a retired Israeli general as saying:
"Israeli intelligence was a full partner to the picture
presented by American and British intelligence regarding Iraq's
Walt says he might take a year's sabbatical - though he doesn't
want to get typecast as a "lobby" critic - because he needs a
rest after his recent administrative post. There will be Israeli
lobbyists, no doubt, who would he happy if he made that
sabbatical a permanent one. I somehow doubt he will.
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited
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