Political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, co-authors of the hotly-contested book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” described to a capacity crowd Friday at the Natural Science Building who comprised the Israel lobby in the United States and why the influence was so detrimental to foreign policy decisions made by the U.S. government.
Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, a pro-Palestinian group, invited Mearsheimer and Walt, who said the U.S. shares a “special relationship” with Israel in which the American government provides Israel with “unconditional support” and an unending amount of aid – both of which result from influence of the immensely powerful Israel lobby interest group.
For the first half of the speech, Walt, a political science professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, described the Israel lobby as a “loose coalition” of individuals and organizations that “works openly to influence U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction and encourage that special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel.
This coalition, he said, includes pro-Israel organizations like The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, Christians United for Israel and Zionist Organization of America; think-tanks like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and publications like The Weekly Standard and The New Republic.
Walt emphasized early on in his speech that he and Mearsheimer didn’t believe the Israel lobby to be a conspiracy group or cabal, but rather an interest group like those that lobby on behalf of pharmaceutical companies or the National Rifle Association.
The actions of the Israel lobby, Walt said, “are as American as apple pie.”
In working to ensure that the U.S. continues its special relationship with Israel, the Israel lobby functions in two main ways, Walt said.
First, he said, the lobby operates inside the Washington, D.C., beltway and within American politics by getting Israel sympathizers elected to key positions in government. He said the lobby then gives politicians clear incentives to act in the interest of the lobby and, in effect, Israel.
Walt added that pro-Israel political action committees have given $55 million over the past 15 years to congressional candidates and presidential candidates, which he compared with the $800,000 Arab-American political action committees gave to the political figures sympathetic to Arab-American interests over the same period.
In citing these statistics, Walt stressed to members of the audience the Israel lobby’s political clout.
“The lobby doesn’t win every election, doesn’t win every time, but every congressman and presidential candidate knows you’re playing with fire if you question the special relationship,” he said.
The Israel lobby also works to shape public perceptions and public discourse in the U.S. so Americans view Israel favorably, Walt said.
He argued that editorial commentary, op-ed columnists and political pundits in the U.S. tend to favor Israel, and that voices critical of Israel were entirely absent from mainstream media in the U.S.
Walt also said that the lobby, in its defense of Israel, seeks to suppress and discredit anyone who does criticize the country and its actions.
He cited the criticisms of his and Mearsheimer’s book by publications such as The Washington Post, The New York Sun and The Wall Street Journal, which called the claims anti-Semitic, as an examples of the media’s attacks on anyone who might appear to criticize the U.S.’ unconditional support for Israel.
The reason they use charges of anti-Semitism, he said, is because the case for unconditional support of Israel is so weak.
“Because that case is so weak, they have to smear, silence and discredit anyone who casts doubt on it,” he said.
In the final half of the speech, Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, said the lobby’s influence has been largely negative and has pushed U.S. Middle East policy in ways that are neither in the American national interest nor in the interest of Israel.
Mearsheimer said no president in the last 40 years has put meaningful pressure on Israel to stop colonizing the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which directly stems from the influence of the lobby.
More importantly, Mearsheimer said the U.S.’s unconditional support of Israel and its efforts to colonize the West Bank and Gaza Strip has angered large numbers of people in the Arab and Islamic world and helped fuel terrorism against the U.S.
“American support isn’t the only cause, but it is a major cause,” Mearsheimer said. “Specifically, it motivates some individuals to attack the and U.S., it serves as a powerful recruitment for terrorist organizations and it generates sympathy and support for terrorists among huge numbers of people in the Arab world.”
In his concluding remarks, Mearsheimer said the U.S. should end its special relationship with Israel, and instead treat Israel as it treats other democracies such as Britain, Italy and India.
“This means when Israel is acting in ways that are consistent with American interests, Washington should back the Jewish state,” he said. “But when Israel is acting in ways that harm U.S. interests, Washington should distance itself from Israel and use its considerable leverage to get Israel to change its behavior, just as it would do with any other country that was acting in ways that might hurt the U.S.”
Although critics of Mearsheimer and Walt have called “The Israel Lobby” an anti-Semitic work and an attack on Israel, both peppered their speeches with disclaimers expressing their support of Israel’s right to exist.
Ross School of Business sophomore Sasha Gribov, chair of the American Movement for Israel, said the presence of a lobby working on behalf of Israel wasn’t surprising at all to him, considering the vast amount of lobbying groups in Washington, D.C.
However, Gribov felt Mearsheimer and Walt’s comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were one-sided, in that the pair placed a majority of the blame on the Israel lobby, the American Jewish community and Israel for the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
“We definitely respect the right of them to express their opinion and to talk about this conflict, but they dismiss the U.S.-Israel relationship as something that is negative to American foreign policy,” he said. “And we strongly believe that the U.S.-Israel relationship is of such great importance to both America and Israel.”
Andrew Dalack, co-chair of SAFE, said the group hosted Walt and Mearsheimer on campus in an effort to debunk the idea that the arguments presented in their book were radical.
Prior to the talk, students distributed pamphlets outside of the Natural Science Building published by Stand With Us, a pro-Israel group, saying the claims made in “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” were based on “shoddy scholarship,” amounted to a “conspiracy theory” and contained “anti-semitic undertones.”
– Eshwar Thirunavukkarasu contributed to this report.