Stephen M. Walt

Do the American people support the ‘special relationship?’

Do the American people support the ‘special relationship?’

A couple of weeks ago, Americans were treated to a remarkably clear demonstration of the power of the Israel lobby in the United States. First, Barack Obama gave a speech on Middle East policy at the State Department, which tried to position America as a supporter of the Arab spring and reiterated his belief that a two-state solution is the best way to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The next day, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who rejected several of Obama’s assertions and lectured him about what "Israel expects" from its great power patron. Then Obama felt it was smart politics to go to AIPAC and clarify his remarks. It was a pretty good speech, but Obama didn’t offer any ideas for how his vision of Middle East peace might be realized and he certainly never suggested that — horrors! — the United States might use its considerable leverage to push both sides to an agreement. And then Netanyahu received a hero’s welcome up on Capitol Hill, getting twenty-nine standing ovations for a defiant speech that made it clear that the only "two-state" solution he’s willing to contemplate is one where the Palestinians live in disconnected Bantustans under near-total Israeli control.

Not surprisingly, this display of the lobby’s influence made plenty of people uncomfortable, and some of them — such as M.J. Rosenberg at Media Matters offered up some personal tales of their own run-ins with Israel’s hardline backers. In response to Rosenberg’s sally (and the hoopla surrounding the Netanyahu visit), Jonathan Chait of The New Republic has fallen back on a familiar line of defense. After conceding that there is a lobby and that it does have a lot of influence, he argued that "the most important basis of American support for Israel is not the lobby but the public’s overwhelming sympathy for Israel." In other words, AIPAC et al don’t really matter that much, and all those standing ovations on Capitol Hill were really just a genuine reflection of public opinion. He also said that John Mearsheimer and I believe the lobby exerts "total control" over U.S. foreign policy, and that we claim groups in the lobby were solely responsible for the invasion of Iraq.

To deal with the last claim first, this straw-man depiction of our argument merely confirms once again that Chait has not in fact read our book. I don’t find that surprising, because a careful reading of the book would reveal to him that we weren’t anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, had made none of the claims he accuses us of, and had in fact amassed considerable evidence to support the far more nuanced arguments that we did advance. And then he’d have to ponder the fact that virtually everything The New Republic has ever published about us was bogus. So I can easily see why he prefers to repeat the same falsehoods and leave it at that.

But what of his more basic claim that the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel is really a reflection of "the public’s overwhelming sympathy?" There are at least three big problems with this assertion.

First, even if it were true that the public had "overwhelming sympathy" for Israel, it does not immediately follow that United States policy would necessarily follow suit. U.S. officials frequently do things that a majority of Americans oppose, if they believe that doing so is in the U.S. interest. A majority of Americans oppose fighting on in Afghanistan, for example, yet the Obama administration chose to escalate that war instead. Similarly, numerous polls show that the American people favor the "public option" in health care, but that’s not exactly the policy that health care reform produced. Public opinion is an important factor, of course, but what public officials decide to do almost always reflects a more complex weighting of political factors (including the intensity of public preferences, broader strategic considerations, the weight of organized interests, etc.)

Second, to the extent that the American public does have a favorable image of Israel — and there’s no question that it does — that is at least partly due to the lobby’s own efforts to shape public discourse and stifle negative commentary. The lobby doesn’t "control the media," but "pro-Israel" groups like the ADL and CAMERA work actively to influence how Israel is portrayed in the United States, aided by reliably supportive publications like The New Republic. (As its former editor-in-chief Marty Peretz once admitted, "there’s a sort of party line on Israel" at the journal). That’s their privilege, of course, but groups and individuals in the lobby have also tried to silence or smear virtually any one who criticizes the "special relationship," and all-too-often those efforts succeed (if perhaps less frequently than they used to). If Americans were exposed to a more open discourse — such as the discourse that prevails in Europe or in Israel itself — Israel’s favorable image would almost certainly decrease (though by no means disappear).

Third, and most important, the evidence suggests that the American people are not in favor of a one-sided "special relationship" where Israel gets unconditional American backing no matter what it does. Although there is no question that Americans have a generally favorable image of Israel and want the United States to help it survive and prosper, they are not demanding that U.S. politicians back it to the hilt or show the kind of craven adulation that Congress displayed last week.

For starters, many Americans recognize that one-sided support for Israel is a problem for the United States, and that figure is even higher among "opinion leaders." A Pew survey in November 2005 found that 39 percent of Americans saw the special relationship as a "major source of global discontent," and 78 percent of the news media, 72 percent of military leaders and 69 percent of foreign affairs specialists believed that backing Israel seriously damages America’s image around the world. A 2003 survey by the University of Maryland reported that over 60 percent of Americans would be willing to withhold aid to Israel if it resisted pressure to settle the conflict with the Palestinians, and 73 percent said the United States should not favor either side. In fact, a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League in 2005 found that 78 percent of Americans believed that Washington should favor neither Israel nor the Palestinians. A 2010 survey by the Brookings Institution found similar results: although 25 percent of Americans thought the United States should "lean toward Israel" in its efforts to resolve the conflict, a healthy 67 percent believed the United States should "lean toward neither side."

Needless to say, such figures are hard to square with the robotic enthusiasm displayed by Congress, or with the Obama administration’s timid approach to entire problem. But the behavior of both the executive and legislative branches are entirely consistent with the normal workings of interest group politics in the United States. In a democracy where freedom of association and speech are guaranteed, and where elections are expensive to run and where campaign contributions are weakly regulated, even relatively small groups can exercise considerable influence if they are strongly committed to a particular issue and the rest of the population does not care that much.

Whether the issue is farm subsidies or foreign policy, in short, special interest groups often wield disproportionate political power. Because countervailing forces are much weaker (as is the case when it comes to Middle East policy), groups like AIPAC and others have the field to themselves. Consider that in the 2010 election, "pro-Israel" PACs gave about $3 million to candidates from both parties. By comparison, Arab-American PACs gave less than $50,000. You can buy a lot of applause when the balance is stacked that way.

When you combine these facts with the sometimes thuggish tactics used against people who don’t subscribe to the party line on this issue, you have a situation where politicians and appointed officials will bend over backwards to support the special relationship (or just remain silent), even when they know it’s not good for the United States or Israel and when most Americans (including plenty of American Jews) would support a more normal relationship. In short, a relationship that would be healthier for the United States and Israel alike.

And the saddest part, as I’ve noted repeatedly, is that some people who care deeply about Israel and who see themselves as loyal defenders are the ones who are enabling its own self-defeating intransigence and threatening its future. Chait is a smart and well-informed guy, and his views on many subjects are thoughtful and nuanced. Which makes his failure to face the facts on this issue all the more surprising … and regrettable.