Stephen M. Walt

Is the Israel Lobby getting weaker?

Several people have recently asked me if the Obama administration’s tough line towards Israel’s settlements and its insistence on a two-state solution invalidates the arguments that John Mearsheimer and I made about the political influence of the “Israel lobby.” Not surprisingly, a few critics have made similar points in print. For what it’s worth, I ...


Several people have recently asked me if the Obama administration’s tough line towards Israel’s settlements and its insistence on a two-state solution invalidates the arguments that John Mearsheimer and I made about the political influence of the “Israel lobby.” Not surprisingly, a few critics have made similar points in print. For what it’s worth, I think Obama’s approach is largely consistent with the views we set forth in the book, and certainly with our overall aim in writing it.  

To review: in our book we argued that U.S. Middle East policy in recent decades has been strongly influenced by a loose coalition of individuals and groups which we termed the “Israel lobby.” We pointed out that the lobby did not “control” U.S. Middle East policy (though it was a powerful influence), and we emphasized that the various groups that made up this loose coalition didn’t agree on everything (such as the merits of a two-state solution). All of them have sought to encourage a “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel, however, and all to maintain nearly-unconditional U.S. support. Absent their influence, we argued, U.S. policy in the region would be substantially (though not entirely) different.

Like plenty of other interest groups in the United States, the Israel lobby worked in legitimate ways within the American political system and successfully acted to shape public discourse about Israel in ways they believed would reinforce the special relationship. As a result, the entire subject had become something of a taboo issue, especially for anyone seeking a prominent career in American politics or in the U.S. foreign policy establishment.  

Finally, we saw this situation as increasingly harmful to U.S. and Israeli interests alike, and argued that a more normal relationship would be better for both countries. In particular, we hoped that a more open discussion of these issues would lead to a revision in U.S. policy, and that more moderate and sensible groups within the “pro-Israel” community would become more influential. We even expressed the hope that the more hardline groups might reconsider their policy positions. In short, our main concern was not the existence of a powerful pro-Israel lobby; it was the fact that the most influential groups within that “loose coalition” were advocating policies that were harmful to the U.S. and Israel alike.

This basic portrait of the lobby’s activities and influence fit the historical record up through the 2008 Presidential election. What has happened since? After pandering to the lobby during the campaign (just as all major candidates do) and remaining studiously silent during the Chas. Freeman debacle, President Obama has taken several recent steps that signal a different approach. He has appointed a Middle East envoy (George Mitchell) with a reputation for evenhandedness. Obama wasn’t available to meet with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu during the AIPAC policy conference, so Netanyahu had to delay his trip. Obama has already spoken in one Muslim country (Turkey) and is about to give a major address to the Muslim world from Cairo, after first stopping off in Saudi Arabia, and isn’t touching down in Israel on this tour.

Most importantly, he and other administration officials — including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel — have forcefully reiterated the Administration’s commitment to a genuine two-state solution and its opposition to Israel’s settlements policy, including the fig leaf of “natural growth.” That position was recently echoed by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, which suggests that Obama’s team has been quietly lining up EU support for their position.  Special envoy Mitchell reportedly drove that point home in his recent meeting with Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak, and there’s no question that Israeli leaders are feeling the heat.  And Obama himself has emphasized that “part of being a good friend is being honest,” suggesting that he understands the pitfalls of unconditional U.S. support.

Do all these steps mean the lobby has lost all its power, and that our book was all wrong? Not hardly.

Let’s start by recognizing that all Obama has done so far is lay down some rhetorical markers. That’s not a trivial step, especially since he and his aides have used unusually direct language and haven’t waffled in the face of initial Israeli protests. If nothing else, these declarations make it harder for Obama to backtrack later on and mark a clear departure from Bush’s (failed) approach. But Obama has yet to put any real pressure on Israel, and he certainly hasn’t tried to make U.S. support (still over $3 billion/year) conditional on Israeli compliance. And the main bone of contention right now is simply whether Israel is willing to stop expanding settlements; we haven’t even gotten to all the steps that will be necessary to make a viable Palestinian state possible.

Furthermore, we pointed out in our book that the lobby exerted more influence in Congress than on the Executive Branch, and we noted that several past Presidents (e.g., Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush) had been able to put limited pressure on Israel in recent decades. So mild Presidential pressure on Israel is hardly unprecedented. In the meantime, the situation on the Hill hasn’t changed very much: a recent AIPAC-sponsored “Dear Colleague” letter telling Obama to privately coordinate his Mideast diplomacy with Israel (and proposing various conditions on the Palestinians) garnered 76 signatures in the Senate and 329 in the House.  And there are signs that Israel’s supporters on the Hill are beginning to mobilize in more direct ways.

Nonetheless, there are also signs that AIPAC’s control on the Hill may be diminishing too, Richard Silverstein has pointed out that two prominent progressive Democrats — Barney Frank (D-MA) and Robert Filner (D-CA)–did not sign the AIPAC letter, and recent meetings between Netanyahu and several congressmen (including John Kerry of Massachusetts, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations committee) included sharp exchanges over Israel’s settlements policy.  Most of the signatures on those two AIPAC letters were probably pro forma anyway, and they don’t seem to have had the chilling effect that AIPAC-sponsored missives had in previous eras. Thus far, Congressional pressure on Obama seems intended to moderate the Administration’s positions, but not derail its efforts entirely.

So where does this leave our arguments about the lobby’s profound influence?

First, our main goal in writing our book was to encourage a more open discussion of this issue. We were describing the situation as it existed up through 2007 (when we finished the book), but we believed that if the taboo were challenged and a more open discourse emerged, more and more Americans would realize that the “status quo” lobby (e.g, AIPAC, the Christian Zionists, the neoconservatives, and groups like the Zionist Organization of America) were advocating policies that were bad for the United States and also bad for Israel itself. The good news is that a more open discussion has emerged in recent years, as illustrated by Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, by numerous commentators in the blogosphere like Ezra Klein, Phil Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, Richard Silverstein, Matt Yglesias, and others, and by clear-eyed columnists such as Roger Cohen. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show has done its part too, with some pointed commentary on Gaza and at least one wickedly satirical look at AIPAC itself.

Second, partly because of this more open discourse, more and more people — including Americans who care strongly about Israel’s well-being — have begun to realize that failure to achieve a two-state solution is jeopardizing Israel’s long-term future.  As we wrote in our book and as I’ve blogged about before, the only alternatives to a two-state solution are the ethnic cleansing of millions of Palestinians, the creation of a binational democracy, or some form of apartheid. That is why Ehud Olmert eventually came around to the two-state solution, and people who used to reject the idea of pressure have begun to see the light. Even Martin Indyk is starting to sound a little bit like us. In other words, what it means to be “pro-Israel” is being redefined, thereby creating space for Obama to move toward a more sensible U.S. policy.

Third, events in the region have reinforced this growing sense that a different course of action is needed. The 2006 war in Lebanon and the recent carnage in Gaza have underscored the futility of trying to solve these problems by force alone and cast doubt in Israel’s efforts to portray itself as the eternal victim. More and more people are aware of the long-term demographic trends, and they also know that the Arab League has offered to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel once the Palestinians have a viable state of their own. Some people also realize that settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would remove an arrow from Iran’s quiver and make it easier to mobilize a united front against Iran should that become necessary. Of course, the election of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history (and the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Foreign Minister) hasn’t made it any easier for defenders of the status quo either.  

Fourth, the behavior of some of Israel’s most fervent defenders may have helped open eyes and ears as well. In particular, the reflexive tendency to smear and marginalize critics of the “special relationship” by accusing them of being either anti-semites or “self-hating” Jews has become a self-discrediting enterprise, because the charge keeps getting directed at people for whom it is so obviously false. Condemning neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers is a worthy enterprise, but smearing respected individuals such as Carter, Desmond Tutu, Tony Kushner, Tony Judt, or others is transparently bogus and intended solely to stifle intelligent discourse on a vital subject. And when defenders of any cause have to stoop to such tactics, it reveals that they are defending an increasingly weak case.

Finally, we argued in the conclusion of our book, part of the solution here was the emergence of a different sort of pro-Israel lobby, one that might be equally influential but in the service of smarter policies. There are encouraging signs on this front, and the increased prominence of groups such as J Street, the Israel Policy Forum, or Brit Tzedek v’Shalom are encouraging developments. There is no reason why groups like AIPAC cannot evolve too, and begin to use their considerable political acumen in the service of a more far-sighted approach.

People who think that the Israel lobby is some sort of secret Jewish conspiracy probably also believe that its influence could never be countered and that the groups within it are irredeemable. That is the essence of conspiracy theories — and especially anti-Semitic ones–they impute dark and magical powers to some secret organization or cabal and portray it as evil, all-powerful, unchanging, and unstoppable. By contrast, those of us who see the lobby as a typical interest group engaged in the normal rough-and-tumble of democratic politics have recognized that its considerable influence (which no one seriously denies) could be mitigated or modified over time, especially once it became clear that the policies promoted by its most powerful components were in fact harmful to U.S. and Israeli interests alike. We wrote our book to contribute to that process, and while realists should probably never be too optimistic — and especially about the Middle East — it’s hard for me not to see the recent turn in U.S. policy as encouraging. Now let’s see what Obama says in Cairo.


Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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