Did ‘The Israel Lobby’ Change Anything?

Five years after.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Five years ago this week, John Mearsheimer and I published The Israel Lobby in the London Review of Books. Our goal in writing the article (and subsequent book) was to break the taboo on discussions of the lobby’s impact on U.S. foreign policy and to transform it into a topic that people could talk about openly and calmly. Because we believed the "special relationship" that the lobby had promoted was harmful to the United States and Israel (not to mention the Palestinians), we hoped that a more open discourse on this topic would move U.S. Middle East policy in a direction that would be better for almost everyone.

Did we succeed?

There’s little question that the article and book opened up discussion, aided by the efforts of a number of other people and by developments in the region (alas, most of them unfortunate). We also owe a debt of gratitude to our more virulent critics, whose efforts to misrepresent our work and portray us as anti-Semites merely confirmed many of our key points. We weren’t surprised by these responses, but it was disappointing to see so much of the initial discussion focus on these bogus charges, instead of our actual arguments. (For academic evaluations of the work, see here and here; for our responses, see here and here.)

Yet despite these distractions, discussions of the lobby and its impact have moved from the fringes of U.S. discourse to the mainstream. Today, one can read or watch people from Jon Stewart to Andrew Sullivan to Glenn Greenwald to David Remnick to Nicholas Kristof acknowledging the lobby’s role in shaping U.S. Middle East policy. Editorials in mainstream papers like the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times call for the U.S. government to adopt a tougher approach toward the Israeli government. More and more news stories on U.S. Middle East policy refer to the "Israel lobby" as a serious political force, and not always in flattering terms. Even hard-line neoconservatives like David Frum now acknowledge the power of groups in the lobby, as in Frum’s recent complaint that Sarah Palin failed to appreciate the political benefits she could gain by choosing to visit Israel under the auspices of the Republican Jewish Coalition, instead of going on her own. Of course, our book and article are surely not the only reason for this shift in discourse, but we probably played a role.

When we wrote the book, we also hoped that our work would provoke some soul-searching among "pro-Israel" individuals and groups in the United States, and especially those found in the American Jewish community. Why? Because interest-group politics are central to American democracy, and the most obvious way to shift U.S. policy on this issue would be to alter the attitudes and behavior of the interest groups that care most about it and exert the greatest influence over U.S. behavior.

Indeed, we explicitly said in the book that what was needed was a "new Israel lobby," one that would advocate policies that were actually in Israel’s long-term interest (and would be more aligned with U.S. interests too). The problem, we emphasized repeatedly, was not the existence of a powerful interest group focused on these issue; the problem was that it was dominated by individuals and organizations whose policy preferences were wrongheaded. A powerful "pro-Israel" interest group that favored smart policies would be wholly desirable.

It is therefore gratifying to observe the emergence of J Street, to see groups like Americans for Peace Now and Jewish Voice for Peace become more vocal, and to see writers like Peter Beinart and David Remnick take public stances that are substantially different from ones they might have expressed a few years ago.

Needless to say, these shifts weren’t our doing. Events in the region — especially the 2006 Lebanon war of 2006, the 2008-2009 Gaza war, the continued expansion of Israeli settlements, and the worrisome rightward drift in Israeli domestic politics — also inspired the effort to create a "pro-Israel" organization that would favor smarter policies and be more representative of American Jewish opinion than hard-line groups like AIPAC, the Israel Project, or the Zionist Organization of America, to say nothing of Christian Zionist organizations like John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel.

Our greatest disappointment, however, has been the lack of movement in U.S. Middle East policy. On the one hand, Barack Obama’s administration has resisted the lobby’s pressure for military action against Iran, and it took office proclaiming its intention to achieve a two-state solution during Obama’s first term. But on the other hand, Obama and his Middle East team have been unable or unwilling to act as an evenhanded mediator.

This situation is disappointing but not surprising. U.S. foreign policy rarely turns on a dime, and a central pillar like the "special relationship" doesn’t change just because two academics write a controversial article. We didn’t expect groups like AIPAC to dry up and blow away just because we had cast a critical spotlight on their activities, and the mechanisms that these and other groups have used to influence Congress and the executive branch remain potent.

The result, unfortunately, is that a two-state solution that would secure Israel’s long-term future is farther away than ever, and America’s image in the region — which showed signs of improvement at the time of Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech — remains parlous. And we are now witnessing a series of political upheavals in the Arab world that are likely to create governments that are far more sensitive to public sentiment than their predecessors were, even if they fall short of being perfect democracies. These new governments will pay more attention to the "Arab street," where the Palestinian issue resonates in powerful ways. This situation will raise the costs of the "special relationship" even more, which makes America’s failure to achieve a two-state solution over the past 20 years — a failure for which the lobby bears considerable (though not all) responsibility — especially tragic.

Finally, I am sometimes asked whether I have any regrets about writing the article or the book. My answer is clear: absolutely not. As I told a Harvard official back in 2006, it was a "life-altering" event in the sense that it almost certainly closed some doors that might otherwise have been open to me. But writing the book and engaging in serious public debate about Israeli policy, the "special relationship," and the lobby also taught me a lot about politics and introduced me to a new community of scholars, policy analysts, and journalists from whom I’ve learned an enormous amount and who have become valued colleagues. I would do it again without hesitation, and I would not alter any of our central arguments.

For other reflections on the impact of the LRB article, see Philip Weiss and Scott McConnell here and here; for an interesting assessment by journalist Jordan Smith, go here.

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

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