Stephen M. Walt

How (not) to hide the elephant in the room

The esteemed CEO here at FP Inc., David Rothkopf, thinks Benjamin Netanyahu has finally killed off the Israel lobby. This step was probably unnecessary, however, because Rothkopf also thinks the lobby never existed or if it did, had very little influence. Rothkopf is surely right in saying that Netanyahu has overplayed his hand in recent ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The esteemed CEO here at FP Inc., David Rothkopf, thinks Benjamin Netanyahu has finally killed off the Israel lobby. This step was probably unnecessary, however, because Rothkopf also thinks the lobby never existed or if it did, had very little influence.

Rothkopf is surely right in saying that Netanyahu has overplayed his hand in recent months. He is also correct to remind readers that AIPAC and the other key organizations in the lobby do not get everything they want. (No serious person ever said it did, of course.) His attempt to slay the supposed "myth" of the Israel lobby is unconvincing, however, as it rests mostly on misrepresenting what others have said and ignores the overwhelming evidence that groups like AIPAC, some other organizations, and a few individuals are in fact an important force in shaping U.S. Middle East policy. But his article deserves to be read carefully anyway, because it provides a primer on how Israel’s defenders are now trying to hide the elephant in the room.

Step 1: Always portray discussions of the lobby’s influence in the most extreme and easily ridiculed form. The first ploy is to suggest that people who write about the lobby think it is "all-powerful," that it "controls" U.S. foreign policy, or that it is responsible for every single problem in the Middle East. Use phrases like "Super K-streeters" to lampoon the idea that there is in fact a well-organized interest group trying to reinforce the "special relationship" on a daily basis. Or use words like "conspiracy" or "cabal" to hint that anyone who talks about the lobby is really just channeling discredited and venal anti-Jewish stereotypes.

A variation on this tactic is to suggest that such writers also see the lobby as a single monolithic organization, or that they believe "all Jews think alike." Pay no attention to the fact that serious scholars and journalists who do write about the lobby’s influence have rejected all of these views; in fact, they’ve said the exact opposite. In short, start by erecting a straw man and then attack it.

Step 2: State or imply that anyone who writes critically about the Israel lobby is an anti-semite or a self-hating Jew. This is of course an old stratagem designed to silence anyone who thinks about raising the subject. It’s not as effective as it used to be, because it was been used so widely and so inappropriately in the past, but it’s still a key part of the playbook. As Rothkopf writes in this most recent piece, the Israel lobby "is just a boogie-man cooked up to serve the nasty agenda of people all too eager to sacrifice the truth on the altar of their prejudices." There’s really nothing to see here, folks, and if you think you do see something, you must be a bigot.

Step 3. Studiously ignore all of the politicians and commentators who have openly testified to the lobby’s influence. Such as the following well-known Israel-haters:

Bill Clinton: AIPAC is "stunningly effective. . . better than anyone at lobbying in this town."

Jeffrey Goldberg: AIPAC is a "leviathan among lobbies."

Rep. Lee Hamilton: "There’s no lobby group that matches it . . . they’re in a class by themselves."

Sen. Harry Reid: "I can’t think of a policy organization in the country as well-organized and respected as AIPAC."

Rep. Newt Gingrich: "AIPAC is the most effective general interest group . . . . across the entire planet."

Sen. Barry Goldwater: "I was never put under greater pressure than by the Israeli lobby. . .It’s the most influential crowd in Congress and America by far."

Sen. Fritz Hollings: "You can’t have an Israel policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here [on Capitol Hill]."

Alan Dershowitz: "My generation of Jews . . .became part of what is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fund-raising effort in the history of democracy."

Aaron David Miller: "Today you cannot be successful in American politics and not be good on Israel. And AIPAC plays a key role in making that happen."

Step 4: Focus attention on those occasional moments when Israel and the lobby don’t get their way, and ignore all the other times that they do. Rothkopf’s main piece of evidence that the lobby is a minor force is Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to get the United States to commit itself to a preventive war on Israel’s behalf. That is one hell of an ask, of course, and sometimes when you demand the moon you don’t get it. As Matt Duss tweeted yesterday, by this logic, the cancellation of the F-22 proves that there’s no defense lobby either.

Netanyahu may not get his war with Iran, but he and his predecessors still get a lot of other things that no other country receives: $3 to 4 billion in aid each year for country that now ranks 27th in the world in per capita income, reliable diplomatic protection (including an endless stream of U.N. security council vetoes that place us at odds with our other democratic allies), plus a parade of prominent politicians delivering pandering speeches at the annual AIPAC policy conference and the opportunity to address joint sessions of Congress more often than any other world leaders. But wait, there’s more! You also get the United States turning a blind eye toward Israel’s nuclear program, and U.S. officials offering only the mildest of complaints when Israel builds another settlement, bombs Gaza, or kills an American peace activist. Does anyone seriously believe that the political clout of AIPAC and other "pro-Israel" organizations (including a few Christian Zionist groups) has nothing to do with all this?

I agree with Rothkopf that Netanyahu overplayed his hand badly, and that this incident does reveal both the limits of the lobby’s power and (perhaps) some diminution of its influence overall. The declining influence may also be due to the fact that it is becoming harder to justify the special relationship after forty-plus years of occupation, and when Israel’s own political order is moving in worrisome directions. It is also harder to defend that relationship when the costs to the United States — in terms of rising anti-Americanism and declining influence in the region — are more apparent. The special relationship isn’t the only reason for those trends, but it is surely one of them, as former U.S. CENTCOM commanders have repeatedly said.

But there’s another factor at work, which is not incompatible with this view, and that is the fact we are now getting a much more open discussion of these issues. Why? Because those of us who have been done serious research on the Israel lobby have presented an accurate and nuanced view of the lobby’s influence and its limits and the negative impact of that influence on the United States and Israel. All someone has to do is read these works to see that they were not the bigoted screeds that Rothkopf and other critics described. And once people showed what was going on, others could see it and start to talk about it too. Netanyahu’s humiliating smackdown of Obama over the settlement question and the two-state solution made this even more apparent to anyone with eyes, as Peter Beinart has documented quite convincingly, and his more recent antics over Iran just drove the point home.

Facts are stubborn things, and no amount of dust-kicking and hand-waving can prevent more and more people — including Jews like Peter Beinart and M.J. Rosenberg and philo-semites like Andrew Sullivan and me — from pointing them out. If AIPAC and its allies are in fact beginning to lose some of their clout, the recent emergence of a somewhat more open discourse on this question is at least partially responsible. 

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

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