Stephen M. Walt

How Not to Think About the Israel Lobby

As some of you may have noticed, I haven’t been writing about the Israel lobby that much lately. Life’s too short to spend all one’s time on the activities of one particular interest group — even if it has an awful lot of influence — and there are many topics at least as important as ...


As some of you may have noticed, I haven’t been writing about the Israel lobby that much lately. Life’s too short to spend all one’s time on the activities of one particular interest group — even if it has an awful lot of influence — and there are many topics at least as important as the special relationship between the United States and one small country in the Middle East. Plus, I’m satisfied with my earlier writings on this topic, in part because subsequent events kept confirming their accuracy and because most of the criticisms we received were remarkably weak and tended to confirm our main points.

But occasionally I do see someone writing about the Israel lobby in a way that merits a response. Case in point: the recent WaPo blog post on this topic by Max Fisher, which inspired a sympathetic exegesis by Michael Koplow here. Fisher is often an astute analyst and Koplow has written some smart things on other topics, so it was somewhat surprising to see such careless reasoning from both of them.

The gist of their argument is two-fold. First, they maintain that there is a widespread belief that AIPAC and other organizations in the Israel lobby are all-powerful, and that the lobby "controls" U.S. Middle East policy. Koplow implies that John Mearsheimer and I hold this view, though Fisher does not. Second, recent events — most notably the Obama administration’s failure to heed AIPAC et al.’s push for military intervention in Syria — demonstrate that this view is bogus. Together, the two pieces suggest that all this talk about an "Israel lobby" is sort of silly, and that these groups have rather limited influence on U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Like some other attempts to kick up dust on this question, both pieces involve the ritual slaughter of a straw man. No serious person writing on this topic believes the Israel lobby is "all-powerful" or that it controls every aspect of U.S. Middle East policy. It is telling that Fisher does not mention or quote any individual or group making such a claim. Mearsheimer and I certainly didn’t; in our book we repeatedly state that the lobby does not get its way all the time. We also emphasized that its activities were akin to those of other powerful interest groups, and generally consistent with normal practice in American politics.

Viewed in this light, the lobby’s failure to get the United States into a war in Syria is hardly telling evidence of its limited influence. Getting the United States to launch an unprovoked war is a big task — especially when you consider how America’s recent wars in that part of the world have gone — and no lobbying or interest group can accomplish that by itself. Various elements of the lobby did play an important role in getting the United States to invade Iraq, but as we emphasized in our book, they didn’t do it by themselves then either. In particular, the war would not have occurred had Bush and Cheney not gotten on board, and it would almost certainly not have happened absent the 9/11 attacks. As with all interest groups, it matters what they are asking for and when they are asking for it.

Does this mean the lobby’s power is on the wane? Maybe, but not by much. Israel continues to receive $3-4 billion in U.S. aid each year, even though it is now a wealthy country. It gets this aid even as it continues to take actions the United States opposes, most notably building settlements in the Occupied Territories. The United States continues to provide it with diplomatic cover in the United Nations and other international organizations, and U.S. officials consistently turn a blind eye to Israeli actions that are making the two-state solution that the U.S. favors impossible. Aspiring officials like Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power still have to perform demeaning acts of self-criticism in order to win Senate confirmation. Do Fisher and Koplow think the lobby’s influence has nothing whatsoever to do with any of this?

Or ask yourself this: why has President Obama spent more time meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu — the leader of a small Middle Eastern country whose total population is less than New York City — than with any other foreign official, and why did Netanyahu recently get a seven-hour meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry? Is it because Obama and Kerry find Bibi’s company so engaging that they just can’t bear to be apart? I don’t think so. One measure of the lobby’s impact is simply the amount of time and attention that US officials have to devote to this one small country, while studiously ignoring its nuclear arsenal, illegal settlements, and other deficiencies. (No country is perfect, of course, but Israel is uniquely immune to criticism by prominent U.S. political figures.)

Finally, if you’re not wearing blinders, it is impossible to miss the fact that AIPAC, WINEP, JINSA, the RJC, the ADL, and a host of other hardline groups in the lobby are now the principal opponents to a diplomatic deal with Iran. Just look at this article from The Forward, or this one from Ha’aretz, which make it clear that these are the principal groups holding Obama’s feet to the fire on this issue. And of course it is many of these same groups or individuals who have been insisting for years that the U.S. keep all options "on the table" and use force against Iran if necessary. Absent pressure from these groups, it would be much, much easier for the United States to come to terms with Tehran.

Will they succeed in derailing a deal? I don’t know. As I laid out in detail more than a year ago, the situation vis-à-vis Iran is different than the pre-war situation with Iraq in 2003, and "pro-Israel" organizations here in the United States are not as unified on this topic. A reasonable deal with Iran is clearly preferable to another Middle East war, and preferable to making unrealistic demands that make it harder to monitor Iran’s nuclear research activities and might eventually convince Iran to pursue actual weapons. Because the United States and its allies have powerful incentives to pursue a diplomatic solution, resistance from hardline groups in the lobby may be insufficient to stop them.

Bu no interest group gets everything it wants. Interest groups and lobbies advance their cause partly by pushing for specific policies (sometimes successfully, sometimes not). But they also succeed when they can limit the options that policymakers are willing to consider or can force policymakers to offer up other concessions to keep these groups happy. AIPAC famously lost the AWACs fight during the Reagan administration, but the battle was so difficult and costly that Reagan never really challenged it again. Similarly, former US Mideast negotiator (and FP colleague) Aaron David Miller has noted that "those of us advising the Secretary of State and the president were very sensitive to what the pro-Israel community was thinking, and when it came to considering ideas that Israel didn’t like, we too often engaged in a kind of preemptive self-censorship." Bottom line: powerful interest groups often get their way not by achieving specific goals directly, but by shaping and constraining the options politicians are willing to contemplate.

So the question to ask is not whether AIPAC "wins" any particular issue (particularly when that issue involves a big demand). It is what US policy would be if these groups did not exist, or if they were advocating a different course of action. In other words, if Obama and Kerry didn’t have to worry at all about the lobby, or if groups like J Street or Americans for Peace Now had as much clout as AIPAC, would the United States have handled relation with Iran in exactly the same way for the past twenty year or more? More tellingly still: would the United States have done a better job of brokering an Israel-Palestinian peace if its negotiators (a number of whom were drawn from the lobby’s ranks) had not been acting as "Israel’s lawyer" and if the U.S. could have made its aid to Israel conditional on an end to settlement building? If you think the lobby’s clout had no impact on our mishandling of these two important problems, I’ve got a bridge to sell you and then a couple of books for you to read.

One final point. Despite the flaws in their two posts, Fisher and Koplow may in fact be on to something. Two things have changed since Mearsheimer and I wrote our original article and subsequent book: 1) a lot more people are aware of the lobby and understand that its positions are often harmful to U.S. (and Israeli) interests, and 2) a few more people are willing to talk and write about this phenomenon openly, instead of being silenced by false charges of anti-Semitism or the fear of professional retribution. Democracy thrives on free, open, and rational debate, which is why a sensible but frank discussion of the lobby’s influence is all to the good. Or as Andrew Sullivan might say: know hope.

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

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